Plane black boxes are born in Sarasota

Very few businesses can boast a 100-percent success rate, but the beige building off of Interstate 75 has earned that privilege.

L3 quietly and seemingly anonymously manufactures airplane black boxes.

“We’re a little under the radar," said Ralph Demarco, the L3 vice president who oversees the facility.

So far, the Sarasota plant has made 80,000 black boxes. Demarco said every black box that has suffered the misfortune of going down with a plane has survived -- its data later pulled to help explain what caused the crash.

"One-hundred percent in our entire history, yes," Demarco said.

Black boxes, which are actually painted a fluorescent tint of orange to improve visibility, are familiar to the public only in the context of a crash. Many people see them during a news conference where a single black box is presented for hundreds of photographs.

But at the L3 facility, they are everywhere.

"It's the black box capital of the world," Demarco said.

Yet they don’t officially call them black boxes. At L3, the orange units are called aviation recorders.


Each recorder contains more than 1,000 parts and is assembled by hand. The price tag: $30,000. Demarco said that if you ordered one today, you’d have to wait three months for delivery.

At its heart, the modern aviation recorder is a series of solid-state memory chips that can record as many as 1,000 parameters for 25 hours. L3 calls it the CSMU, or Crash Survivable Memory Unit.

“It’s really the core technology,” Demarco said.

The marvel is not the memory chips inside, it’s the housing that surrounds the circuitry.

The cylinder that stands about as tall and wide as a car’s oil filter protects the memory chips against extreme conditions. L3 won’t reveal exactly what’s in the CSMU’s tough skin, but it did show FOX 13 the many tests required to receive flight certification.

“We build them and destroy them,” Demarco explained.


A hulking metal weight hangs about a sandbox. And shortly after, it will drop.

The target is a black box recorder and the simulation was sudden impact. A pin attached to the weight aimed to pierce the CSMU’s skin.

“It’s a thud,” said engineer Bill Johnson.

The trial ended almost as soon as it starts. And Johnson is right, there is a thud.

The pin snapped when the recorder and weight collided. The weight leaned into the sand, but the CSMU’s skin withstands the force.

“We want it to pass,” Johnson said.


Outside the factory, engineers create another form of fury: Fire.

Engineers aimed a trio of gas-powered torches at a recorder. The flames turned blue and burned for a full hour. Engineers took the heat to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than ignited jet fuel.

The recorder’s metal frame melted into a puddle of liquid aluminum and the CSMU turned white. But the recorder’s brain survived.

“The cylinder will stay intact,” Johnson said. “The part that matters."


Not every test of the ten-pound aviation recorder is aimed at a tragedy.

In the environmental lab, engineer Robin Speidel tests recorders for everyday stress. The Halt-Hass chamber, for example, shakes every box before it ships. 

"This is a multi-axis vibration machine,” Spediel said. “It's vibrating like an airplane.”


L3 said the chances are high that one of its recorders is aboard your next flight.

"I would say it's over 50 percent," Demarco said.

Aviation recorders have come a long way. A small display in the L3 lobby showed the incredible evolution of the product -- from a small tape recorder that was used in the 1950s, to the solid state unit used today.

Demarco said recorders have improved aviation safety. Refined pilot procedure, better communication with the control tower, and even improved aircraft design can be attributed to lessons learned from a black box. 

Demarco also said it’s motivating for him and his team of 200 to know that a piece of technology saved countless lives over the years.

"We take great pride every day in being part of that," he added.