Safety officials are stepping up pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to require video cameras in cockpits so accident investigators will have better information on what causes plane crashes.
The National Transportation Safety Board launched a two-day hearing Tuesday to renew its call for large and small planes to be equipped with crash-resistant cockpit image recorders.
"We need to light the fires," said National Transportation Safety Board member Carol Carmody, who will chair the hearing. The NTSB recommended that the FAA require large aircraft to be equipped with cameras four years ago.
Supporting the idea was Ken Smart of the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch, who said cameras are used on military aircraft in the United Kingdom and are very useful in understanding the human actions that lead to airplane accidents.
Nonetheless, the idea of cameras in the cockpits drew strong opposition from airline pilots.
John David of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, said having a camera monitor everything they do would affect their ability to perform.
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union, issued a statement saying "the benefits of video imaging are vastly overrated, because far more effective and efficient tools exist."
Pilots object to the idea because they're concerned about their privacy and they fear that images, unlike technical data, can give rise to subjective interpretations of pilots' actions in the seconds before a crash.
John Cox, executive air safety chairman of the ALPA, said cameras in the cockpit would be a waste of money.
"We don't get a particularly good product and it's expensive," said Cox before the hearing. "If we have that money we can spend, let's get data that we can use. Objective data."
The safety board maintains that cameras would have helped safety investigators understand the smoke and fire conditions in the cockpit of two deadly plane crashes:on Sept. 2, 1998, which crashed off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, en route from New York to Geneva, Switzerland; and on May 11, 1996, which plunged into the Florida Everglades on a flight from Miami to Atlanta.
In both crashes, cameras could have helped investigators understand how the fires started, what the crews did to put them out and whether the crew managed to clear smoke from the cockpit. The safety board said such information might steer them toward modifying firefighting training, procedures or systems.
Cameras would have also helped answer questions about what happened in the cockpit offrom New York to Cairo on Oct. 31, 1999. The NTSB said the co-pilot was alone in the cockpit when he disconnected the autopilot, reduced power to the engines, and sent the plane into the Atlantic Ocean off the Nantucket coast. .
Carmody said cameras would have also saved time and money in determining what caused the twin-engine plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others in Eveleth, Minn., on Oct. 25, 2002.
. The investigation into that crash gave rise to the recommendations that all small planes be equipped with crash-proof cameras.
Carmody said image-recording technology is much less complicated - and therefore cheaper - than flight data recorders or cockpit voice recorders.
For small planes that aren't required to have cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders, "it would give us something," Carmody said.
The Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that would implement the NTSB's recommendations for aviation safety, has taken the first steps in developing technical standards for video recorders.
FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitalieri called the recorders "an extra level of safety for aircraft."
But Cox, the pilots' representative, said interpreting video images is always subjective and therefore cannot lead to safety improvements.
It would be much better, he said, to spend limited dollars on data recorders that record more information about a flight than current recorders do.
"Objective data has served us well," Cox said. "That's where we need to stay focused."
Cox also said legal protections of video images aren't ironclad.
Carmody said the NTSB is required to treat video images the same way it treats cockpit tapes. The board never releases the actual recordings to the public, but makes transcripts available.
By Leslie Miller