Is it Time To Give Up On MH370?

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Humans love to look for stuff and, in fact, can’t seem to stop once started. The quest for the next bright shiny object is probably coded into our DNA, a vestige from some primeval organism that slithered out of the muck not yet sentient enough to feel the burning need to fly airplanes, but just looking for something to eat.

And so this week comes a flurry of news reports on the latest aviation mystery of the ages: What happened to and where is Malaysian Flight MH370. Brace yourself, but it has been three years since that airplane, a Boeing 777, vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.

After burning $160 million looking for it, Malaysia, Australia and China officially ended the search in January, still no more certain of where the airplane might be than when they started 34 months earlier. Now comes new information from drift modeling that claims to put the aircraft within a 9700-square mile area between 40 and 30.5 degrees south latitude, a little north of where the last search was centered. That’s in the southern Indian Ocean, west of Australia. While that’s a more confined search area than has been swept in the past, it’s still the size of Vermont. That’s a lot of lawn mowing with a towed side-scan sonar.

Researchers arrived at this conclusion through drift studies using an actual 777 flaperon like the one recovered on La Reunion in 2015 and a half dozen replicated flaperons. Crunching the data, they’re more confident of a higher probability search datum. The relevant governments haven’t agreed to resume the search based on this data.

But should they? Well, there’s “should” and there’s “will.” My guess is that the latter will prevail because see above. Humans just naturally can’t stop looking for stuff. Rationally—not that aviation is ever that—the argument against resuming the search is pure cost-benefit. We search for and analyze air crashes for one reason: so we can discover the cause and prevent a recurrence. When investigators picked up the pieces of a Lockheed Electra that rained down on Tell City, Indiana, in 1960, they learned about whirl mode flutter in over elastic engine mounts. When they fished a crashed Comet out of the Mediterranean in 1954, they eventually learned that windows in pressurized aircraft needed to be rounded to prevent fatigue-caused stress failures. And the lessons list is a lot longer than that.

If you plotted a curve describing things learned from crashes it would have been a steep slope in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s now almost flat simply because there are so few crashes to provide new data points. Jet transport aircraft are among the safest machines on the planet and the system in which they fly has evolved to equal that reliability, although we have yet to entirely stamp out human error. On the other hand, ranked against other jet transports, the 777 has a good to middling fatal accident rate at 0.24/1M departures. Of six hull losses, two were due to defects in the airplane, one a fuel distribution design issue, the other a fire caused by wiring and/or crew oxygen hose faults. (Neither of those involved fatalities.)

Just as there’s no way to know if fixing those faults prevented recurrence of accidents, there’s also no way to know if MH370 was lost due to a heretofore unseen defect. But is it worth expending another $150 million to find out? Wrong question. Someone will carry on the search, if not immediately, then eventually, curiosity being the irresistible force pushing against the moveable object—money.

In 1985, when Robert Ballard went after the Titanic, there was no scientific reason to do so. The ship hit an iceberg and sunk. The details may have been murky, but the cause wasn’t. Unbeknownst at the time was that the U.S. Navy funded Ballard so he could develop technology to locate lost submarines. Before that, a private entity or two had conducted its own search. I suspect the same will be true with MH370 if the relevant governments abandon the search. Like the Titanic, the search would make great TV and no one can resist that.

Hey, That Guy’s A Pilot

I’m sure you’ve seen Verizon’s overplayed and massively irritating mic-drop commercials. A month ago, they ran four times an hour on cable. The mic dropper is actor Thomas Middleditch, who has a starring role in HBO’s Silicon Valley series. I haven’t seen it, but I’ll add it to my playlist.

Middleditch is a new pilot and owns a DA40, I just learned in this New York Times interview. So at least one Millennial is interested flying and acted upon a lifelong ambition. Yay!

True to character, when asked if he texts and flies at the same time, Middleditch’s answer? “You can. Honestly, when everything is on autopilot, there’s nothing else to do.” Well, that oughta get a few safety nerds spun up. I’d say maybe look outside once in a while, it’s fun to watch the world go by and might avoid making a hood ornament out of a J-3. Not that I'm personally worried, of course.

Comments (26)

"Like the Titanic, the search would make great TV and no one can resist that." Moving on. How 'bout them American Airlines FAs. Apologies enroute. Crazy culture.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 22, 2017 10:52 AM    Report this comment

"You can. Honestly, when everything is on autopilot, there's nothing else to do." Why on earth would a person with this outlook spend the time and money learning to fly? What a waste..

Posted by: Ken Keen | April 22, 2017 7:58 PM    Report this comment

It's never time to give up as long as your spending someone else's money.
Millennial's don't know how to fly airplanes, maybe an "i" pod, but not an airplane. You have bad information Paul.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 23, 2017 5:30 AM    Report this comment

We are still looking for Amelia Earhart. The search for MH 370 will continue, one way or another.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 23, 2017 10:56 AM    Report this comment

NO!
It is utterly unacceptable to lose a wide body airliner without an explanation!
Malaysia is morally on the hook to pay for the search, however long that may take or much it costs.
A possible cause (LI battery consignment fire) is still a "hot" issue in air transport; we MUST know why this flight went down.
If they give up, they demonstrate they are unfit to run an airline and the company and government must fall. Boycott any airline/country that tolerates losing airliners.
They can serve as a warning to other managements contemplating cheapening out of their safety responsibilities that there is no compromise on airline safety; DO IT RIGHT OR DON'T TRY!

Posted by: Neil Robinson | April 23, 2017 1:50 PM    Report this comment

Neil:
Politely, repeating the same process and expecting a different outcome is one manifestation of insanity.
Two variables are in play:
Where to look.
How to look.
Presuming that we've just been "lookin' in all the wrong places" is foolish. We very well could have scanned debris more than once - and simply never recognized it as such.
Waiting for improvements in technology, or for compelling evidence of the correct location(s) is not evidence of niggardliness or lack of due consideration.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 23, 2017 4:45 PM    Report this comment

I find it interesting that Malaysian Airlines is the first customer for a space-based ADS-B product for their aircraft that will allow accurate tracking of an aircraft over the oceans where regular ADS-B is unavailable. However, it still relies on an operating transponder, which MH370 did not have. So, it would have not helped find the downed aircraft even if it had been installed.

Why is no one looking into a way to use the humble ELT (yes, big jets have them) to track a troubled aircraft? Even my little Cessna has a 406 MHz ELT that is GPS enabled, so it sends a highly accurate locator beacon if activated. In a commercial airliner, it would be simple to put a similar unit on an electrical circuit that would automatically activate if: 1) the unit senses that the aircraft is moving, and 2) electrical power to the transponder is cut off, or turned off.

Sounds like an easy fix to me.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 23, 2017 8:03 PM    Report this comment

John:
Your is an easy and effective solution for the mission of position-reporting in abnormal circumstances. More-complex solutions have been proposed for the mission of position-reporting on a continuous basis, with lots of other information piggy-backed onto the transmissions.
This is one instance in which it may be imprudent to combine these two missions in one device.
IMWO, all that's really needed for the former, is an independent device like the Levil BOM. Seriously.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 24, 2017 5:38 AM    Report this comment

"You can. Honestly, when everything is on autopilot, there's nothing else to do." Why on earth would a person with this outlook spend the time and money learning to fly? What a waste.

Having known a number of people who have been interviewed, and heard what they said versus what the reporter said that they said, all *I* can say is this: don't believe everything you read in the papers.

What he said could've been a joke taken out-of-context (or the reporter didn't get it), or incomplete (part of a longer conversation about looking at the view or thinking about freedom), or simply, flat-out, wrong.

"Quotes" are rarely accurate.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 24, 2017 5:40 AM    Report this comment

"You can. Honestly, when everything is on autopilot, there's nothing else to do." Why on earth would a person with this outlook spend the time and money learning to fly? What a waste..

As opposed to the rewards of flying for the Yellville Turkey Drops?

I don't personally care if people learn to fly to visit their mistress, conquer a fear or visit MLB ballparks, I second the 'Yay!' I just wish my Millennial son would join the ranks...

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 24, 2017 5:44 AM    Report this comment

"If they give up, they demonstrate they are unfit to run an airline and the company and government must fall. Boycott any airline/country that tolerates losing airliners."

Does that include delaying or not mandating certain safety changes too? If so, there would really be no airline in the world that meets this, since it's all a cost-benefit ratio compared to the likelihood of something similar happening again. I think it's also unfair to blame Malaysia, especially if it ends up being a design flaw of the 777; they would just be the hapless buyer in such case.


"Millennial's don't know how to fly airplanes, maybe an "i" pod, but not an airplane."

I may or may not be a millennial (depends on who you ask, just when the "millennial" generation begins), but I know I certainly know how to fly a plane. If there's one thing millennials (or near-millennials) have in common, it's that they're capable of a lot more than they're given credit for, but that they have much stricter definitions of what meets the, again, cost-benefit ratio of that thing. And we've all got to admit that with all the training involved to earn even a sport-pilot rating, there is an awful lot of bureaucracy that can take away your privileges in a heartbeat for sometimes-minor infractions. And to most millennials, the risk-reward ratio often means learning to fly is just not worth the time and expense when for a lot less effort they can get similar thrills and challenges.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 24, 2017 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Amelia Earhart, Flight 19, DB Cooper, and MH370; the list goes on and on. People will never stop looking for these (until they are found). You won't find me doing it, but more power to them if they can finally resolve the mystery.

Posted by: A Richie | April 24, 2017 8:31 AM    Report this comment

"Quotes" are rarely accurate."

Neither are generalizations about quotes from people who have never collected them. But it's good to know that all the quotes I have carefully recorded in this morning's Skype interviews aren't accurate.

Nor that all the others I've used during a lifetime in journalism were "rarely" accurate. I shall repent at Mass in the morning.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 24, 2017 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Yars, your point is well made about the BOM. It is an interesting and innovative product that shows a lot of promise. As far as communicating information from an aircraft by satellite, I have wondered for years why the manufacturers don't stream at least some of the data from the black boxes back to a ground station in real time. Modern airliners have the capability to stream wifi signals into the cabin for use by the passengers. That system could easily be used to transmit critical data that could be quickly reviewed in case of an accident. Rather than wasting precious time searching for the black boxes, the NTSB could be reviewing the data. Even if the data stream does not contain all of the black box informaiton, it would be better than hoping to find the box and that it is not too damaged to be of any value. Sounds more like a political issue than a technical one.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 24, 2017 11:14 AM    Report this comment

Dominus vobiscum, Paul.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 24, 2017 11:14 AM    Report this comment

John:
It's a regulatory issue and a monetary one. If the airlines can save money by installing a box that transmits flight data in real time, they'll do it - some do so already. If they can't make money, they probably won't do it - unless required by law to do so.
But the unusual circumstances of the Malaysian case argue in favor of a BOM-like device, regardless of the installation of more-capable systems. Think of it as a stool-pigeon remora!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 24, 2017 11:28 AM    Report this comment

"I have wondered for years why the manufacturers don't stream at least some of the data from the black boxes back to a ground station in real time"

They do, actually. Both Boeing and Airbus have versions of this that stream real-time maintenance and health data via whatever data pipe is available so they can get ahead of maintenance and repair issues and track trends. Recall that AF 447 was spitting out some data before it crashed.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 24, 2017 11:38 AM    Report this comment

"And to most millennials, the risk-reward ratio often means learning to fly is just not worth the time and expense when for a lot less effort they can get similar thrills and challenges." What is it they're risking?

Posted by: Ken Keen | April 24, 2017 4:10 PM    Report this comment

et cum spiritu tuo

When we supported the Voyager around the world flight in 1986, we figured a way to be able to talk to it with no issues for nine days and 3 minutes without a problem ... and that was 31 years ago

No time to type ... I'm filling in my BasicMed info ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 24, 2017 10:20 PM    Report this comment

Pax vobiscum Larry.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 24, 2017 10:38 PM    Report this comment

Gary, flying is not about cost benefit, risk reward, government regulations or thrills, it's much more than that. If I used your reasoning I wouldn't be flying either. However, your description of why millennials don't fly is probably fairly accurate. It's very short sighted at best. Must have that instant gratification with the least effort and cost. Very sad. They're missing a lot and they don't even know it.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 25, 2017 5:34 AM    Report this comment

"It's very short sighted at best. Must have that instant gratification with the least effort and cost. Very sad. They're missing a lot and they don't even know it."

The older generations see it as "instant gratification", but millenials just see it as efficiency. You can buy a motorcycle and learn and be licensed to drive it that same day. You can buy a boat and learn and be licensed to pilot it that same day. You can go skydiving and get certified in...well, Paul can answer that one, but much quicker than learning to fly. Heck, you can even drive a race car on a race track and get your amateur racing license in a week or less. And all of this can be done for a lot cheaper than flying, and without the risk of running afoul of some rule or regulation that could cause you to lose your newly-earned license.

THAT is the "risk-reward" of learning to fly: that you could be risking all of that time and money you spent learning to fly and have that certificate yanked away from you in a heartbeat. The reward part is all the other things that we got in to flying for, but it IS a pretty steep hill. Even I sometimes wonder if it's worth staying "in the game", and when I say that, believe me that I never thought I'd ever say that.

So we in the GA community don't have to agree with the newer generations' views of aviation, but we certainly do have to accept it, if we have any hope of keeping it alive. We SHOULD be taking down barriers of entry and making it easier and cheaper to learn to fly (and to keep flying).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 25, 2017 7:39 AM    Report this comment

"We SHOULD be taking down barriers of entry and making it easier and cheaper to learn to fly (and to keep flying)."

Which is the principal benefit (to GA) of autonomous vehicles. Participation WILL increase.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 25, 2017 8:33 AM    Report this comment

Good explanation, Gary. I think what you often see in these comments is an inability for the older generation--Boomer's mainly--to accept the fact that succeeding generations don't have the same interests and predilections as they do.

I constantly see the notion that if Millennials or Gen Xers were just exposed to flying, they would love it just as much as those of us who fly do, hence "you don't know what you're missing." But Millennials buy fewer cars, fewer houses, less fabric softener, less cereal and fewer golf clubs than did the previous generation. That's just a fact and probably no amount of sales or exposure is going to change that. Smart businesses will figure out things these generations are interested in.

As for skydiving, lots of Millennials in the sport and unlike aviation, it's a growth industry. It costs about $2500 to $2800 to get a skydiving A license, which essentially trains and clears you to jump on your own. You could do it in under a week. A private these days is, what, around $10,000 or so. A sport license maybe half that. Subsequent participation is much cheaper than flying is. Do six a jumps a day for $150.

Lots of Millennials in skydiving. Millennials are really into wing suiting and canopy swooping, the latter being a little too physically demanding for older jumpers because the landings usually finish in rollicking, butt-slide crashes. Makes me sore to think about it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 25, 2017 9:09 AM    Report this comment

You're right Paul, you too Gary. Now why didn't I think of that. I must be getting old. lol

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 25, 2017 11:20 AM    Report this comment

Sorry, flame away at the liberal if you must, but it's not about 'efficiency' in my view. I am the first to accept that other generations will always have 'different interests and predilections' than my Boomer gen does, but that's beside the point.

Building my homebuilt took about 7 years, and no one was more efficient going about it than me. But the reward in personal growth from deep-down-there-inside was profound. Currently, I'm attempting to get down 30 plus years of career notes and cases to formulate into what some still call a book, yet using 'efficiency' of time, resources and interviews still seems to have no affect on expanding the space-time continuum exponentially of the task.

Sometimes we have to face the bear to know what we're capable of, and uncover greater things in ourselves we can now share with others that were lying dormant or hidden instead of always just skimming the surface of life. Confusing thrills and collapsing space-time constantly from impatience (occasionally intolerance also) disguised as 'efficiency' only goes so far. Accomplishing hard, tough stuff like learning to fly, speak another language or write a book (crap it's hard!) will bring us where we really want to be and deserve to be, imho.

I've got a Millennial son, I live this every day. Flying an aircraft is as much about the heart as it is the mind, (refer to all the great books written about flight) and the heart doesn't give a damn about efficiency. It actually finds it useless and irrelevant, we all know that.

Proud to be a Boomer!

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 25, 2017 3:05 PM    Report this comment

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