World stunned MH370 could vanish in 2014

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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

20 Comments

  1. Sahir Siddiqui

    There are two different things we’re talking about
    1) how can an airplane just disappear without anybody knowing where it is
    2) why can’t we have the FDR and CVR data streamed live to data centers

    #1 should be fairly simple and cost effective – an automated GPS fix pinged out once a minute or few minutes.
    #2 – yes everything you said in your article.

  2. There are instances where blackboxes have stopped recording flight data and cockpit sounds well before an aircraft made impact with the ground. TWA800 & SwissAir 111 are two such incidents — and I if I’m not mistaken, so is Pan Am 103. In all these cases, electrical power to the FDR’s & CVR’s was cut — instantly in two of the mentioned cases. In such cases, streaming of this most critical data would also almost certainly be affected. This is what sets AF447 apart — recordings on that tragedy were made right until impact.

  3. Matt Schuler

    I’m sorry, but I completely disagree with your last statement. Airline accidents are SO rare. What good does this data do for search and rescue? Abs-b already “pings” the location. ETLs lead rescuers to the location. Sure, we would likely get an idea on what when wrong 3-4 days earlier in most cases. Unless the public is willing to forgo a full recovery and investigation, and rely only on the streamed data from the aircraft, I see no cost benefit. The public will also still demand a full search and rescue operation, even if the data shows the event to be unsurvibable…
    The only real benfit, will Likely be to quench our desire to know NOW exactly what happened. Even then, people will be blasted for “speculation” for not having “all” the facts.
    Eventually this technology will be embedded into our airliners of the future, but the is little benefit to bolting it on to today’s aircraft.

    • Mary Kirby
      Author

      I certainly agree with you that connectivity will not be a bolt-on in the future. Aircraft will be more fully e-enabled (Boeing has made clear that the 737 MAX will be e-enabled, for instance). Connectivity will increasingly form the “core” infrastructure of aircraft. And rightly so. But I respectively disagree with your final comment – that there is no benefit to bolting on connectivity for this purpose. Of course there is. The cost argument is growing thin.

      • Matt Schuler

        With respect, in the case of AF447, I believe that if all the black box data (FDR & CVR) had been streaming live there would have little to no benefit to any salvage mission, or lengthy S&R operation. The data would quickly have told the story. If the public and regulatory agencies would trust the data, there would be HUGE costs benefits to equipping the aircraft, and streaming the data.

        I would agree the cost argument, by its self, is growing thin. Just to clarify, in today’s world I see LITTLE benefit to justify the cost. Costs will continue to come down, and (I hope) the public’s trust in data will go up. You won’t even be able to argue this on the basis of cost/benefit in 10-20 years…

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  5. Nicolaas

    It would be both cheap and easy to broadcast very valuable flight data from an airplane.
    The reason why it is not done is not technical or financial but seems to be regulatory politics and a culture that resists change.

    While streaming all data from the flight recorder is expensive, it is not necessary to do that. It would be wise to keep the flight recorder but constantly broadcast the most important info such as position, altitude, speed. That requires very little bandwidth. Even if this was streamed via morse code they would be better off than they are now, having no idea after 2 days where the plane is!

    I completely disagree with the comment of Matt Schuler that such info will have little benefit.
    If just positionary data was continually broadcasted in this case, they would have known where to look, and if there were survivors they might have been able to save them. Also, it is vital to have any information available as early as possible if terrorism is suspected.

    I am surprised by the technically old fashioned approach to aviation safety sometimes. Even radio control hobbyists of quadcopters use very advanced technology. I am not suggesting that flying a quadcopter is the same as a passanger jet, but it seems a lot is done to build reliable and modern aircraft while in some areas the technology is surprisingly old-fashioned. E.g. Why do crew have to look through a passenger window to check engine trouble (flames) or guess about problems with landing wheels when the technology for miniature cameras were available a long time ago that would give pilots a better view?
    Cost is a poor excuse, since a lot of smart technologies are available relatively cheap, while lack of utilising such technology can lead to consequences costing millions of dollars and the loss of life.

    • Matt Schuler

      First, nothing in aviation is cheap or easy. The regulatory system and resistance to change insures that.

      You can certainly complain of how old fashioned is, and how slow the system moves. Unfortunately, you do so without regard to current safety statistics. I don’t know if I would feel safer anywhere in to world than in modern jetliner. The regulation and culture works for safety. Lots of new, smarter, and cheaper technologies have CAUSED safety issues and cost billions of dollars. If you need proof, I would refer you to the new 787.

      New aircraft DO have miniature camera’s, new aircraft DO stream location data via ABS-B, new ELTs DO broadcast location data using GPS.

  6. Great in theory, but in case of a catastrophic failure, with loss of structure leading to loss of electrical, would not have made any difference.

    Would be some help in some cases, but probably not for this one, or TWA 800.

    JR

    • Nicolaas

      @ JR_justJR

      I do not understand your point.
      If data about the plane’s position is continually broadcasted (and recorded remotely) and their is a catastophic failure, you would at leat know the position at the time of impact since that was the last position on the broadcasting record. It does not matter if it is a catastophic failure.

    • Mary Kirby
      Author

      Disagree. We would have a far better idea of where the catastrophic failure took place (based on the constant broadcast of critical information). Also, it’s important to consider not just what information you can pull from an aircraft, but what you do with the information on the ground.

      • You are assuming integrity of electrical systems. In a sudden catastrophic failure there will be no power to these gizmos. Last data will be at altitude, just before ” event” occurs.

        • Mary Kirby
          Author

          Let me point you to this prior post on the Runway Girl blog.

          Key par:

          “But what if the abnormal situation is more severe and the aircraft goes into an upset, meaning it goes into extreme attitudes? Then the rules embedded on board would require the box to start sending all the data from the flight data recorder plus position data from the GPS immediately and in a continuous stream. In an emergency situation such as this, the list of recipients would expand to include senior executives, the chief pilot, air traffic control, and search and rescue organizations.”

          See more at: http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/runway-girl/2011/06/in_the_aftermath_of_air_france/#sthash.ClsyWd9K.dpuf

          • Matt Schuler

            Great article. But this also concerns me. While there could be some obvious benefits there would also be a number of less likely consequences.

            Take Qantas 32 as an example. Due the nature of today’s airplanes, pilot workload on this flight was at the highest possible level. The crew had to assess which flight systems had been affected, work through a large number of checklists for each of the various warning that were coming from the on-board systems. While help from the ground might have been useful in this case to reduce pilot workload, pressure from various outside influences would also have been brought into the decision making process. The airline, the OEM, the search and rescue teams, don’t always share the same ideas on HOW to bring the aircraft safely home. In the case of Q32, the plane was becoming less controllable by the minute due to the aircraft’s inability to transfer fuel. Decisions needed to be made quickly by the flight crew, not by a bureaucratic body on the ground.

            I would rather trust the flight crew’s training and gut feeling for a situation, than anyone else’s on the ground. The OEM will likely want to troubleshoot every error message, the chief pilot might want the aircraft on the ground ASAP, senior airline execs will worry about god knows what, and search and rescue will want the flight to be nearest where their people are.

            I don’t believe that more information to more people in an emergency is always better, with the exception being precise location of the aircraft. Pilots must be free to act as they see best.

            Disclaimer: I am a private pilot.

  7. Nicolaas

    A “black box” recorder that floats is long time overdue.
    After so much effort and cost to locate black-boxes in great depths of water, one would think that by now a “black box” could be developed that is released under certain triggering conditions. One that floats and has a transmitter. This can be a back-up of the “proper” recorder and would be very useful even if it recorded minimal data.

  8. Mark

    I fly often and there is never wi-fi on flight over water. Isn’t there a technical issue with pushing to stream when water is involved which would include this flight?

  9. I don’t understand what people keep comparing MH370 with the Air France Flight 447.

    Air France 447 — Everyone knew it crashed! The tail was found and debris was found (quite quickly i might add).

    Where as MH370 — It has really disappeared and nothing has been found. And that isn’t just possible. Unless the Aircraft has disintegrated at over 30,000+ feet. (Explains why they didn’t get time to contact anyone).

    • The better comparison is TWA 800 which had an empty fuel tank explosion at altitude with pieces scattered over a wide area. But they did recover over 90% of the aircraft, reconstructed it, and I expect the same will happen here. But not quickly.

      Right now the real issue is the human side, the not knowing…

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