By Alex Pearlman | March 19, 2014
The continuing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has consumed the world’s attention for almost two weeks now. The mad quest to find the Boeing 777 has yet to answer the main questions on everyone’s mind: Where is that plane, and what happened to the people on it? Yet the search and the surrounding news coverage have revealed some surprising — and in some cases unsettling — facts about an industry the average person likely takes for granted.
We expect to fly and land safely, and these days, most flights do. But the system isn’t perfect, and in the time we’ve been engaged in the mystery of the lost plane, we’ve learned some noteworthy details about commercial aviation, technology, and national security.
1. Systems that collect information about flights have significant limits.
On Flight 370, a key communications system aboard the plane was somehow shut down. But that can happen for safety reasons. As BusinessInsider reported:
A pilot can shut the whole thing down by disconnecting a circuit breaker, and the plane’s manual would tell him how to do it. That’s for good reason, Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, wrote on his blog: “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 a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker,” Smith explained.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, explained why finding the cockpit voice recorder — often known as the “black box” — may not provide the answers:
A cockpit voice recorder, which would have recorded any activity or commotion, captures only two hours of sound, constantly overwriting the oldest material. Because the plane flew on for many more hours, the key events have been wiped away. If searchers do find the “black box,” they’ll instead have to rely on a flight-data recorder, which provides technical information about the plane’s behavior.
2. Seemingly strange behavior by pilots isn’t always evidence of foul play.
CNN’s coverage suggested that in the face of a lack of suspicious activity, we may want to give pilots the benefits of the doubt.
“I’ve worked on many cases were the pilots were suspect, and it turned out to be a mechanical and horrible problem,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation. “And I have a saying myself: Sometimes an erratic flight path is heroism, not terrorism. And I always remind myself of that, not to jump to that conclusion. Sometimes pilots are fighting amazing battles, and we never hear about it.”
Wired also suggested the transponder would be the first thing to go in the event of an emergency, with an experienced pilot at hand:
The loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.
3) Planes can hide in the shadow of other planes.
Slate.com explained a detailed Tumblr post from aviation enthusiast Keith Ledgerwood:
He argues the 777 could have flown over India and Pakistan, avoiding military radar detection by turning off its communications systems and following a Singapore Airlines 777 so closely the two aircraft “would have shown up as one single blip on the radar.” In his blog, Ledgerwood established that the Singapore Airlines flight was in the area. The collision avoidance systems installed on all modern airliners operate using the transponder, which someone on the Malaysia flight could have turned off. So the Singapore crew wouldn’t have detected a plane on their tail, Ledgerwood speculates.
4) Satellite coverage is lacking in a lot of places on earth, namely the open ocean.
Mashable pointed out that despite the heavy traffic of satellites orbiting the planet, few are designed to track airliners. There are wide swaths of the earth untouched by radar or satellite data:
It only seems natural to turn to the many satellites that hover above our atmosphere in search of answers. NASA has satellites in orbit that track events like heat flashes, but those failed to provide any clues. The agency’s MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite, for example, tracks wildfires. So, had MH370 crashed and burned, it seems like this satellite should have seen it. However, the problem is its location. “They are polar orbiters and would have had to be viewing the exact place and time where the airplane was in order to detect any heat from an explosion — if that’s what happened,” David J. Diner, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Mashable via email.
5) Air defense in the area is pretty lackluster.
The Washington Post makes the point that most of these Southeastern Asian countries should probably beef up monitoring their airspace:
Apparently all an aircraft needs to do to avoid detection in this contested region is to stop announcing its presence (note to China: stop investing in stealth). While not quite as shocking as the ability of Mathias Rust to land a plane in Red Square during the Cold War, the disappearance of MH370 has flagged several questions relating to the maritime capabilities and military preparedness of Malaysia and neighboring states. Reports suggest that some of the countries that MH370 may have flown over regularly disable their military radar at night or in the absence of a clear external threat to reduce costs. . . . Flight MH370 demonstrates that competing territorial claims in these areas are not backed up by the ability to exercise control of these waters effectively, even by China.
Reuters basically said the same thing:
More than a decade after Al Qaeda hijackers turned airliners into weapons on Sept. 11, 2001, a large commercial aircraft completely devoid of stealth features appeared to vanish with relative ease. . . . The reality, analysts and officials say, is that much of the airspace over water — and in many cases over land — lacks sophisticated or properly monitored radar coverage. Analysts say the gaps in Southeast Asia’s air defenses are likely to be mirrored in other parts of the developing world, and may be much greater in areas with considerably lower geopolitical tensions.
Some of these revelations are alarming, in light of how much trust we put in airline safety; others shed light on the military environment in a strategically important region. For the moment, though, this new information comes as small consolation to the families of the MH370 passengers, who are desperate for the multinational search effort to just find the plane.