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How Can a Plane Be Lost?

With satellites crisscrossing the globe and GPS technology available at the touch of a button in everything from cars to cell phones, how did officials lose a massive airplane?

Aviation safety consultant John McGraw says it’s easier than you think.

“People are under the impression that every airplane, even when it’s flying across the ocean, is observed on some kind of radar scope, with a human being looking at that scope. And it's just not the case. Radars don't reach that far,” said McGraw.

But McGraw also said that there is a lot of technology inside the missing Boeing 777 that helps pinpoint its location.

Systems in the jets automatically transmit altitude, weather conditions, position and speed of an aircraft to traffic control. There are also at least three ways the pilot can communicate with officials. If the plane is downed in the ocean, the flight data recorder, or “black box”, sends out a sound that is detectable up to three kilometers away.

Former FAA accident investigator Michael Daniel said there are also global regulations.

“The airline has responsibility for what we call ‘flight following.’ That’s an international standard and they are required to know where the airline is at all times,” said Daniel.

But in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Daniel said, the airline hasn’t provided a great deal of information.

“The standards may not have been followed,” he said. “It’s very concerning because that’s an added piece of information that investigators can work with in determining hopefully the location of the aircraft.”

Rescue crews remain determined to locate the jet and its "black box" to try to find out what went wrong. After an AirFrance flight went missing in 2009, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board called for the continuous downloading of an aircraft’s flight data recorder information in case of emergencies.

“In the past they haven’t been able to justify installing that kind of equipment, because it’s expensive, and because there hadn’t been that many accidents where it would have come into play. This will certainly provide some additional motivation and there may be calls to do that,” said McGraw.

Those monitoring the skies and seas remain hopeful the missing airliner will soon be found.
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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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