KUALA LUMPUR – One year ago Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777-200-ER airplane, departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia en route to Beijing Capital International Airport in China. About an hour later, the plane vanished. The aircraft and all 227 passengers and 12 crew members remain missing.
What happened to Flight 370 is the greatest mystery in aviation history — and it is critically important to find the airplane and solve the mystery.
On January 29, the Malaysian government officially declared that the airplane crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles off course and about seven hours after it vanished, leaving no survivors.
The government based its declaration on a never-before-employed method of analyzing automatic satellite communications between the airplane and a communications satellite, which indicated that the flight took a southerly course after it disappeared and then likely ran out of fuel and crashed.
Based on this analysis, the investigators narrowed the priority search area to about 60,000 square kilometers of the Southern Indian Ocean. Despite a massive effort, the searchers have thus far found no evidence of the airplane on the ocean’s surface, no evidence washed up on any of the world’s beaches and no evidence on the ocean’s floor.
Neither Malaysia nor any other nation involved in the search effort has revealed plans for a search phase past May, when the searchers will complete the underwater search of the priority area. This begs the question as to whether the search effort will continue if no clues or physical evidence are found in the coming weeks.
Finding Flight 370 is important for the families of the missing crew and passengers. The families have suffered terribly over the last year, and they won’t be able to move on with their lives until their loved ones are found or at least until the investigators solve the mystery.
High stakes for safety
As critical as it is to find Flight 370 from a humanitarian viewpoint, finding it is perhaps even more important for aviation safety. The investigators need the airplane and its flight data and cockpit voice recorders, commonly referred to as “black boxes,” to determine with certainty what happened on the flight. Without that information, the lives of future passengers may be at risk.
There is an old expression in aviation that safety improvements are written in blood. Many life-saving improvements in aviation safety and security come directly from the findings of aviation accident investigations.
Whether the cause of an accident is a problem with the airplane, a pilot mistake or environmental factors, or a combination of the three, knowing what happened leads to the improvements in technology, procedures or training that prevent the same problem(s) from causing another tragedy.
The same holds true for when an airplane is the target of a terrorist attack or other criminal act. For example, the investigation into the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to significant changes in how passengers are screened and to the incorporation of armored cockpit doors in airplanes, among other improvements.
A useful example of how safety improvements come from crash investigations is Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean on June 1, 2009. AF447’s fate was a mystery for many months after the airplane went missing because the pilots had not radioed any distress calls and there were no other indications about what caused the airplane to plunge suddenly into the ocean. The AF447 mystery was only solved because the searchers never gave up and, in May 2011, brought back the airplane’s black boxes from about 13,000 feet deep on the ocean’s floor.
The recorded history of pilot control inputs and cockpit conversation on AF477’s black boxes revealed that it was not the weather or the fact that the airplane temporarily lost its airspeed sensing when its pitot tubes (airspeed sensors) became clogged with ice crystals. The loss of the airspeed indication caused the airplane’s autopilot to disengage, and the pilots had to take manual control of the airplane. The pilots did not understand what was happening to the airplane and instinctively pulled back on the controls, causing the airplane to climb, slow and stall.
The findings led to a fleetwide replacement of the pitot tubes and improvements in pilot training. Knowing what happened to the AF447 crew is information that helps other crews deal with the same or similar situations.
TWA Flight 800 is another example of why it is important to recover the airplane’s wreckage after a crash into the ocean. When on July 17, 1996, TWA800 exploded in flight, virtually everyone believed that the flight had either been bombed or shot down by a missile. The United States, however, mounted a historic search and recovery effort, and not only brought up the wreckage from the ocean floor but then painstakingly pieced the airplane’s wreckage back together.
In the end investigators found no evidence of a bomb or a missile; instead the wreckage showed that the airplane’s center fuel tank had filled with fuel vapor and ignited, causing a catastrophic explosion. The painstaking efforts of the investigators led to changes that significantly improved fuel tank safety.
Likewise after the September 2, 1998, SwissAir Flight 111 disaster, investigators recovered about 98% of the airplane from the ocean floor and were able to determine the cause of the fire that doomed the flight. The findings led to removal of flammable insulation that contributed to the deadly fire, improvements in airplane electrical wiring and widespread improvement in airplane certification standards.
The aviation safety improvements that came from the AF447, TWA800 and SwissAir111 investigations would never have occurred if the nations involved in the search efforts had given up on finding and recovering the evidence from the ocean. Right now no one knows what caused Flight 370 to fly off course and presumably crash and, accordingly, no meaningful resulting safety or security improvements have taken place in the year since the flight vanished.
Widely flown airplane
The Boeing 777 is a widely flown airplane. The design and function of many of the airplane’s systems are common with other commercial airplanes. If it turns out that a mechanical failure caused the loss of Flight 370, the changes that should flow from the investigation will improve the safety of a significant percentage of the world’s commercial airplanes.
The investigation thus far has not revealed evidence that terrorists took over the flight or that the pilots intentionally diverted the flight and caused it to crash. But that does not mean that Flight 370 was not a victim of an intentional criminal action, and investigators need to know if and how the airplane was taken over to propose effective improvements in pilot and passenger screening that would prevent another similar takeover of a commercial airplane.
Hopefully, Flight 370 will be the last commercial airplane to go missing. The mystery has spurred aviation regulators to move forward now with long-overdue improvements to airplane tracking so that it will be impossible in the future for a large commercial airplane simply to vanish. In the meantime, Malaysia and the other nations involved in the search effort owe it to the Flight 370 families and the passengers and crews of commercial airplanes around the world to find Flight 370, learn what happened to the flight and to ensure that whatever did happen never happens again. – CNN