Malaysian 370: Clueless or Not, The Void Shall Be Filled
The daily media has—understandably--gotten into an absolute lather over the disappearance of and evident inability to find a state-of-the-art airliner, specifically Malaysian’s Flight 370. On CNN this morning, the talking heads were practically gasping trying to fill air time without so much as a shard of factual information to even hang intelligent speculation on. Welcome to the information age, which doesn’t do well when there is no information.
In a way, the airline industry itself is responsible for this reaction, although no guilt is implied. The industry has essentially driven the accident rate so close to zero that the general public and the media that feeds it simply can’t process the fact that an airliner can indeed disappear without a trace for a week and maybe even forever. I suspect this aircraft will eventually be found, but to assume modern technology makes this a certainty is the very definition of hubris. Even the most carefully conceived machines fail or behave in unpredictable ways and even if they don’t, the human factor always finds a way to intercede to make it so, nefariously or otherwise.
Speaking of the human factor, I’m wondering if the search-and-rescue phase of this investigation will go down as how not to do it. The airline seems not to have employed very accurate flight tracking or if it did, it’s been inconsistently forthcoming with the data. The timeline of what happened and when has proven rubbery and as late as Thursday evening, unnamed sources were saying the airplanes ACARS transceiver was pinging a satellite and that engine data may have been transmitted four hours after the last voice contact. By morning, will this prove to be another inaccuracy?
The Malaysian military’s understanding of their own radar plotting isn’t very confidence inspiring, either. First, the military said its primary radar data indicated the airplane nearly reversed course. Then some reports said they weren’t sure. Either way, the U.S. is moving SAR assets into the Indian Ocean which, as one naval officer said, expands the search area from the size of chessboard to a football field.
The fuzzy Chinese satellite photos prompted speculation by a U.S. congressman that the photos were dumbed down to keep westerners from knowing how good Chinese sat assets really are. The images were a dead-end anyway, but CNN got a half news cycle out of it.
It’s amusing to watch broadcast professionals with no technical background and the burden of believing audiences are too dumb to understand the workings of a transponder or ACARS gamely try to explain both. I ran into Kirk Fryar from Sarasota Avionics here in AEA at Nashville and for reasons still not clear to either of us, he got roped into a CNN interview to explain transponders. They told him not to make it too technical. To be fair, with nothing else to report, the talking heads are actually improving their grasp of basic aviation technology. They're getting better.
And really, when you think about it, the story may unfold to be entirely technical because at some point, the daily press may have to explain in detail why these normally reliable systems seemed to fail, especially the ACARS. Because they’re thought to be all but fail safe, this naturally steers the speculation toward the evil hand of man. Just now, investigators don’t have the luxury of such speculation because they hardly have two facts to rub together, waiting as they are for the Malaysians to deliver accurate, verifiable data of some sort.
One aspect of the story that will—and should—come to the fore is how much ACARs and/or real-time flight tracking oceanic flights really should have compared to how much they really do have. This first surfaced when Air France 447 crashed in the South Atlantic in 2009 under circumstances not too dissimilar from MH 370, although weather was involved then. It took a while to find the principle wreckage—two years--but found it was. Boeing has equipped the 777 with state-of-the-art real-time datalink and competitive Airbus models have similar capability. But it’s not clear that all airlines use this technology as completely as they might, for cost and other reasons. I’d like to hear the details of Malaysian’s data program. I wonder if it’s the same as Lufthansa’s or American’s, for example. Or is it just minimal?
As ADS-B comes onstream, I expect there will be a global push to require minimum positional datalink standards everywhere by all airlines, perhaps in a way that’s opaque to the flight deck. Real-time transmission of engine parameters and anomalies is one link in a long chain that comprises modern airline safety, but it does suck up bandwidth. And that costs money. Will it take more satellite infrastructure?
Modern aircraft power systems are certainly robust enough to keep datalink alive through all sorts of abnormals and, theoretically at least, would have provided the authorities with something they don’t seem to have for MH 370: a reliable last-known datum from which to begin a search. As a result, they’ve now got about 15 percent of the earth’s surface to sweep for what may be a very small target. I just wonder why we aren’t doing a little better than that.
EARLY A.M. UPDATE: Just as I had feared, the speculation wound up overnight and this morning, I'm reminded of that famous quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." I've seen a couple of reports, including this one in Slate, that explain how the crew could have stolen the airplane with the intent of selling it on the used market. Or parting it out. Seriously? I'm beginning to lose my bearings.
EARLY P.M. UPDATE: Newly discovered physical law: The desperation of network source bookers is inversely proportional to the lack of information available multiplied by 24, the number of hours in the broadcast day. How else to explain that Michael Brown turned up as a source on the MH 370 story? You remember him. The very same Brownie of Hurricane Katrina fame. I was so shocked at seeing him that I forget what he said.
Richard Quest is identified as CNN's aviation reporter and the title apparently fits. An acerbic Brit, he takes every opportunity to remind the other talking heads that all of their speculation is based upon little or no verified fact, to the annoyance of the anchors. The network has stationed a correspondent in a 777 simulator that's actually flying the MH 370 route and they're doing break-ins. TV just doesn't get any better.