MH370 Plane Air Crash

Lessons To Learn


8 March 2014 was witness to an air accident that should change the way that communications are handled from an aircraft. An airliner from the Malaysian Airlines numbered MH370 that was heading from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to Beijing (China), had flown for just about an hour when it lost contact with the control towers. The flight was carrying 12 crew members and 227 passengers.

Even 6 weeks after the incident, search efforts yielded nothing. More than half a dozen nations pooled air, sea and technology resources together in the search operations. There was no sign of debris and an initial find of oil (fuel) streaks in the water, were analyzed  to be that from some passing ships. Families were put through agonizing moments, initially hoping that their loved ones onboard the airliner would be found alive. With no trace of the aircraft, families came to terms with reality. Resigning themselves to the loss, they hoped to get possession of the remains of their friends and relatives. Six weeks into the search, there was no sign of the aircraft, no debris, no floating bodies – basically nothing that could identify the general location where the flight got ‘lost’.

Theories abounded and even governments gave in to the guessing game. The families of the ill-fated plane were made to agonize further, as the Malaysian authorities tried to draw conclusions related to the behavior and national loyalty of those in the cockpit. Others came up with fancy theories claiming, that the flight might have been captured and ‘kidnapped’ – implying that it might have not crashed at all.

Aviation experts were aware that the ‘black box’ aboard the flight, was their only source of information – but searching for the instrument in the sea was never going to be easy. Australia, the United States and China spearheaded the search using the most sophisticated instruments available to scan the seas for any signal or ‘beeps’ being emitted from the black box. Hopes, excitement and the eternal guess work swayed up and down but, nothing could be found. Growing worries about the life of the battery within the black box, indicated that the 4 week lifespan of the battery was nearing. On one exciting day, the search teams reported positive signs of black box beeps and all search resources were steered to the location. But before any positive relation between the beeps and the MH370 black box could be established, the battery seemed to have drained off – no more beeps were reported.

Most of us know how critical the black box is in such cases, this has been true for many decades. During this time, technology used to design, build and control aircraft has made some awesome progress. We have reached the lucky days when, airlines are flying aircraft that can make long haul flights without stopping to be refueled. Airports have become luxury terminals, and many entertainment options are now available for flyers.

But despite all these goodies and the advancements, the importance of the black box has remained constant. Physical recovery of the black box is absolutely necessary to decipher unexpected occurrences aboard the aircraft. While the MH370 search once again reminded us how important this instrument is, it also showed us how lopsided the development of air travel has been.

At this point it is still unclear whether we will ever know what happened to flight MH370 and the valuable human life that, put their trust on the flight. The chances of finding the black box, blur out by the hour. Putting things in perspective, the absence of the black box signals that half the battle is already lost. We can feel sorry for the victims, curse the airlines and be part of the guessing game. But there is something more constructive that needs to be done, airline safety and recovery operations need to be overhauled. These are more important than, making flying massages and king size beds available to flyers.

We will look at some useful ideas that, could inspire research and delivery of solutions that can help avoid pointless search operations that yield nothing.

A) Brain and investment has to be put into ways that help, backup the information that is kept in the black box. There is no need to wait for this to happen until the aircraft crashes and the search for the black box begins. Given that, airlines are now vying with each other to provide internet access comfort to flyers – recording the black box data on a location out of the aircraft is not asking for too much. For a beginning, the recording can happen with a 3 to 5 second delay. Technically, information would be ‘encapsulated’ for 3 to 5 seconds within the aircraft. Once this is done, the capsule would be relayed back to base. This could happen through a satellite relay circuit. Continued research and development should aim to, reduce the delay time.

B) Much like the suggestion made above, it might also be useful to record video content all through the flight. Probably restricted to the cockpit for a beginning and then, extended all through the aircraft. This recording can be kept in full detail on the aircraft and periodically relayed back to base. Once again, the relay process might initially hold delay times but, there are other ways to reduce the amount of data to be relayed back too. While the video recording retained on the flight, can hold complete detail, the capsule that is relayed to base can be compressed by dropping color coding information. The frame rate of the video that is relayed back to base, can also be much lower than that of the original recording retained on flight. 

C) Further development can be done on the black box itself. Each black box should provide a beep sequence, that is unique to it. Decoding this beep sequence should allow aviation experts to identify the precise source of the black box. For example, when beeps heard were suspected to be from flight MH370, decoding the beeps should provide clear confirmation to search experts. At present, there is no way to confirm that the beep is definitely from a black box and further confirm that, the flight details on which that specific black box was mounted. For this to happen, it is now required to actually retrieve the black box – something that can be a herculean task when the search area is at the bottom of the sea. Basically what would be aimed for, is the development and deployment of black boxes that are more proactive. 

The above measures will be useful in various scenarios and need not kick into play only, when an aircraft is lost or crashed. The implementation of these ideas can in a way be used to monitor situations like hijacks and other unexpected emergencies. One theory that was put forward for the MH370 incident claimed that, the aircraft might have been deliberately put off course. We even heard that, the monitoring equipment on the aircraft might have been intentionally turned off.

With today’s technology none of the above suggestions are impossible or impractical. If there is anything that will hold back research to head towards these solutions, it is the cost saving factor. With many airlines struggling to show profits amidst all too common ticket price wars, the eagerness to invest in such projects might be low. Flyers need to make airlines realize that, low prices or posh interiors and luxury is not enough to earn business. The sooner this happens the better.

The MH370 story is not a closed chapter, no one knows how, when or where it will end. But there are lessons to be learnt right away, and the airline industry needs to take responsibility and serious interest. Quality of safety needs to be improved, technology needs to be developed to more efficiently handle crashes and accidents.