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Published: Tuesday March 11, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2014 MYT 10:16:20 AM

Missing MH370: Time to think out of the black box

Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner – perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport – still exists in the age of radio.

WHY is a normally safe aircraft – the Boeing 777-200 – missing over the South China Sea, with all 239 passengers and crew on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 presumed dead?

I’l tell you why: it was a fireball ignited by faulty lithium-ion batteries carried on board by cellphone-wielding passengers.

No, it wasn’t. It was a bomb planted by terrorists – possibly the passengers who were reportedly carrying stolen passports.

Rubbish: it was structural failure triggered by internal damage sustained in an airport fender-bender involving the same aircraft two years ago.

These, of course, are not answers. It would be generous to call them theories. They are really a tiny sample in an online orgy of wild guesses that erupted on social media over the weekend, in the hours after the aircraft was reported missing off the coast of Malaysia.

As search teams continue scanning the waves for signs of debris, these online truth-seekers should be asking a different question: why couldn’t the plane itself tell us exactly what happened when it went off-radar?

In one of the most galling anachronisms of modern aviation technology, the “black box” that carries most if not all of the answers seems to have vanished, too.

Depending on the location of the wreckage, it could be days, months or even years before anyone turns up the black box – which is usually orange – and there remains a remote possibility that the device and its precious recordings of audio and flight sensor data will never be found at all.

The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is the fault of a bizarre quirk in our networked society. Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner – perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport – still exists in the age of radio.

Air traffic controllers today must orchestrate the most congested airspace using primarily voice commands. You can send and receive text messages from most aircraft, surf the web and even stream House of Cards. The system that powers the plane is limited to pre-dial-up Internet connection speeds.

There is simply no datalink on board an aircraft with the bandwidth to continuously stream the volumes of data collected and stored during every second of a flight by the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder.

The result is a dangerous silence in the immediate and sometimes extended aftermath of what appears to be the worst airline crash in more than a decade. In the absence of data, the biological temptation to seek patterns within the flimsiest of available evidence is overwhelming.

In the aftermath of the Air France Flight 447 crash in 2009, speculation focused on particular technologies with the Airbus A330.

It took nearly two years for an international search team to locate and raise the flight recorders lying at the bottom of 4,700m of water.

The actual data told a different tale of a bizarre sequence of fatal errors made by a confused and disoriented flight crew attempting to fly through a major storm.

Until the wreckage of Flight MH370 is found, it is impossible to know how long it will take to recover that little box inside the 777-200.

We shouldn’t have to wait at all. There are technologies in existence or development today that can address this glaring gap in the aviation safety net.

To be fair, it’s not quite that easy. It’s relatively simple and cheap for a black box to gather and store megabytes worth of flight data every second. It is much harder and much more expensive to continuously transmit that information by satellite or radio transmission.

But even a little data is better than almost none, which the disappearance of Flight MH370 makes clear.

It should be rather straightforward to install a processor connected to the black box that can select a subset of the most relevant data. A recent patent application filed by Boeing describes such a system, which specifies a limited data set including the precise location of the aircraft and the flight control inputs by the pilot or the automation system.

There will be costs to mandating such a system, but the benefits are clear. Multi-national search and recovery teams involving a fleet of ships and search aircraft should no longer be necessary. Critical safety data could provide clues of system or structural failures much faster, making the entire air transport system safer.

Most of all, the commercial aircraft upon which we depend for transportation and economic growth need to finally enter the Information Age. Then searches for missing planes won’t have to resemble the hunt for Amelia Earhart. – Guardian News & Media

> Stephen Trimble is an author and journalist on aviation issues based in Washington DC, where he manages the Americas bureau of the Flightglobal news and data services company. This article appeared in The Guardian newspaper’s Comment section on March 9.

Tags / Keywords: Transport & Safety, Comment, black boxes, flight recorders, safety, MAS flight, KL, Beijing, missing flight, MH370

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