Washington Post

Aviation experts want better tracking of planes

Experts seek solution to track planes better in light of diapearrence og Malaysian flight 370

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WASHINGTON, USA

Seven months after the disappearance of a jetliner with 239 people on board, international aviation experts gathered in Washington on Tuesday to mull advances to better track planes in flight and locate them when they crash.

The conference called by the National Transportation Safety Board took place as trio of ships resumed the search this week for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in a remote region of the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

The flight took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing on March 8. Something went wrong off the coast of Malaysia, with the plane's transponder signal and radio going silent. If, as some suspect, someone in the cockpit turned off those electronics, the solutions proposed Tuesday might be susceptible to the same flick of a switch.

Piecing together satellite data, investigators later were able to determine the plane radically changed direction and flew for more than eight hours before apparently running out of fuel over the ocean.

"When a flight cannot be located, an incredulous public asks: 'How can they possibly lose a plane?' " NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said in opening the conference.

Commercial aircraft that go down over remote land masses are quickly located by activation of emergency transmitters. But when planes crash into the ocean — and data gathered by Boeing shows that has happened about once a year since 1980 — finding the plane can be more challenging.

 

There have been two high-profile disappearances in recent years: the Malaysian Airlines plane in March and an Air France flight that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. It took two years to find the black box from the French aircraft on the ocean bottom.

The potential solutions to tracking and finding airplanes presented Tuesday — some of which are being implemented and others on the horizon — addressed the challenges investigators faced in both of those crashes.

For example, the Malaysian aircraft was fitted with advanced equipment commonly known as ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance — broadcast). It allowed the plane's movement to be tracked by land-based radio towers. But the intention is that the system soon will allow tracking by satellite as well, expanding coverage into remote areas like the Indian Ocean.

ADS-B is one of several satellite-driven options that would advance real-time tracking. The systems allow streaming of multiple types of messages, including information about fuel levels and engine status. Before the Air France plane plunged into the ocean off the coast of Brazil in 2009, it sent 29 transmissions warning of a problem.

 

Boeing's Mark Smith said a simple fix could imprint a plane's location on messages sent from the cockpit. Another option being considered would stream data currently being stored on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder from the plane during the flight.

Another proposed advance would extend the duration of a cockpit voice recording to 20 hours. Currently the devices retain either one or two hours of cockpit conversation. There are concerns that if the MH370 recorder ever is recovered there will be no voice record of what happened at the time the flight went off course.

There also were several proposals to make recovery of the black box more viable when a plane crashes into the ocean. One would increase to 90 days the 30-day battery life of the pinger that begins to sound when a black box hits water.

Another available option is using a type of black box now used on some military aircraft. Those boxes separate from the plane on a water impact, floating on the surface and transmitting an emergency signal.

"This system could be deployed today," said Richard Hayden, whose company builds the devices.

After spending four months mapping the ocean floor, searchers resumed the hunt for MH370 this week. The search area is about 23,000 square miles of ocean about 1,100 miles from the Australian coast.

(c) 2014, The Washington Post.

 

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