News World How can we lose a plane loaded with tracking technology?
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How can we lose a plane loaded with tracking technology?

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· Families cling to hope

It’s been four days since Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared. Today, all we know is that 239 people aboard the Boeing 777 airliner are lost. But in an age when the answers to most of life’s questions are just a click away, how can an aircraft laden with technology simply disappear?

A massive search effort is under way to find the airliner which is suspected of plunging into the South China Sea early on Sunday morning. There are reportedly 1000 people, 34 planes and 40 ships from nine nations scouring the search zone for clues, and yet by late on Tuesday night none had been able to find a piece of the plane or a signal from any of its tracking devices.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is a reminder of how big the seas are and of how agonising it can be to try to find something lost in them. Here’s why the Boeing 777-200 should be easier to find.

Black Box
The ‘black box’ from the Rio-Paris air disaster. Photo: Getty

The plane

The Boeing 777 has a first-class safety record. The first, and only, fatal incident involving the model occurred in July of last year in San Francisco, when a plane landed short of the runway. Only three people were killed and one of the victims was struck down by a rescue truck after surviving the crash. This crash was attributed to pilot error.

“It’s definitely one of the safest planes out there,” says Ronald Bishop, head of aviation at Central Queensland University and former pilot in the US Air Force. The 777 also has up to four redundancy systems in place to kick in when things go wrong.

“There are several back-up ways of providing power if engines are lost to get on the ground safely,” says Mr Bishop, who also adds that these models have a way of automatically “checking themselves”.

“It’s amazing. The plane sends messages back to the maintenance operations with information on how it’s doing,” Mr Bishop explains. “According to reports so far, that didn’t happen in this case which is certainly interesting.”

The tracking technology

The “black box”, officially known as the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), contains mechanisms like the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) to capture an incident so authorities can review it later. Black box benefits usually kick in after a crisis.

Prior to an incident, the 777 has several methods of communicating:

  1. An automatic transponder on board sends constant signals out to identify the aircraft to others.
  2. A computer messaging system known as an ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) sends messages to the Airline and other control systems similar to mobile phone texting.
  3. A radio allows pilots to communicate directly.

During a crisis, pilots can use the transponder to “squawk”, or send, a particular code to indicate strife to air traffic control.

“When reports say that flight 370 ‘disappeared off the radar’, what they are saying is that the pilots stopped squawking,” explains Mr Bishop.

After a major incident, the main hope is a beacon inside the black box which is activated by separation from the aircraft or a loss of power. The beacon then starts emitting a code, creating a sonar noise underwater which translates to a radio signal above water. According to Mr Bishop, these boxes are “robust” and capable of surviving for up to 60 days depending on conditions.

The final frontier for tracking is space, with China’s defence ministry announcing that they will redeploy 10 satellites to search for the plane. There have been calls for the implementation of satellite tracking technology, allowing a constant stream of data back to the ground control. Although costly, a function like this would ensure up-to-date information is readily available.

US Navy helicopter
A US navy helicopter joins the search. Photo: Getty

When will the plane be found?

According to experts, it’s now just a matter of time.

It took two years to find the main wreckage of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Closer to the area between Malaysia and Vietnam, where Saturday’s flight vanished, it took a week for debris from an Indonesian jet to be spotted in 2007. Today, the mostly intact fuselage still sits on the bottom of the ocean.

If the black box survived, which is likely, it’s out there emitting signals that could be picked up by the searching planes or ships.

These black boxes, which usually have a 30-day battery life, are “amazingly strong” according to Mary Schiavo, aviation lawyer and former Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation. Speaking to the ABC, Ms Schiavo said Air France flight 447, the last plane to vanish in 2009 due to a stall, had a black box which survived underwater for months, losing battery power but not the recordings it held.

Captain John M Cox, former US Airways pilot and current CEO of Safety Operating Systems, says it is not a matter of if but when the plane is found.

“I’m absolutely confident that we will find this airplane. This is not the first time we have had to wait a few days to find the wreckage.”

—with AP