We all may still be waiting for our flying cars and jetpacks, but there’s no question the future has arrived, in ways more subtle but irrefutable. There was the live video of two SpaceX rockets landing on their tails in Florida earlier this year. There’s the imminent first flight of the giant Stratolaunch space plane. And now there’s Aireon, a network of satellites that will make it possible for any aircraft equipped with ADS-B to be tracked anywhere on the planet. No need to send out search planes—a technician at a screen will pinpoint the site of the downed aircraft, and relay the coordinates to rescue teams within minutes.
The project was inspired, at least in part, by the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing in 2014. Today, flights across the oceans or in polar regions lose touch with tracking systems, and ATC relies on pilot reports, and flight plans filed in advance, to estimate their position.When MH370 went silent, searchers had limited resources to work with, and 239 souls on board remain lost.
Wikipedia lists 43 flights that have gone missing since 1970, including balloons attempting to cross the Atlantic, DC-3s, private jets and cargo planes. A Piper Warrior vanished somewhere in British Columbia in 2017. That loss is a reminder that even here in the Western world, there are big blank spaces on the map where humans seldom tread.
One of the more famous GA losses in recent years was the disappearance in 2007 of Steve Fossett, the multiple-record-holding pilot who took off from Nevada on a solo pleasure flight in a Super Decathlon and never returned. Despite an online search by hundreds of volunteers who scrutinized Google Earth images for signs of the airplane, it was found by chance in 2008 when a hiker happened upon the site.
Presumably, once Aireon goes online next year, this kind of mystery will be a thing of the past. In another 10 or 20 years, the idea of a lost airplane will be as foreign as the rotary-dial phone or rabbit-ear TV antennas. But seldom does something good occur without a flip side. In this case, we lose a little of the awe and dread of living on Earth, the sense that there are places on the planet, wide and empty, that remain unknown and unknowable. It’s a small price to pay for saved lives, but it’s a price worth noting.