MH370: It’s not a small world after all


Will MH370 hasten the transition to satellite-based navigation?

The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line started ferrying a small number of passengers between the neighboring Florida cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa in 1914, thus inaugurating commercial airline service. In the century since the tiny airline began operations—and particularly since commercial jet travel took off in the late 1950s—airlines have, more than any other human innovation, made the world seem to be much smaller than it is.

I take for granted the ability to wake up and have breakfast in Washington DC, head to the airport and just a few hours later be having a late lunch or early dinner in Los Angeles. For most of human history, traversing North America was a treacherous journey that took many, many weeks to accomplish—if it could even be accomplished safely at all. Even gargantuan trips, such as New York to Singapore, now can be routinely accomplished within a single day by jet aircraft.

But the painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared a month ago, has starkly revealed how illusory this “small world” commercial aviation seemingly created is. The Indian Ocean, where officials believe MH370 went down, covers an area of 73.56 million square kilometers, or 28.35 million square miles. And it is just the third-largest of Earth’s oceans, dwarfed by the Atlantic Ocean (106.4 million square kilometers/41.08 million square miles), which itself is dwarfed by the immense Pacific Ocean (165.25 million square kilometers/63.78 million square miles).

How can a commercial airliner go missing for weeks without a scrap found? While such an occurrence was unimaginable before March 8, it now seems amazing that it hasn’t happened before when you consider the above numbers. And that’s particularly so when you consider how sluggish the global airline and air traffic management industries have been to transition to satellite navigation.

With air traffic control still largely relying on ground-based radar to track flights, the truth is commercial aircraft temporarily “disappear” every hour of every day all over the world.

Will MH370 hasten the transition to satellite-based navigation? I have to say I’m skeptical; the money that needs to be available and the complicated politics that have to be overcome to truly make that transition happen are almost as daunting as the vast size of the Indian Ocean. As we are painfully finding out, commercial aviation navigation is still largely rooted in the 20th Century. Without full satellite coverage to track airliners, the world really will remain a very large place, sometimes scarily so.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Apr 9, 2014

Whoever committed this crime was ignorant of the SAT com that keeps pinging the satellite. But for that MH370 would have still remained untraceable. This is a new phenomenon for the aviation world to confront - pilot suicide. He could have just jumped off a building, but in this new trend takes another 300 people with him. Even if we have complete satellite tracking, how are we going to stop this new suicide fever. It will only aid a quicker postmortem. What will help, is access to the cockpit under such extraordinary circumstances. Communication equipment in the cabin so that the crew member locked out of the cockpit can talk to the ground. The bullet proof door for the cockpit has unwittingly aided such mentally unstable pilots or hi-jacker.

on Apr 9, 2014

TechGuru, It sounds like you have all the evidence, do you? I would be careful accusing and hanging people without a trial.

I believe there are far more accidents and incidents because of pilot fatigue, but no one cares because the money rules. You will probably happily travel with the cheapest airline too, as most people, putting your life at risk without knowing it or want to know it.

What happened with the Malaysian Airline MH370 nobody really knows, there has only been speculations so far, but I believe their pilots and crew did all they could to save the people aboard their aircraft. We have to wait until the investigation is finished, none can tell If they handled the aircraft wrong because of lack of training, fatigue or had a severe malfunction or anything else. I do not believe suicide is the case, as you said, why not jump infront of a train or down from a building instead. Pilots are thoroughly tested for mental health in most countries and a healthy airline with good working policy and enviroment would have noticed if someone of their employess had become ill long before any pilots would have been incapacitated for some reason.

on Apr 9, 2014

It is now exactly a month past the fateful day that MH370 disappeared without a trace taking with it 239 hapless passengers and crew.

The world has waited with bated breath to unravel the mystery and reasons behind what has now become one of the most perplexing aviation incidents ever. Yet, 30 days past, authorities are no closer to getting even a scrap of evidence to suggest what might have transpired that dark night..

In spite of all the technological marvels at our disposal, we humans get humbled at times like this where several of our brethren have just vanished without a trace, along with a large aircraft bristling with the latest that technology has to offer.

Indeed, the world is no longer small as we might have smugly been thinking. Once in while, Nature and the Universe do give us a nudging reminder that we humans are not as smart as we might think ourselves to be.

I had mentioned earlier in these blogs that whatever the outcome of the MH370 incident, it will spur research and legislation towards better and more effective utilization of the technology that we already have to ensure that chances of such events are minimized.

Sadly, it takes loss of precious lives to goad us into action, highlighting how we continue to remain re-active rather than proactive, closing the proverbial barn door after the horse has bolted.

Let us take a moment and spare a thought to the memory of all those on board MH370. Hope is eternal.....

on Apr 10, 2014

A deliberate action by one or both the pilots, perhaps in connivance with some member of the cabin crew or even a passenger is one of the several probabilities that authorities do have on their investigation list.

However, just for sake of argument, if some credence were to be attributed to this theory and the fundamental assumption that the 777 did come down in the Indian Ocean, then flying for six or seven hours south-westwards just to commit suicide does seem somewhat odd. If suicide is what the pilot(s) had in mind, all they had to do was plunge the aircraft into the ground immediately after taking off.

Perhaps the most puzzling factor in the whole episode is the deliberate action of deactivating the transponder. What purpose would that serve to a pilot with suicide on his mind?

Taking the assumption further, a last-moment religious incantation would perhaps have been mouthed by someone taking his own life and those of others with him. However, as the transcript shows, the last radio transmission from MH370 was perfectly normal.

As Rockachic rightly comments, everything is speculation until proven otherwise and we shall just have to wait for a fairly long time, I fear, before the truth comes out; if at all it does.

on Apr 11, 2014

A transponder that cannot be switched off seems an obvious place to start. I do hope for the sake of these who have 'disappeared into thin air', this will start something good.

Please or Register to post comments.

What's AirKarp?

ATW senior editor's blog

Blog Archive