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Authorities move to ensure no airliner can vanish again

April 2, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59To lose a passenger aircraft is a tragedy but to have one vanish without trace is intolerable. Following the unexplained and bizarre disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with the presumed deaths of its 239 passengers, aviation safety authorities are heeding the clamour for measures to prevent a recurrence. 

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is studying the possibility of live-streaming flight data recorders.

The Malaysia Airlines B777 was the second airliner to disappear in the past five years. An Air France A330 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Brazil to France in 2009.

Shortly after MH370 disappeared, the daunting news arrived that Malaysia Airlines hadn’t invested in a simple computer upgrade to a system called Swift, which would have provided critical information to help find its missing airliner.

A report in the Washington Post said the upgrade, which costs about USD 10 per flight, wholesale, “would have provided 250x250investigators with the direction, speed and altitude of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 even after other communications from the plane went dark”. That was according to a satellite industry official familiar with the equipment who spoke to the newspaper.

The paper reported that a similar computer upgrade supplied data to investigators into the Air France crash in 2009 that quickly narrowed the search to an area of about 100 square kilometres in the Atlantic Ocean. Those investigators found floating evidence of the crash within five days – the sort of evidence planes are now searching for in the Indian Ocean following the MH370 disappearance. It has not been possible to narrow the MH370 search area so precisely.

Had the upgrade for Swift been installed in the MAS plane, “it would have continued to send flight data by satellite even after signals from the plane’s transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) went dead”, the paper reported.

Investigators believe the transponder and ACARS were shut down, either by a rogue pilot or hijackers in the cockpit, before the plane flew on south for many more hours for reasons probably destined to remain forever a mystery.

Yesterday, Joe Kolly, director of research and engineering for the NTSB, told that discussions about live-streaming black box data date back to the hunt for the downed Air France flight, when it took nearly two years to recover the flight data and voice recorders.

Kolly said NTSB officials, along with other national and international safety investigation bodies, equipment manufacturers and airlines were looking at possible requirements for a system that could stream a limited amount of flight data.

Kolly said governments were increasingly interested in the possibility of streaming flight data to ensure security.

Companies developing such new technology include Canadian FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, which builds a satellite and internet-based system used by 40 airlines, business jet operators and others. FLYHT routinely monitors aircraft systems, maps flight paths and provides voice, data and text services. It can also stream black box data in emergencies.

Apparently it costs less than USD 100,000 to install a new FLYHT system on a plane, and a few dollars per flight-hour to receive the data.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, speaking from Pearce Air Force Base, north of Perth, said Australia was committed to continuing the hunt for MH370 despite its immense challenges, mounting costs and failure to find any trace of the plane.

Abbott said Australia could “keep searching for quite some time to come”.

And in China, that country’s state-run media has published commentary urging people to react “rationally” to the plane’s disappearance.

A number of distraught relatives of Chinese passengers flew to Malaysia on Sunday and staged a protest there, holding up banners reading: “Hand us the murderer. Tell us the truth. Give us our relatives back.”

Such extreme sentiments stem from grief and from the fact that not one piece of the aircraft has been found. Neither has the position where the plane came down been determined. Some experts warn that no remnants of flight MH370 may ever come to light, increasing determination that no commercial aircraft should be allowed to vanish into thin air again.

Written by : Peter Needham

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