Missing Flight MH370 – some brief lessons in hindsight



MH370 – the conspiracy theory sells newspapers!

 

I am not a big fan of the news media when it comes to conspiracy theories and sensationalism. With the missing Malaysian MH370 in everyone’s mind the first thing that became most apparent was our sifting through media reports rather than wreckage. The first theory was the Boeing 777 itself, wing’s breaking off caused by tiny cracks in the manufacture process. Maybe we should first take a step back and have a look first. The Boeing 777, like the 747 and 737 has been around for many years, has an incredible safety record and if there was any inkling that there was a fatal flaw in the wing structure Malaysian Airlines would have surely grounded their fleet.

MH370 - avionics
Cessna Citation Avionics – Radar system Wiki credit Dtom

An incident which caused damage to the wing-tip at Shanghai airport was the next theory. The plane did have maintenance ‘A’ carried out in February, which consists of possibly an in hanger inspection at the airport. The 777 is less than 10 years old, relatively new for an aircraft with such an impeccable record.


 


 

The MH370 flew to beyond it’s ceiling. True, according to radar pings the flight did indeed ascend to beyond 40 000 feet but this was within the capability of this aircraft. In fact according to data the aircraft climbed to beyond 45 000 feet and then dropped to 20 000 feet. According to feedback from specialised sources the radar is not known to be all that accurate at very long ranges. Commercial aircraft use a transponder service which relays important information back to the radar receiver, military radar would only ping getting altitude and range, computing the necessary information to get speed and heading.

Flight MH370 – No communication, no leads and no evidence

What is very much apparent is that the authorities do not have the necessary information to formulate a qualified and therefore rational answer to the whereabouts of this aircraft. At present the world gets information from satellite imagery and the Australian military have been very transparent. Search and rescue exercises no matter where it is executed is an extremely expensive process and with modern technology the media will always be there. Again, why all the hype to sell a story when we have families back home hoping against all odds that their loved ones are safe.

Some facts: People leading an investigation into a missing aircraft or ship are highly trained individuals with many years experience. They normally have a team to assist them – MH370 went missing without trace and we have absolutely no clue as to what happened. Not knowing something will always be well and firmly attached to a theory.

 

Flight SAA295 – The Helderberg

Remember ill-fated flight 295, the Helderberg, which crashed into the Indian Ocean near Mauritius? South Africa was not a popular country in those years and the demise of the Helderberg which belonged to SAA, a government owned business, carried more theories than a possible alien bomb attack on New York. What we do know is there was a fire on board and well-known forensic scientist David Klatzow believed this to have been possibly started by rocket fuel, an un-listed cargo on this flight. I wonder if everything was manifested on flight MH370? How unstable is Lithium Ion really?

Flight 447 – Air France

Air France’s Flight 447 investigation also carried tremendous interest, the first always being terrorist action and bombing. If you are an avid watcher of Aircrash Confidential, the bombing theory is the most abundant and once the forensic team have completed their investigation it nearly always comes down to pilot or air-traffic control error or mechanic ineptitude. The aircraft is an extremely robust machine but will always be at the mercy of the human element.

No news is sometimes good news

While the authorities take the necessary steps to trace this missing aircraft we need to look at some remedial action. First of all sometimes no news is good news. We all shout for transparency but in the wake of this incident I wonder just how much damage is being done by the media. There seems to be no discipline neither a code of conduct. It is right that the public should know – but the truth. Publish facts. The internet, whilst being a wonderful propaganda tool, is also a dangerous tool for the uneducated.

Emergency Location tools

Flight MH370 is not unlike any other flight except at this stage we do believe that the aircraft lost all forms of contact with ATC and to date there has been no reception of any form of emergency locator transmissions (ELT). Although the ELT is found on most international run airliners the decision to fit is controlled by the airliner’s aviation authority and not an international body. Surely this should be amended. Also Air France flight 447 was a nightmare to recover because of the limited time span the ELT can radiate the aircraft location (batteries), depth (in the sea) and of course, neighbouring shielding or interference. Surely the ELT or EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) should have a backup of sorts. Searching through mandates on ELTs and their installation it comes as no surprise that the ELT is prone to erroneously trigger, these false alarms necessitating loss of man hours and productivity. Perhaps we need to re-look at this life-saving device, construction, where it is housed and prevention of false triggering.

 


 


 

 

HF Radio Links

We read often about an aircraft losing contact because of the line of sight transmission systems used but yet an aircraft also has a HF transmitter, hopefully! In certain parts of Africa an approach is made where the pilot may need to use HF linking because there is no VHF available. VHF has two pitfalls, one being range and the other, direction. HF is not nearly as clear but somewhere, somehow HF radio links will always be made. This may sound vague but in essence the higher the frequency, the less power is required for a given range and secondly, depending on the ionospheric conditions there will always be an ionospheric skip favouring certain frequencies due to shifting layers of the ionosphere, generally known as the KennellyHeaviside layers. Simply put, during the night we would use a lower frequency and during the day a higher frequency. This is a very simple explanation but forms the basis of most HF comm.

The problem with HF communication are the aerials – the lower the frequency the longer it needs to be or at least effectively. Using satellite and VHF as a primary means of communicating has proven to be effective but as long as there is no incident. Using UHF (ELT or EPIRB) has also proven to be effective but has a limited range (VHF communication) or limited broadcast time (ELT). HF has proven to the most reliable and effective means of transmission over the last 100 years. The problem is that we have no control over satellites, neither whether the aircraft will be in range of a VHF link. You will always have an HF link whether it is 4MHz or 16MHz. Design engineers should start looking at the way in which we communicate in an emergency.

An Overhaul is needed

As we become more technologically focused we are losing sight of functionality, what works under any condition – satellite communication is quick to set up and mostly reliable. In very bad weather?

Black boxes have not really been overhauled over the last few years and certainly have not kept up with technology,  Radar, at least the secondary type radar used to obtain information through a transponder only when the transponding aircraft is willing or able is also really not negotiable. MH370 could switch theirs off.

There is a million and one theories out there and also a million and one solutions to the problems we face right now. The aviation authorities should be looking at overhauling the next generation of safety and locational devices on aircraft, not least the way in which we communicate. A fire on board a ship is a dreadful thing to happen, possibly one of the worst. Put yourself in a position where you are36 000 feet above the sea and there is a fire onboard. I’d rather be on a ship any day – time will be on your side in most cases. Not on an aircraft.

What is indeed the saddest part about missing flight MH370 is how poorly the news broadcasts have been propagated, based on very little information and how we put on the table the most abundant piece of knowledge we all have: Hindsight.

 


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