MH370 and Some Confounding Questions

Why has it taken so long to find this plane? This truly is a tragedy for the families involved and there has been, obviously, a massive effort to find the plane. I am not sure what the cost is at this point, but I am sure we will all look back on it and say to ourselves, “Why did it cost so much and why did we even have to look for it in the first place.” Aside from the fact that Malaysia has fumbled the search from the very beginning, the international community has put out a massive effort in both time and expense to locate the missing jet.

There in lies the problem as I see it. Why is the search even necessary in the first place? I am not talking about the fact that we need to find planes that crash in remote or hard to reach places. That isn’t the issue I have with this whole thing. The questions that keep running through my mind is that I don’t understand is this…

When would an airplane ever need to turn off it’s transponder?

I am not in the aviation industry and I will never claim to know lots about it (though I have ridden on them and maybe slept in a Holiday Inn Express on occasion). However, this seems like a rather obvious question. A question that, as yet, I have not yet heard an answer to in the endless news cycle, commentator blather filling the airwaves.

So, how about it? Anyone in the aviation industry that can tell me why it would be necessary for a plane to stop broadcasting it’s location? Any reason why turning the transponder off is even possible? I can’t think of a single reason why a plane would need to go “stealth,” especially when it is full of passengers.

Based on my, admittedly, limited knowledge of how these things work it seems that THIS would be one of the first areas for consideration, adjustment, and redesign. In a transportation industry that relies on locating it’s moving parts at all times, this seems like a no brainer. It can’t possibly be that expensive to design new planes this way. Yes, it might be a significant cost to retrofit already produced planes but it seems worth the cost if a situation can avoid the cost of having to locate a plane after an unexplained air disaster.

Additionally, how about putting more than one on the plane? These big jets are designed to have redundant systems to keep the plane in the air. I think I heard one former pilot say that a plane such as the one missing has 10 generators on it. There is bound to be some redundancy there, right? So, why not have a backup transponder in case it gets turned off…accidentally or on purpose…or that generator goes out…or the fuse for that one is pulled…?

Here’s an article I found on this issue and it answers some questions. The explanation of “safety” makes sense, but that should be something an air traffic controller should have control over, not people in the plane.

Why are “black boxes” still on airplanes?

Those “black boxes” aren’t really black, as we all know, they are orange. So why are they called black in the first place? Well, that really isn’t important at this point. More importantly, why are we still relying on outdated technology? The black boxes collects and stores all the data the airplane systems produce and they collect the conversations in the cockpit, between air control and the cockpit, and extraneous background noise in the cockpit. This makes sense because this could all be important information while determining what went wrong on the plane or what the pilot(s) did/didn’t do. Great. These boxes have obviously proven very helpful when solving past airline incidents.

My question stems from that fact that the black boxes are still ON the airplane in the first place. Why are they even necessary at this point? With the ability to communicate with a plane nearly anywhere on the planet, you would think that it would be possible to also send data. Satellites circle the globe so there seems to be no shortage of ways the plane (or the people inside) could communicate with people on the ground. Why isn’t the data that is stored in the black boxes transmitted in real-time to a storage unit on solid ground? If computers can collect data from the Hubble Space Telescope or rovers on Mars then computers should be able to collect data from a plane that spends no more than 12 hours in the air at any one time. In the event of something catastrophic, data would be instantly available, including where the plane was at the time of the event. No hunting necessary.

The confounding part of this question goes back, at least, to the Air France Flight 447 in 2009. This plane also crashed and took time to locate the debris, though not like the current missing flight. However, there was still the mystery of WHY it crashed and that couldn’t be solved until the black boxes were found, which took two years and lots of money. Shouldn’t this crash have triggered an industry wide change in how the data was collected? You would think when mysteries such as these occur that people would want to do something to keep them from happening in the future. Of course, that costs money (and perhaps the info, or safety, isn’t as important as the bottom line).

There was an article that answers some of these questions as well. Cost for such technology shouldn’t be holding change back.

So what now?

Like I said, I can’t offer a whole lot in the way of solutions and I am probably not bringing up anything that hasn’t been brought up before. But, maybe that is the problem! I don’t work in the industry and I only have nominal experience as a passenger, but as a casual observer and information consumer it appears as though the solutions to these particular problems are fairly simple. Why they haven’t been done already is the puzzling thing to me.  These technologies should have already been incorporated into the missing plane.

These airline passengers are victims of a crime. That fact may well have been established when the transponder was turned off and the plane continued to fly. Unfortunately, now their grieving family members are victims as well. Victims of an aviation system that should work better than it does because they have failed to use technology that already exists.

 

 

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