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Old aircraft in Dallas air collision lacked black boxes, so cause may be elusive

Photos and videos from the public will be "very critical, since we don’t have any flight data recorders," a top federal transportation official said.
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The vintage aircraft in Saturday's deadly collision at a Dallas air show, as expected, lacked flight data recorders, making social media crucial to the investigation, a federal official indicated Sunday.

"Neither aircraft was equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit data recorder," National Transportation Safety Board member Michael Graham said at a news conference Sunday.

Photos and videos of the collision at the Wings Over Dallas Airshow, which killed all six people on board the aircraft, could be “very critical, since we don't have any flight data recorders," he said.

While flight data recorders and other data devices, including cockpit recorders, are required for commercial airliners, they're optional for most other air operations, including commuter, charter and tour flights, as well as most vintage aircraft, in which digital devices would often have to be adapted for mechanical flight control systems.

The design of the Boeing B–17G Flying Fortress in Saturday's collision is nearly 90 years old. The other, a Bell P-63 Kingcobra, was a design Russia used during World War II.

The NTSB has been calling for wider mandates for flight data technology for decades, as it has evolved to become more powerful and less expensive.

"The NTSB believes other types of passenger-carrying commercial aircraft, such as charter planes and air tours, should be equipped with data, audio, and video recording devices," the agency said in a text updated Oct. 28.

The board noted, "The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not mandated that aircraft operators install [the technology], citing privacy, security, cost, and other concerns."

Still, even under the NTSB's wish list for improved crash data, such vintage aircraft weren't singled out.

The NTSB says flight data technology, including cockpit voice recorders, or CVRs, can help investigators reconstruct the events leading to an accident and find a cause and help pilots and manufacturers avoid deadly mistakes.

The contemporary flight data recorder monitors at least 88 important parameters, including altitude, airspeed and aircraft attitude, data that typically allows the NTSB to build a computer-animated video reconstruction of the flight, according to the agency. A cockpit voice recorder "records the flight crew’s voices, as well as other sounds inside the cockpit," the NTSB website says.

Image:
A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra collide midair during an airshow at Dallas Executive Airport on Nov. 12, 2022.Larry Petterborg / AP

Graham said it's common for the agency to investigate collisions involving aircraft without black boxes.

"Unfortunately, many of the general aviation accidents that we see out there, there is no flight data recorder or CVR, and many times there is no video, so it's very difficult for us to determine the probable cause," he said.

"There are times we cannot determine the probable cause to an accident," he added.

Graham asked the public to send photos or videos they captured of the crash to witness@ntsb.gov.

A preliminary report is expected in four to six weeks, he said. The full investigation will last 12 to 18 months before the final report is released, he said.

The investigation will focus on airworthiness, operations, air traffic control and air performance, Graham said.

NTSB officials are analyzing radar and video to pinpoint where the collision occurred; beginning interviews, the content of which will not be released; and obtaining audio recordings from air traffic control, Graham said.

Officials also plan to obtain pilot training and aircraft maintenance records from Commemorative Air Force, the organization behind the show. And they will examine the airframes, or the planes' structures, and their engines after having moved them to a secure location, he said.

Graham said it's too early to determine whether the crash was caused by a mechanical error or pilot error.

"We'll look at everything we can, and we'll let the evidence lead us to the appropriate conclusion," he said.

Wings Over Dallas Airshow organizers and Clay Jenkins, the judge, or CEO, of Dallas County, confirmed that six people died in the collision; five were on the B-17G, and the other was aboard the P-63.

The show, in its seventh year, showcases World War II flying prowess and technology, organizers said. The planes belong to the host organization, the Commemorative Air Force, which maintained a fleet of 180 aircraft before the crash.

The nonprofit organization's CEO, Hank Coates, said at a news conference Saturday that its aircraft are meticulously maintained and that pilots, often experienced former military and commercial carrier flyers, are strenuously vetted.