News / Asia

    How Can a Plane Be Lost?

    How Can Officials Lose Track of an Airliner?i
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    Carla Babb
    March 13, 2014 4:54 PM
    Thursday marks the sixth day since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared with 239 passengers on board. VOA’s Carla Babb tells us more about the technology that can find, and lose track of, an aircraft.
    VIDEO: Thursday marks the sixth day since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared with 239 passengers on board. VOA’s Carla Babb tells us more about the technology that can find, and lose track of, an aircraft.
    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.

    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her bylines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea, Japan and Egypt.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: kyle from: US
    March 14, 2014 7:30 AM
    There is a sense that they are not telling us the full story. Some people are starting to speculate that they are hiding something from us.
    In Response

    by: mds from: usa
    March 16, 2014 8:12 AM
    Check N. Korea

    by: Hannah Do from: Canada
    March 13, 2014 2:40 PM
    Well, it's a proof that human being are limited regardless how advanced we think we have been.
    In Response

    by: Sukey from: China
    March 14, 2014 5:50 AM
    Yes , Hannah ,you are right .But we also hope there is a magic

    by: Not Again from: Canada
    March 13, 2014 12:15 PM
    This has been a very tragic event, our hearts go out to the families of the missing. The events of this disappearance, with out a trace, is very startling, especially given the massive involvement of modern forces, with some of the best equipment in the World, all efforts to no avail. I AM SPECULATING- the type of issues observed, loss of transponder, flight continued, potentially for 5 hrs, no pilot contact,etc. Potentially, a non catastrophic failure causing rapid decompression, in the area near/affecting the transducer, followed by the failure of the emergency oxygen system (for unknown reasons empty/wrong gas,..); causing crew loss. Upon the depressurization, the pilots would attempt a rapid descent, and an emergency return. Upon loss of crew abilities, the plane would continue, on auto-pilot, to fly until fuel run out. There was a previous similar such accident, many years ago, with a small plane, that flew many hours accross the US, until it run out of fuel and crashed. Sad sit.
    In Response

    by: LdyBug from: Philippines
    March 16, 2014 10:42 AM
    I think this is a high possibility, why can't the officials look into this angle knowing this kind of aircraft failure happened before. Terrorism is unlikely, I think. I can't imagine the degree of uncertainty and sadness among the family of those aboard the plane. If the plane crashed deep into the Indian Ocean, it might take years before the remains of the plane can be found, or will never be. But hoping for the best. I think all citizens of the world is affected by this incident.

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