INTO THE ABYSS—AGAIN
The Scandal at the Heart of EgyptAir 804: Relying on ’60s Tech to Find It
If you can watch Netflix on an international flight, why won’t jets stream precious data so it doesn’t sink to the bottom of the sea in the event of a crash?
There will be no quick answers to what happened to EgyptAir Flight 804. With the first debris being found—including seats and body parts—an underwater search lies ahead that calls for specialized equipment and teams that could take well over a week to assemble and arrive in the area in the eastern Mediterranean some 180 miles north of the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
And once again we are witnessing the deplorable failure to equip modern jets with equally modern emergency technology. Sea searches for airplanes like the EgyptAir Airbus A320 are repeatedly crippled by having to depend on equipment dating back to the 1960s.
The only way to locate wreckage that sinks to the seabed is to detect the pings transmitted by a beacon on the airplane’s flight data recorder, FDR. But the beacon has a very limited range. A ship on the surface can only detect the pings (which are actually ultrasonic pulses impossible for the human ear to detect) if it is less than one mile from the beacon. Even then the signals are distorted by currents and water temperature.
When a wreck lies in deep water, as the remains of Flight MS804 do, the best hope of getting within the range of a locator beacon is to use underwater search vehicles, either a remotely operated vehicle, ROV, or autonomous underwater vehicle, AUV. It can take weeks to find and deploy this equipment and yet the beacons have a battery life of only 30 days, and in this case as in all others the clock is ticking from the moment the airplane hits the water.
The only recent case of the successful detection of an airplane wreck within the life span of a beacon was in 2006, when the pilots of an Airbus A320 of the Armenian airline Armavia misjudged an approach to the Black Sea resort of Sochi and crashed into the sea, killing all 113 aboard.
Because the wreck site was less than four miles from the coast and only 500 meters deep the pingers were effective and the wreck was recovered.
That was a best case scenario, and in such relatively benign conditions that it serves to underline how inadequate the system is for the kind of seas that will normally plague a crash site like the one now being defined in the Mediterranean.
Oceanographers say the terrain is particularly challenging. The wreck could be on a plateau nearly 10,000 feet deep. Although that is only half the depth of the area of the southern Indian Ocean being searched for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 the seabed is apparently thick with mud and silt that could, moved by currents, quickly cover wreckage.
The importance of the beacon is not simply to find the flight data recorder on which it is positioned but it is also the only lead to finding the main part of the wreck. And in the case of Flight MS804 the wreck is likely to be of more value to investigators than the flight data recorder.
Satellite tracking of the flight shows everything operating normally until an instantaneous and probably catastrophic failure ended transmissions. In those circumstances the FDR would also terminate, without capturing any data on the failure. (The cockpit voice recorder, CVR, will be more valuable because it would indicate whether there was any intruder on the flight deck.) Without data from the FDR, investigators are left with the physical remains of airplane and what they reveal of the way in which the jet broke up.
It was the crash of Air France 447 into the south Atlantic in 2009 that first raised alarms about the growing gap between the sophistication of new generation jets and the ageing equipment that becomes critical in crashes over water.
First there was a glaring gulf in the ability to know exactly where the airplane had gone down, essential to the speedy location of a wreck. French investigators called for jets to be equipped with a system readily possible with modern technology—the real-time streaming of essential data from the airplane to a satellite, including its exact position in the event of a crash.
Nothing had been done in response to that call five years later when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing over the Indian Ocean. Even now, more than two years with the Boeing 777 still not found, the best that the organization in charge of the world’s airlines, the International Civil Aviation Organization can do is to promise real time tracking by 2024.
The uselessness of the locator beacons was the second red flag from the search for Flight 447. Although floating wreckage and bodies were found in the first 30 days after the crash it was another two years before the main part of the wreck was located and the flight data recorders were recovered. Not only were the pings from the beacon not detected but a French submarine searching with sonar passed right over the main underwater debris site without finding it.
Airlines are constantly upgrading the entertainment systems in cabins but display nothing like the same concern or zeal for upgrading the relatively archaic devices that at moments like this leaves searchers seriously handicapped. To say nothing of the needless costs involved and the prolonged agony of those wanting to know why their loved ones have died.