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H.R. 5974 (116th): Helicopter Data and Voice Recorder Requirement Act


Should data and voice recorders be mandatory on all forms of aircraft?

Context

After the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others in a January helicopter crash, many focused on how the helicopter was not equipped with a so-called “black box.”

These devices record flight data and audio inside the cockpit, for potential use by investigators after a crash. For example, investigators reconstructing the September 11 terrorist attacks relied on black boxes from the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania crash site. (Black boxes from the World Trade Center site were never recovered.)

Yet while black boxes are required on commercial aircraft, they are not on helicopters of the size on which Bryant was flying — which has hindered the Bryant crash investigation.

For years, the National Transportation Safety Board (which investigates such crashes) had officially recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (which regulates the safety of air transportation) require black boxes on all helicopters. The FAA never acted on the recommendations.

The helicopter flying Bryant used to be voluntarily equipped with a cockpit voice recorder, but it was removed in March 2016 for unknown reasons.

What the bill does

The Helicopter Data and Voice Recorder Requirement Act would require most helicopters to feature black boxes, recording flight data and audio. Specifically, it would apply to any “helicopter with one or more passenger seats and one or more pilots.”

It was introduced in the House on February 26 as bill number H.R. 5974, by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD4).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill would provide a necessary safety measure, one already required on commercial aircraft, that could save lives such as Kobe Bryant and the others lost in January.

“As a veteran Army helicopter pilot, I understand the great lengths pilots go to ensure the safety of those onboard their aircraft,” Rep. Brown said in a press release. “Unfortunately, there is always a chance of risk factors and accidents outside of pilots’ control.”

“When tragedies occur, it is our responsibility to assess the causes and take meaningful steps to improve safety,” Rep. Brown continued. “Adding black boxes to helicopters raises accountability for pilots and allows investigators to give families closure in their time of need.”

What opponents say

The FAA had opposed requiring black boxes in helicopters for years by stating, “The benefits of recorders are difficult to identify and quantify because the absence of a recorder will never cause an accident.”

Opponents may also counter that even absent such a federal mandate, the rate of fatal helicopter accidents has dropped by half in the past two decades.

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted one Democratic cosponsor: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA43). It awaits a potential vote in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

While both cosponsors are Democrats and that party controls the chamber, it’s unclear if this bill has enough support to move forward — particularly in the Republican-controlled Senate, which is usually hesitant to adopt business regulations.

The policy change may more likely occur, if at all, through the FAA eventually requiring a similar mandate through an agency rule or regulation.

Last updated Mar 26, 2020. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 26, 2020.


Helicopter Data and Voice Recorder Requirement Act

This bill makes it unlawful for an air carrier to operate a single or multiengine, turbine-powered helicopter with one or more passenger seats and one or more pilots without a flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.