Sunday, 16 March 2014

Malaysia 370. Where now and what does it mean for the future?

With the Malaysia 370's disappearance now running through a second weekend  more details of communications are gradually appearing and the intense, often lurid, speculation continues. Little of it is good for the airline, the Malaysian government or for the airline industry in general . It is dreadful for the families and friends of those on board .Whatever the eventual outcome, more failings than successes will be up in lights and there will be a lot of racking of brains, both good and bad.

Our guess is that the cause could still be much less spectacular than some of those currently being touted and more to do with the aircraft and its handling than terrorism or suicides. Whether we are right or not will do little to soothe the nerves of nervous flyers. There can be no satisfactory outcome for them. There will be plenty to worry about whatever the cause. To complicate matters further there are already unfortunate racial or even religious questions/comments in some quarters. That is probably inevitable but should be put aside.

It remains entirely possible that the chain of events started with a progressive failure of communications systems, probably caused by a smouldering fire which could have knocked out the transponder and ACARS automatic reporting system, led to progressive hypoxia at least on the flight deck which was detected only in time for a turn back for the point of departure to be manually initiated before the crew lost consciousness. At that point the aircraft could have continued in the direction it was now facing and carried on flying until it ran out of fuel at which point it would have fallen out of the sky.

Unfortunately as the, CVR,- cockpit voice recorder,- operates on a continuous 2 hour loop unless there are traces recoverable by forensic sciences it will not reveal what happened on the flight deck at the crucial point where the normal track off the north east coast of Malaysia was interrupted.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the disaster, whatever the cause, will be a focus on new automation as well as calls to fill in any and all gaps in worldwide surveillance of all aircraft in the air. Some governments may though not be too keen on the latter as they would prefer their military aircraft to remain truly off the radar for obvious reasons.

On the automation front there is likely to be a push for simple push one button programmes linking GPS, Instrument Landing and Autoland systems on the line of "Land me at the nearest airport" ,"Take us to and land where we came from (or at destination)". These would be linked to automatic transmissions to Air Traffic Control to keep everyone else out of the way. There have been incidents including the UPS 747 crash at Dubai and the earlier Swissair MD11 off the US coast where these could have saved the day. Fire proofing and containment and provision of individual power supplies to keep the necessary kit functioning whatever else is happening would be essential parts of a package. All this is possible using refinements and adaptations of existing technology. So is takeover of control by the ground. This though is complicated by the possibility of the bad guys figuring out how to hijack the system. Iran claims it has already done so with drones.

From here on ,while backed up by good old fashioned searches by aircraft and ships ,the search for the missing aircraft moves further into the realms, capabilities and politics of advanced hi tech spookery. The USA, UK,China and Russia are notable players in the big worldwide game while in Asia the individual countries have ,as we indicated in a previous post, their own more localised one to play .All face complications about how much or little they can  or want to reveal they know. The channels do now seem to be working though .The Malaysian government and all other parties must not be nervous of where or to what the revelations eventually lead. 

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