Cleared for take-off
Statistically you’re safest in the air. Boeing states that only nine per cent of fatal accidents occur at the cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, the height flight MH370 was at when its transponder was disabled.
“Air traffic control relies on two systems to detect planes,” explains Ison. “Primary radar is the actual radar beam that is sent out and bounces off the aircraft. Secondary radar, in turn, uses the transponder to ‘light up’ the target, making it easier to see and tag with information such as the flight number and destination.”
There are two transponders aboard a 777, but disabling them, says Ison, “is as simple as flicking a switch”.
Civilian air-traffic controls handover to one another as a plane flies out of the air space of one and into another. MH370’s transponders were deactivated in the South China Sea between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace, which is when the plane went dark on civilian radar, and is where theories that the plane had been stolen arose.
“Crews can set the transponder to a specific code that indicates the aircraft is in a hijack situation,” says Curtis, “or they can use ACARS, the Aircraft Comms Addressing and Reporting System, to warn of an emergency.”
There were no attempts by the flight crew of the Malaysian airliner to alert the ground. A plane’s location
is still picked up by military radar, as was the case with MH370, but radar has its limitations when tracking an object over water or below a certain altitude.
“The fact is, MH370 should have been picked up by radar when it made a severe turn west off its original flight path towards Beijing and came back into Malaysian airspace,” reckons Ison. “A country with modern military radar defences should be able to detect unidentified aircraft 200 miles from its borders.”
So for MH370 to have been stolen, it would have to have dipped below radar, which is limited to line of sight. “If the pilot knew where the radar sites were and some limitations to those sites, they could avoid them,” adds Ison.
Of course, mysteries like the MH370 disappearance could be solved much quicker if manufacturers actually updated the black box tech, which houses all flight data.
“If this info was sent in real-time, we wouldn’t have to go through the mammoth underwater recovery missions that take huge amounts of time and money,” says Curtis. “The tech is there and capable of uplinking data about location, direction, equipment status and around 30 other parameters. But it would mean manufacturers modifying hundreds of planes, with the cost considered to be too high to justify in comparison to ocean searches, which are deemed rare.” In context, the search for MH370 will likely be the most expensive ever, expected to far exceed the $40m it took to recover Air France Flight 447 in 2011.