Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Plane, a Yacht, and no Nimrod. What now?

Two recent disappearances have had a common thread,-or rather two. Both are pertinent to civil and military aviation and navigation.

Both the MH 370 and the yacht Cheeki  Rafiki and their occupants have disappeared mid ocean. Both have required air searches and both saw their locator devices fall short of the robustness, range and longevity they needed.

The ideal search aircraft would have been the Comet 4- based Nimrod. The MR2 maritime reconnaissance version was scrapped in 2009 as an economy measure by the Brown government. The current coalition finished the job by cancelling the much reduced order for 9 of the substantially rebuilt and re-equipped MR4s . The MR 2 did its job well and the MR4 form gave it a 6,900 mile range. Like its predecessor the Mk 4 had the ability to transit quickly from its base to the search zone and then thanks to a big wing,- originally designed for the underpowered early 1950s DH Ghost engined Comet 1 to enable it able to land slowly and take off reasonably quickly on hot "Empire" routes, -  it was able to loiter slowly for several hours on much reduced power. The turboprop stub winged Electra based Lockheed Orion, the only alternative now available and of which the UK has none, is much less capable especially in the fast transit area.

There is no question of reviving the Nimrod. The way ahead therefore has to be approach the problem from the other end by increasing the capability of the systems to match the search capability available. This means firstly boosting the capabilities of satellite tracking systems so that the location of any crash or sinking is immediately known. This should not require any messages, pings, handshakes or whatever being transmitted from the tracked aircraft or vessel.  In any case the locator equipment on aircraft and vessels should be incapable of being turned off . In addition, the longevity and range of locator systems from aircraft / vessel right down to individual lifejacket size should be substantially increased. Much of the technology is already available and should not be difficult to develop further.

There is potential for a positive common legacy from these two tragic and very different events.

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