Malaysia Flight 370 – One Year On

One year on from the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and with no trace still to be found of the plane, questions are being asked why modern technologies weren’t used to prevent the disappearance from happening.

Before the plane vanished, it would have sounded impossible that a $270 million airliner that was carrying 239 people could completely vanish and leaves little or no clues as to where it went.  But experts are now saying that the disappearance of the plane didn’t have to remain unsolved had the latest technology been used.

GPS

One example is GPS, something that seems to be almost every day to most of us who see our smartphones use this to locate where we are and give us location-specific information.  So why wasn’t GPS used on commercial airliners?  Communication via satellite is something else we all think of as everyday, so why can’t airliners send the data from their black boxes via satellite in real-time?

The main reason seems to be expense.

The flight did have eight ways to communicate with the ground while it was in the air.  These were:

  • Five Very High Frequency and High Frequency radios that could both transmit and receive voice and data transmissions
  • Two transponders that could send information such as plane identification and altitude data to the screens of air traffic controllers
  • One satellite transceiver used to transmit and receive text messages and phone calls

Radar

Yet despite all of this, the plane designated MH370 has disappearance.  So how is this possible?  The main tool used by air traffic controllers around the world is radar – a system that dates back to the 1940s.  While it is reliable, there are large gaps in the areas that it covers with aircraft flying for more than 200 miles from land not being tracked by the system.  In fact, radar only covers around 2-3% of the planet.

If an aircraft’s transponders are turned off, the aircraft is only visible through the so-called primary radar as a blip on a screen.  But the blip isn’t identified and the corresponding altitude is unknown.

Tracking

So with Flight 370, the communications received from the plane after it took off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8th were:

  • Nearly 30 minutes from take-off, plane tends a text via satellite confirming it is headed to Beijing
  • Plane sends its final radio call as it transitions from Malaysia air traffic controllers to those in Vietnam but the Vietnam controllers never heard from the plane
  • Three minutes after this, both transponders cease transmitting
  • Primary radar operated by the military in Malaysia and Thailand tracked the plane for a limited period
  • Later on, orbiting satellite checks for the plane’s satellite receiver, similar to a cell tower pinging a mobile phone. The receiver acknowledges the satellite, showing the plane is somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean

Developments

One development that may help prevent a reoccurrence of the mystery is called the Next Generation Air Transport System or NextGen.  This using GPS locators to find a plane and sends the data back to controllers by radio, which has a greater range than radar.  But this still stops when the plane is over the ocean.

So the industry is working on a space-based system that would determine where planes were via GPS satellites and report the information via satellite communications, regardless of where in the world they were.

So while we may never know what happened to Flight 370, the industry does seem determined that the event will never happen again – we must just hope that they get the technology in place before it does.


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