Flight 370 Didn’t Disappear: We Missed It

Why in the age of Netflix should airplanes carry precious information about what happened on boxes that sink to the bottom of the ocean?

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

It almost seemed, sadly, a statement of the obvious when the Malaysians confirmed today that Flight MH370 had been lost.

This formal admission now triggers legal actions—technically the Boeing 777 becomes what is called a “hull loss.” That means insurers are involved in assessing both the liabilities involved in the airplane itself and of the airline.

Investigators, on the other hand, have no physical evidence that enables them to begin their work.

What is striking about the announcement is the belief that the airplane ended up in the southern Indian Ocean. This, together with the concentration of the search in the same zone and the reinforcement of those resources by the day, suggests a high degree of confidence in what is called the “southern arc” theory of where the 777 may have ended up.

And a new twist to that scenario: If, as has been reported, the 777 did descend to an altitude of 12,000 feet and continued on that course into the Indian Ocean it would have burned up a lot more fuel than if it was at the 36,000 feet cruise height. In that case the probable location where it went down would need to be re-computed, bringing it further north than the present search area.

The “pings” that indicated that it was in the air for between six and seven hours indicate only the duration of the flight, not the distance flown.

But before any physical trace of Flight MH370 is found there is already a salutary lesson to be learned: This airplane did not disappear, it was our ability to see it that was missing.

Every airplane crash is a teachable moment. The extraordinary safety record of flying is built on a process, carried out over many decades, of detecting, understanding, and learning from the causes of accidents. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. and their partners in Europe have in this time succeeded in eliminating many serious flaws, mechanical and human, as they were identified.

No aviation drama has generated such a global following as this one except possibly the one it most mirrors, the vanishing of Amelia Earhart. The reason is that it is not actually one story but two quite separate ones: the what and the how?

What physically happened to the airplane will be, as usual, the subject of every investigative resource available.

How any airplane could just vanish, however, presents us with a compelling and alarming mystery that does not have to wait until forensic evidence is gathered to be solved.

After the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 over the South Atlantic in 2009, it was obvious that the equipment we rely on to describe the critical sequence of events leading to a crash had fallen way behind the technology now available. Although flight data recorders had become progressively more sophisticated since they were introduced in the 1950s the principle remained the same: The evidence went down with the airplane and had to be retrieved.

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The case of Flight 447 should have been a wake-up call. It took two years of sea searches and a further year of brilliant forensic work by the French investigators to piece together the reasons for the crash, a combination of mechanical failure (a speed gauge) and human error (mishandling by the pilots).

In the wake of that experience, in 2010, the French investigators began to look at technology that would allow an airplane to continually transmit in real time the same multi-dimensional picture of the airplane’s systems and behavior that is recorded by the flight data recorders, or black boxes.

The French simulated accidents in 597 locations around the world from previously gathered data that represented realistic scenarios involving every kind of terrain and ocean. In these simulations the data was streamed from the airplane to satellites and then to ground bases right up to the moment of failure—in effect, at the same moment when the flight data recorder would have ceased recording.

The results were astonishing. In 85 percent of the cases, the streamed information would have provided investigators with as much knowledge as was stored in the flight data recorder. And, in view of the search for Flight MH370, the even more startling result was that in 82 percent of the cases the location of the wreckage could have been pinpointed within a four-mile radius.

(If the transmitted information reveals no mechanical problems—as would the flight data recorder in a similar scenario—their absence is equally significant, pointing immediately to some kind of drastic human intervention.)

So far, no action has been taken to equip airliners with this technology. As I found over the last five years when I drew attention to the lack of action, the aviation industry either relied on the fact that concerns after Flight 447 began to fade slowly away, or argued that the technology was not ready (bandwidth needed to stream the information was not available), or that it was too expensive.

Of course, as anybody using Netflix knows, streaming technology has made enormous progress in those five years, and data compression is a part of that.

As for the cost, the French have put the cost of installing and operating the data streaming system at around $1,500 a month for each airplane which, when broken down per passenger, comes to cents not dollars.

In any case, as I have consistently argued, we don’t need to make this change to every airplane in the sky. The priority should be given to those regularly flying long-haul routes over oceans. Aviation safety experts are in no doubt that eventually every airplane should have this system, but how long is “eventually,” given the reluctance of manufacturers, airlines and regulators?

Perhaps part of the reason for this inertia is, ironically, that air crashes are now so few that the public pressure just isn’t there. There is actually more pressure to stuff the cabins full of entertainment systems and, soon, cell phone connections, which generate new profit centers for the airlines.

We now have a situation with the case of Flight MH370 where public scrutiny is much more likely to focus on the work still to be done to continue the relentless reduction of risk in commercial aviation. Consider how far this has already come:

From the very beginning of airline operations, many fatal crashes were caused by pilots struggling to navigate in poor visibility or misjudging where they were—technically this was classified as “controlled flight into the ground.” In the 1980s one single advance, ground proximity warning—an automatic sensor in the cockpit that visually noted and then orally warned pilots that they were too close to terrain—virtually eliminated this category of accident. (Proximity warnings have also helped to avoid mid-air collisions).

The most prevalent cause of crashes now is “loss of control.” The two most recent fatal crashes in the U.S. —a Colgan Air commuter flight in Buffalo in 2009 (49 people killed) and Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco last August (three people killed)—involved pilots losing control in circumstances when an accident should have been avoided. (The disappearance of Air France Flight 447 with 228 people aboard was also classifiable as a result of loss of control.)

These crashes expose weaknesses in pilot training, supervision, and proficiency. The Colgan Air crash led directly to tighter regulations on the hours flown by air crew, closer watch of standards applied to commuter airlines and to the standards of airmanship. The whole issue of keeping the situational acuity of pilots sharp as automation requires less and less of their “hands on” physical attention is receiving serious attention from regulators.

And so now we need to remember a very wise maxim: A teachable moment only has value if you are willing to be taught.