Sam Kittner/

'Black Box' Expert Uncovers Airplane Crash Mysteries

Investigating major transportation accidents requires listening for clues that explain what happened.

At the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) James Cash has applied engineering expertise to solve some of the biggest aviation mysteries as the nation’s expert on black box devices that record the voices of cockpit crews and other sounds that can help explain the cause of airplane crashes.

As the chief technical advisor for the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering, Cash has continually found ways to improve the quality of retrieved data, helped uncover key information and contributed to reforms leading to greater safety for the traveling public.

“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.

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. 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 jetliner crash that killed 104 people, Cash pieced tiny fragments of damaged recording tape from black box devices.  “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,” he said.

During another investigation, Cash analyzed a quarter second of noise to help determine why a 747 exploded 12 minutes after takeoff. He also has assisted in investigations into two space shuttle accidents and a nuclear submarine collision, and helped the Drug Enforcement Administration analyze GPS data from a vehicle in which agents had been killed in Mexico

Cash said that 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 is the second in a series of profiles featuring the recipients of the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Presented to outstanding public servants by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, and sponsored in part by Bloomberg, Booz Allen Hamilton, The Boston Consulting Group, Chevron and United Technologies Corporation, the prestigious Sammies awards are offered in nine categories. To nominate a federal employee for a 2013 medal go to

Want more Excellence in Government? Follow us on Twitter | Facebook | Google + | LinkedIn