Flight MH370

The disappearance of flight MH370, is something that has inevitably attracted a lot of media attention over the last few weeks. How, some ask can an aircraft just disappear? I mean don’t we have GPS and satellite tracking, etc? This has led to a whole host of lurid conspiracy theories circulating.

Actually the truth is that it’s very easy for an aircraft to go missing. Take a look out the window of a plane sometime and see how much empty space there is, particularly over an ocean. Tracking something in that sort of environment isn’t easy, particularly when it’s at 30,000ft and travelling at hundreds of miles an hour. Also consider that it is not routine to track objects over the ocean, not least because most radar sites are shore based and have a limited range.

While within the EU and the US there is an attempt to track all aircraft by radar, and certainly turning your transponder off is the sort of thing that’s going to result in air traffic control at the very least asking a few questions (and since 9/11 more than likely alerting the Air force too). However this is borne out of the fact that the air traffic in these areas is so dense that monitoring is essential in order to prevent mid-air collisions. And even then there have been several such occurrences over the sky’s of Europe and America. In other parts of the world, it is not routine to track all aircraft, except in militarily sensitive areas or on approach to controlled airspace such as airports and major cities.

And satellite tracking, isn’t fool proof. Up until now, there has been very little need to track aircraft by satellite, save in certain military or intelligence cases, and one assumes (baring miss-adventure) there was no need for anyone to consider doing that in the case of MH370. And to be honest, a satellite in a polar orbit (standard for spy satellites) is not the best way to track a plane. It was little short of blind luck that any information was received from the plane via satellite. Airborne radar assets such as AWAC’s or ground based phase array radar sites are far better at this job. But of course, they need to be within range.

As I mentioned in a prior post, the loss of this flight has been a bit distressing for the Chinese relatives. We in the west are used to the bungling incompetence of our politicians and government. But the Chinese government usually keeps such things hidden from its people, so they are not used to be confronted by confused and inept politicians and don’t realise that this is perfectly normal in a crisis (recall G. W. Bush deer-caught-in-headlights response to news of 9/11). Indeed this might be what is fuelling the aforementioned conspiracy theories.

China’s “flesh search engines”, where millions of them form an angry mob online, have teamed up with their counterparts on sites like Reddit to try and find the plane using google earth…unaware that the images on this are often many months or years old, and it’s not that odd to see a plane in a satellite image over an ocean.

Who dunnit?
So putting aside such conspiracy theories, what can we say is a possibility? For starters, just because its a mystery doesn’t prove anything. There were similar lurid conspiracy theories regarding Air France flight 447. The usual rivalry between Boeing and Airbus surfaced with some American commentators trying to argue that it was because of something intrnisically unsafe about the Airbus…forgetting to point out that the one component on the plane that suffered any kind of a fault was made in the USA and fitted to many Boeing aircraft also! In then end it turned out to be a combination of gross pilot error and spatial disorientation.

I seem terrorism as pretty unlikely. Terrorist’s don’t commit their acts in secret…after all if the public don’t know the group did something, they how are we supposed to feel terrorised by their actions?

I see three possible explanations; one is a fire or mechanical emergency on board. Although it would be an odd set of coincidences that would lead to this scenario.

A second theory is decompression of the airplane during flight. There have been incidents where a plane has depressurised in the flight, the pilots and passengers rendered unconscious by the lack of oxygen and the plane has continued flying for many hours, sometimes drifting off course, until running out of fuel and crashing. However, this also does not quite match with all the relvant technologies.

Another (and more worrying) explanation is someone, possibly the pilots or someone who gained access to the flight deck without alerting security concerns (e.g. an air hostess or a friend), setting out to deliberately make sure the plane disappeared, possibly as part of some insurance scam. This has unfortunately likely happened before, notably in the case of Silk Air 185 in 1997 and a transatlantic Egypt Air flight in 1999. Several other attempts to hijack or commit suicide with a plane have been thwarted by the actions of the crew.

That said, this “suicide” theory also has a few holes in it, as for example it won’t explain the aircraft’s climb to 45,000 ft or why certain systems (which cannot be accessed from the cockpit) were turned off, as a pilot discusses here. It also seems unlikely nobody on the plane would notice why the aircraft was flying in the oppose direction it should be, as well as one assumes silence from the cockpit for several hours, without doing something about it.

Perhaps the problem therefore is all those security measures taken post-9/11, as they assume we can always trust the flight crew, whereas in these rat-race times maybe we can’t. And as Air France 447 show’s pilots can seriously screw up from time to time. There are solutions, notably a system that automatically alerts not just air traffic control, but the nearest military base if anyone turns off a transponder system. Better systems for tracking aircraft would be a good idea.

And as the Air France disaster in the mid-Atlantic a few years ago showed, a 30 day transponder limit for the black box (at a very limited range), or only two hours of cockpit voice recordings is clearly inadequate.

Ultimately however the fact is that we may never know what happened to this ill-fated aircraft… but that still doesn’t “prove” anything!

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