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Here Be Dragons

Cutting Through Even More Bullshit Surrounding Flight MH370

Losing a plane is easier than you think.

by Martin Robbins
12 March 2014, 12:31pm

This article is a follow-up to another published yesterday, debunking the myths perpetuated by the media in the wake of the tragic MH370 plane disappearance. Read the original here.

The last location of Flight MH370, as tracked by FlightRadar24.com (image via)

It didn’t take long for us to get used to being watched. From the CCTV lining our streets to the GPS receivers in our phones, from targeted web ads to the GCHQ agents watching us wank away on webcams, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing, we can be found and seen. For all the criticisms of mass surveillance, we almost seem to want it to be true – to believe that somewhere up in the heavens, a distant spy satellite is watching over us with its beady little lens, giving a shit.

Just how far we’ve travelled down that path can be seen in the public responses to two recent stories. When it was revealed that American and British intelligence agencies were collecting bulk data from communication networks, many people were indifferent – 'Of course they can,' we thought. 'We expected that.' In contrast, Flight MH370’s abrupt disappearance from the grid is much harder to comprehend. How is it possible that over 200 people, on an airliner stuffed with modern communications technology, can just disappear?

People seemed to believe, fairly reasonably, that the health and position of any aircraft in our skies is being streamed back to a base somewhere pretty much in real time. But this wasn't true in the case of MH370 – the Rolls-Royce engines powering the aircraft transmit data packets back to the company’s Derby headquarters via satellite, but this only happens a few times in any given flight. It’s not a live feed as some have suggested. In the case of MH370, two packets of data were sent – one on take off and one during the 777’s climb to cruising altitude.

That's not a great deal to go on, but sending a constant stream of data would soon become prohibitively expensive – BusinessWeek’s Justin Bachman dug out a report from 2002, estimating that such a system would cost hundreds of millions in satellite bandwidth fees. Doubtless, things are cheaper now than they were in 2002 but modern planes can accumulate a lot of data, and streaming all that back is still going to be pretty expensive.

Would this kind of live monitoring be worth it? For a manufacturer like Rolls-Royce, the bursts of data they receive from each flight give them vital information that they can use to improve the reliability and performance of their engines, and deliver better value to their customers. For a modern, safe airline and its passengers, the benefits aren’t so clear. The extra data would be unlikely to prevent deaths, just provide slightly quicker information in their aftermath. Would you rather airlines paid for that, or would you rather they spent the money improving safety in the first place?

What about RADAR? The truth is, once you pass outside the range of a shore-based radar you’re largely on your own. Most airliners carry an ADS-B transponder, which broadcasts the plane’s location every half a second – that’s the information used to plot aircraft trajectories on websites like FlightRadar24.com, which published a map of MH370’s last known position recently. If the transponder fails, then the plane could end up pretty much anywhere. In theory, a stricken Boeing 777 could glide for ten or 20 minutes before finally hitting the water, which could easily translate to a hundred miles of travel. Draw a circle with a radius of say, 150 miles around the last known position, and you have something like 70,000 square miles of inscrutable ocean to search. Tough.

A number of people have pointed out that flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders – a plane's "black box" system – are equipped with underwater locator beacons, which is true. The devices emit an ultrasonic scream that can be picked up by sonar systems within a range of a couple of miles. ULBs have a survival rate in aircraft crashes at sea of around 90 percent, which is the good news. The bad news is that you’re only going to detect them if you have a sonar system within two nautical miles of them. If the search area covers tens of thousands of square miles, the odds of finding them quickly are pretty low.

Of course, there was one other class of communications device on the plane – the mobile phones carried by most of the passengers. These have been the source of some of the most stupid reporting in the last few days, when newspapers were amazed to report that some of the passengers’ phones were still ringing when dialled, four days – sorry, FOUR DAYS – after the crash.

The solution to this mystery is that there’s actually no mystery to solve. People assume that when they dial a number and hear a phone ringing, that means the phone is actually ringing at the other end. In reality, that assumption is completely bogus – it hasn’t been true for years – and as soon as you realise that, it’s obvious that there’s actually no mystery to solve. The only puzzle is why so many journalists reported this story without bothering to call a phone company and check it out first.

It isn’t just information from the plane that’s patchy. Many people, myself included, have learned in the last five days that dodgy passports are actually far more common than we realised. Given that Interpol maintains a database of lost and stolen passports, accessible to any airline in the world that chooses to use it, why are a billion passengers each year able to board aircraft without having their passports checked?

Once again, the question rests on a big assumption: that checking whether passports are lost or stolen is going to make much difference to security in the first place. Only two of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 carried dodgy passports – to give one example – and it’s not immediately obvious why any would-be bomber would need to. After all, suicide bombers rarely pull the same stunt twice. Recent history has shown, too, that there are no shortage of fresh recruits to the cause. Extremists have shown a terrifying willingness to attach bombs to partners, children or even babies in the past. While passport checking might have a role in curbing illegal immigration, its use against terrorism seems limited at best, and easily circumvented.

Ultimately, lots more information about Flight MH370 could have been available, or been available faster. Even if that were the case though, our understanding of what happened would still rely on an effective organisation on the ground, piecing together all the parts into a coherent story. Unfortunately, it seems that one of the biggest factors hampering the search is the confused and garbled information coming out of various arms of the Malaysian government.

Amid all the conspiracy theories emerging in the last few days, it’s ironic that it may well be a government that prevents the plane from being found, but through incompetence rather than design. There’s an important lesson in here somewhere: that for all the focus on technological and data-driven solutions to the mysteries of the world – and for all our faith in the powers of surveillance – in the end, it all comes down to people.

@mjrobbins

Previously – Cutting Through the Bullshit Surrounding Flight MH370

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