The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been called one of the most baffling mysteries in modern aviation. How can a plane disappear in this age of total connectivity? Not entirely impossible, writes YP Rajesh
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
An anguished, anonymous reader took to repeating the words of American TV series creator Rod Serling, the man behind the 1959 science fiction-fantasy show The Twilight Zone, in his response to the befuddling theories in a US newspaper report about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Elsewhere, an international aviation safety expert put it more simply: It seems like the perfect murder, but without the body.
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The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between. But for now, it has been called one of the most baffling mysteries in modern aviation. And the most critical question being posed to try and unravel the mystery: how could an ultra-modern plane with state-of-the-art communication equipment in this day and age of hyperconnectivity simply disappear without a trace and not be found for days?
Theories abound, but first the facts.
The aircraft was a Boeing 777-200ER, a wide-bodied long-range jet that first flew in the late 1990s and had more than 400 planes in service as of mid-2013. It has an almost squeaky clean safety record for any commercial aircraft in service.
MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew. It took off from the Malaysian capital at 12.40 am on March 8, flying in a northeasterly direction. It was last registered on Malaysian air traffic control radar just before 1.30 am, a little after it had crossed the Malaysian peninsula, and was flying at 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand.
Until then, there was no sign of any trouble with the flight and the weather in the region was fine. “All right, good night,” one of the pilots said in the last radio transmission from the cockpit to Malaysian ATC after the ATC said it was handing the plane over to the jurisdiction of Vietnam’s ATC. And then, MH370 vanished.
The first, and easiest, conclusion was that a sudden, catastrophic event — such as both engines failing or an explosion or the aircraft breaking up in mid-air — had caused the jet to disintegrate in the skies or crash into the sea. But the likelihood of this possibility over the Gulf of Thailand has reduced by the day as extensive searches by ships and aircraft of multi-national forces failed to spot any debris.
“I don’t see how the plane could have crashed there and floating debris not be spotted for days,” said an Indian captain who has been flying a 777 for the last seven years. “Debris is light. Something has to come up. Everything can’t just go and sit at the bottom of the sea. And if there was a malfunction, there has to be some trigger, some warning. So this is quite baffling.”
Equally, if not more, mystifying has been the failure of all communication systems on the plane that coincided with its disappearance.
A modern passenger jet such as the 777 communicates basically through an electronic device called the ‘transponder’. It responds to signals from an ATC ‘secondary radar’ on the ground and sends information about itself and its flight. When the plane is beyond the range of a radar, say for instance on long, trans-oceanic flights, the transponders turn to communicating with satellites.
The first sign of trouble with MH370 came when its transponder stopped responding — it had either failed, or was switched off, as it can be. Adding to the mystery was the apparent failure of other communication systems to track the plane.
Besides the secondary radar, there exist basic ‘primary radars’ that send radio waves into the skies and track a plane when it simply bounces the waves back to the radar. Also, planes such as the 777 are equipped with high frequency (HF), very high frequency (VHF) and satellite communication (Satcom) systems that can be used in the event of a transponder failure.
Yet another system called the Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) allows air traffic controllers and pilots to communicate through data exchange. Lastly, modern long-range jets also come with what is called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), an automatic data transfer mechanism through which the aircraft periodically sends information about its health to the airline or the engine manufacturer or a designated maintenance facility so that a problem can be addressed on landing.
“All these systems cannot fail in one go,” said Captain Arvind Kathpalia, a veteran Air India pilot who flies the 747, 777 and the 787 and a former DGCA flight operations inspector. “They can’t fail even if lightning strikes the aircraft as there is shielding. There are independent sources of power, backups, inverters, different buses, satellite monitoring.”
Although many, if not all, systems can be switched off and the jet fly incognito, it can still be spotted and tracked by a primary radar. But the region where MH370 went missing is known to have low primary radar coverage with many gaps. “Besides, new generation air traffic controllers do not have the wits to look for a primary echo,” Kathpalia added. In fact, the first signs of a possible breakthrough in the search for MH370 are based on information from primary radars used by the Malaysian military and faint signals the aircraft is thought to have sent to satellites after it “vanished”.
Almost a week after it disappeared, investigators suspect the plane flew in a designated aviation corridor in the opposite direction of its designated flight path and moved towards the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. This has to be done deliberately, causing them to suspect foul play behind the entire saga.
Renowned US pilot, air travel blogger and author Patrick Smith writes that although the idea of a plane disappearing may not seem possible in an age of instant and total connectivity, it is not fully inconceivable.
“I think people need to reconcile with the possibility that the plane might never be found,” he wrote on his website askthepilot.com. “I know that sounds absurd to many people in this day and age, where fast and easy answers are taken for granted, but it might happen. I don’t expect that to happen, but it could.”
Kathpalia is more confident about MH370 being traced.
“Eventually it will be,” he said. “Unless this is a James Hadley Chase thriller where terrorists have taken the plane to a remote island and hidden it there. But what will they do with it there?”
The plane truths
A look at how an aircraft communicates:
These electronic devices identify commercial aircraft within the range of an ATC radar and transmit information on the plane’s identity, location and altitude to ground radar stations.
Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System is a data link system used to transmit short messages such as weather updates between aircraft and ground stations via radio or satellite. Apparently, ACARS messages sent by the missing plane continued after its transponder went silent.
Boeing has a satellite service that can receive data during a flight on how the aircraft is functioning and relay it to the plane’s home base. US officials have said automated pings were received from the jetliner for four hours after it went missing.
FLIGHT DATA RECORDER
It can hold a record of over 100 hours of flight and is specially manufactured to survive a crash.
COCKPIT VOICE RECORDER
Over two hours of recording is stored by this hardened box that emits a tracking signal after impact.
Nov 1950: Air India’s ‘Malabar Princess’, a Lockheed Constellation, had begun its descent to Geneva when it disappeared. It had struck the Mont Blanc mountain in France, killing all 48 on board.
April 1955: `Kashmir Princess’, an AI Lockheed Constellation aircraft, disappeared over the South China sea after an explosion. The attack was meant to kill Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, but he was not on board. While 16 died, 3 of the crew survived and were rescued from an island.
Jan 1966: AI’s ‘Kanchenjunga’, a Boeing 707, crashed 200 metres from the crash site of the Malabar Princess in 1950. All 117 on board were killed, including scientist Homi Bhabha.
Feb 1968: An IAF AN-12 transport aircraft with 102 people went missing between Chandigarh and Leh, following bad weather. It was only in 2003 that a few hikers found the wreckage in Himachal Pradesh.
April 2002: An IAF MiG 21 fighter with two officers on board went missing during a training mission in Assam. It has still not been found.
SEPT 2009: A Bell 430 chopper carrying Andhra CM YSR Reddy went missing over the dense Nallamala forests. The chopper could not be traced for 24 hours. All people on board died.
April 2011: The helicopter of Arunachal Pradesh CM Dorjee Khandu disappeared during a flight from Tawang to Itanagar. Remains were found only five days later.
Oct 2011: An IAF MiG 29 disappeared during a night flying operation. One of the largest military hunts took 19 days to recover the body of the pilot.
(With inputs from Manu Pubby)