Apr 032014
 
This old Soviet cruise ship disappeared off the Canadian coast in Feb 2013 and has never been found subsequently.  If we can't find a ship, what chance do we have of finding MH 370 wreckage?

This old Soviet cruise ship disappeared off the Canadian coast in Feb 2013 and has never been found subsequently. If we can’t find a ship, what chance do we have of finding MH 370 wreckage?

The MH 370 777-200 has now been missing for four weeks.  In a few more days, the batteries that drive the ‘pingers’ on the black boxes will expire, and they will go silent (they are rated for about a month of pinging) and then the task of finding the plane will become even more difficult.

Every report of satellites or search planes spotting floating wreckage has resulted in disappointment when the wreckage is finally identified (but it is interesting to be reminded of just how much floating junk there is, even in the remotest and least traveled parts of the desolate Southern Ocean).  If actual MH 370 wreckage is subsequently spotted, while the wreckage may serve to confirm the plane’s fate, due to the ocean currents that would be continually drifting it away from the plane’s point of original impact with the sea, it will be increasingly difficult to track back from the located wreckage to where the sunk plane may be – already probably more than 100 miles away.

Should it be Easy or Hard to Find the Plane?

One of the more egregiously nonsensical statements repeatedly uttered has been to wonder how a plane as ‘big’ as a 777 can become so totally lost.  Well, even at its most seemingly precise (but still wrong), the search area has typically been measured in hundreds of thousands of square miles (a square of ‘only’ 316 miles per side totals 100,000 sq miles), and the dimensions of any plane – particularly one that has broken up and now is represented only by some smaller pieces of wreckage – represents an infinitesimal part of that total area.  Whether the wreckage is from a small plane or an enormous plane, it is still so small as to be a statistically improbable part of the total search area.

To be somewhat more exact, a 777 has about 11,000 sq ft of total surface area, much less of which would be represented by all the likely floating wreckage, and the largest piece of which is unlikely to even be 1,000 sq ft in area.  There are 2,787,840,000,000 sq ft in 100,000 square miles.  Yes, it would be easier to find a needle in a haystack.

When the Air France flight crashed into the south Atlantic, realtime data provided the searchers with a reasonably accurate location of where the plane had crashed.  Even so, it took two years to ultimately locate the plane’s black boxes, even though the search area was small.  With it appearing likely the MH 370 jet has crashed in the similarly deep (or even deeper) Southern Ocean and with a much less precise understanding of exactly where it crashed, if there are no ‘markers’ on the surface (ie floating wreckage) then the task of finding the black boxes does approach impossibility, particularly starting from some time next week when the black box pingers go silent.

But casting aside the issue of the plane’s size, it is arguably surprising that with all the sophisticated spy satellite technology available not just to the US but to a growing number of other nations as well (notably including China, a country with a vested interest in finding the plane) no-one is admitting to having any trace of where the plane is or was or anything at all subsequent to it ‘vanishing’ off radar.  If we accept the now authoritative seeming assertions that the plane went down somewhere to the south-west of Australia, in the water, it is close to impossible that the plane’s demise did not result in some floating wreckage.

Rumor has long suggested that the US has spy satellites that can read number plates on cars and are confirmed to have a resolution of only a half-dozen or so inches, and some spy-planes may have massively better resolution.  Even commercial satellites now have imagery with a better than three-foot resolution, but all we’ve seen have been fuzzy blurry images of featureless blobs in the water that have always turned out to be generic junk rather than airplane pieces.

We accept that no nation wants to reveal its technical surveillance capabilities, but you’d think that at least one nation would use its resources to spot some evidence of the plane’s fate and then ‘hint’ to the searchers as to where to look, and what to expect.

Indeed, there have been examples of that in early weeks of the search – the US was claiming to be convinced the plane had crashed into the sea off the Indian coast, and due to the way it was not revealing the reason for its belief, I’d guessed that this claim was due to underwater monitoring, either from a sound surveillance sensor array or from a submarine in that region.  How was such a confident claim so wrong?

Is the Plane Now Lost Forever?

With each day bringing no new news, and instead either being a recycled variation on how upset the families of the missing passengers are, a newly revealed and often inexplicable misstatement by the Malaysian authorities (it now turns out that they haven’t even been able to correctly advise on what the pilot’s final words were), or another go-round on the seemingly endless cycle of ‘wreckage sited – searching – bad weather cancelling search – resumed searching – wreckage deemed to be unrelated to plane – new search area redefined’, even the most eager of news sites are struggling to keep the story on their front page, much as they may wish to keep it there – apparently the crash has been a massive boost to CNN’s flagging ratings.

There is now a definite trend towards stories claiming that we might never find the plane, and/or, if we ever do, we’ll be unable to deduce what happened to it, how and why (and who).  The Malaysians seem to alternate between conceding the plane may be lost for good and promising to never give up the search.

Has the plane now been lost forever?  With the enormous amount of resource still being deployed to search for wreckage, we’d hesitate to be that dismissive of the chances of finding something – even if only floating wreckage rather than the submerged remains of the plane or, most elusive of all, the black boxes.  But we will be surprised if/when the plane is located.

Are Other Flights at Similar Risk?

The unresolved and unknown reasons for the MH 370 mystery raise a derivative point of valid concern.  If we can’t learn what happened to the plane, is there a vulnerability that may cause similar problems in the future?

This is a sensible question to be asking, but also needs to be viewed in light of a month of subsequent 777 flights with no more planes disappearing.  If MH 370 was the victim of an act of terrorism, you might think the terrorists would be rushing to repeat the exploit before it is discovered and the vulnerability resolved.  Neither has the plane (yet) re-appeared as a bomber for an attack on Israel (or various other nations), as was feared for a while, and perhaps these non-events are also significant and suggestive of a one-off event, be it a man-made or plane-made failing.

Needless to say, the ‘zero tolerance’ groups are up in arms, and are not allowing their total lack of knowledge as to what happened with the plane to interfere with their demands for better security and airplane tracking.

Such people forget that air travel is already vastly safer than crossing the road, driving down the road, or even simply staying at home.  Instead they cling to unreasoning fears and demand ever more intrusive and expensive protection against the remotest of dangers.

A question to such people :  Why are you trying to make the safest means of transport still safer?  Shouldn’t you be more focused on improving dangerous means of transportation, such as private cars?

To Put it In Context

Lastly, we are hoping to be able to spot probably small pieces of debris from a crashed plane, with most of the plane having quickly sunk.  While it might seem like we should be able to do this with the variously imagined or guessed at capabilities of national governments, let’s put it in context.

An entire cruise ship has been missing since Feb 2013, somewhere in the North Atlantic.  Authorities gave up the search earlier this year, deciding that it must have sunk, but with no idea as to when or where.

If no-one and nothing can find a ship in the congested and strategically vital waters of the North Atlantic, what are the chances of finding some assorted debris from a crashed plane in the vast emptiness of the Southern Ocean?

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