March 15, 2014. Investigators point to a hijacking.   In the meantime, can we please stop talking about transponders?

HIJACKING, investigators now say. I’ll have more to say later, but for now just a couple of points:

First, remember that the long, long history of air piracy did not begin and end with September 11th, 2001, so it’s important not to view every hijacking through the crucible of the 9/11 template. People hijack planes for different reason. It may even have been a rogue crewmember.



Second, some clarity, please, on the topic of transponders. The media is throwing this term around without a full understanding of how the equipment works. For position reporting and traffic sequencing purposes, transponders only work in areas of typical ATC radar coverage. Most of the world, including the oceans, does not have ATC radar coverage. Transponders are relevant to this story only if and when the missing plane was very close to land. Once over the ocean, it didn’t matter anyway. Over oceans and non-radar areas, OTHER means are used for position reports and tracking/communicating (satcomm, datalink, etc.), not transponders.

Readers also have been asking why the capability exists to switch off a transponder. In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit “off” might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.

 
UPDATE: March 14, 2014

RIGHT, SO, the blockbuster satellite shots of floating wreckage turned out to be something unrelated — perhaps a shipping container full of Adidas sneakers or knockoff handbags — bringing us back to where we were.

The latest wrinkle, meanwhile, are reports that the plane turned west and tracked along a series of navigational waypoints — intersections of latitude and longitude. It would be difficult or not impossible for this to happen accidentally. So, if true, it suggests the airplane was very much under the control of somebody in the cockpit. How far this tracking continued, and along which path, exactly, is very important. Does this indicate a takeover of some kind? Or, was the crew diverting to a nearby airport because of a fire or some other emergency? Did the plane crash shortly thereafter, or were the pilots overcome by smoke or fumes, at which point plane continued on for a length of time? It’d be interesting to see what some of their divert options were at the point when the jet fell out of contact, and if any of those options are in line with the path supposedly taken.

We need some immediate clarity on this in order to have a better sense of which where to search and of which theories to rule out. We’re still getting conflicting information. Frictions between the different investigative parties, combined with people’s insatiable demand for instant answers, isn’t helping.

Neither is the confusing vernacular of commercial aviation. The media is throwing around words like “transponder” and “radar,” without really understanding what these things do and don’t mean, leading people’s theorizing astray.

The transponder stopped working, but apparently so did the rest of the plane’s communications equipment. Or did it? This isn’t clear.

And if everything did stop functioning, how? Was it intentional sabotage or some bizarre and total power loss? Power loss. People keep asking “how can a plane simply disappear?” It’s an idea that doesn’t seem to compute in an age of instant and total connectivity. But consider: if somebody yanks the power cord out of your computer, suddenly all the wonderful immediacy and connectivity of the internet is effectively vanished. Similarly, all of the fancy equipment in a 777′s cockpit is only useful if it’s actually running. Thus, together with an absence of primary radar over much of the ocean, the idea that a plane can disappear becomes a lot more conceivable.

Another scenario I’ve been asked about multiple times: could a rapid loss of cabin pressure rendered the flight crew, and possibly everyone else on the plane as well, incapacitated, at which point the plane deviated from its course before eventually crashing. This is conceivable, yes (though maybe no more so than assorted other scenarios). Depressurizations by themselves are perfectly manageable and almost never fatal (see chapter two of my book for a story about the time it happened to me), and something that all airline crews train for, but only if the crew understands the problem and does what it’s supposed to do. See Helios Airways.

And as I was saying in my last update, no matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn’t let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe. Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation. Hopefully their number continues to diminish, but a certain number of accidents will always be inevitable. In some ways, the weirdness of this story speaks to how well we have engineered away what once were the most common causes of crashes. Those that still occur tend to be more mysterious and strange than in decades past (have a look at the year 1985 some time, for an idea of how frequent large-scale air disasters once were).

Meanwhile, it’s fascinating how this story has moved from being one about a presumed airplane crash to, really, a mystery story. It’s the very missing-ness of the plane that the public finds so captivating. If and when the wreckage is discovered, I have to wonder if suddenly people will stop paying such rapt attention. If so, that’s too bad, because the question at hand ought to be what happened on board the jet, not where is the jet.

I say “if and when” because I think people need to reconcile with the possibility that the plane might never be found. I know that sounds absurd to many people in this day and age, where fast and easy answers are taken for granted, but it might happen. I don’t expect that to happen, but it could.

 
Earlier post: March 11, 2014

STILL NO WRECKAGE, and reports now say that military authorities tracked the missing plane for nearly 500 miles after contact was lost with air traffic control.

I hate to say it, and to violate my own anti-speculation rule, but it’s looking more and more like something very strange, and possibly nefarious, is behind the disappearance. A hijacking, perhaps, that ultimately ended in disaster somewhere in the South China Sea.

Investigators also say the plane’s transponder signal — a location and altitude signal that is tracked by air traffic controllers on the ground — disappeared suddenly. This would indicate a sudden loss of power, as would happen during an inflight explosion or breakup, for instance. But if that were the case, why is the wreckage not where it should be, and what’s to explain the 500-mile continuation? Was there a complete loss of electric power, rendering the transponder inoperative, after which the aircraft continued on for many miles? Or was the device switched off intentionally during a hijacking?

Unfortunately it could be weeks or even months before we have a solid idea of what happened. And tempting as might be, we should be careful not to speculate too broadly. Almost always the earliest theories turn out to be at best incomplete; at worst totally wrong. Seeing how little evidence we have at the moment, any theories are, for now, just guesses.

All we know for sure is that a plane went missing with no warning or communication from the crew. That the crash (assuming the plane did in fact go down) did not happen during takeoff or landing — the phases of flight when most accidents occur — somewhat limits the possibilities, but numerous ones remain. The culprit could be anything from sabotage to some kind of bizarre mechanical problem — or, as is so common in airline catastrophes, some combination or compounding of human error and/or mechanical malfunction.

Apart from this latest news of the military tracking, let me briefly hit some of the points I’ve been seeing and hearing in the media…

Lack of a mayday call: No matter an aircraft’s location, the crew is always in contact with both air traffic control and company ground staff. When flying in remote locations, however, this is often a more involved process than simply picking up a microphone and talking. Exactly how it’s done depends on which equipment the plane is fitted with, and which ATC facility you’re working with. Flying over open ocean, relaying even a simple message can be a multi-step process transmitted through FMS datalink or over high frequency radio. 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.

The stolen passports: Reportedly, two of flight 370′s passengers were traveling on stolen passports. This has raised eyebrows and incited speculation about a bombing, a possible hijacking attempt or other sabotage. Is this something worth looking at? Absolutely. But so is everything else, from the weather to the cargo manifest to the aircraft’s maintenance history. For what it’s worth, I suspect there are thousands of people jetting around the world on forged or stolen documents, for a variety of shady reasons, but that doesn’t make them terrorist bombers.

Pilot experience: A factor? Maybe, but probably not. The captain of the ill-fated flight had logged close to 20,000 flight hours, a substantial total by any standard. The first officer (copilot), on the other hand, had fewer than three thousand hours to his name. Pilots in North America — those like me, at any rate, who come up through the civilian ranks — generally accrue several thousand hours before landing a job with a major airline. We slog our way through the industry in a step-by-step process, building experience along the way. Thus it would be unheard of to find a Boeing 777 copilot with such a small number of hours. In other areas of the world, the process is often different. Pilots are frequently selected through so-called ab-initio programs, hand-picked by carriers at a young age and trained from the start to fly jetliners. We can debate the perils of this method, but I tend to doubt it’s anything more than a side note. Plus, flight hours in and of themselves aren’t necessarily a good measure of a pilot’s skills or performance under pressure. And any pilot, regardless of his or her logbook totals, and regardless of the airline, needs to meet some pretty rigorous training standards before being signed off to fly a 777.

The Boeing 777: I see no reason for the news media to keep reminding us about last summer’s Asiana crash in San Francisco, which also involved a 777. That both incidents involved the same aircraft model means little or nothing.

Air France redux? Similarly, there are no good reasons yet to be drawing parallels between Malaysia 370 and Air France flight 447 five years ago. Although both planes disappeared in mid-flight over the ocean, that’s hardly a meaningful coincidence when you consider the many possible causes. And rare as airline catastrophes are, I’m sorry to say that the annals of civil aviation contain many mishaps that are similar in general profile, but vastly different in the details.

We will probably learn the full and sad story eventually. But the possibility exists that we won’t. Much of what happened to Air France 447 still remains shrouded in mystery. Or consider the crash of a South African Airways 747 into the Indian Ocean back in 1987. Investigators believe that a cargo fire was responsible, but officially the disaster remains unsolved, the wreckage having fallen into thousands of feet of water, the bulk of it never recovered. We don’t always get the answers we need.

 

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