As the hunt for Malaysian Airlines MH370 continues, AEROSPACE Editor-in-Chief TIM ROBINSON provides commentary on the repercussions from this extraordinary event.  



MH370 last location 'corridors' based last satellite contact (Office of Malaysian PM). 

For good and bad we live in an age of instant communication. When global connectivity is taken for granted it is doubly upsetting for family and friends of passengers and crew of MH370 that a Malaysian Airlines 777 should vanish into thin air. In June 2009, the loss of Air France AF447 was a ‘Black Swan’ event — a one-in-a-million chance that saw a large airliner, operated by a reputable airline and flown by an experienced crew, disappear over the ocean. Yet five years on and this particular ‘Black Swan’ has reappeared with a vengeance.



This is not to add to the speculation and wild theories now doing the rounds. However, this unprecedented aviation incident has turned traditional air accident investigation on its head. Previously, an aircraft crash site would be found, analysed and the cause established through rigorous forensic examination, including the vital data from flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR)s. However, the lack of a crash site (or landed aircraft) and the wide area to search has focused thoughts on determining the cause first – hoping that this  will give clues to the location.  

Streaming 'black box' data

 

The 'black box' from AF447 was recovered after two years. (BEA)

That the aircraft will, one day, eventually be found is under no doubt but, when many airlines devote massive sums to expanding  in-flight connectivity for passengers, could not some of this be used to stream ‘black box’ flight data recorder (FDR) or cockpit voice recorder (CVR) data to the ground in the event of a crash or unusual incident? It need not always be switched on, but could be triggered by various abnormal flight parameters — unusual pitch or roll angles, high rates of descent, or depressurization, so that the aircraft’s final minutes were available to investigators immediately. This would not be so that the investigation could be completed more quickly — but would allow accurate information to be given in a preliminary fashion — closing off fruitless avenues that might sidetrack the inquiry or quashing wild conspiracy stories that unnecessarily upset grieving relatives.  



Even if the accident were not fatal, it might also be useful to have additional data from any serious incident to debrief the pilots, understand their actions and refine CRM. Excursions from the flight path profile or altitude busts are already monitored in some form by many airlines – but this CVR audio would act as an extra ‘human factors’ information to understand accidents.   



And, although locked cockpit doors mean that the threat of 9/11 style hijacking and terrorism has receded — a discreet ‘transmit FDR/CVR’ button for the Captain or First Officer to hit in an emergency could aid authorities in knowing whether an aircraft that was squawking ‘emergency’ and heading towards a major city was the result of hostile action, crew incapacitation, or a mechanical problem and react accordingly.  There could even be a hidden ‘panic button’ for the flight attendants to transmit this data for in the cabin or galley – should they perceive something was wrong on the flight deck.

This idea of ‘streaming black box’ data is not new and was proposed in the wake of the search  for AF447s FDR/CVR at the bottom of the Atlantic — but cost, privacy and bandwidth issues saw the need downgraded for what was expected to be a extremely rare event. After MH370, these calculations may change. Although bandwidth would still remain an issue – the costs of inflight connectivity are set to fall, as new broadband satellites come online.

A world where passengers are promised they can tweet live photos from a window seat using their phone but FDR/CVR data is trapped within the aircraft only prolongs an agonising wait for families and creates an incorrect perception with the flying public that this technologically focused industry is not using all the tools at its disposal to enhance safety and security.





Space-based location tracking

 

Looks impressive - but doesn't tell the full story... 

The disappearance of MH370 and the 239 people on board has also highlighted the limitations of current live-flight tracking and terrestrial radars. A situation in which you can see ‘live’ airline flights via ADS-B on your smart phone via services like Flightradar24, gives the false impression that all-seeing global surveillance gives the position of every commercial aircraft in the world at all times. As MH370 has amply demonstrated, once a transponder fails (or is switched off) the radar horizon becomes the limit for terrestrial awareness of an aircraft’s position. Expect then, calls for the industry to boost space-based satellite tracking and communication of airline assets. As has been pointed out by some – when a free GPS app can locate a lost smartphone and report its position to the owner – a more robust fail-safe location information for airliners needs to be considered.   



Defence gaps

 

Royal Malaysian Air Force MiG-29s.

Finally, the incident has also demonstrated major and embarrassing gaps in Asian country’s air defence systems, particularly of Malaysia, in potentially allowing a non-squawking 777-sized large contact to penetrate and pass though its airspace. In Malaysia’s defence, it was the catalyst of 9/11 that meant the US and Western nations now treat suspect airliners with such seriousness – and regularly scramble fighters to intercept those that lose voice or transponder communications with ATC.

However, these admissions (and the focus on other countries’ air defence and radars and what they could see) in a region which has recently seen increased tensions and sabre-rattling to the east with China’s ADIZ  will undoubtedly cause both Malaysia (and its neighbours) to tighten up and/or upgrade their air defence postures in the future. This has been an unpleasant wake-call for military preparedness in the region. 

   



Summary

 

The losses of dH Comet airliners proved a baffling earlier aviation mystery. Solving it enhanced safety for millions of passengers (NAL).

In conclusion, although the hunt for MH370 is still ongoing, it has to be remembered that this ‘Black Swan’ event is an extraordinarily rare and possibly unprecedented event in modern commercial aviation.  Despite alarmist headlines, commercial air travel  is still an extremely safe, highly-regulated global industry with tight standards that have served well since the dawn of the jet age. Each earlier air accident, paid in blood, has contributed  in some small way to improving safety.

There is no doubt that MH370, whatever the final cause, will eventually do the same.  

Tim Robinson
18 March 2014