Cleared for take-off

Australian T3 - - PLANE TRUTH -

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.

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