At the time of writing, Malaysia Airlines Flight 340 remains missing with 239 people on board, and international search and rescue have found no sign whatsoever of the Boeing 777-200.

Theories abound as to the reason for the loss of communication followed by complete disappearance of the plane, which issued no Mayday and has vanished without a trace.  What the real explanation is may be many years in the discovery as the plane clearly ditched in the South China Sea – not unlike the most recent comparable aviation disaster involving an Air France flight in 2009.  It took nearly 2 years to recover that flight recorder from the Atlantic floor.  It had in fact greatly exceeded its technical specification, by preserving all the data captured through its lonely vigil… but finding it was what took the time.

Boeing 777

image courtesy Wikipedia

And this is the bit that has been troubling so many people in recent weeks with the current incident: the fundamental question of how something the size of a 777 can simply vanish without a trace.  We all have satnavs in our cars, phones in our pockets that can track the exact pace and location of our morning walk, send us live stock market updates and the latest daft cat videos in real-time.  And we know GCHQ and the NSA read all our emails and supervise our browser histories.  So how can a passenger aircraft weighing over 200,000kg simply get lost?

The perhaps surprising reason is that whatever happened, happened over the ocean.  And there is no radar tracking over the ocean.  That’s right, none whatsoever – radar simply doesn’t have the range, once a plane is around 150km from the shore.  After this point civilian aircraft communications are largely dependent on short wave radio, but these communications are not continuous on a lengthy routine and uneventful run.  The flight crew check in with expected data at specified ‘reporting points’, but between times radio silence is the norm.  Cruising along at 40 thousand feet is what they do all the time, there’s nothing to report or discuss.

“But what about GPS?” cries every smartphone user.  Well sure, GPS works – within every modern plane GPS technology is used for navigation, but it only tells the plane where it is, in relation to everything else. It cannot tell air traffic control or anybody else where the plane is, because there is no mobile data coverage in the middle of the ocean.  It would be like using your smartphone in the middle of the Sahara desert – you could pinpoint your location exactly using the motion sensors and GPS but you couldn’t text anyone about it, and if you dropped your phone there then Find My iPhone would be no help at all.  There is no mechanism to send location data from the phone up to the satellite, to indicate its location to anyone else.

But never mind a phone, how do you find a plane? Well, in something the size of the South China Sea, you have to look in the right place, and therein lies the problem.  Because of the lack of distress call, both the moment of impact and the direction of travel at the time remains unknown, making the potential search area staggeringly large.

It has been speculated that the cause could be as simple and relatively uncontroversial as a fire, possibly in the landing gear.  Not as newsworthy perhaps as the theories of hijacking, terrorism or murder-suicide, but if something catastrophic and destructive happened 7 miles up in the sky (where winds are over 100 knots) rather than the plane ditching relatively intact, then the area of which debris could be scattered must be measured in hundreds of square miles…

A pilot’s truism for prioritising in the event of an inflight emergency is: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – in that order.  If something like a cabin fire threatened the aircraft, the first priority would be to keep the plane flying and under control before addressing any other concerns, and once that was accomplished the next would be to find the nearest safe place to land – even if the emergency was under control.

Any fires involving electrical equipment would involve shutting down to minimal emergency circuitry, and it does make sense that radio and other means of communication would be regarded as a much lower priority than keeping the plane safely in the air and pointed at best airport to set down in.  Shouting for help when you are hours away from receiving any would be more of an afterthought or courtesy, letting people know rather than expecting any positive outcome or support.

Commentators are debating which location would have been decided upon by the highly experienced Captain – not necessarily the nearest, but the one with the best chance of making a safe cruising approach to land.  Depending on which choice was made and therefore which heading was attempted.  The plane had over 6 hours’ fuel on board, no one knows when it went down… so nobody knows where.

Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, March 28th 2014  ©Maya Middlemiss,  Casslar Consulting SL

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