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Many of the most mysterious disappearances of all time involve aircraft, and scientists, as well as conspiracy theorists alike, are still dumbfounded on how these massive airliners suddenly disappear without any trace. It took two years to find the flight data from black boxes of the 2009 Air France disappearance. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was lost over Indian Ocean waters, and the main body of its wreckage never surfaced. In 2016, an Indian Air Force plane was last seen over the Bay of Bengal, and never again. Many still wonder what happened to the female aviator Amelia Earhart and her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean.
Can airplanes go missing? As has been evidenced throughout history, yes. Aircraft can go missing without any reliable trace.
How A Plane Disappears
Powered and unpowered ground-based property and equipment can be easily monitored through the use of asset tracking software and tools. An airplane, both parked in its hangar and flying thousands of feet above the ground, is also subject to tracking solutions and tools afforded by technology. For example, GPS satellites allow 911 dispatchers to know exactly where a call for help comes from. Logging in to WiFi connections activates location services from Google, so it knows where you are. Learn more about the best asset tracking tools here.
Airline passengers are given access to maps, detailing where they are precisely on their flight path. Radars can monitor a plane and its flight progress. Planes also utilize an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which is essentially a series of text communications between the plane and ground stations.
When a plane disappears, it does not vanish per se. What happens is that an aircraft vanishes from the radar of an air traffic control tower, and it fails to communicate with air traffic control. During these times, even the most potent asset tracking program or air traffic control system loses the plane.
The spotting of the disappearance of a plane over radar depends on the flight path of the aircraft. When on a reasonably busy route, the disappearance may be noticed in moments. Over flight paths with less activity, it may take as long as 15 minutes. In air travel, 15 minutes may be the difference between life and death.
Limitations of Current Technology
In this modern age of GPRS connectivity, sophisticated asset tracking solutions, and all-around non-stop connectivity, how can tracking equipment lose sight of these massive hunks of metal?
- Radar only goes so far.
Air traffic controllers typically use a radar to track flight progress, which is all well on land. Out over the ocean, there is a knowledge gap because of a radar’s limited range, and you cannot build a radar station in the middle of the sea. To work around this, pilots stay in contact through other means, such as radio check-ins. In between those transmissions, the controller only has a general sense of where an aircraft is currently and where it is headed.
- On-board seat maps are mostly useless to air traffic controllers.
The maps passengers see on the back of the seats in front of them are results of data collected by the ground stations coded and presented into a format a passenger can view and understand. Air traffic control has no idea about the back-seat map on a plane, so even if they get their hands on those maps, it would still most likely contain the same data, and by consequence, the same unknowns they have.
- Passenger phones are hard to track.
“No service, no location.” On land, phones could be tracked easily because the phone is continuously connected to the cell tower. But up in the air and over water, you do not have ample opportunity to use your cellular data and be tracked by your provider. This problem can be solved by emerging technology allowing planes to carry a special base station that relays communications to a space satellite, which then sends it to the ground.
- Black boxes are somehow limited in some capacities.
‘Black boxes,’ actually colored orange, are aviation recorders. There are two devices aboard a plane, one records pilot conversations, and the other records data such as air speed, temperature, altitude, and so on.
Black boxes are virtually indestructible, so they have high chances of surviving a crash. However, they also have their drawbacks. Modern digital recorders are capable of storing 25 hours of flight data but only 2 hours of cockpit recording. They have an underwater locator that ‘pings’ once a second for over 30 days until the battery drains. Once that runs out, it stops pinging, and it becomes increasingly harder to locate the black box.
What Happens After A Plane Goes Missing
- As soon as a plane drops off the radar that even the most reliable asset tracking program cannot find it, the air traffic controller will communicate with other radar stations in the area to see if they could locate it. Afterward, air traffic contacts the destination airport and all other radar stations.
- International search procedures and protocols will become effective once the disappearance has been announced. Military forces, including aircraft and naval vessels, will be mobilized for search efforts. Civilian planes and boats will also be involved in the process.
- The airport of departure of the missing plane will check their runways for parts of debris, any indication that the missing flight experienced something untoward.
- Investigations will ensue, usually led by either the country where the craft was flying to or the nation where the aircraft is domiciled. Members of the investigating team will focus on a specific cause. For instance, one team will work on weather, another on human intervention, another on terrorism, etc. The investigation will last as long as it takes. Occasionally, the investigation won’t yield any results.
The Future of Missing Airliners
In 2010, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruled that all US aircraft would need to utilize an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS – B) system. By 2020, it is expected that planes are required to broadcast their location as derived from GPS. An example of this service is FlightAware, a live flight-tracking site.
To receive ADS – B signals, ground receivers need to be at least within a set radius, which is improbable when over the ocean. There is a gap the equipment can’t reach. The solution? More satellites.
Aireon, a plane-tracking company, installed its own payload devices on over 70 Iridium satellites that launched to orbit. These devices are designed to capture ADS-B signals wherever they may be broadcast, providing complete tracking anywhere on Earth and enabling real-time traffic management.
Planes can go missing and can prove to be quite challenging to find. Technology has made some significant leaps in tracking, but there are still questions to be raised before air transport is genuinely safe. If you own a plane asset, then it would be wise to invest in an asset tracking solutions system to better monitor your investment.