When Airline Technology Goes Awry

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8th March, 2014 was officially declared an accident by the Malaysian government. While this would have been of little comfort to anyone on board, not to mention the friends and families of those affected by the incident, it does pose an interesting question. How can a modern airliner, given the incredibly sophisticated technology involved with flying and tracking, possibly go missing?

In the case of the Malaysian plane, once an airline deviates from its planned flight course, things can go wrong pretty quickly. Although there are clear rules of engagement for such incidents, reacting in real-time can be extremely complicated, with many practical considerations and also the perception of the media and general public to take into consideration.

Once Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 began to fly off course, contact was attempted with the aircraft, and this was successful to some degree. But at a certain time, power was lost to the aircraft’s satellite data unit (SDU), at which point tracking the aircraft became extremely difficult.

Although satellite communications remain impossible after the incident, and this has been used to track the flightpath of the airliner, actually attempting this in real-time when the plane is moving at vast speed is practically impossible. Based on analysis of the satellite communications, the aircraft turned south after passing north of Sumatra, and continued flying in a neutral fashion for around five hours without any form of communication.

The flightpath of the aircraft, which was largely undisturbed, suggests that it was flying on autopilot. It is not known why the pilots failed to intervene at this stage, or why the aircraft begun to fly off-course in the first place. However, it is suggested that Flight 370 may have experienced a hypoxia event, ending when fuel was exhausted.

Although an aircraft may seem to be of vast size, it is extremely trivial when compared to the amount of ocean on the planet Earth. Given that the majority of the surface of the planet is covered with water, the overwhelming likelihood in such an incident is that the plane will crash in the ocean. Considering that this happens literally in the middle of nowhere, and the complexity involved in searching the ocean bed makes it effectively impossible, the chances of ever locating such an errant aircraft are basically Zero.

The Malaysian incident has been an extremely high profile issue in the last year or so, but it is by no means the only example of aircraft technology going completely awry. Three commercial flights have disappeared completely in this century, and incredibly eleven flights of both a private and commercial nature disappeared at some point during the 1980s.

Although airline technology is incredibly sophisticated, it is impossible to build a failsafe system as long as human-beings continue to be involved in the loop. And, of course, humans are required to build planes, tracking systems, pilot them, and ensure they are tracked satisfactorily. So one thing is certain; more planes will go missing in the future!

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