When we plop into our airliner seat and buckle the seat belt, we expect a rather boring journey to the destination, not a terrifying journey to mortal oblivion. Yet that is exactly what occurred on March 7, 2014, as 227 passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 for a nighttime flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Approximately 40 minutes after the 12:41 a.m. takeoff, the B777’s electronic transponders broadcasting the plane’s altitude and identity fell silent. Flying over water, beyond the range of ground-based radar, the airplane simply disappeared.
A massive international search was mounted. An impact crater on land was never found. Not a shred or scrap of debris floating was ever found along the track of ocean sites where fuel exhaustion would have marked the end of the plane’s flight.
Investigators surmised the airplane turned from its path toward Beijing and headed southwest, out into the Indian Ocean. Patrol planes with observers searched the wave tops for pieces of floating aluminum, maybe a bobbing seat cushion, bodies, or some other evidence of the plane’s catastrophic plummet into the water. Nothing.
The airplane’s aft-mounted black box featured a water-activated, battery-power pinger that broadcast a signal for about 30 days. Sensitive hydrophones would have picked up the telltale “pings” from the submerged wreckage. Nothing.
High-tech sonars were deployed from ships on the surface to probe the ocean depths. Robotic submersibles descended into the inky depths and bounced sound waves off the 14,700-ft deep ocean bottom, in the hopes that some of the return signals would reveal the location of the wreckage. The robotic submersibles went back and forth, probing with sonar in a pattern that covered a great deal of submerged acreage without duplicating the effort. Again, nothing.
Despite an effort involving 39 airplanes, 42 ships, technical support on land, and consuming an estimated $44 million, the international search proved to be one of false hopes, spurious signals and nil, zero, zilch, no evidence whatsoever of the Malaysian airliner’s fate.
The wreckage could be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, elsewhere at sea, in the jungle, in the mountains — nobody knows.
Possible crash locations of MH370 based on fuel exhaustion
The difficulty, and the extraordinary lengths taken to narrow down where the wreckage might be, was outlined in an October 8th PBS ‘NOVA’ television documentary titled “Why Planes Vanish”. The documentary focused on the frustrating search for the remnants of Malaysian flight MH370:
“Twenty-six minutes after takeoff, at 1:07 AM local time, the airplane transmitted a text message via satellite to its operations center — that appeared to confirm MH370 was bound for Beijing — just like it always had before this night.”
“Three minutes after that call [a voice radio communication between the cockpit crew and Malaysian air traffic controllers], at 1:22 in the morning, both transponders on the Boeing 777 went silent. And so did the crew.”
“Air traffic controllers monitoring the frequency they were assigned in Ho Chi Minh City never heard from MH370″ ….
“In the handoff between control centers, MH 370 became nothing more than a silent primary radar blip. And when controllers finally tried to connect the dots, they couldn’t find the plane anywhere on their screens.”
“The plane had vanished.”
“As day broke, rescue crews immediately began searching for wreckage of a crash — in what seemed like a logical place: the South China Sea … where the plane was last seen by air traffic controllers on secondary radar. But there was nothing there.” ….
“The Inmarsat satellite transmissions to and from MH370 were relayed through a ground station in Perth, Australia, until 1:06 AM, when the plane send its last text message ty satellite to the airline’s operations center.” …
“The Inmarsat transceiver answers the call with a simple electronic ping, saying, ‘Yes, I am here.’ ”
“Even more surprising, the log documents SIX MORE handshakes or pings between the ground station and the airliner, about one an hour. All of them occurred after the airplane had vanished … the airplane had continued to fly for at least SEVEN MORE HOURS.” ….
“[Investigators] determined MH370 sent its final handshake somewhere on these two arcs — to the north, all the way to Kazakhstan — or in a place that is as close to nowhere as anyplace can be — the southern Indian Ocean. Two million square miles in all.” ….
“According to this new data [derived from analysis of the doppler shirt from Inmarsat], flight MH 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
“But where on the southern arc?”
“Investigators estimated various speeds and altitudes that the missing plane might have flown.”
“Those factors, along with the amount of fuel and the winds aloft, are crucial in determining where the plane might be along the last handshake arc — where it is presumed the [fuel] tanks ran dry.” ….
“David Gallo is Director of Special Projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In May of 2011 he co-led the team that found the wreckage of Air France flight 447.” [The airplane crashed in the South Atlantic in 2009.]
“Air France had paid for an ACARS subscription that provided investigators much greater detail about what had happened, including position reports right to the end.” [Malaysian airlines only subscribed to a bare bones service.]
“[David Gallo on camera] With Air France we knew there was a plane, so that was important. There was debris being picked up just about a week after the plane hit the water, so there was no question that there was a plane somewhere in that neck of the woods.”
“[Narrator] They were able to narrow the search area to a circle 80 miles in diameter. And yet it still took two years of searching with autonomous underwater vehicles to find the wreckage.”
“[Gallo] It’s not like putting scuba gear on and just going to the bottom. You’re talking about going miles into the deep, into the darkness … It’s incredibly difficult terrain, with mountains as steep as any mountains we have on earth.”
A huge and remote area to search
“[Narrator] The area that Inmarsat has defined and searchers are pursuing in the hunt for MH370 is about the size of the state of West Virginia — five times greater that the Air France 447 search zone. It would take an autonomous underwater vehicle nearly a thousand days to cover an area that size.”
This frustrating mystery is not necessary.
The location of every airliner flying beyond the range of ground-based radars is readily available. A new system called the Automated Flight Information Reporting System, or AFIRS, does this. It monitors what the flight data recorder is seeing. AFIRS starts transmitting key data automatically when it senses trouble, alternatively at the command of the flight crew or airline dispatches at the ground headquarters.
Some smaller operators, such as Canada’s First Air, have already equipped their airplanes with AFIRS. First Air operates a mixed fleet of Hercules cargo planes, B767, B737, ATR-42 and ATR-72s in northern Canada, where oftentimes ground-based radars do not provide coverage.
The Chinese have mandated satellite communications for all aircraft. AFIRS has been installed on 30 Chinese-registered airliners to date with another 20 planes awaiting components that have already been paid for.
AFIRS was developed and is sold by a small Canadian company, FLYHT Aerospace Solutions Ltd. The system takes advantage of communication and navigation satellite already orbiting Earth. The company claims its technology is installed in 400 aircraft and helicopters. A company press release advertizes:
“For the first time in history, FLYHT has developed a technology to stream data off an aircraft in real-time. If an airplane encounters an emergency, FLYHT’s proven technology can automatically stream vital data, normally secured in the back box, and provide position information to designated sites on the ground in real-time. This technology opens new doors for increased awareness and safety in the industry.”
Not only the airplane’s final location, but data that also goes to the airplane’s black box. A two-fer, as it were, rendering the costly search for the black box unnecessary (although other aircraft components and human remains might be desired for retrieval).
Additionally, the aircraft’s operation can be monitored in real time, allowing for more efficient navigation en route to avoid bad weather, take advantage of favorable winds, and generally maximize fuel economy. Components evidencing behavior problems — maybe in need of repair or replacement — are identified in flight and maintenance personnel are alerted. The routine monitoring in real time is done continuously; AFIRS begins transmitting flight recorder data when activated.
AFIRS installed in the belly of an airliner
FLYHT President Matt Bradley maintains, “We have an internationally-recognized data streaming technology that is available to the industry now and are committed to advocating for its full implementation.”
Company representatives have been giving presentations to various aviation symposia around the globe.
AFIRS control panel in the cockpit
When the system is activated, a message is sent to key ground personnel, with the subject line featuring the attention-getting “Aircraft XXX Emergency.” Additional information includes:
• Aircraft registration
• Aircraft latitude and longitude’
• Aircraft altitude, attitude, rate of descent, pitch and roll
• Engine parameters, flight control settings, smoke and fire detection, electrical system functioning, etc.
• A statement that the software has entered the data-streaming mode
• The time streaming mode was entered
• A description of the event that caused the streaming
The data streaming will continue for as long as the airline desires or until the airplane crashes.
AFIRS can be retrofitted onto existing aircraft for approximately $35,000 to $70,000, depending on aircraft type. The greater sum is for B777 wide body aircraft of the type that was operating as Malaysian Flight MH370. The system can also be installed during production of new aircraft.
The company claims that its technology realizes about $100,000 in cost savings per airplane annually. The savings accrue from reduced fuel consumption — benefitting from real-time reporting aloft rather than predicted winds and weather — and from reduced repair costs by having better information from in flight to preposition technicians and spare parts to minimize down time. Operators with AFIRS installed also benefit from reduced insurance rates.
The cost is cheap relative to, say, in-flight entertainment systems. These passenger entertainment systems can cost upwards of $1 million per airplane.
And AFIRS is a bargain compared to the $44 million spent in just the first month in the futile search for Malaysian Flight MH370.
Most importantly, a flight need not be a one-way journey to mortal oblivion. The less-than-emergency weather, maintenance and other information translates into more efficient and safer flights. When AFIRS is activated, authorities and family members at least will have critical flight data and a final location. In this respect, AFIRS promises to replace oblivion with certainty. This may be small comfort to the next-of-kin, but it is a great boon to investigators tasked with determining cause and recommending correctives — which imparts at least some meaning to the lives lost.
With AFIRS, the days of the flight recorder as a lost, unexamined “data morgue” could well be over.