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How do planes disappear?


It has been 961 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China. Two hundred and thirty-nine passengers vanished with hardly a trace discovered over the past two years. One piece of significant debris — a flaperon — was recovered on Réunion Island near Madagascar. Otherwise, little from the lost flight has been found.

Many have asked the obvious question: how does a modern, top-of-the-line Boeing 777-200ER with a wingspan of 200 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 656,000 pounds with several hundred people on board disappear virtually without a trace?

The short version of the story is that it is surprisingly easy for such a thing to happen. Air France Flight 447 crashed on June 1, 2009, on its way from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France. Most of the Airbus A330 aircraft and the majority of the 228 souls onboard were missing for nearly two years. Some wreckage and a few bodies were recovered almost immediately, but the majority of the wreck wasn’t discovered until 2011.

However, the case of Air France Flight 447 was slightly different as investigators at least had some idea of where the flight had crashed. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) was widely believed to have crashed somewhere in East Asia, with much of the search focused around the South Indian Ocean, only for debris to turn up off the coast of Africa. Several other small pieces have turned up both in Africa and Australia, which has not done much to help officials understand what happened to the plane.

Theories about what caused the Malaysian airliner to disappear vary from catastrophic mechanical failure to purposeful destruction. While surefire deductions cannot be made unless the majority of the plane is recovered, a possibility which seems increasingly unlikely, certain components of a Boeing 777-200ER have skewed the theories in one particular direction.

The plane is equipped with eight ways to communicate with ground control while in flight. There are five very high frequency (VHF) and high frequency (HF) radios, two transponders and a satellite transceiver that can transmit and receive text messages and phone calls. “All of those systems, each one is a layer of protection,” said Mark Weiss, a retired Boeing 777 pilot, in an interview with NOVA. “[They are] an electronic cocoon around the airplane to let somebody know who you are, where you are and where you are going.”

These systems work to pinpoint the location of an aircraft, but function entirely on the assumption that aircraft want to be located. MH370 made its final verbal contact with ground control 37 minutes after takeoff. The air traffic controller in Kuala Lumpur acknowledged that radio contact would be handed off to controllers in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh center. “Goodnight. Malaysia three seven zero,” were the final words from the pilots of MH370.

Several minutes later, the flight’s transponder was turned off, disabling it from being seen by radar. Military radar continued to pick up an unidentified flight consistent with the flight path of MH370 for almost an hour after the transponder was turned off before the flight disappeared 230 miles northwest of Penang, Malaysia.

However, the plane’s satellite transceiver continued to transmit data to Inmarsat, a British satellite telecommunications company. “The station sends a signal to the aircraft which says, ‘Are you still there?’” explained Alan Schuster-Bruce of Inmarsat to NOVA. “The aircraft just replies, ‘Yes.’ We call these handshakes or pings.”

When Inmarsat examined the satellite data with MH370, the company found that while all other forms of communication were unresponsive, the Inmarsat transceiver continued receiving transmissions that indicated the plane was still in flight. There were seven pings after the plane vanished, signaling that MH370 continued to fly for seven more hours unobserved.


Flight plans are programmed into the aircraft, which then automatically follows the mapped route through the sky. Boeing 777-200ER’s are so sophisticated that a pilot would theoretically never need to touch the controls from takeoff through landing. The computer systems are designed to allow the plane to fly itself and follow a course through the sky that will steer it past other flights in the air.

The fact that plane never arrived in Beijing indicates that the plane’s course was manually altered and flown elsewhere on purpose. One of the pratfalls of airplane radar is that the technology widely used by airports around the world is still from the 1940s. While improvements to radar have been modest at best since the 1940s, more modern equipment could have been helpful in keeping a bead on MH370.

The largest search in aviation history has yielded extremely limited results in revealing what happened to MH370. Modern technology could only be used to reveal that the plane stayed in the air, while older technologies allowed to disappear without a trace.

With the 1000th day of the flight’s disappearance rapidly approaching, technicians and engineers will hopefully be nearing improvements that can prevent these sort of calamities from occurring again. New satellite flight tracking technology, expected to be rolled out around 2020, is slated to cover many of the mid-ocean regions where plane’s are susceptible to disappearing. It may be too late for MH370, but hopefully another such disaster can be prevented in the very near future.

Sources: NOVA, Seattle Times

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