Analyzing The Possibility of a Seemingly Impossible Event

Nicole Krage, Layout Editor

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) went missing, and after more than a year, no evidence of the plane has been found, leaving us all with one simple yet complicated question: How is it even possible for a plane to disappear?

In analyzing a situation like this, it’s important to understand the communication controls and systems available to a pilot on a commercial plane. During a flight, a plane is in contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC) both directly and indirectly.

Very high frequency radios are a plane’s most used form of direct communication. Eric Jones, professor of aviation and transportation studies at Lewis University, describes the radio use as a “hand-off system,” in which a pilot is in frequent communication with various controllers one at a time.

Jones gives the example of a plane starting at the gate and receiving clearance from different control centers to push back from the gate, taxi to the runway, get clearance for take-off and other permissions. Once in the air, a pilot may be instructed to switch frequencies in order to contact different infrastructures. When landing, the hand-off system continues, and the plane receives clearance to land, taxi to the gate and so on.

“There are several [radios] in the cockpit – multiple systems, [so] in case one does go down, they can go to an alternate system and still communicate,” Jones said. “Commercial operations would be almost constantly in contact with some form of control.”

In the instance that radio communications are blocked, messages from ATC could also be relayed through other airplanes under certain circumstances.

When a plane is flying over the water, like MH370, communication is generally less frequent than it is when flying over land because a plane’s route is usually predetermined. Stanley Harriman, assistant professor of aviation and transportation studies at Lewis University, describes these predetermined routes as “highways in the sky.”

“There’s not a lot of air traffic control support or responsibilities because they know that all airplanes that are flying [a particular] route are following a specific path,” Harriman said.

An indirect form of communication that planes use is the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which Harriman compares to a text message.

Information such as weather conditions or route details can be communicated from ground to the pilot through a message that can get printed out in the cockpit or appear on the screen. The process works vice versa as well; the pilot is able to initiate communication and send a message through the ACARS system if needed.

Transponders are also in use, which automatically send out signals that allow ATC to see a plane on the radar. The radar screen includes the plane’s flight number, altitude, speed, direction and sometimes the route.

With numerous communication systems in place on a plane, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which all communication is lost, and a plane disappears.

“There’s always a way that [communication] is maintained,” said Harriman. “It’s quite difficult to lose contact with an airplane unless you’re trying to.”

So, how did MH370 go missing without a trace?

One thing many people might not know is that planes are legally required to fly on auto-pilot. This is because the plane itself is more precise than what humans are capable of and therefore allows as many planes as possible to fly in the sky at a time.

“An incident like [MH370] would only occur if the pilot needs to take over,” said Harriman. “When a plane does go off course or does lose communication, usually something out of the ordinary happened.”

“Something out of the ordinary” could involve many things, such as a system failure or an incident happening on board. Whatever it was, Malaysia officially declared the plane’s disappearance an accident on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.

Jones believes that scenario to be “potential,” but unlikely.

“Systematically, the aircraft should never have behaved that way. A system would have had to have been disabled for it to have completely disappeared off of radar,” he said.

There is a theory that communication systems on board were shut down because the pilot was attempting to isolate an electrical fire. When the plane made its drastic left turn, it was because the pilot was headed toward the nearest and most accessible airport to make an emergency landing.

Though it’s impossible to know exactly what happened to MH370, Jones believes that this theory “lacks teeth” for numerous reasons.

“If the First Officer was attempting to extinguish the fire by isolating electrical busses, the aircraft also has one last emergency electrical bus that allows the captain one radio for VHF communications with towers, approach and departure and en-route controllers,” he said. “Fires are cataclysmic events on commercial airliners, and the crew would have surely communicated something to someone, especially his destination airport to prepare the field for this emergency.”

Jones also points out that there are fire suppression devices systemically stocked on an aircraft, which are designed to extinguish fires. Once the devices are deployed, not only would the fire have likely downed the aircraft within minutes, but it would have “left a long stream of debris and evidence that investigators would have found,” according to Jones.

“Fire in the night sky is highly visible from both the ground and the air,” he added. “Other aircrafts in the area or the people on the ground would have surely seen something and alerted officials.”

No matter what happened on board, MH370 is still missing, and no wreckage or evidence of the plane has been found.

“You’ve got a 777 that has over 400 seat cushions on it,” Jones said. “For not one seat cushion to be found, or one raft or one piece of debris to not be found is incredible.”

Some believe that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean and has sunk to a level so deep that officials are incapable of finding it. Harriman points out that there are many restraints and limitations to an underwater search, such as cost and available resources.

Conducting an underwater search is also not as easy as one might think.

“When it comes to accident investigation, we can say that this is where the airplane lost radar contact, and we can say this is the last spot the airplane made a radio transmission, but even by being 50 miles left or right of that point, it’s going to be really hard to find an airplane in the water,” Harriman said.

He went on to explain that conducting the search in an area that is even slightly inaccurate could cause three to six more months of investigation.

“If they haven’t found it yet, they’re probably not looking in the right place,” he said. “We’re counting on the airplane to maintain its course, but who said it did?”

The questions about what exactly happened to MH370 may never be answered. How can a plane lose communication and go missing? Lewis’ own aviation professors believe that with today’s technology, it shouldn’t be possible.

“We are only as good as the equipment we build and the system that we have built up,” Jones said. “So it does seem that there would have to be some sort of human element in this accident that would cause these series of coincidences, which are absolutely amazing in the world of aviation.”

Flying is still considered the safest form of transportation, but there will continue to be the looming curiosity about MH370’s disappearance.

“This aircraft accident in particular is unique in my lifetime,” said Jones, “and it may end up being one of the great mysteries of our time.”

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