It’s bad enough for a widebody jet to go missing with 239 people on board, but then for the responsible country’s government and aviation agencies to handle the associated information with total incompetence is unforgivable. China, which may have lost more of its nationals on board than any other single country, certainly thinks so.
This Boeing 777, if the uncoordinated information released by Malaysia is to be believed – and maybe it isn’t – was last seen offshore from Malaysia within primary and secondary radar range. Air traffic control uses secondary radar, which interrogates transponders on board aircraft and gets an identified signal in response. If the signal disappears it could either be because the aircraft itself has had an accident, or because the crew has turned the transponder off.
The terrorists that hijacked the four American airliners on 9/11 (2001) turned off their transponders once they had taken charge of the aircraft, so they were lost to ATC, but the military could still see them on primary radar, and at that time there was no provision for direct communication between the military and the civil ATC to establish what was going on.
There is now.
The Malaysian military has primary radar to provide surveillance of surface and airborne activity off its coasts and borders. It clearly knew more about what happened to MH370 than any other Malaysian agency, but the authorities do not seem to have tapped into this expertise, and the military may have been slow to volunteer it.
There are so many information sources that do not appear to have been used effectively in this case. As a result the families of the missing passengers and crew are being kept in the dark, and the search areas now extended to both sides of the peninsula have become so wide that it is clear that tracking information on the aircraft has not been used effectively.
Nothing has been said about the 777′s ACARS system (airborne communications addressing and reporting system), a datalink that provides technical information about the health of aircraft systems to Malaysian Airlines’ base. In the 2009 Air France 447 loss case, just before the fatal sequence of events an ACARS transmission told AF’s base that an airspeed sensor disagreement had caused the autopilot to trip out. That information was made public.
If MH370 was lost to civil radar screens because the transponder had been switched off, it raises questions as to why that would be so. If the military, who are now quoted as reporting that the aircraft turned off its northerly track and headed west, descended and flew across the peninsula, saw that happen, why has the information taken so long to be released?
There has been no report about attempts to pick up signals from the aircraft’s emergency locator transmitter, although the increasingly international fleet of search vessels are clearly doing their best. If MH370 has come down in the Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea or the Malacca Straits, the water there is shallow – less than 200m compared with the 4,500m depth of the South Atlantic where AF447 was lost.
There is an all-pervasive sense of a chaotic lack of coordination between the Malaysian agencies which has hindered the establishment of an effective search strategy.
Meanwhile the failure to provide timely information when simple facts have been established shows a total lack of consideration for the families of those who are missing.