Skip to main content

How to prevent future airplane disappearances

By Les Abend
updated 5:30 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8. A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8.
HIDE CAPTION
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • How can a 650,000 pound airplane disappear for weeks?
  • Pilot Les Abend says there are gaps in radar, radio communication systems
  • He says a new system will ensure tracking of planes across the Atlantic
  • Abend says that system, other modifications, needed to prevent repeat of Flight 370 mytery

Editor's note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 29 years of flying experience. He is a senior contributor to Flying magazine, a worldwide publication in print for more than 75 years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- If the pings reported by the Chinese and Australians turn out to be from Malaysia Flight 370's data recorders, we may be on the road to finding the plane and solving the mystery of its disappearance.

But even if that is the case, we'll need to resolve a larger issue: Incomprehensible as it might seem to the flying public, it is almost equally perplexing to airline pilots that a 650,000 pound airplane can disappear with barely a trace.

Considering that the 777 is one of the most sophisticated and highly regarded airliners in the world, it doesn't make sense. Nor does it make sense that in this information overload world of cell phones, Twitter, and Facebook, that communication could break down to such a degree. So, how does one explain this anomaly? More importantly, how does one prevent a Malaysia Flight 370 mystery from happening again?

Les Abend
Les Abend

First, a basic understanding of airspace is required from the standpoint of radar and communication. In most parts of the world, radar is available and operating to track both civilian and military airplanes. Primary radar sends a signal from a ground-based station using that big, screen-like rotating antenna that one sees at the local airport.

The signal bounces back from the airplane and back to the antenna, "painting" a dot on an air traffic controller's screen. With the use of an on-board transponder, the radar signal "interrogates" the airplane by use of a four-digit discrete code that gives it a specific identity. The code is assigned by air traffic control. In addition to the flight number, or tail number, an airspeed is displayed on the controller's green scope. All airline flights are issued a discrete code.

For the most part, a transponder code remains the same throughout an entire flight. The code sometimes changes from airspace to airspace or country to country, but it has to be re-assigned by air traffic control and not by the discretion of a pilot, unless an emergency is declared.

Communication with the air traffic control facility that is tracking the transponder code is normally required. Typically, communication is in the form of direct radio contact. With some exceptions, radio contact with air traffic control is always available when a flight begins the landing phase of the trip.

More pings, more questions
What you need to know about a black box

But in remote parts of the world, especially over water, no ground-base radar facility exists. Radar has distance limitations. Radio communication also has distance limitations. As an example, portions of South America have no radar coverage. Portions of that continent have gaps and poor quality radio communication facilities, especially between countries or airspace.

This was mostly likely the situation in the corner of the world flown by Malaysia Flight 370.

It would be understood for pilots and controllers experienced with the route to be aware of such gaps in radar coverage and communication. No alarm bells would be immediately sounded. After a period of time when the flight failed to call at the expected point, the controller would attempt contact on the assigned frequency.

If that attempt failed, the controller would attempt contact on the emergency frequency monitored by all aircraft. And if that contact was unsuccessful, the controller would use an airplane near the lost flight's route as a "relay." This was alleged to have been done through a flight bound for Narita, Japan. The Narita airplane was approximately 30 minutes ahead of Malaysia Flight 370. The pilots indicated that all they received was an unintelligible reply that they couldn't attribute to Malaysia Flight 370. The result would not have been untypical considering the distance between airplanes. So, now what?

Pilot: Why Flight 370 may never be found

Well, those of you who have been following the story have heard about the ACARS, the automatic communication and reporting system, on board. Yes, the ACARS should have functioned by using either a dedicated radio frequency or a satellite signal to automatically send position data, among other parameters.

The amount of parameters is dictated by the program subscribed to by the airline. For whatever reason, the unit failed, only performing a "handshake" with the satellite. But another system on board could have saved the day, or at least more accurately pinpointed the position for air traffic control. What is the system?

It's called, ADS-B, short for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast. In contrast to radar, the airplane sends its own signal to the satellite, which returns the signal to a ground base station, which transforms it to a target display on a controller's screen. This system is already in use, and will be completely mandated for all of the North Atlantic tracks between North America and Europe.

Even over the desolation of the North Atlantic, an airplane can never be lost. ADS-B will be required for all airplanes operating in the continental United States by 2020.

The flaw is that each air traffic control facility has to be equipped with the ADS-B system for it to function. And the flaw in ACARS is that the system will not report if it malfunctions. To the best of my knowledge, the ACARS system is not connected directly to the battery, which would maintain its operation during a major electrical failure.

What's the difference between ACARS and ADS-B? Simply stated, ADS-B is an air traffic control function. ACARS is an airline company function, offering a variety of optional downloadable data parameters for dispatch and maintenance purposes.

So, do we require these systems to prevent another airplane disappearance? My view is yes.

Although many countries are adapting an ADS-B system, mandating it all over the globe would be a difficult process. Most airlines have an ACARS system but it would require modifications to re-wire into an emergency (electrical) bus. And it would require airlines to subscribe to the higher level of data downloading.

The technology for streaming aircraft data via a satellite has been discussed in the wake of this tragedy, but it appears bandwidth would have to be increased. The issue of data security would also have to be addressed.

Many folks have suggested modifications to the black boxes. But the black boxes are after-the-fact technology. Their use is forensic. Let's fix the problem before it happens. The objective of a new regulation should be to prevent a similar situation from occurring again, not to find easier methods to pick up the pieces.

And in this circumstance, the objective is to never let an airplane disappear again.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT