Out of Thin Air: MH370, Flight 8501 and vanishing aircraft

by | March 6, 2015

There’s something undeniably alarming about flying. It’s with a certain relief that even the most seasoned air traveller feels the thud of the plane’s wheels touching the ground. Despite the oft-used statistic that flying is safer than car travel, it is, for want of a better phrase, a bit scary. For most people, it probably takes a deep breath and a distracting book to calm the nerves as they leap 40,000ft above the ground in the name of sun-seeking. But in the past six months, this deep breath has become inadequate.

Recent events involving international airlines have resulted in the stark revelation that a 200ft aircraft can be, quite literally, lost. MH370, the infamous Malaysian Airlines flight, crashed somewhere in the ocean and has not been found despite nine months of searching. The recent Air Asia flight that went missing, Flight 8501, took two days and a tip off from fishermen to be discovered, in bits, at the bottom of the ocean.

A pilot can fly a modern airliner from Miami to Paris without needing to glance outside the cockpit once. But these planes can, and do, completely vanish in well-monitored and frequently-used airways, without any significant clues as to why and how they disappeared. In an age where an iPhone can calculate your position with astonishing precision, it’s clear that something has gone remarkably wrong.

Knowing where MH370 crashed wouldn’t have prevented the incident that brought it down. But recovering the ‘black box’ (the data recorder that stores vital information about the plane’s history) would tell us exactly what happened. More information about the flight’s final position would mean that we could reach the wreckage within hours, rather than days. In the unlikely event that a stricken plane manages to land on water, knowledge of its whereabouts could even mean preventing deaths (indeed, some commentators have suggested that this is exactly what happened to Flight 8501). It would bring an end to these unsettling disappearances, anomalies in the super safety-conscious world of modern aviation. Why, then, do planes disappear under such circumstances?

The answer is, simply, a lack of appropriate technology. Sitting in an airliner cockpit isn’t the world of touch screen efficiency you’d expect. Hundreds of dials, gauges and fiddly controls fill the surfaces around you, and plastic buttons and metallic levers are used to control the plane’s direction. A pilot of bombing raids in 1945 would be relatively at home in some of the planes we see regularly today – to the extent that, with a few hours to get their bearings, they’d most likely be able to fly the thing. It’s only in the last half-decade that things are beginning to change, with the ‘glass cockpit’ of multi-function digital displays becoming more common. The bits of technology that track the plane are just as out-dated as the cockpit.

Crucially, they’re also inadequate. Most aircraft contain transponders – bits of kit that work, in conjunction with ground-based radar, to communicate an aircraft’s location to air traffic controllers. But these can be, and were, in the case of MH370, switched off. This is a fatal flaw in the search for a reliable safety mechanism. Some aircraft also have systems that send off flight data automatically at certain intervals. However many planes, including 8501, aren’t fitted with systems like this. And even when they are, a 15 minute ‘ping’ seems like something out of a bad spy film. In comparison, a car sat-nav tracks your location in real time, and cars aren’t often travelling over limitless oceans with a hundred passengers in the back. The black box records data but you need to actually have it in your possession to extract any information, thereby rendering it completely useless unless you know where it is.

And that’s it. When you fly, it’s those two, sometimes three, bits of technology keeping you and your fellow passengers on the map. And even when they still work, as in MH370’s case, with its data system and black box still functional, finding the aircraft is a colossal technical and logistical challenge, one that, in this case, hasn’t been overcome. It’s this kind of vulnerability that led Najib Razak, Malaysian Prime Minister, to call aspects of safety systems “wholly inadequate”. His grim warning in the Wall Street Journal that the industry must “learn the lessons of MH370” is surprisingly restrained given the severity of the disaster.

Tom, a pilot with a leading international airline, says that the reason these primitive systems have not been updated is disarmingly simple: “We haven’t had the need to.” Rigorous procedures and extensive contingent planning mean that systems have, he says, “worked flawlessly until recently”. A plane’s radios can break in the busy corridors of Heathrow’s approaches and, by following certain steps, the pilot can land it entirely safely. Engines can fail over the Pacific Ocean and aircraft can limp to shore successfully. The need to know exactly where the plane is has never really been here. Radios and separation of ‘flight levels’ (the altitude at which airliners will cruise) mean that mid-air collisions are virtually impossible. Implementing new technology is expensive, too. Colin Budenberg, a senior pilot and examiner with another airline, summarised the perspective of the industry neatly: “Airlines will invest in anything that is a) regulated or b) gives them a commercial advantage”. Airlines are famously profit-shy. Richard Branson supposedly once said that the best way to make a million was “to start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline”, so it’s understandable that executives are reluctant to order costly new kit that they hope never to use.

This reluctance has led to stagnation in technology. Although, as Tom says, pilots are trained to a standard where they can track present location using ground based navigation aids, “which can give a very accurate position fix”, there’s a chance that a passenger with a phone signal will have better real-time information than the pilot in the cockpit. The arrival of in-flight Wi-Fi means this probability becomes higher.  Tom points out that the advent of websites such as flightradar24.com means that “the public has the ability to track any flight in controlled airspace.” The task remaining is to move tracking of that sort from the laps of passengers to the screens of the cockpit and the control tower.

Progress in GPS and electronics in general will bring prices down, and the high-profile nature of disasters like MH370 and 8501 means customers may well demand protection against such tragedies, increasing the possibility of airline-led implementation. Indeed carriers like First Air, a Canadian company, already have the kit in place. But this won’t be enough.

The momentum needs to come from national regulatory authorities, like the USA’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) or the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) who dictate exactly what systems a plane has to carry. The reality is that flight tracking insures against freak events, like mid-air explosions, catastrophic electrical failures, even terrorist attacks, and most people understand that when they book their flights to China or America, it’s virtually certain that they’re not going to become the next MH370. Pilots aren’t concerned, either. Tom calmly suggested that he’s “not too worried” about navigation issues: “When it comes to navigation and position monitoring I feel very comfortable in being able to find where I am at any point in a flight.” Colin added that “the truth is that few airline employees give it a second thought getting in the back of a commercial jet, so nor should you.”

It is easy to dismiss these disappearances as accidents, and continue using old technology that proves perfectly adequate, excepting a couple of instances a year. Without coordinated action, these events will fade (remember Air France Flight 447?), and airlines won’t act. Incremental improvements in safety never really seem important or financially attractive. But two such incidents in a few months drive home a harsh truth: without the introduction of real time flight tracking, the situation won’t improve. Increasing popularity of air travel means disappearances will only become more common. Failure to pre-empt them means we’re making the uncomfortable admission that we’re prepared to accept a few horrifying incidents to save what probably works out as a few pounds on each flight we take. As Colin bleakly summarised, “each step forward in safety in nearly every industry has sadly been paid for in blood.”

Some people will accept this admission – people that don’t need a deep breath before they fly. They probably sky-dive and drive fast. But the very existence of regulatory authorities betrays the fact that we don’t entrust safety to the airline markets.

The challenge now, as Mr. Razak knows, is making sure that MH370 and 8501 aren’t forgotten. They would always have been disasters, but expensive search efforts, mid-air disappearances, and, most importantly for the friends and family of those on board, horrifying uncertainty, could all have been avoided with real time flight tracking. Airlines will not act. It falls to bodies like the FAA and CAA to ensure that we learn the necessary lessons and remember the disappearances of MH370 and 8501 as terrible but preventable tragedies.

Image by Daniel Chillingworth