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On This Day, The Black Box Proved Its Worth

The Park Slope plane crash was a tragedy, but it proved the importance of the flight data recorder

A modern flight data recorder, a.k.a. a "black box." Despite the name, these recorders are typically painted orange. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Gift of Loral Data Systems)
smithsonian.com

Fifty-six years ago today, 134 people lost their lives in an unprecedented tragedy. The Park Slope Plane Crash, as it was later called, was the first crash in the United States involving a jet that was carrying passengers. It was also the first time investigators figured out the cause of the plane crash by using a black box.

James Barron described the event for The New York Times in 2010: "It was the accident pilots and passengers in the still-new jet age had feared the most--a distinctly new kind of catastrophe, one that had never happened over a major urban area, one that would have seemed far less terrifying a few years earlier, when plans were smaller and slower. Two airliners feeling their way through a sloppy mess of fog and sleet collided over New York City, sending down a devastating shower of flaming wreckage."

There were no survivors from the planes, although a young boy survived the initial crash only to later die of his injuries. Six people who were on the ground--among them, two men selling Christmas trees on a corner and a man shovelling snow--died in aftermath of the collision he writes. In Brooklyn, where one of the planes fell, jet fuel started a fire that ruined 11 buildings, including a church. On Staten Island, where the other came down, a housewife described hearing something that sounded like “a thousand dishes crashing from the sky” just before the debris fell, he writes.

The Times’ front page for the next day describes how the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Aviation Agency (later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration) were inquiring into the cause of the collision. “Tape records of flights to be studied,” it reads in large type. The flight recorder from the plane that came down in Brooklyn had been recovered, the story reports on a later page.

Flight data recorders (FDR), commonly called "black boxes," had only been mandatory in passenger aircraft like the two that crashed on that terrible day since a 1957 ruling by the Civil Aeronautics Board. “The FDR on the DC-8, manufactured by Waste King, provided detailed information on heading, altitude and airspeed that assisted in the investigation effort,” reads an F.A.A. release.

As the Times story from the day after the crash says, officials thought the planes had collided but weren’t sure what had happened: a terrifying prospect. “All we know is that two planes crashed eleven miles apart,” an official is quoted as saying.

Using flight data recorder information and information from the radio communications between the air traffic controllers and the pilots, investigators were able to figure out that one of the airplanes, United Flight 826, wandered about 12 miles off course, “apparently because of a problem with a navigational radio that was essential for flying in bad weather,” Barron writes.

The F.A.A. used this and other information from the flight data recorder to help them create new rules, writes CBS New York. One of those required that pilots report any malfunctions of navigation or communication equipment to the air traffic controller, CBS writes. Another, that planes near airports travel under 250 knots, slower than Flight 826 was travelling. Those regulatory changes, like others made in the early days of commercial flight, helped contribute to a safer flying environment.

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