As our thoughts and prayers remain with the passengers of flight MH370, I think that as the search enters its 3rd week, it’s a good time to reflect on just how much our perception of aviation technology has changed as a result.
It’s quite important to differentiate between what REALLY happens and what we THINK happens, an in some cases the gulf is so large, that our perception of what happens borders on science-fiction. Take for example, our perception of the US Secret Service. Years of Hollywood movies have led us to believe that if anyone even thought about firing a weapon at the President, Secret Service agents would immediately throw their bodies in the line of fire, evacuate the President and then take out the bad guy. That however is mere fairy tale–no different from the Giant Robots in Transformers or the Aliens in Star Wars. If you look at History and reality, you’d find that some years back, an Iraqi Gentleman not only had the time to throw a shoe at President Bush, but enough time to TAKE OUT A SECOND SHOE and throw it again at the President–were it not for the Presidents quick reflexes, he would have ended looking like David Beckham after a night out with Ferguson.
So the gulf between what we think the Secret Service CAN do, and what it ACTUALLY does, is quite enormous.
Real world vs. Hollywood
The point I want to make, is that up until MH370, my perception of aviation (which includes the technology on aircraft and radar) was as incredibly far off form reality as our perception of the US Secret Service. How could we lose a airplane the size of 777 in todays hyper-connected world? The answer is that we lose them quite often. Many experts have already clarified that Aircraft consistently go ‘missing’ for brief periods due to atmospheric issues, it’s not like as though the flight control has full visibility of the plane from the moment it takes off till the time it lands–unlike for instance what you experience when you drive in your car and switch on the GPS navigation.
It also made me realize that there’s a primary and secondary radar…one is a mere radio receiver, that receives the data from the aircraft and then plots those data points on a map. In effect if the aircraft stop broadcasting their signals, the radar stops ‘seeing’ them. Which sounded strange to me–in my mind, if you wanted to build a stealth plane that was invisible to this radar, all you’d need to do is NOT build the transponder.
Fortunately, we have the other radar–the Primary radar, that can detect planes even when they’re not transmitting. Unfortunately, it appears that a well skilled pilot can easily maneuver a plane the size of 777 to avoid being detected–and what’s clear at this point, is that even after The Malaysian AirForce detects a plane well withing our airspace, they’d probably do nothing about it. Thankfully we have those submarines though, because who knows what else we could missing.
To me, this was quite shocking, the fact that planes routinely go missing from radar, and that our Air Force doesn’t even have a full picture of Malaysian airspace, and worse yet it looks like if we ever got into a war with anyone, we could easily be over-run.
Then of course, there’s the bit about the Search and Rescue technology. I thought every little bit of earths surface was already being monitored–ala Google Earth. I thought, that if we ever wanted some footage of a particular place at a particular time–we’d be able to retrieve it from some satellite somewhere–that is obviously every bit as imaginary as Liverpool winning the Premier League. The reality is that we don’t have anywhere near the satelitte capability as Hollywood would have you believe, and we’re about as far from that reality as we are from Star Trek.
Technology vs. Economics
As tragic as MH370 is, I think it also acts as a wake-up call, not just for the lax security at KLIA, or our lack of air defensive capability, but just the general technical capability of our species. Of course in most cases building a satellite array that can snap shot every inch of the planet, isn’t beyond us technically, it’s just beyond is economically and perhaps politically. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it needs the money, which in turn needs the political will, which in turns needs the social aspect before anything can be done.
Of course no where is this point more apparent then the fact that MAS ‘could’ potentially have averted this if they had ponied up the RM33 per flight for the sat-nav, the reason MAS didn’t do it, wasn’t because the technology wasn’t mature enough, rather it was a financial decision on the part of MAS. Which just goes to show that economics dictate the world–not technology.
Now before you blame MAS, unless you drive a 5-star rated car, with a minimum 6 air-bags and ESP, don’t blame MAS was stinging.
So the next time you ask “Can’t they do this, or that?” just be aware, of the assumptions you’re making about the technical capabilities of humans and whether those assumptions are rooted in fact–or in Hollywood movies.