UPDATE (10/10/2014): PBS Series NOVA did an interesting episode on this topic.. take a look here. Nova: Why Planes Vanish (Video)
UPDATE (12/29/2014): Sadly another aircraft has been AirAsia Flight QZ8501, has gone missing, while this incident seems a bit less mysterious than MH370 , it again underscores the need for real-time GPS (Satellite live telemetry systems. ICAO and IATA need to get off their asses (with all their committees studying proposed systems) and strongly recommend (maybe even mandate) that all modern jetliners carry live telemetry transponders, think about it if you survived a plane accident wouldn’t it be comforting to know that help is on its way and it knows exactly where you are?
With the on-going investigation into the disappearance of Malaysian Flight MH370 that was apparently lost in the South China Sea. I’m perplexed how in this day and age of satellites and GPS systems, planes can simply disappear. Fifty years ago it was not unreasonable to assume because of the lack of these technologies, when planes didn’t communicate in their positions something had happened. But today we live in a networked world with plent y of communication options, and a plethora of satellite linked systems. So why do we still rely on radar and communication fixes? to determine aircraft locations?
Why commercial planes need “SPOT” like devices
I can buy a personal GPS tracker , that’s satellite based device that can communicate my position in near-real time, a popular example is the Spot Satellite Messenger.
Why commercial aircraft can’t have a similar device installed is beyond me. Such a device won’t prevent accidents, but it will allow rescue teams to know precisely where the plane (or in case of wreckage ) is currently located. Relying on last radar tracks or voice communication fixes, seems woefully out of date.
If an accident plane had such a communication beacon, satellite based, it would make search and rescue much more efficient, nearby rescue teams could be mobilized and sent to the specific area, instead of using precious resources for grid searches. There have been many air crashes where survivors survived the initial accident , but because of delays in rescue died from their injuries.
Don’t jump to conclusions..
This recent accident is similar to another recent accident, that of Air France Flight 447, that also “vanished” en route from Brazil to Paris. The cause of that accident was equally mysterious , how a latest generation aircraft, from a top-tier carrier could just disappear.
As always in cases like this , in-flight accidents, because of the day and age we live in ,a terrorist bombing is one of the first conclusions to reach for. But like other similar accidents , Air France 447 was caused by a combination of blocked (iced) pitot-tube, loss of auto-pilot control and the incorrect handling of a high-altitude stall (the pilots basically stalled the plane from 35000 to the ocean) of the situation by the human pilots.
I’m a big fan of the Canadian produced Air Crash Investigations (named MayDay in some countries) documentary show on National Geographic. The show does an excellent job of re-creating well known air accidents, interviewing survivors, and investigators and describing the series of events that led to the crash and more importantly how the investigators put the pieces together.
Tragedy leads to prevention
Sadly we’re still learning from aviation accidents, but one thing that is true, is that each tragedy likely prevents many more, have a look at the chart below from Planecrash.info ,
and while not completely obvious you can see a trend in the last decade as newer generation of automated aircraft coupled with improvements in ground systems and crew training are making these accidents even more rare.
Hopefully one day such losses can be avoided alltogether.