What goes up

It has come to my attention that David Warren has died. Indeed, he has been dead for seven years, according to the forwarded information. I refer to David Ronald de Mey Warren, the Australian inventor of the Black Box, who is sometimes wantonly confused with me. I missed all the obituaries, published in late July, 2010. I had wondered why congratulations for this invention were fading.

My own view of aviation safety was (and remains) somewhat different from that of my deceased namesake. I think anyone who steps into an aeroplane has taken his life in his hands, and shouldn’t complain if it crashes. To be fair, few of them do. There is little so effective as the impact, after a fall of many thousand feet, to cure a whiner. The cause of death should be clear enough. No doubt the flying machine crashed for a reason, but as Hillary Clinton says, “What does it matter now?”

This other David Warren took a more hopeful view. He thought the causes would be easier to determine if a mechanical record of the flight’s last moments could be made and somehow retrieved from the wreckage. His own father had died in a plane that had descended too quickly into the Bass Strait, and he had been curious to know why. Just before that unhappy flight, father had given his nine-year-old son a crystal radio set, together with the enthusiasm for electronic communications he had acquired as a missionary in remote Australian locations. The son became a ham radio addict. Later he took an interest in chemistry, too, and became an expert on aviation fuel.

The pilots of the 1950s were against him. They considered his flight-data recorder to be an invasion of their privacy. They were especially opposed to the voice recordings, and their unions fought the introduction of Black Boxes tooth and nail. Finally they were persuaded to accept the things, on the condition that the recordings be wiped after every successful flight. (Promises, promises.) At the time, the new Comet jet airliners were exploding in the sky, and otherwise falling out of it, with distressing regularity. This is normal when new technology is introduced; one engineering feat leads to another.

I flew on one of these Comets with my own father (a WWII flyboy) as a small child, New York to London (via Gander). I still remember the wild fluctuations of cabin temperature and pressure. Even a five-year-old could tell that more work was needed. Had I known a Black Box was mounted in the tail, I’m sure my anxieties would have been assuaged.

Soon after, some friends of the family went down in a Comet over the Tyrrhenian Sea — to a place so far under the Tyrrhenian Sea, that the Black Box was never recovered. A wonderfully charming young newlywed couple, setting out in life; dead now, I realize, for three metonic cycles. I was relieved to learn that they had left their dog at home.