The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has captivated the world’s attention for going on two weeks now. While a significant amount of media time has been dedicated to where the plane might be and what might have happened to those on board, other issues related to the missing airliner have revealed themselves to be both surprising and disturbing.
The Boston Globe has helped shed light on some interesting facts concerning the aviation industry that have been revealed since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I have added some additional points.
The systems that collect flight information have significant limitations.
It has been widely reported that the Boeing 777’s communication system was shut down, but this can happen for any number of reasons. “A pilot can shut down the whole thing by disconnecting a circuit breaker,” writes Patrick Smith, author of the aviation blog Cockpit Confidential. “In the interest of safety – namely fire and electrical system protection – it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by standard switch, or if need be, through a circuit breaker.”
Additionally, many believe that the cockpit voice recorder will shed some light on what happened. However, flight recorders capture only the last two hours of cockpit conversations, as they are constantly recording over the oldest recordings. Reports have stated that the plane was in the air for many hours, which may mean that key events will not be accessible.
Better devices are available to track aircraft
GPS is ubiquitous. Anyone with a smart phone can carry one in their pocket. There is no reason why airplanes cannot be equipped with such a common device, and a record of the flight track recorded, and saved, for possible future reference. If we can vacuum up nearly every telephone call and email, surely we can store flight tracking data.
Engine manufacturers routinely track, in real time, the behavior of their engines during flight. This could be done for all “black box” information. The objection that it would be too costly to monitor that information for the thousands of daily flights is wrong. Just as flight track information can be received, recorded and stored for future use in the event of need, so too could “black box” data.
GPS and “black box” reporting systems can be sealed off from flight crew control, and thus would always continue to report even if there were a hijacking. Even if there were a total electrical failure (and the equipment were not protected with independent backup electrical capability}, at least we could always know where the airplane was when the failure occurred, and we would have significant information about the flight up to that point.
Strange behavior by the pilots might not give us the whole story
Some in the media have speculated that the pilots may have had malicious intent, possibly steering the plane off course purposely. But this mysterious left turn made by flight captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah may simply have been a maneuver to get to the nearest airport of safe harbor, which was a 13,000-foot airstrip at Palau Langkawi. According to a Wired article by Chris Goodfellow, the pilot “did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make an immediate turn to the closest, safest airport.”
Planes are capable of hiding in another plane’s shadow
Aviation enthusiast Keith Ledgerwood has an interesting theory about the plane’s disappearance. He hypothesized that the plane could have flown over India and Pakistan, avoiding military radar by turning off its communication system and flying directly behind a Singapore Airlines flight that was in the area. All modern commercial planes have collision avoidance systems, which the Malaysia Airlines plane could have turned off to avoid detection by the Singapore Airlines plane. One plane in the shadow of another simply looks like one blip on a radar. Once clear of being detected by military radar in India, Pakistan or Afghanistan, the flight could have broken off from the Singapore Airlines plane to its final landing site. While this theory is plausible, it is quite unlikely that this flight was “hidden.”
Satellite coverage for air disasters is weak
Many satellites orbit the planet, designed to track events like heat flashes. Unfortunately, very few satellites are designed to track airliners.
Military radar and defense in Southeast Asia is also weak
Some nations in the region shut off military radar at night to reduce costs. The same can be said for nations that lack a clear external threat. Additionally, much of the region simply lacks sophisticated radar coverage.
It is reported that Malaysian Flight 370 had over 5,000 pounds of lithium ion batteries in its cargo hold. This type of battery is known to have a tendency to explode and cause fire at altitude. In other words, the cargo might be considered to be a potential 5,000 pound bomb. Strict regulations about transporting these batteries by air must be put in place. Regulations restricting the number of batteries and the manner in which they must be packaged for shipment must be implemented. While it is not known if the batteries on board Flight 370 contributed to the crash, the mere fact that it is possible should prompt immediate action.