During last Thursday’s episode of Lost, “Ji-Yeon,” we finally learn—from someone who isn’t Ben—that Charles Widmore is the man giving the freighter folk their orders. Although this revelation might not have been very surprising to many fans, the fact that Widmore, through his “considerable amount of resources,” has Flight 815’s black box in his possession is quite the shocker—as is Captain Gault’s claim that Ben staged the wreckage of 815 (and, we might add, that Ben actually told the truth about something). So why does Widmore want Ben? And what use is the black box to him? Would the thing even spit out anything useful after four months in salt water? While we can’t answer the first question, we talked to James Cash, chief of the vehicle recorders division at the National Transportation Safety Board, to get some answers to the latter two.
In most newer planes—including ones that took off in 2004, like Flight 815—there are two components to the virtually crashproof black box: The cockpit voice recorder (CVR), which records dialogue and ambient noise from an array of microphones in the cockpit, and the flight data recorder (FDR), which stores parametric data like altitude, airspeed and heading. While black boxes of the past stored data on magnetic tape (just like a cassette), today’s black boxes write to solid state disks, which allow FDRs to track thousands of parameters and have increased the length of time the CVRs can record. Formerly, CVRs were required to record just the final 15 to 30 minutes of cockpit sound, but new FAA standards announced March 10 will require the last 2 hours to be on record (although aircraft have until 2012 to make the upgrades). The new regulations also require the CVR to have a backup power supply that will provide 9 to 11 minutes of juice in case there’s a problem with the electrical system. The circumstances around the crash dictate which part of the recorder is going to be more helpful. “If it was an airplane problem, the flight recorder would give you a good idea of how it crashed. If it’s a crew mistake or some kind of procedural mistake, the flight recorder would look perfectly normal. If the plane ran into the side of a mountain, it’s going to show you a perfectly good airplane that just stops,” Cash says. That’s when the voice recorder becomes much more important. Sayid identified the box as the FDR only—and, if that’s the case, it’s possible there would be no record of what happened in the cockpit, so if the crash wasn’t the result of mechanical problems, there would be no information to indicate why it went down. But, according to Cash, most boxes these days—and ones in use in 2004—combine the two recorders into one unit.
Cash also says it is absolutely possible that a plane’s black box would still be in working condition after four months on the ocean floor. The current record goes to a recorder that, after nine years at the bottom of the Mediterranean, was perfectly fine. “The water, in general, doesn’t hurt them at all,” Cash says. “It’s the air that hurts them once they’ve been wet. It starts the corrosion and rust process.” Once the black box is found at a wreckage site, it’s transferred to the lab in a water-filled cooler so the data can be retrieved and copied right away. So although we know Widmore has the black box, we’re still not entirely sure he has a copy of the data that it recorded. According to Cash, it only takes a few days before the leads on the SSD start to corrode. The exact time that needs to pass before the data’s not retrievable is unknown. “I would say a couple of days,” Cash says, agreeing that a month out of water is probably sufficient time to render the black box useless. “We try not to experiment with that so I don’t know if I have a good answer. But if you let it dry out for quite a period of time, it’s going to make [data] much more difficult to recover.”
There’s another twist to the story. Most aircraft have two black boxes: one in the front and another in the tail. “If there’s an in-flight fire or some kind of structural failure, the wiring between the cockpit and rear recorder is compromised, so the recorder quits before the airplane quits flying,” explained Cash. “So they put one recorder up front to minimize that wiring risk knowing that if an airplane plows into a mountain, that front one probably isn’t going to survive. Then they put one in the tail to ensure survival in case it runs into that mountain, but if there’s an in-flight fire, that tail one is probably going to quit [due to loss of power] before the front one.”
When Oceanic 815 crashed, it broke into two pieces. The fuselage and the cockpit landed on the island while the tail end sunk in the ocean—but the plane that was recovered in “Confirmed Dead” included the cockpit. We don’t want to jump to too many conclusions here, but it’s not too far out to speculate that if Ben really did stage the wreckage, he also could have planted that black box we saw on the freighter in “Ji Yeon.” But did the box come from the original Flight 815 wreckage, or did he grab it from somewhere else? At the very least, we know there’s likely a second black box located somewhere on the island—or in Widmore’s grasp. So while the facts surrounding the black box hold true in this episode, the story Sayid and Desmond are getting might not be so solid. —Erin Scottberg