The case for video

Everyone recognises that accident investigation has played a big role in increasing aviation safety. Gathering evidence is a key part of that process. The continuous development of accident flight recorders has, from a basic capability in the 1960s, transformed what can be learnt from serious incidents and accidents. This is true worldwide.

In the days when accident flight recorders transitioned from tape-based recording to solid-state recording the opportunity to increase capability advanced further. Good quality audio, more aircraft parameters and better survivability have resulted.

In 1989, British Midland Airways Flight 092, Boeing 737-400[1], crashed onto the motorway embankment in the UK[2]. Post investigation the safety recommendations included a discussion of external image display[3]. The UK CAA fully accepted the recommendation.

I was part of the research effort that looked at the practicalities of introducing video image display in the cockpit. The ruggedised video cameras available at the time were bulky, expensive, and low resolution. British Airways fitted external cameras to a Boeing 747 classic aircraft as a trial. That system was flown and information gathered from normal operations.

This was an idea before its time. Today, external cameras are installed on several common aircraft types. These cameras make images available to the cockpit for an operational purpose, or to passengers as part of an in-flight entertainment system experience.

The Boeing 777-300 and -300ER can have external cameras fitted. One in the leading edge of each side of the tailplane facing the main gear and one belly-mounted, facing the nosewheel. The AIRBUS A340-600 and A340-500’s can have cameras. Pilots use them for taxying, observing cargo loading, refuelling, parking, and manoeuvring. The AIRBUS A380 has a camera on the tail looking forward.

Despite the acceptance of cameras and displays in numerous places on an aircraft there is no mandatory requirement to record the images that they present.

Internationally, aviation accident investigators are in favour of crash-protected image recording systems. The US NTSB did have a published list of “most-wanted” transportation safety improvements that included a call for the introduction of mandatory cockpit video recorders.

After the loss of Air France AF447 in 2009, the French aviation accident investigators recommended that ICAO require that aircraft undertaking public transport flights with passengers be equipped with an image recorder that makes it possible to observe the whole of the instrument panel.

Some arguments against installed cameras that made sense in an era before the iPhone mobile, iPad and GOPRO camera now seem insubstantial. Commercial off the shelf equipment can provide powerful image display and recoding capabilities. This is in the context of a world where passengers and crew regularly carry mobile devices with high quality cameras.

Today, the inclusion of a crash-protected cockpit image recording system on commercial aircraft is not a radical step.

One argument against installed cameras remains. Those who have been part of a fatal aircraft accident investigation know that the impact of seeing human remains is not to be underestimated. A legitimate concern is that a cockpit video recording, that continues throughout an accident scenario may record the injuries suffered by those covered by installed cameras. In such a case the protection of the accident recordings is a matter of extreme sensitivity.

Should such sensitive recordings be released into the public domain a great deal of harm may be done. Thus, a decision to mandate cockpit video recording must fully consider the special needs to protect the confidentiality of accident recordings. Whereas in the past the means to afford high levels of protection was at the limits of the available technology, now advancements make this possible.

There are both aviation safety and security aspect to cockpit video recording. Aviation accidents are not normally crime scenes. However, disruptive behaviour or hijacking by a passenger or a wilful malicious act by a crew member can be examples of aviation crimes[4][5][6].

There has been a strong objection to video recording in aviation but the arguments against are falling away. Protecting the confidentiality of downloaded accident recordings is vital but it can be done. The technical pros and cons have been explored in detail[7].

Frequent recommendations have already been made on this subject over a decade without significant progress having been made. Surely, it’s now time to act.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/aaib-reports/4-1990-boeing-737-400-g-obme-8-january-1989

[2] https://airwaysmag.com/industry/kegworth-air-disaster-30-years-on/

[3] 4.19 The CAA should expedite current research into methods of providing flight deck crews of public transport aircraft with visual information on the status of their aircraft by means of external and internal closed circuit television monitoring and the recording/recall of such monitoring, including that associated with flight deck presentations, with a view towards producing a requirement for all UK public transport aircraft to be so equipped (Made 30 March 1990).

[4] https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19871207-0

[5] https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=20150324-0

[6] https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=20131129-0

[7] CAP 762. CAA Research Project. The Effectiveness of Image Recorder Systems in Accident Investigations. https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP%20762.pdf

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