Grumpy Old Man: Keeping tabs

How is it that in an age of hi-tech doodads, something as big as an airliner can simply disappear?

Malaysian and Chinese journalists look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, March 13, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Malaysian and Chinese journalists look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, March 13, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 I so hope that by the time this column sees the light of day, the search for Flight 370 will have turned up indisputable signs of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. The signs might let us know the airliner’s fate, but by themselves will not let us know what really happened.
The theories are grouped into three categories: pilot error, a malfunction or something more nefarious. Most (save for those theories promulgated by such imagined rags as Alien Life and End Times Prognostications) are entirely plausible.
Some make perfect sense.
Take Chris Goodfellow, a veteran aviator whose theory, picked up by the website Wired, was that there had been a serious technical glitch, probably a fire.
“When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport,” Goodfellow wrote of the 777 captain. “He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles.”
As for crucial communications equipment that went silent, the captain and first officer were probably pulling circuit breakers in case it was an electrical fire.
“What I think happened,” he continued, “is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George [autopilot], until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed.”
Clearly, our theories reflect our expertise and knowledge. But also our biases.
Boeing, the jet’s manufacturer, has wisely kept silent. The 777 has an excellent safety record, but airliners today are so complex that things can and do go wrong. (The company’s competitors know the same can happen to their products as well, so they, too, keep quiet.) Yet despite its low profile, you can be sure that top-notch Boeing flacks have been trying to push their deep-background patter toward the possibility of pilot error, while to aviators like Goodfellow, pilots are the solution, not the problem.
Then, there are the conspiracy theorists.
And why not? Prior to 9/11, did any of us expect something so meticulously thought through and coordinated? With the missing airliner belonging to Malaysia, Malaysia being a Muslim nation, and Islamic fundamentalists (or Arabs) statistically having been behind most hijackings, it’s only natural for some of us to add two and two, as did this Jerusalem Post reader.
“A nightmarish scenario is that the plane has been flown to a remote and untraceable airport in a country that is cooperative with terrorists… Then, suppose the plane will… be piloted by suicide pilots… I would suggest that crashing a plane into Ben-Gurion Airport or into the Knesset… might be such a target… What about the 239 people on board? The hijackers… would even use them as hostages if they are approaching an airport and claim they are trying to land. Then, if Israel shoots down the plane, they will blame Israel for the loss of life.”
CABLE NEWS channels, needing to fill airtime, have sought to educate the wider public about some of the wonderful doodads that have made flying one of the safest, most reliable forms of transportation we’ve known. They include things like autopilot, fully computerized navigation systems and even ground-based beams and beacons that guide these hi-tech, hands-off marvels straight to touchdown with little, if any, pilot input at all.
All of these advances have to a great degree relegated captains and first officers to the role of overseer. With things getting pretty crowded and much more complicated to manage up there, this is definitely a plus, reducing physical and mental workloads to much more manageable levels.
True, there is burgeoning talk in aviation circles that all this automation has imbued some pilots with a sense of complacency and even blunted some of their basic piloting skills which, when called upon in unexpected moments, might not be as reflexive or honed as they could be or even once were. Overall, though, the gizmos humming away in today’s cockpits, as well as on the ground and even in space, have made air travel far easier for all involved and, despite the grumbling about new surcharges and fees, far more accessible.
Maybe, however, there’s a lot more going on – or not going on – that’s right under our nose.
Gregg Easterbrook wrote the key chapter on aviation security for the Council on Foreign Relations’s book about 9/11, How Did This Happen? In a piece in The New York Times on March 18, at the height of the drama over MH 370, he looked at the transponder, an airborne doohickey that provides ground controllers with critical data such as heading, altitude and speed – and, absolutely no less critical nowadays, the identity of the aircraft. This is because most ground radars used for civil or commercial aviation are incapable of showing more than the fact that there’s something out there, and it’s X miles away from us along such and such a heading. The 9/11 hijackers, Easterbrook pointed out, had turned off the transponders almost immediately after bursting into the cockpits.
“If the transponders had not gone silent on 9/11, air traffic controllers would have quickly realized that two jetliners en route to Los Angeles had made dramatic course changes and were bound straight for Manhattan,” he wrote in the Times. “Instead, controllers lost precious time trying to figure out where the aircraft were.”
But in particular, Easterbrook bemoaned the fact that with all we now know about that horrific day 12½ years ago, pilots – or anyone else in the cockpit with a passable knowledge of some of its myriad controls, dials and switches – can still turn off this key identification tool in mid-flight.
“… I would have bet my life’s savings that the transponder… would be re-engineered to prevent hijackers from turning such units off,” he continued. “But nothing was done.”
WHY NOT? After all, the flight data recorder and cockpit sound and voice recorder, often called “black boxes” although they are bright orange so that search parties can more easily find them, cannot be turned off in midflight.
And wait a minute. We now know that the US National Security Agency (and, presumably, the hi-tech spooks of other nations) have been listening in on us telling hubby to pick up milk and a dozen eggs, or letting the up-and-coming prom queen know she has an appointment at the orthodontist next Tuesday. If that’s so, how can it be that in this post-9/11 age, there aren’t ground- or space-based sensors keeping real-time tabs on everything in the world’s airspace? True, there are thousands, perhaps many thousands, of aircraft in the air at any given moment, but do you know how many people are chatting away on cellphones at the same time? A few more, I’d guess.
Like Easterbrook, I would have thought that in the wake of 9/11, a few central changes had been made regarding air travel security besides locked cockpit doors, pre-boarding pat-downs and bans on liquids. So you tell me: Should I board my next flight with a well-placed sense of trepidation?