Lost B777—reward offered, but some questions asked

March 20, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

SPAC_Satellite_GPS_IIF_lgThe Malaysian Airline mystery, which has now extended into weeks, reopens a discussion from last October (Get Lost and Get Found) regarding ELTs, PLBs, and tracking. Without re-thrashing all the pros and cons there seem to be a couple of logical solutions to this. Here are my thoughts—subject to change:

1. Commercial aircraft (FAR parts 121 and 135) should have a tracking device that cannot be disabled from the cockpit. We discussed Spot and Spidertracks, and there are very likely others. The key difference between these and “emergency devices”—including the approved ones—are that they leave a “breadcrumb” trail. Depending on the service, it is accurate to within a few miles and in some cases less. The ability to be found does not depend on fragile antennas that can shear off or be submerged on impact. If we can find a smart phone with an inexpensive app, why not an aircraft? The SAR community will perhaps disagree, but the present circumstance is not a strong endorsement for the existing system.

2. Personal Aircraft—those of us who fly under FAR Part 91 should have the option of what safety gear we wish to carry, in my opinion. Passengers should be informed that they cannot expect the same level of service or safety as they get from the airlines. The Coast Guard uses this approach with yachts, and if you choose to wander offshore beyond VHF range without an EPIRB or other tracking device—y’all be careful.

3. ADS-B is a reasonable alternative provided the FAA can deliver reasonable benefit at reasonable cost. Currently, I’m not convinced that we’re there. Within the Continental U.S., ground stations will largely do the monitoring—perhaps supplemented by some satellite. But land covers roughly 30 percent of the Earth’s surface. The rest is water world and there is not much radar as we’ve recently reaffirmed. Satellite tracking would save the airlines a lot of money—according to some who know, about $80 per flight hour on fuel per aircraft. Add that up over the course of a year, and you’re talking serious money. Iridium has such a system ready to be put into service, but there seems to be some bureaucratic difficulty in making the decision.

How much do you think has been spent on this current search? How much was spent searching for Air France 447, the Airbus 330 that was lost over the South Atlantic? There has to be a better way of dealing with this. Give GA the option of equipage and provide a cost effective path. For the commercial folks—perhaps there should be a cost effective mandate. Vaporliners shouldn’t be allowed to traverse the skies in the 21st century.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jody Traywick

    I have written my congressman to state that satellite technology exists and implementation is being delayed by beaurocracy.

  • http://www.montanaairstripliving.com Gerald Hurst

    PICs should have control of as much as possible from the cockpit. Any device can be disabled either from the ground or in the air if it is known to be there. Government mandated purchases of devices are usually the result of someone using their political influence for financial gain and are at best marginal at resolving a problem. Usually government mandates are expensive, useless and an excuse to create another agency to oversee it. It is obvious that many countries are careless about how they operate their airlines. Gadgetry won’t fix that.

  • Ray Toews

    I have a $150 Spot clipped to my dashboard which tells the world where I am every 10 minutes.

  • John Joseph

    I believe that they have instant Google Earth and then then the can track the flight path of the plane after the transponder signal was lost.

  • http://NA George Schaefer

    The use of Sat flight following has been in play in the Gulf of Mexico for years, longer if one looks at Loran Flight following systems (LOFT)As a long time member of the SAR community, using something like “spot” or Delorme InReach SE”. There are companies that provide this service for a fee (http://www.satwest.com/Aircraft_Tracking_AFF_s/2.htm) Is much preferred over a 406mHz beacon. So folks understand, 121.5 can be monitored and tracked by any plane or person with an aviation radio. the 406mHz beacon requires a special unit that 99% of planes can not receive. This includes many Civil air patrol units and aircraft. The main reason for the 406 mHz beacon was to reduce the inadvertent false signals. The Fact is many 406 MHz units are not ever registered but are much harder to locate without a specialized and high cost, tracking unit like the Becker for airframes or portable units like ACR/HR Smith or Becker. Conversely , for the 121.5 MHz signal, any aviation capable band unit can be used to track the signal.

    The second real issue with the ELT units is the tiny antenna normally breaks off reducing it’s effectiveness. Why not use a “tape” antenna permanently affixed to the vertical tail fin so it can’t break off. The SAT system to me is a much better way, because even if it sinks in the ocean, one can see it’s last Known position and we can find 99% of the search subjects if we know the LKP within 1nm.

  • Susan Sanford

    Safety devices mandated for airlines will eventually be required for GA. The premise will be that most GA passengers are not properly informed of their greater risk.

    If you want to bring cost into the discussion, what is the TOTAL cost of installing, testing, maintaining, training and adding weight and complexity to every aircraft in the world? Plus the cost of equipping rescue organizations and satellites with the capability for detecting the signals. And training the SAR crews? And on and on. All this to save exactly how many lives?

    Fact is, the high costs of searching for Flight 447 and others is driven by political face-saving and the news cycle, not by any concern for possible survivors. How much has been spent searching for Earhart’s crash site? To what end? Ocean searches for “nobodies” stop when survival is unlikely.

    The sad truth is that most aircraft related deaths, including those from Flight 447, are caused by well characterized factors, over and over. When “we” eventually find the Malaysian aircraft, the odds are high the cause will be one of these factors rather than some new insight. So the benefit of the search is strictly to bring closure to relatives and to feed the news cycle. I have no desire to spend money on my aircraft to further those ends.

  • http://www.peter-collins.org Peter L Collins

    Okay, I agree, let’s not add complications or big costs to our lives. But my SPOT was only a few hundred $ to buy, and even less for annual running costs. Think 50 cents per flight (yes CENTS per FLIGHT). It makes a sat-phone fix every 10 minutes, will phone my friends (with location) if I need help and raise SAR when I press that button. It keeps up the fixes when I’m stationary on the ground so I’m easy to find.

    The cost to hide one in the roof of an airliner will be higher, sure, but not all that much higher (except for the usual huge admin costs, I admit) and it needn’t be all that reliable, because it’s not a flight tool.

    You want to see 10-20 minute fixes? http://www.tinyurl.com/petertravel where yesterday (21 March – note the fixes disappear from public view after a week, but my later flights will show there instead) I flew from Rangiora to Motueka and back. Okay, they are wide spaced. One minute fixes would cost a few hundred $ more, not a fortune!

    Now, the SAR helicopter does NOT need a sat-phone. They only need to make a radio call to someone sitting at a computer watching google.

    What’s not to like?

  • http://www.eurodefence.com Paul Wynter

    Commercial ships have Voyage Data Recorders fitted, which enable their radio-locator beacons in an incident and contain a record of the ship’s movements. These break off and float in an incident. Regardless of which frequency/system they transmit on and whether a standard civil a/c can receive it, the globe is also covered by a range of DoD satellites, from various agencies, that are capable of (periodically) receiving the beacon signals and relaying the find. GPS is global too, so why not retro fit a simple update to a standard part such as a strobe nav light with a miniature aircraft VDR and locator beacon with GPS data on it, and with a tx on impact that runs for at least 24 hours. Another worst-case scenario has just happened. A committee designed plane will always have a hidden Murphy’s law, if it can go wrong it will. It possibly did.

  • Terry Spurgeon

    This is a no brainer. For commercial carriers over xxx passengers and xxx range it should be implemented forthwith, worldwide. Given the SPOTS, Spider Trax and the satellite technology that exists it should neither be expensive or delayed. Even 406 units are individually registered. C’mon ICAO, ARINC and the like. Commercially this is easy to do at source i.e. ACARS?

  • Captain Ernest Gene Williams

    you are an idiot

  • Duane

    Frankly, the MH370 scenario was a bit shocking to me, that the Malaysian airliner, and all airlineers, are not already tracked continuously by satellite with a “bread crumb trail” similar to the SPOT system, as Bruce refers to.

    After all, trucking companies and railroads and and ocean freight shippers all use a similar system to track individual trailers, trains (even down to individual rail cars and even individual freight containers on rail cars or ships!) and on ships worldwide now.

    Essentialy, any body shipping high value cargo already does this.

    So why aren’t passenger airliners considered “high value” in this context, and given the current state of satellite tracking technology?

    I use a SPOT every time I fly cross country – my dear spouse checks my progress online as I go. One time on a very long cross-country, she was able to tell that I was searching around for awhile (as it turns out, when I was flying VFR over the top and, with ATC assistance, looking for a hole in the clouds to make a VFR descent to an airport). She knew where I landed almost as soon as I knew it!

    And it costs practically nothing to use this technology.

    I’m still shocked that we don’t know almost exactly where that Malaysian airline went, and where it went down, to within just a handful of miles precision. If this situation doesn’t prod air carriers and national aviaiton regulators to institute this technology on a global basis for commercial airlines, then I don’t know what it will take.