UK's air accident cops are slurping data from pilots' fondleslabs

'We need the families' assistance' says AAIB

A British government agency has been downloading data from iPads and similar devices used by pilots of crashed aircraft, it has emerged.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch routinely recovers data from tablets found in the wreckage of aircraft crashes. Such tablets are normally used by pilots of light aircraft with navigational apps open.

One of the AAIB’s recent investigations was into a fatal helicopter crash in March 2017 where the aircraft flew into the Snowdonia mountain in Wales while in low cloud. The accident report, published a few days ago, reveals how the AAIB’s investigators recovered screenshots from the device of the apps that were in use immediately prior to impact.

“The logic board (containing the memory) and battery were still attached to the base of the iPad, which was slightly bent and dented,” said the report (PDF, 27 pages). “The logic board was removed from the iPad base and slaved into a similar iPad mini whose own logic board had been removed. The memory was downloaded using a commercially available data extraction and analysis software tool.”

An AAIB spokesman told The Register: “While larger commercial aircraft are required to carry flight data and cockpit voice recorders, most smaller private aircraft do not carry these. Many pilots use mapping and other flight applications on personal devices, including phones and tablets. Following an accident, data stored in these can help build a picture of what happened in the runup to an accident, particularly where the occupants of the aircraft did not survive.”

The branch has been downloading data from digital devices over the past few years, as a glance over its reports reveals. A report from November 2016 (PDF, 114 pages long, page 11 onwards) reveals how a pilot’s iPad Mini was interrogated to reveal details of the navigation apps he was using after a fatal crash.

Similarly, a December 2015 report into a botched takeoff (PDF, 18 pages) of a Gulfstream commercial jet also revealed how three iPads and their GPS functionality were used to corroborate the aircraft’s track across the runway edge.

“We need the families’ assistance – such as recalling passwords and PINs – in order to try and access this information,” added the AAIB spokesman. “It often helps answer questions from bereaved family members who need to understand what happened, and is important for improving flight safety.” ®

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