Tracking planes

April 4th, 2014 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

An aviation industry group is creating a task force to make recommendations this year for continuously tracking commercial airliners because “we cannot let another aircraft simply vanish” like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. …

The aviation mystery has highlighted the need for improvements in tracking aircraft and security, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for the world’s airlines meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

“In a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief that an aircraft could simply disappear,” said Tony Tyler, the director general of the group whose 240 member airlines carry 84 per cent of all passengers and cargo worldwide.

“We cannot let another aircraft simply vanish,” he said in announcing the high-level task force to make recommendations on tracking commercial aircraft.

I strongly agree with this, and not just  because by the time this post appears I’ll be on board a Malaysia Airlines flight to (hopefully) Kuala Lumpar!!

I’d even go further and say modern aircraft should have drone capability where their airline can take over control via autopilot if a plane diverts from its intended route without good reason.

But the Air Line Pilots Association, the world’s biggest pilot union, warned that live-streaming of information from the flight data recorder, as an alternative to the current black boxes, could lead to the release or leak of clues that could make pilots look bad before all the facts about an accident are known.

The pilots union have a lot to answer for when it comes to safety. They’re the reason the black box only records the last two hours of conversation, which means for MH370 even finding the black box may not help us know what happened. Their concern about people judging pilots prematurely should be a distant second to safety.

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33 Responses to “Tracking planes”

  1. Rich Prick (1,700 comments) says:

    Considering I can find my iPhone or iPad no matter where in the world they might be, I believe it can be too hard to find an airliner with a similar kind of technology.

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  2. Lance (2,654 comments) says:

    The latest trains can now be over-ridden by central command.
    However override of an aircraft raises massive safety issues, like could the system be hacked and used for terrorism. Remember that hackers aren’t all spotty faced geeks on their PC in their bedroom. Some are state level organisations with huge resources available to them.

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  3. Mobile Michael (451 comments) says:

    The pilots unions have long been afraid of pilots being blamed for incidents so have resisted tracking. This can be gotten around by movi g the data to a third party holdrr who can knly release the data to official investigations after a notifiable incident.

    We have a significant case in NZ where the Police wanted to prosecute the pilots in the Ansett Dash-8 crash in the Tararuas, and the Pilots Union tried to stop the recorded information being used by the prosecution. While the union lost, the case against the pilots was not proven as there was a serious malfunction of instruments and warning systems.

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  4. tvb (4,416 comments) says:

    And indeed many if not most crashes are caused by pilot error. How often have you heard ahhh but he was a careful pilot, never took any risks etc, etc. Usually from a grieving family. But only later to find out there was pilot error. That tragic balloon accident near Caterton is but one example where the pilot was affected by drugs.

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  5. mandk (992 comments) says:

    Sounds to me like the pilots are trying to avoid accountability, even though they are paid a lot of money because they have major responsibilities.
    In this respect the pilots’ unions are no better than the teachers’ unions who are steadfastly resisting any argument that their performance should be measured.

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  6. Azeraph (604 comments) says:

    We’re human and fallible, the variables are immense and yet we are able to ride within an excellent safety margin. It’s a tragedy but not one that isn’t unforeseen. What gets people is they think every square inch of the planet is continuously mapped and scanned 24 hours a day. My sister and her kids were shocked to her a cyclone was coming in on the friday it hit auckland, lucky i went around there and was securing things in their backyard and taking down their tarpaulins and when they got home from a day out with the girls the look on their faces when i told them what was coming just told one how the phone can completely sidetrack someone out of reality.

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  7. RRM (9,916 comments) says:

    Read the Mahon report on the Erebus disaster DPF?

    It doesn’t surprise me the pilots are a bit unionist, anything goes wrong and “it must have been the pilot’s fault” because the engineering issues are frequently so far beyond what Joe Thick can understand, or has ever heard of…

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  8. Jaffa (94 comments) says:

    Don’t have an off switch on the transponder would help!

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  9. eszett (2,408 comments) says:

    They’re the reason the black box only records the last two hours of conversation, which means for MH370 even finding the black box may not help us know what happened.

    The FDR (Flight Data Recorder) records everything for the entire flight I believe. It’s only the cockpit voice recorder that records the last two hours.

    To be fair, for a “normal” accident investigation the last two hours should be usually be sufficient.
    This is quite an extraordinary case.

    I am pretty sure it will lead to the CVR being extended to the entire flight.

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  10. eszett (2,408 comments) says:

    Jaffa (65 comments) says:
    April 4th, 2014 at 8:29 am
    Don’t have an off switch on the transponder would help!

    Every electrical equipment needs a circuit breaker of some sort. If you have an electrical fire in the transponder mid-flight, you may want to switch it off

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  11. iMP (2,383 comments) says:

    Profits in airlines are on pretty small margins and the capital outlays are massive. That is why many innovations take 20 years to implement, so fleets can be upgraded across long cash flows. It’s not just about bolting a new piece of tech on. It has to be integrated with everything else, ie the onboard software systems and ground control.

    Also. Inspectors only ever use the last 30 minutes of b.boxes, so the 2 hours thing is not an issue.

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  12. iMP (2,383 comments) says:

    Speculation alert.

    I think there was a localised fire in the plane’s wiring, which shut off the things people think were turned off on purpose. The plane also lost communication, and perhaps compression and oxygen. They tried to turn it in a long arc back to base. But it kept flying, ran out of fuel and crashed.

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  13. davidp (3,581 comments) says:

    Jaffa>Don’t have an off switch on the transponder would help!

    Not particularly. For most of the joy ride (assuming it actually was to the south), the aircraft was well out of radar range.

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  14. RRM (9,916 comments) says:

    I’d even go further and say modern aircraft should have drone capability where their airline can take over control via autopilot if a plane diverts from its intended route without good reason

    Negative, ghostrider.

    I don’t want some desk jockey sitting in safety thousands of km away, deciding he knows best and is going to take over from the pilot; who can see the view out the windscreen and the clocks on the dashboard, AND has got as much invested in a safe landing as me, the passenger….

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  15. thePeoplesFlag (245 comments) says:

    “…I’d even go further and say modern aircraft should have drone capability where their airline can take over control via autopilot if a plane diverts from its intended route without good reason…”

    I know you are reflexive centralising authoritarian DPF, but this is beyond stupid. Bung one hole, and you simply create another opportunity elsewhere. MH370 was almost certainly lost as a result of pilot action, probably when one of the pilots locked himself into the cockpit. Armoured cockpit doors are a good example of a knee jerk reaction to cockpit takeovers on 9/11 creating another problem – making pilot suicide a cinch. All your centralisation idea would do is increase the size of the next inside-job catastrophe. All a terrorist would have to do is work how to take over an aircraft remotely, storm the airline control centre and voila, every aircraft in that airline in the sky will be nosediving to earth within 15 minutes.

    The reason aircraft operate using “old-fashioned” technology is firstly, that technology is almost 100% reliable. Secondly, their has been a tremendous amount of work done of understanding the dynamics of cockpit interaction between crew and their systems. There is no evidence that additional systems will improve flight safety, and plenty that in an emergency more blaring horns and blinking lights will simply add to pilot workload. If they do find the CVR and FDR of MH370, I would put good money on them containing nothing – because the can be deactivated by simply pulling a circuit breaker in the cockpit. Any sort of automatic transponder would also have to be connected to a cockpit circuit breaker for the same fire safety reasons the CVR/FDR are on circuit breakers. An aircraft commander is called a captain because at the end of the day, in the sky or on the ocean, he or she has to be in ultimate control of their ship.

    Probably the best things they could do in the wake of MH370 is to:

    1/ Start monitoring and to take far more seriously the mental state of flight crew, particularly the key cockpit command members.

    2/ Make it much easier to get into the cockpit again. The 9/11 attacks worked because for a brief window passengers did not fight back. That window lasted one hour and forty four minutes before closing with the passenger revolt of Flight 93. Today, no group of passengers would sit idly by if they were hijacked by Islamic terrorists. On the balance of probabilities, secure cockpit doors have killed more passengers than they’ve prevented hijackings.

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  16. Ed Snack (1,872 comments) says:

    Eszett has one important point, all electrical equipment needs a way to be switched off because if there is an electrical fire, if it cannot be rapidly extinguished and stopped from restarting, the aircraft will almost certainly fail and crash inside 15-18 minutes unless it lands. That is why there are circuit breakers for everything on an aircraft. Maybe a special mechanism to switch on an emergency alternative transponder if the main on is switched off this way, with separate power supply and all ?

    Rich Prick, you cannot find your iPhone anywhere in the world, but only in places where there are active telecoms. There are many places in NZ where you couldn’t locate it, let alone in the middle of any of the oceans. Sadly, that’s a common comment that just shows how ignorant people are about the issues of locating an object that flies over some pretty remote places. If MH 370 had crashed in a place with telecoms coverage I would think we would have found it by now.

    iMP, so while fighting this fire and losing oxygen and switching off systems, they had time to make several significant changes of course, and completely fail to follow standard procedures in dealing with the fire ? Like, when signing off from Malaysian ATC AFTER switching off the transponder and the ACARs reporting, they can’t find it in themselves to say mayday or help or anything but “goodnight Malaysian 370″ !!?! They would have to be not just daft but utterly incompetent surely ? And why, if they even suspected hypoxia, did they not simply reduce their height to one where they could work without oxygen supplies, all pilots go through training exercises where they are deprived of oxygen and set exercises so they are at least aware of the symptoms and its effects. Cabin staff also have portable oxygen that they could supply. Sorry, but that’s another almost certainly debunked piece of speculation that requires too many simultaneous failures plus pilot and crew incompetence.

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  17. dime (9,972 comments) says:

    “even though they are paid a lot of money because they have major responsibilities.” – i thought they were paid well because of all the training they did and the skill they have. whats money got to do with it anyway? if they were paid poorly it would be “its cause we pay shit and get losers flying planes”

    it was always a matter of time before people started screaming for more regulations.

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  18. jackinabox (776 comments) says:

    “by the time this post appears I’ll be on board a Malaysia Airlines flight to (hopefully) Kuala Lumpar!!”

    She’ll be right (hopefully) aye DF? I wouldn’t trust MA to get me to the corner dairy. If they had nothing to hide they’d release an unedited copy of the audio recording instead of that twice transcribed bollocks they want the world to believe were the final words from the plane.

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  19. Peter (1,712 comments) says:

    It seems to me switching a transponder off, or having it go off, is a signal of a major incident. If a transponder goes off, another backup should kick in and signal mayday alerts to air traffic control, possibly also throwing open the comms. This second unit can be switched off, too, in the event of fire, but the reason for doing so should be communicated first, perhaps a hardcoded requirement within the unit, itself. It would add a little workload to pilots.

    Any aviators here? Would this work?

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  20. tas (625 comments) says:

    The issue is not tracking planes – that basically already happens – it’s whether there is an off switch for tracking.

    A “drone mode” is a scary idea. It’s technically feasible, but would present a grave security threat. It would allow a plane to be hijacked remotely. I trust the pilots more than whatever security such a system would have.

    A more reasonable response is psychological monitoring of pilots. They already need to pass medical tests, why not psychological and background checks?

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  21. jackinabox (776 comments) says:

    One million people in the air at any one time every day, would the loss of one plane load per day make a dent?

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  22. OneTrack (3,088 comments) says:

    tas – “A “drone mode” is a scary idea.”

    Yep. The additional possible failure scenarios that could be created don’t bear thinking about ie “Plane crashed when pilot override system self-engaged”, or “Plane consumed by fire after short circuit in pilot override system causes electrical fire that could not be stopped due to no circuit breakers”.

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  23. V (719 comments) says:

    You’ve proved yourself a complete fool with the remote control idea. Save it for April fools.

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  24. ross69 (3,652 comments) says:

    That tragic balloon accident near Caterton is but one example where the pilot was affected by drugs.

    Unproven, but I enjoyed your rant.

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  25. mikenmild (11,247 comments) says:

    I thought it had been demonstrated that the balloon pilot consumed cannabis before the flight.
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/6894716/Balloon-crash-pilot-had-smoked-cannabis-report

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  26. ross69 (3,652 comments) says:

    I thought it had been demonstrated that the balloon pilot consumed cannabis before the flight.

    Yep he was apparently given it for medicinal purposes. The other commenter said the pilot was “affected” by drugs. That’s unproven.

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  27. mikenmild (11,247 comments) says:

    Even if he was given it for ‘medicinal purposes’, do you think it is a good idea for a pilot to consume cannabis before flying?

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  28. ross69 (3,652 comments) says:

    In February, preliminary findings released by TAIC showed the balloon should not have been in the air on January 7.

    The burners and LPG fuel system had not been correctly inspected, the balloon material had not been properly strength-tested, and a safety logbook was left incomplete.

    These oversights meant the balloon may have been in breach of CAA standards, and therefore not “airworthy”.

    That’s nothing to do with cannabis use…

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  29. Fentex (971 comments) says:

    Their concern about people judging pilots prematurely should be a distant second to safety.

    It’s a silly concern because it’s not as if lack of information stops people from forming theories and hypothesis, is it?

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  30. ross69 (3,652 comments) says:

    Even if he was given it for ‘medicinal purposes’, do you think it is a good idea for a pilot to consume cannabis before flying?

    No, I don’t.

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  31. georgebolwing (844 comments) says:

    I agree that we should strongly resist knee-jerk reactions. Unfortunately, world-wide there are large groups of politicians waiting to demonstrate how much they really do care about people, and will soon be shouting “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE”.

    MH370 is, fortunately, one of the very few examples of a commercial passenger plane simply disappearing without trace. Whatever caused it is, to date, fanishingly rare. Doing nothing is probably the right response.

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  32. UglyTruth (4,551 comments) says:

    All 777’s are fly by wire, looks like BOAP has been implemented for a number of years.

    http://www.standard.co.uk/news/new-autopilot-will-make-another-911-impossible-7239651.html

    Published: 03 March 2007
    A hijack-proof piloting system for airliners is being developed to prevent terrorists repeating the 9/11 outrages.

    The mechanism is designed to make it impossible to crash the aircraft into air or land targets – and enable the plane to be flown by remote control from the ground in the event of an emergency.

    ….

    The so-called ‘uninterruptible autopilot system’ – patented secretly by Boeing in the US last week – will connect ground controllers and security services with the aircraft using radio waves and global satellite positioning systems.

    After it has been activated, the aircraft will be capable of remote digital control from the ground, enabling operators to fly it like a sophisticated model plane, manoeuvring it vertically and laterally.

    A threatened airliner could be flown to a secure military base or a commercial airport, where it would touch down using existing landing aids known as ‘autoland function’.

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  33. V (719 comments) says:

    Speaking of drone mode. Maybe it is needed after all – for parking.

    http://www.whaleoil.co.nz/2012/01/farrar-too-far-left/

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