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The Search Continues for Missing Malaysian Aircraft

March 14, 2014

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The daily media is stumbling all over the place over the disappearance of, and evident inability to find, a state-of-the-art Boeing 777. 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 driven the accident rate so close to zero that the general public and the media simply can’t process the fact that an airliner can disappear without a trace for a week and maybe even forever. I suspect this aircraft will eventually be found. Even the most carefully designed and engineered 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 Malaysian investigators have demonstrated that Aircrash Accident Investigation 101 was a course they either dismissed or failed to pass. The information released has been a combination of mixed messages, contradictions and fiction. The airline itself has demonstrated a lack of competence, for it 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. As late as Thursday evening, unnamed sources were saying the airplane's 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 its 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 satellite assets really are. The images were a dead-end anyway, but CNN got half of a news cycle out of it.

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.

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 should have compared to how much they actually 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?

One thing is for certain: if the National Transportation Safety Board was in charge of this investigation, the reporting would be far different than what the public is experiencing. The information released would be based on known facts and, while possible causes would be in the matrix of discussion, no conclusions would be made from supposition or gray matter—which has been the common theme so far.

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