The government’s airplane crash detective
By The Partnership for Public Service,
James Cash has spent nearly three decades in federal service successfully deciphering information from electronic recording devices to help determine the causes of major aviation and other transportation accidents, leading to reforms and greater safety for the traveling public.
As the chief technical adviser for the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Office of Research and Engineering, Cash is the government’s top expert on cockpit voice recorders—the black box devices that record the voices of pilots and co-pilots during flights, and are used to help determine the system failures and human errors that cause airplane crashes.
“Jim has helped grow the science of cockpit recording devices. He’s been here through the history of recording devices and has led the next generation of recorders,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.
Over the years, Cash has played a pivotal role in the development and use of sophisticated audio, video and data recording equipment. His job has evolved from extracting information from tape recordings to the use of sophisticated electronic technology.
One of Cash’s innovations involved designing specifications for cutting-edge voice analysis and transcription software that performs readouts and analysis of cockpit voice recorders and other audio devices. The software was the first of its kind to employ voice recognition and speaker identification to automate the process of creating a transcript of recorded events.
Cash’s work also led to the development of software giving the NTSB the ability to extract and analyze recorder data from multiple accidents, which has helped the agency spot trends on safety issues.
After a 1997 crash of a jetliner from Indonesia to Singapore that killed 104 people, Cash needed to find a way to piece together damaged recording tape from a black box device.
“We were looking for a way to reconstruct audio on the tape from little bitty pieces,” Cash said. “We were able to develop a means of reading individual pieces, digitizing each piece of audio track and reassembling it. It was like gluing together a shredded document.”
Cash’s electrical engineering degree and experience as an Air Force pilot make him uniquely suited for his job, giving him familiarity with the cockpit and the demands flight crews endure in high-stress situations.
His specialized knowledge and resourcefulness assisted in investigations into two space shuttle accidents and a nuclear submarine collision. He helped the Drug Enforcement Administration analyze GPS data from a vehicle in which agents had been killed in Mexico, and often supplies the FBI and other law enforcement agencies with important information from seized electronic devices.
One of the major accident investigations for Cash involved the case of the 1996 TWA Boeing 747 that exploded over the water 12 minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport.
During a four year investigation, NTSB bought a Boeing 747 that was going to be demolished and blew it up to try to simulate the event and discover the cause. The investigation included tests with small explosives and recording how sound behaves in the fuselage of the plane.
Cash worked with a quarter of a second of noise at the very end of the cockpit voice recording from the original flight and compared that with the sounds from the explosion of the test plane. His analysis helped provide direction to investigators, who later concluded the accident was due to a maintenance error that allowed high-voltage electricity into the fuel tank that sits below the floor in the fuselage. A convergence of the right temperature, pressure and other conditions caused the explosion.
James Ritter, deputy director for research and engineering at NTSB, said Cash’s knowledge of the technology allows him to continually find ways to recover and improve the quality of data retrieved from different types of recorders and incidents.
“He works on handheld GPS, cell phones, iPads—anything that records data and sound,” Ritter said. “He is now advocating for cockpit video recording devices. There are more and more video recorders in transportation vehicles.”
Frank Doran, a consultant to L-3 Communications, a firm that manufactures crash protected recording devices, said Cash is widely recognized worldwide as an expert in aviation accident investigations.
“The extent to which we take for granted aviation safety is due to Jim and his colleagues at NTSB,” said Doran.
Cash said the ultimate goal of his work is to contribute important information that will save lives and prevent future accidents. “You’ve got to figure out what happened this time before you have any chance of preventing it from happening again,” he said.
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.