Malaysian 370: Clueless or Not, The Void Shall Be Filled

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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. 

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Comments (17)

THANK YOU, Paul!!

When the Wall Street Journal is at odds with the official spokesman for the airline (about time of complete Loss Of Contact with the aircraft), you know sources aren't being verified.

Thank God the White House weighed in - we now know what NOT to believe...

Posted by: Leon Normand | March 13, 2014 8:07 PM    Report this comment

Amazingly intriguing. Anderson Cooper is reporting the MH370's involved story well.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 13, 2014 10:50 PM    Report this comment

Somebody should ask Nancy Pelosi, now that she's solved the problem of the Redskins name, I'm sure she could get this squared away in no time.

Posted by: Richard Montague | March 14, 2014 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Eventually we'll know more. I'm encouraged that various media outlets are getting slowly better at compiling necessary terminology and packaging it to communicate to the public. The Washington Post did a good job of outlining potential sources of information including ACARS. I'm also very inclined to give most (print?) media a reasonable berth for figuring out how to communicate this stuff. It's hard! It's very very easy to underestimate the public's continuing ignorance of any aerospace subject. Something as old as dirt like an aerodynamic stall continues to be regarded instinctively as engine trouble. And so corrective education has to be continually made to new generations of people with increasingly technological communication on top of all that. It's a lot to absorb for people who aren't exposed at all to this world.

Posted by: Michael Mullins | March 14, 2014 1:50 PM    Report this comment

'I was so shocked at seeing him (Brown) that I forget what he said.' LOL Me too. But I'm not re-viewing it to find out...

For me, it's maybe a bit more relevant to look at the cultural, organizational and political differences between the major players like China and Malaysia rather than between the political differences of the U.S.

Hundreds of families and loved ones of the passengers are living in a far worse hell at the moment than those who have suffered the forced torture of enduring a Bush or Obama presidency.

'It's a lot to absorb for people who aren't exposed at all to this world.'

Not really. It's more a matter of interest and belief to me. In a society where 47% of the people believe the Earth is six-thousand years old, you're just not going to find the necessary level of open-mindedness and interest in discrimination of information and science. But good luck with that, nonetheless.

Posted by: David Miller | March 14, 2014 2:04 PM    Report this comment

I love the "BREAKING NEWs" banner they've been displaying for six days while breaking no news. When they actually DO have breaking news, some reporters comically cannot contain their glee.

Posted by: Thomas Reilly | March 14, 2014 2:04 PM    Report this comment

Paul, last week we watched one of our kids fly across the Atlantic in real-time on one of Delta's Airbus flights. You can watch the flight's progress on FlightAware dot com, something I had never watched for a transoceanic flight. Once the flight got near Bermuda, the periodic position & altitude updates from NY Center stopped and the ship's icon began saying "Estimated position" until they were well past the Azores where the updates began reading out as "ADS-B" as they approached and landed in Europe. I had never realized until then that there is a vast swath of the Atlantic where exact position is not known, at least to the ATC feed that provides service to FlightAware. I believe this is the official feed used by FAA ATC and others.

Watching that little icon track across the Atlantic with "estimated" next to it with your kid onboard was a little bit disconcerting, a bit like watching a diver go underwater and hoping they come back up at some point. But hey, I probably dodged two or three falling pianos without noticing it just on the walk to work this morning!

Posted by: A Richie | March 14, 2014 2:08 PM    Report this comment

"Something as old as dirt like an aerodynamic stall continues to be regarded instinctively as engine trouble. And so corrective education has to be continually made to new generations of people with increasingly technological communication on top of all that."

It doesn't help that the word "stall" is what has become the term to be used for the condition. Even in speaking to other pilots (and especially non-pilots), I try to use the more specific term "aerodynamic stall". Many may still fail to grasp what it means (sadly this includes some pilots, too), but it at least makes it a little more clear that it's not directly related to the operating health of the engine(s).

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What I find interesting about MH370 is how apparently haphazardly run the investigation to locate the aircraft has been. And I don't recall as many wild speculations of what happened since perhaps TWA 800.

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"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. "

Wow. Maybe that's a solution to the new ATP rules, though, on how to obtain advanced simulator training: become an aviation news correspondent for airline crashes, to get some free $10,000/hr simulator time!

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 14, 2014 2:16 PM    Report this comment

" I believe this is the official feed used by FAA ATC and others. "

I'm not sure about that. Even for domestic flights, I've sometimes found the data on FlightAware isn't entirely up to date. I know for a fact when I watched the flight I was waiting for land, while FlightAware still showed it as 50 or so miles out. I doubt the controllers I was listening in to (with my handheld radio) weren't using a more up-to-date feed.

Not that this doesn't mean there aren't areas of the Atlantic and Pacific crossings where the precise location of an aircraft isn't known (at least to those still on the ground).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 14, 2014 2:23 PM    Report this comment

Gary you may be correct. I was mainly referring to the update sources fro the feed (NY Center vs Estimated vs ADS-B). I wouldn't be surprised if they have a random delay in there somewhere, maybe to deter the bad guys.

Posted by: A Richie | March 14, 2014 2:42 PM    Report this comment

For less than $200 you can buy a SPOT personal beacon (or other similar device) that reports your GPS position on a regular basis with an "everything good" message, or with a press of a button can summon the emergency services to your position. So why is it so hard for the airlines to have similar technology on board that works. Maybe they should get one of those.

Kidding of course.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 14, 2014 3:29 PM    Report this comment

I am the chief pilot of a small air taxi operation at Lake Hood, Anchorage, Alaska. We have had SpiderTracks equipment in all our aircraft for several years now, with position updates at a minimum of every 10 minutes, and 2 minutes when on a government contract. We know where all of our aircraft are at all times. This technology is cheap, easily installed, and can be installed so that it can not be disabled in the cockpit. There is absolutely no reason that the airlines can't do the same thing, and there is no real excuse for them not to. Think of the millions of dollars that could have been saved just on this one search with this equipment!

Posted by: Dave Oberg | March 14, 2014 6:43 PM    Report this comment

@Dave Miller: It doesn't require willful ignorance. It requires something as mundane as trying to make ends meet in the same neighborhood you grew up in. There's nothing bad or shameful about it. It's just someone trying to make it in the world and occasionally a really big news story intrudes. And you have absolutely no frame of reference for the technical details. Sometimes there's willful ignorance, sometimes not. It's good to have a dollop of of charity about these things rather than leaping to conclusions about "fools these days" as is common in our internet world.

Posted by: Michael Mullins | March 14, 2014 7:19 PM    Report this comment

A prior post has convinced me that there IS such a thing as a 2 legged jackass! Thanks Paul - couldn't resist a little satire!

Posted by: Rod Beck | March 14, 2014 8:27 PM    Report this comment

Michael, 'fools these days' and 'willful ignorance' are your words, not mine. So are guilt trips like 'bad' or 'shameful' or seeing a lack of charity where none was required. I leave those power levers to the religionists and others seeking control over others. The economic lower class of society is irrelevant to my point.

And I hardly think Mitt Romney is trying to just make ends meet, yet he botched simple principles of flight like a child would.

I give people a bit more credit in general than evidently you do - when they see a 'black box' they see an orange flight recorder and figure out the meaning - even if they don't know what it is. When clear ice is called 'black ice', I think most get it that ice isn't black, whether they worked a double-shift that day or not. And on and on. It has absolutely nothing to do with how well or how ineffective they manage their economic realities or the worlds of their creation. It has everything to do with levels of interest, attitudes, and their searching for answers to something puzzling.

In that frame, 99 percent of the population have next to zero interest in the realm of aviation, whether they be rich or poor.

Posted by: David Miller | March 14, 2014 8:27 PM    Report this comment

Jeopardy: Great philosophers for $600?

Posted by: Rod Beck | March 14, 2014 9:40 PM    Report this comment

One has to detach yourself from the pain of the families of the missing or it would be unbearable. Having said that one fascinating part of the story is that it seems (expert alert!) even though Malaysia Airlines opted out of the real-time engine management package (probably the airline equivalent of an unlimited data mobile package), the engines were still equipped and sending data back to Rolls Royce, independently of all other coms systems.

Posted by: John Patson | March 17, 2014 3:33 AM    Report this comment

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