A flight recorder, or “black box” as it is commonly referred to, is a device that captures flight data and sound.

For air crash investigators, these devices are paramount in helping to piece together what happened to cause an airplane to crash in air accident investigations.

A black box is required in any rotary-wing aircraft (i.e. a helicopter) that can hold more than 20 passengers, or more than six passengers and requires two pilots.

This means that most helicopters are not legally required to have black boxes.

So while airline and commuter type aircraft, like private jets, are required to have black boxes, many helicopters, including even those used for commercial purposes, are not required to have them installed.

Why Most Helicopters Don’t Have Black Boxes

Considering that the installation of a black box is entirely down to the owner and operator of the helicopter, many choose to forgo this important recording device.

This is down to several reasons, including expense, weight, complexity, and maintenance.

To go into a bit more detail:

  • On smaller aircraft, which helicopters generally are, weight is more important and the addition of small items matter more.
  • The black box alone is expensive, but so are the sensors or instruments designed to output a signal the recorder can use.
  • Every piece of equipment in an aircraft must meet certain certification standards, including a black box. This costs time and money.

Helicopters May Be Required to Have Black Boxes in the Future

For many years, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has being pushing the FAA for better helicopter safety measures.

After the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others, U.S. Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick and Anthony G. Brown introduced the Helicopter Data and Voice Recorder Requirement Act.

This bill makes it “unlawful for an air carrier to operate a single or multiengine, turbine-powered helicopter with one or more passenger seats and one or more pilots without a flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.”

As it stands, the bill has been referred to the Subcommittee on Aviation.

If helicopters become equipped with black boxes, it will give investigators a better understanding of what happened to cause a crash.

This in turn may also help prevent additional crashes.

Military Helicopters Usually Have Black Boxes

As the FAA has no enforcement over the US military, military aircraft do not need to adhere to FAA regulations, regardless of the aircraft’s size or number of passengers it can carry.

However, most modern military aircraft, including helicopters, have black boxes, which prove to be very invaluable when ascertaining the cause of a crash.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.