Why is it called a black box and 4 other fascinating facts about the mysterious Black Box

All aircraft carry a ‘black box’. You’ve heard of it, right? After a crash, the authorities always look for the black box since it may contain data that helps determine the cause of the accident. But what is a black box exactly? And why isn’t it black? Before I started working at KLM headquarters, I used to be a flight safety trainer and all safety aspects still fascinate me. Therefore I will give you 5 facts that may surprise you too, about the black box.

1. Officially it’s NOT called a black box

The proper name of what we know as the ‘black box’ is Flight Data Recorder (FDR). And that is exactly what is does; it records flight data such as engine exhaust, temperature, fuel flow, aircraft velocity, altitude and rate of descent electronically in order to facilitate investigations after an accident. And to be honest, calling it a recorder is more realistic than calling it a box. Historically it used to be a box but nowadays it is a cylinder! Below is the Boeing 737 FDR.

2. It’s often not one but two boxes

Next to the Flight Data Recorder, there is also a Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR). The Cockpit Voice Recorder is a flight recorder used to record the audio environment in the cockpit. This way, for example communications with air traffic control are available for investigations after an accident. Sometimes, the two cylinders (FDR and CVR) are combined, making it one box after all. The CVR records up to two hours, overwriting the previous moments. I heard a romantic story once, of a pilot who said ‘I love my wife’, every two hours, just to make sure she would know in case anything happened!

3. It’s not black but bright orange

The black box is made of fire resistant material which is bright orange. It is not 100% clear why it is called ‘black box’ and not ‘orange box’, but there are some theories. It may be because it is often charred black after a crash, it may be because the very first boxes were painted black to prevent reflection or because ‘black box’ is a general name in science for devices with in- and output of data with complex internal workings. I used to think it was because a Mr. Black invented it, but that is not true. David Warren, an Australian scientist, invented the black box in 1957.


4. It’s not placed in the cockpit

Whereas the data and voices are recorded from the cockpit, the recorders are not placed inside the cockpit. Usually they are placed in the tail-end of the aircraft, where the structure of the aircraft protects them best in case of a crash.

5. It can be hard to find after a crash

The black box has a locator beacon which is activated in contact with water. It will start sending a pulse for thirty days. On land, search parties only have the orange color as a visual beacon, which often makes detecting it much harder. Some black boxes are never found. If you ever happen to accidentally find a black box, please notify the authorities!

Posted by:   Alice Fokkelman  | 
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Brenda Joyce Pahde

This was very Interested and will watch out for orange now! Thanks for Informant us.

Sam Bediako-Asante

A very necessary information provided., and very educative..



Ashraful Alam Khan

Thanks for sharing Information!!


That was very interesting :)! Thank you, KLM!


Very interesting . I already knew there was more than one &that ‘ They ‘weren ‘ t Black of course . That ‘ ll give me more info ‘ for the ‘ Know Alls ‘ out there . Thanks again , Les ( Biggles ,haha ).


Maybe better to do the same as these “black boxes” are installed on vessels (ships), there these are called VDR (voyage data recorder). There we also install two “black boxes”, one fixed to the vessel and one float free. The float free will release by itself in case a vessel goes down. This would have been a good if airplanes also have this then the mystery on MH370 would have quickly been resolved….

Scotty Secker

Black boxes are called that as pretty much all avionics in the bay are black.


Great compilation and indeed will enlighten many…
Good job! Appreciate your contribution

Rob Grootveld

It’s a fascination system and still one of the most important sources for accident/incident investigation.
I used to develop software to read and analyse the data of it (and it’s ‘brother’, the ACMS recorder) for KLM in the 80ies.
Still have good memories of that period.


Also interesting, what is the future of FDR going to bring?



I always wondered why they don’t build the entire plane from the same indestructible stuff black boxes are made of.

Alice Fokkelman

Probably because that would make the aircraft far too heavy…


The reason why they were called black boxes is that the original versions where recording all parameters on photographic paper, hense the recorder was like a photographic black chamber inside.
Therefore the name of “black box”.
My mother used to work in one of the French BEAs (French equivalent to US NTSB) where she used to decode them. After the photographic paper recorders came the time of tape recorders. If the recording tapes were ever burned (I believe the recorder could only withstand 3 hours at 1000 degrees Celsius), they had a special microscope they would use to look at the burned tape, see the data on it as it was like bar codes. They were still able to decode it visually. It took them 1 day to decode 3 seconds of data this way.
Truly amazing technology and people
The last evolution was recording data on memory chips.

Alice Fokkelman

Alexandre, thanks for your reply, very imformative!

Sunil Kelkar

Thank you so much Sir, for providing interesting information.

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