News that air traffic control has lost all contact with a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 carrying 239 people – and that we’re potentially witnessing a major tragedy in the making – has left the world stunned that a modern aircraft could just disappear in 2014.
On 7 March, Flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur at 12.41 am bound for Beijing. The aircraft was scheduled to land at Beijing International Airport at 6.30am local Beijing time. Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Subang Air Traffic Control reported that it lost contact at 2.40am (local Malaysia time) that day.
But this is not the first time an aircraft has seemingly vanished. Cast your minds back to 1 June 2009, when Air France Flight 447 – an Airbus A330 – crashed in the South Atlantic. Air France, Airbus and BEA investigators only had a list of data messages representing one minute of information from the Aircraft Communications and Addressing Reporting System (ACARS) at their disposal to understand what might have happened.
In the wake of the AF447 tragedy, the world asked: how is it possible that a modern Airbus A330 does not have technology on board to stream black box data to the ground? And why did investigators need to find the airliner’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders at the bottom of the ocean floor – a process that took two years and many millions of dollars – before being able to outline the events leading to the tragic accident?
The lack of information then about AF447, and now about MH370, seems all the more inexplicable in light of the fact that aircraft are being fitted with broadband inflight connectivity to support the use of Internet by passengers.
I recently interviewed BEA director Jean-Paul Troadec on the sidelines of the Flight Safety Foundation’s Air Safety Summit, and asked him why broadband pipes were not yet being exploited for black box streaming.
“The transmission of the data contained in the recorder – it’s a huge quantity of data. For example, on the A330, we register 1,300 parameters and each parameter is registered every second or four per second. So it’s a huge quantity of data and the cost of transmitting this data by satellites is, you can’t afford it. Because it’s useful only in case of accident,” said Troadec.
He noted that the BEA proposed other solutions in the wake of the AF447 crash. “One solution is to have what we call a deployable recorder. So it means for example that a recorder would just [be] behind the aircraft, and in case of a problem, if we detect a problem which makes the accident….you drop that recorder, and it floats in the sea with an antenna and we can find it,” he said.
But black box data doesn’t need to be streamed all the time “because 99.999% of the time you don’t need it”, suggested Gogo executive VP and general manager – business aviation services John Wade after my interview with Troadec. “If you see something that the avionics on board thinks is an event, you could request that data be streamed for a period of time, so a hybrid could emerge where a scenario is sent, and that deals with the issue of expense [concerns].”
While important work must be done to ensure data is securely transmitted over connectivity pipes (broadband or narrowband), “It doesn’t make sense that the FAAs and EASAs of the world say they can’t afford this. They’ll find out very shortly that they can afford this. They move so slowly, we need to introduce it many years in advance,” says Panasonic Avionics VP David Bruner.
Airline Training Captain Derek Spicer, in an article about when we might see real-time data streaming, says, “Waiting for legislation to really kick in takes time and the FAA will not require all commercial aircraft to have the most basic automatic surveillance transmitting equipment until 2015.”
As people around the world send their thoughts and prayers to the passengers and crew aboard MH370, and their loved ones, it has become increasingly apparent that finding ways to use broadband to stream black box data should take priority over connecting passengers.
Picture of flight board at Beijing T3 – above – was shared on Twitter by @Malcolmmoore