How to find a missing airplane (rather, how not to lose one in the first place)

We have all been hanging on to the latest news about the missing airplane from the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 for the past 2+ weeks. In this age of technology, it baffles me that an airplane can go missing with no trace and you have to send ships and low-flying airplanes to try and find the debris which might lead you to the actual airplane. You are able to find your iPhone using an app, and we do not have the technology to locate a missing airplane?

This seems to me like the lack of cure for the common cold- we are spending billions on how to fix receding hairlines, and age lines, and yet there is no real progress in a cure for the common cold.

Now for some musings……

Why cannot we embed hundreds of signal emitting devices on the various parts of the airplane with a battery life of 6 months or more, so the airplane can continue sending signals that can be picked up by various listening devices. Since the only place it seems to be difficult to locate a lost airplane is in the ocean, maybe the airplane should be retrofitted with signal emitting devices that disengage from the skin of the airplane and float to the ocean surface as soon as they sense a combination of water and high impact. Surely, this would be a lot easier than hundreds of airplanes flying all over the ocean trying to locate debris from the airplane.

Why would an airplane pilot have the capability to turn off the communications or signals from the airplane? We have all the technology needed to have the plane take off, fly and land without any human intervention, and yet a single human is allowed to turn off all signals from the airplane. The airplane should be sending all sorts of signals about location, altitude, and what not to some device on land without the pilot being able to turn anything on or off.

And now for the black box – a small device that hides all the facts and secrets on what went on in the airplane with a tracking feature with a 30 day max. battery life- and here I am complaining about my cell phone’s battery life not being good enough. Talk about a single point of failure. The technology for the black box which seems to be the only device in the airplane that provides any real clue about what really happened, has not changed since the 60’s. And yet we seem to  come up with new features on our cars and phones almost every month. Here is some history on the black box, courtesy, Nat Geog.

The Black Box was first invented by a young Australian scientist named Dr. David Warren. While Warren was working at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne in the mid-1950s he was involved in the accident investigation surrounding the mysterious crash of the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft, the Comet. Realising that it would have been useful for investigators if there had been a recording of what had happened on the plane just before the crash, he got to work on a basic flight data recorder. The first demonstration unit was produced in 1957, but it was not until 1960, after an unexplained plane crash in Queensland, that Australia became the first country in the world to make the Black Box mandatory for all commercial aircraft.

So we are using a technology invented in the 60s to investigate an accident, even though the airplane itself has gone through a dozen or so upgrade cycles in the last 50 years. We are building airplanes that are lighter, faster, more fuel efficient, have fully reclining seats for the rich (at the cost of legroom for the cattle class- that is whole different blog), and provide custom cooked meals, and yet the black box has not been upgraded- talk about priorities.

Here is a thought; based on old data from Boeing, approximately, 4 million people fly commercially every day, worldwide. We put out a collection box outside the gates of all major airlines around the world with the sign: “please contribute to improving the capability of finding lost airplanes”. My guess is, we will easily gather enough funds to sponsor a tiger team to find better technologies to help find lost airplanes. After all we are in the day and age of google glasses, and self driving cars……

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