In today’s world, where we can all carry around small mobile gadgets with GPS and have complex navigation systems on our cars, how can we lose a 210 foot long passenger airliner? This is what happened when flight MH370 of Malaysian Airlines disappeared along with 239 people onboard more than a week ago.
Although many of us may think that a commercial airplane’s position is constantly monitored and that pilots are in continuous contact with air traffic control, the truth is far from what we believe. When a plane is 100 to 150 miles away from the shore, radar cannot be used to track where it is because it doesn’t have the coverage. Commercial aircraft then communicate using high frequency radio at predestined reporting points along the flight path, reporting the plane’s position, air speed and altitude.
In most cases, flying at 35,000 feet is mostly uneventful and there is nothing to report, so pilots maintain radio silence and although planes use GPS for navigation, this only tells the plane where it is. And when in the air, an aircraft generates so much data that no one has figured out how to organize it into a readable manner yet. There is no way of transmitting, receiving and storing that data so that it can be interpreted wirelessly. Disappearances like those of flight MH370 are so rare that no one has gotten around to making it possible yet.
But it is still surprising that aircraft cannot transmit their own location, even though WiFi services are available on many flights (which can be used to located a plane anywhere on the planet). There is enough bandwidth available for a plane to transmit all the data that flight control would need. A bandwidth of a few hundred kilobits per second would be sufficient to relay the plane’s diagnostics. The only problem is that no one has implemented a system yet (a system that would supposedly cost billions of dollars to implement worldwide).
Of course, there is the disastrous possibility that the plane crashed into the ocean or exploded mid-air, in which case, the debris is hard to find. It is hard to find scattered debris in such a large ocean, especially when you don’t know if the area where you are searching is right or not. Search and rescue teams have had a hard time looking for any parts of the aircraft because it is not confirmed where the plane went down.
With so many unknown variables in flight MH370’s disappearance, it makes us wonder why we haven’t used our greatest technology to make something safer. Especially something as common as commercial airlines which are used on such a massive scale everyday. Hopefully, the case of flight MH370 will prove to be a learning point for air traffic controllers and aviation officials across the globe. Meanwhile, we can all pray for safe recovery of the passengers and the plane.
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