They Shouldn’t Be Looking for The Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Black Box


Just before Christmas my laptop died and I lost loads of important stuff. It was a wake-up call, now I don’t store ANYTHING on any of my computers. I only ever save stuff to the cloud storage system, Google Drive. Next time any of my computers crash, at home or at work all of my stuff will still be available to me on any connected computer anywhere in the world. In the overall scheme of things, my stuff isn’t very important. What I don’t understand is that information that IS really important isn’t stored in a similar way.

It’s been more than five weeks since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished and all that’s been found so far are some “pings”. Unless they find the black box flight recorder and cockpit voice recorder, we’ll never know what happened. Ships, aircraft and submarines are still searching a massive area of the Indian ocean.

In the 21st century, the fact that the only way to get the information they need to solve this mystery is by physically retrieving these bits of kit is ridiculous. The technology exists to make black boxes obsolete. Telemetry and voice recordings from all commercial aircraft can be streamed to satellites and downloaded to a ground station.

All sorts of real-time information like football results, stock quotes and the position of your friend running in the London Marathon can be transmitted to anyone with a smartphone. Why does the vital work of investigating a plane crash still depend on reading physical memory chips that must be rescued from the wreckage?

Black boxes don’t always get found. The two planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre, were essentially vaporized. There are no cockpit voice recordings.

Is it the fact that cockpit voice recordings are made that is stopping them from streaming data from aircraft in flight? Is it because pilots will never stand for it? By law, cockpit voice recordings may be accessed only by investigators after an accident. When a flight arrives safely at the gate, the pilot hits the erase button. If there’s an accident, transcripts may be released as part of a report but not the actual recordings. The Air Line Pilots Association in the USA fought a bill last year that would allow airlines to use voice and data recorders to evaluate the performance of cockpit crews. It was a proposal inspired by an incident where two Northwest Airlines pilots, lost in conversation, didn’t notice Minneapolis outside the window and overflew their destination by more than 100 miles.

Being ‘bugged’ while you’re at work isn’t very appealing. It would be embarrassing if a recording of a pilot comparing a cloud formation to the shape of a part of a flight attendant’s anatomy leaked onto the internet but thousands of people are risking their lives right now to find a couple of bits of kit the size of footballs in hundreds of square miles of ocean. They’re doing this so they can work out what happened and that information could save lives in the future. Why can’t streaming voice links be encrypted and only made available after an accident?

It makes no sense that my data is better protected from a computer crash than flight data is from a plane crash.

Craic on!

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