How safe is your next flight?

T3 in­ves­ti­gates the tech ad­vance­ments keep­ing the birds in the sky

Australian T3 - - CONTENTS -

As you sit on the tar­mac with seat and tray ta­ble in an up­right and locked po­si­tion, you could be for­given for think­ing that the risks in­volved in get­ting 300 tonnes of metal up to 35,000 feet were in­nu­mer­able. Not so. In fact, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ICAO), there are just seven deadly threats to worry about.

These, since you’re now won­der­ing, in­clude a run­wayre­lated ac­ci­dent, a con­trolled flight into ter­rain, fire, tur­bu­lence, sys­tem fail­ure and “un­knowns” – okay, that one’s quite open ended. Yet, while rare, the most com­mon cause of fa­tal­i­ties is ac­tu­ally loss of con­trol in-flight.

“This can in­clude stalls, ic­ing, flight con­trol sys­tem fail­ures or struc­tural fail­ures,” ex­plains Todd Cur­tis, an avi­a­tion safety specialist who now runs the Foun­da­tion. “There are cock­pit warn­ing sys­tems in place to guard against this, though, like stall warn­ings for pi­lots.”

There is lit­tle use in warn­ing sys­tems if no­body’s awake to spot them, of course. Ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish Air­line Pi­lots As­so­ci­a­tion (BALPA), half the pi­lots in­ter­viewed in their 2013 safety sur­vey be­lieved tired­ness was the big­gest threat to flight safety. In­cred­i­bly, the sur­vey of 500 pi­lots re­vealed that over half had fallen asleep in flight and, more wor­ry­ingly, 29 per cent had opened their eyes to find their co-pi­lot asleep be­side them. This is where the third pi­lot, “Ge­orge”, comes in handy – aka the au­topi­lot.

“If a crew be­comes in­ca­pac­i­tated, the plane will con­tinue to fly on its pre-pro­grammed course,” con­firms David Ison, who has worked as a flight in­struc­tor with ma­jor air­lines and is now as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Em­bryRid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity in Florida. “In the case of Malaysia Air­lines Flight 370, the plane should have con­tin­ued to­wards Bei­jing. Once it ar­rived there it would have flown straight ahead un­til it reached its last flight plan way­point, or un­til it ran out of fuel.”

But even if you put two fully rested pi­lots in a ser­viced plane, you are still un­able to leg­is­late against sab­o­tage. Of the 46 western-built jet air­lin­ers that have crashed in the en-route phase, as flight MH370 is be­lieved to have at time of press, 18 were caused by acts of sab­o­tage. And, in a dis­turb­ing twist, it’s been proven re­cently that ter­ror­ists no longer need to even be on a plane to bring it down.

“It’s pos­si­ble to cy­ber-hi­jack a plane,” re­veals se­cu­rity con­sul­tant and for­mer pi­lot Hugo Teso, who last year demon­strated how to hack straight into a Boe­ing’s Flight Man­age­ment Sys­tem (FMS) us­ing an An­droid phone and an app, PlaneS­ploit, that’s been three years in de­vel­op­ment. “There’s a sys­tem on the ma­jor­ity of wide-bod­ied jets that, at present, has no se­cu­rity, so you can upload data and the plane as­sumes the mes­sages are valid. You can use these to trig­ger vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties rang­ing from tak­ing over the au­topi­lot to mak­ing oxy­gen masks drop down.

“The only pos­i­tive is that these abil­i­ties are still in the hands of ‘white hat’ hack­ers, who are shar­ing the in­for­ma­tion with man­u­fac­tur­ers and run­ning on-board sys­tem au­dits to come up with next-gen se­cu­rity.”

There is cur­rently no sure-fire way to pro­tect against these re­mote threats, but fly­ing re­mains the least risky way to travel thanks to a host of se­cu­rity mea­sures al­ready in place, ded­i­cated to keep­ing the birds in the sky. Let us calm your nerves, with a pre-flight tech check…

A whole lot can go wrong at 35,000 feet: T3 help­fully maps out the po­ten­tial threats

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