Flying in an airplane is the safest mode of travel on – and above – earth; this is statistically proven. Relative to the total number of flights, there are very, very few crashes. But when a plane does crash – in the ocean, into a forest or mountain – it is rightly deemed a catastrophe. Trying to find survivors is paramount. At the same time, however, it is crucial to determine the cause of the crash as soon as possible. After all, countless other aircraft of same type are still in the air. Concretely, this amounts to finding the black box which contains all of the data from the flight. It also records the pilots’ last conversations as well as changes in the technical flight data that could provide valuable insights..

The search for the black box is often long and protracted; it puts the patience of all concerned – the next of kin, the authorities, the airline and the airline manufacturer – to a real test. The device is very robust and capable of withstanding quite a lot – even a horrific full-impact collision. But how can you find it if it has ploughed deep into a mountainside or lies concealed beneath a boulder? The terrain makes its recovery in the mountains especially difficult. Recovery team members are obliged to carry out their work as they hang suspended from ropes or clamber on steep slopes. And, while the black box sends out “ping” signals, with that alone it’s difficult to track it to within a metre or centimetre. The search often drags on for days..

The circumstance that the black boxes of commercial airliners will be fitted with tracewave chips as standard beginning about 2018 – and thus become trackable in a fraction of the usual time– has to do with two men who met to play golf one autumn Sunday in 2016. One of them, Pete, served as a board member of an airline while the other, Howard, sold golf equipment. If you do this for a living you ought, if at all possible, to also play the sport yourself..

Pete, the man from the airline, watched as his partner drove a ball way too far and it landed somewhere deep within the woods. “We won’t be seeing that ball again,” he grinned, “not today for sure!” Whereupon Howard pulled out his Smartphone and answered: “I’ve already located it!” And, indeed, after exactly six minutes, he drove the very same ball out of the woods where it had landed and back onto the green..

“If it had landed on a branch fork, I would have needed five minutes longer.”.

“How do you do that? It that a clairvoyant device?”.

“In fact, it is. There’s a chip in the golf ball – with a transmitter and a mini battery. By means of a clever angle measurement technique, this “mother station” here can locate the chip. The ball was at the exact location displayed by my Smartphone.”.

“Wait a minute. So this chip can also withstand a hard strike with a very heavy iron?”.

“Many strikes – with a mellow smile!”.

“So the mother station in your Smartphone can even find the ball if it digs deep into the ground or is otherwise unfindable?”.

“Effortlessly, but it does require the help of my feet: I have to head out and let myself be guided until I hold the ball in my hand. The ball, by the way, was in a feeder for game, in other words, in a pile of hay.”.

“But what if it lands in a pond?”.

“Then it’s gone. Not just because I don’t like to dive but because the angle measurement method won’t work in the water – not at all.”.

Pete positioned a finger on his nose. “Okay, that fair,” he said before suggesting: “I think I have an idea. Today is not at all a bad day!”.

“What kind of idea?”.

“I’d like to try that out with a black box!”.

“Absolutely, that would significantly cut down the search time for a black box on land.”.

“How much does one – or better yet – how much do one thousand cost?”.

“Hard to say right now, the manufacturer Tracewave haven’t gone into serial production yet. But I would wager to say that your airline would hardly collapse under the expense.”.

Pete arranged for all the necessary steps to be taken over the next weeks. And his idea did in fact work. The black boxes of the entire fleet were furnished with the chip as soon as the required numbers became available..

And, best of all, the chip wasn’t put to a real live test: For years, there were no plane crashes. This had nothing to do with the chip – it was a gift from heaven..

And, once again, this goes to show that one often finds more than just a ball when playing a game of golf..


Story translated by EnglishProCo