How To Lose an Airplane in a Technological World

airplaneIn a world filled with technology, it is still possible to lose an airplane. There is proof. Recently Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has simply vanished without a trace. An airplane disappeared. The plane disappeared approximately one hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur on route to Beijing. This did not happen 100, or 20, or even 10 years ago. No, this happened Friday night, March 7, 2014. So, how is it possible to lose an airplane in today’s technological world?

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a Boeing 777-200 with 239 people on board. Since air traffic lost contact with the flight, there have been many attempts to relocate the plane and many theories have abounded. Apparently there were two men who boarded the plane with stolen passports. These men, and the man who purchased the tickets for them, are currently under investigation. There are over 40 ships and 36 aircraft from 10 countries searching for the plane. There was no emergency signal sent, nor any distress call. Officials officially do not know anything.

It is rare for an aircraft to go missing. There are checks and balances, rules and regulations. There are checklists to maintain, flight plans to submit, air control people with whom to talk. It is a rare occurrence when an airplane goes missing. Generally speaking, it is not usually a positive thing.

The plane out of Malaysia seems to have disappeared between Malaysia and Vietnam. There are search parties from a number of countries working diligently around the clock to attempt to locate the aircraft. Searchers were originally looking in the section of South China Sea known as the Gulf of Thailand, but have shifted focus to the Andaman Sea. But there were no messages from the pilot, no signals sent, and no clues, really, to follow. The plane, upon checking, was simply no longer there. One of the questions many people have is how, exactly, can the losing of an airplane in this very technological world actually occur?

If a car may be tracked via OnStar, and a person may always know where they are with personal technology such as a pocket GPS (Global Positioning System,) and planes, especially commercial planes such as this one, are always said to have the latest technologies, then how was the plane lost? While the plane is large, the skies, are much, much larger. Additionally, pilots do not have the instantaneous communication with air control as many might think.

When a plane reaches more than about 100 to 150 miles from shore, the radar no longer works. There is no radar tracking over the ocean. When radar no longer works, pilots communicate with those on the ground largely via high-frequency radio. They check in at specific points along their route to provide their current altitude, position and speed. In fact, in this world of technology, some aircraft systems do not require verbal check-ins at all. The communication systems on board automatically transmit the information through a satellite link. Even the GPS systems are not useful in a situation such as this. The GPS is used for navigation, which tells the airplane pilots where the plane is, but does not provide that information to anyone on the ground.

airplaneThe pilot of Malaysia Airline Flight 370 did not send out a distress call. There was no cry for help, no message, and no communication. Why? Far from being irrational, the fact that there was no communication or call for help is reasonable. If what happened to Flight 370 was sudden and catastrophic, as it appears to have been, the pilot’s first priority is to deal with the problem, not call for help. Pilots have a specific, linear, necessary set of instructions to follow. First, aviate. Second, navigate. Third (and last,) communicate. In a desperate, chaotic situation, a call for help is the not the priority, keeping the plane in the air or landing safely on the ground is.

Even then, with no radar and no communications, many aircraft have a trigger for an emergency locator beacon. This often self-triggers given specific parameters such as impact with water. Problematically, the beacon is not effective in water with great depths. If a plane lands and sinks in deep water, the possibility of tracking would have to revert from the civilian sector to the government. While there are no civilian radar systems over the sea, it is possible that a security or military agency may be able to track the plane, with ships, airplanes, or satellites.

However, in the case of Flight 370, even after three days of searching, there is still no recovery. When a plane goes down, it must do so somewhere. It is possible that investigators are simply looking in the wrong area. It is also possible that the plane did not remain intact upon landing. Pieces may be scattered over a large amount of space, either on land or in the water. This makes locating the aircraft much more difficult.

It is too soon to tell what actually became of Malaysia Airline Flight 370. The search is still happening and investigations will continue. It is an unfortunate example of how it is possible to lose an aircraft in a world bursting with technological advances.

Editorial by Dee Mueller