Airplanes can still go missing

Airplanes are one of our largest modes of transportation in terms of physical size. With the exception of ships, airplanes have the highest carrying capacity, are quite environmentally disruptive while in operation, and are equipped with some of the most sophisticated positional tracking technologies.

Yet, one still went missing last week. Fourteen years into the 21st century, while the NSA threatens the privacy of global telecommunications, one airplane goes missing. I don’t mean to trivialize the issue of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 turning untraceable, but just that even though some of us are smart enough to build invisibility cloaks, we also still have our problems.

I went around the web trying to understand why this was the case and found some interesting stuff. Even though #370 was only the third flight to go missing in the 21st century (and almost the 1,900th to have crashed), it is the 111th flight to do so since radio-sets were first installed on airplanes in 1917. On average, that’s a little more than one disappearance per year.

One reason finding missing airplanes is so difficult is multiplicity. Airplanes are made up of thousands of components each. When one component malfunctions, it could lead to a form of failure that’s very different from what would happen when a different component malfunctions. Watch an episode of Air Crash Investigation on National Geographic if you don’t believe me—airline investigators trying to figure out what exactly could have wrong often find the blame lies with small deviations from normal practices by the pilots or maintenance crews. I remember an episode titled Disaster on the Potomac that aired in December 2013, which details how the 1982 Air Florida crash that killed 78 people was due to a faulty de-icing procedure that skewed instrument readings in the cockpit.

On top of this, you have environmental factors to deal with. According to a piece by Jordan Golson in Wired on March 11, Col. J. Joseph, an aviation consultant, thinks that when planes break up at higher altitudes, the debris is likely to be moved around by stronger winds. Given that flight #370 was over 11 km up, Col. Joseph thinks windspeed could have been over 180 km/hr, enough to blow pieces out of any geographical context.

Things get worse if the plane crashes into the water. Consider the oft-quoted example of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 with 228 people on board. Rescue missions took almost two days to find the first signs of its wreckage. Before that, in 2007, an Indonesia Boeing 737 crashed near the Makassar Strait near Sulawesi. Its wreckage took 10 days to find. There are many other sad yet interesting examples.

According to a Wall Street Journal analytical piece by Daniel Michaels and John Ostrower on March 11, the search for #370 could be further hampered by the fact that the region it was traversing is one of the busiest on the planet: Southeast Asia. Moreover, according to Golson, radar isn’t good enough after the plane’s farther than about 200 km from the nearest control tower, while precise GPS locations aren’t relayed continuously by the pilots to air-traffic controllers—this is why we rely on a ‘last known location’, not a definitive ‘last location’. At the same time, controllers don’t panic when pilots don’t ping back frequently because, according to pilot Patrick Smith’s blog:

In an emergency, communicating with the ground is secondary to dealing with the problems at hand. As the old adage goes: you aviate, navigate, and communicate — in that order. And so, the fact that no messages or distress signals were sent by the crew is not surprising or an indicator of anything specific.

However, what’s stranger about flight 370 is that it’s a Boeing 777, which comes with an emergency locator that beeps out location signals for many days after a crash. Rescuers are yet to spot one in the area they’re combing. So, as the search for a missing airplane drags on, it’s only our conviction that some trace of the vehicle will surface that lasts, accompanied by stronger and stronger scrutiny of what facts we manage to gather (In the meantime, the Daily Mail has something about an aeronautical black hole you might want to read about).