David Warren, the inventor of the ‘black box’ flight recorder, has died in Melbourne aged 85.

Every aircraft of size that is registered to fly passengers on this planet carries devices  that began with his genius, vision and determination.

The concept of a ‘flight memory device’ as he originally termed it, occurred to him as the member of a panel of experts investigating the at first mysterious crashes of Comet jet airliners in the early ’50s. His biography also says that his father had died in an early plane crash into Bass Strait in 1934.

David Warren and the original 'black' box, Australian Portrait Gallery
David Warren and the original 'black' box, Australian Portrait Gallery

By 1956 at the Defence Science and Technology Organisations Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, he had turned his concept into the first working prototype of a device that would record cockpit conversations and instrument readings in a crash proofed container, painted, as ‘black boxes’ always have been ever since, a bright shade of orange.

Its introduction was however blocked by the Australian airlines of the day, the Department of Civil Aviation, the pilot unions, and even the RAAF. The airlines objected to the cost, the aviation authority supported the carriers, and raised administrative objections to the changes it would involve, the pilots argued that it was an infringement of the privacy of the cockpit, and the air force derided it as a device that would record more expletives than useful data.

However the British civil and military aviation authorities liked it, and eventually , after trying to gain a licensing agreement with Australia, essentially usurped the invention, putting it into widespread use, after which it was rapidly adopted throughout the rest of the world.

Warren, and the Defence science organisation, missed out on the royalties.

However following an inquiry into the crash of a TAA Fokker Friendship on approach to Mackay on June 10, 1960, with the loss of all 29 people on board, the use of flight data recorders was made compulsory for mainline Australian passenger aircraft.

(This episode of aviation change resistance closely paralleled the objections of the Australian domestic carriers, and their pilots, to the use of weather radar, something that was only accepted after another disaster in which an Ansett-ANA Vickers Viscount crashed into Botany Bay on November 30, 1961, killing all 15 people on board.)

The functions of the ‘black box’ soon divided in aviation use into cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) and flight data recorders (FDRs). David Warren’s invention became a compulsory set of devices that have profoundly enhanced aviation safety by identifying the often multiple causes or factors in airliner disasters and causing changes in flight procedures and standards and critical improvements to aircraft designs or components which had failed.

The flight data recorder recovered from the GOL 737 crash in Brazil in 2006
A flight data recorder recovered from the GOL 737 downed in a mid-air collision in Brazil in 2006

Warren’s illustrious career in science and technology was long and influential following the invention that made him famous, yet not wealthy.

He is survived by his wife Ruth, four children and seven grandchildren.

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