Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Shock of MH370

The ongoing saga of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 poses deep questions for aviation and indeed, the entire transportation sector. The mysterious and hitherto unexplained disappearance of the Boeing 777 is now being investigated by 25 countries led by Malaysia, with China in particular exerting pressure for faster results, given that the bulk of passengers were Chinese.

By modern aviation standards, what has happened in next to impossible. A plane can certainly encounter an accident during landing or takeoff, but to just disappear into thin air while in flight is quite difficult. Modern airplanes come with sophisticated equipment that can modify everything from altitude to wing angle in order to keep the system flying. Even an autopilot program can ensure that the plane stays airborne at least till it runs out of fuel.

Moreover, planes are continuously tracked by its home country and also by any country whose airspace it crosses. Since no other country reported it to be flying over it, it is highly unlikely that it disappeared over land, except perhaps one of the uninhabited islands in the Andaman and Nicobar territory, but even there, the Indian Armed Forces have not found anything. Therefore, it seems likely that it crashed somewhere in the huge southern Indian Ocean, which would be an extremely challenging search for investigators.

How did this happen? By now, investigators have concluded that the pilots were certainly involved, because only they would know how to systematically disable the communications systems and change the trajectory so sharply. Now, whether they were coerced into it or did it for some other reason will probably be impossible to answer until the black box is discovered.

It would be particularly alarming if it was indeed hijacked, because it would mark the most significant incident of a plane hijack since 9/11 and would bring in a far more difficult question: Why? Already, there is a theory of a planned 9/11-style attack on India, the most significant country on the modified trajectory. Although it would have been impossible to execute given the strong air defense the Indian mainland enjoys, it would nonetheless be a daring attempt that would make the world take notice.

As the search continues and Malaysia calls upon countries for more technical assistance, it is important for engineers to consider more sophisticated ways to track planes and re-focus on safety. Every accident is one too many in aviation. 

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