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Why are they called black boxes when they are red?


The term “black box” refers to flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders on aircraft. These devices record flight data and cockpit audio respectively to help investigators understand what happened in the event of an accident. Despite being called “black boxes”, flight data recorders are actually painted bright orange or red to make them easier to spot at a crash site. This seems counterintuitive, so why are they called black boxes when they are red? There are a few possible explanations.

Origins of the Term “Black Box”

The term “black box” was originally used in the 1940s by British Royal Air Force personnel. At the time, flight data recorders were painted black and consisted of relatively crude, early technologies. The “black box” nickname stuck even as the devices were improved and painted different colors. So the term predates the change to brighter colors like red and orange.

Some of the early reasons “black box” was an apt description:

  • The units were charcoal black in color in the beginning.
  • The inner workings were mysterious to outsiders, like a black box.
  • Data was only retrievable after time-consuming analysis, like a black box.

So the 1940s RAF personnel called them black boxes because that was an accurate description of the early technology. The name simply persisted long after the boxes were no longer black.

Why are Flight Data Recorders Painted Orange or Red Now?

A key advancement was making flight data recorders brightly colored. This ensured they could be rapidly located after crashes, especially water crashes. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requires flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders to be painted orange or red.

The ICAO first introduced this color specification in 1965. The requirements have been updated many times over the decades, but still mandate a bright color. The latest standards specify a chromaticity of “vivid reddish orange” or “international orange”.

So why are flight data recorders orange or red specifically?

  • Bright color for high visibility if crash occurs over land.
  • Distinct color to differentiate from aircraft debris.
  • Contrasts against water to aid recovery after water crashes.
  • Red/orange colors complement tone-sensing locator beacons.

The bright color ensures the “black box” can be rapidly located, retrieved, and analyzed after an accident. This has directly contributed to making flying even safer by providing critical data to identify causes of crashes.

Other Names for Flight Data Recorders

Given that flight data recorders haven’t actually been black for many decades, some alternative terms have emerged:

  • FDR – Flight data recorder
  • CVR – Cockpit voice recorder
  • Orange box
  • Red box

But “black box” remains the most widely used and recognized term, even among aviation professionals. The nickname is catchy and evocative, so it has stuck around long after flight data recorders transitioned to bright colors.

Black Boxes in Other Industries

The term “black box” has also been adopted more widely to refer to any recording device. Other vehicles like trains, ships, and automobiles now have similar equipment. These are also often called black boxes, even though many are painted orange or red for visibility.

The term is also used in computing and engineering for devices or systems which can be viewed solely based on inputs and outputs, without knowledge of internal workings. For example:

  • Machine learning models called “black box models”
  • Certain computer algorithms
  • Appliances or devices with unknown internals

So in many fields, “black box” now refers to any system whose internal mechanisms are hidden or mysterious. But the original inspiration was flight data recorders in aviation.

Flight Data Recorders Today

Modern flight data recorders are very sophisticated. However, they are still ubiquitously known as black boxes. Some key facts about their current design and technology:

  • Withstand extreme impact, pressure, heat, and water submersion.
  • Powered independently of aircraft to continue recording in emergencies.
  • Use solid-state memory boards instead of magnetic tape.
  • Deploy underwater locator beacons to aid recovery.
  • Painted international orange or red for visibility.
  • Housed in stainless steel or titanium casings.

Today’s black boxes are engineered to survive the most extreme crash conditions and provide investigators with crucial data.

The next major innovation is likely to be real-time streaming of black box data. This could allow remote monitoring of aircraft in distress, potentially aiding emergency response. Data could also be uploaded during flight to support preventative maintenance programs.


In summary, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders are still referred to as “black boxes” due to the original 1940s nicknaming. However, they have been painted bright orange or red since the 1960s to make them easier to locate after crashes. The “black box” term endures as the most recognizable term despite being technically inaccurate. And it has now expanded to refer to many recording devices and opaque systems beyond aviation. So in the end, calling them black boxes is a minor technical inaccuracy that helps preserve a widely understood, evocative term that reinforces their importance in investigating accidents and making flying safer.