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Lessons on many fronts from unprecedented MH370 search

2014-03-27 09:12:36

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Monday’s announcement by the Malaysian government confirming that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 had crashed with no survivors in the Indian Ocean moves one of the most perplexing aviation mysteries from a search and rescue mission to a nearly impossible search and recovery process.

Logistically, the last 18 days have seen one of the biggest international search operations in aviation and maritime history. Despite a massive array of aircraft, flotillas of ships and surveillance satellite constellations scouring the search areas, the lack of tangible evidence as to what happened has captured the attention of prime ministers, aircraft designers, the media, intelligence networks, safety agencies, military and civil transport groups, and even clairvoyants. Most tragically, however, it leaves grieving and frustrated relatives with little real information and even less sense of closure. 

After frantic searches along the original planned flight path of MH370, the search area expanded to cover nearly 3 million square miles. Triggered by satellite images showing “suspicious” objects floating in the water, the spotlight shifted to an expanse of the Indian Ocean more than 2,400 kilometres southwest of Australia. This is one of the most remote places in the world. Somewhere in a vast ocean, possibly at a depth too great for submarines to descend, a tiny aluminium cylinder attached to a flight data recorder (FDR) may be emitting a steady ping.

The challenging ocean: With 6-8 hours’ flying time involving a round trip of possibly 6,000 kilometres, aircraft have about two hours of effective search time before they must return to Australia. While the main focus has been the detection and identification of floating debris, the probability of sighting semi-submerged objects in a massive ocean swell is slim. 


According to Wikipedia, in the last 20 years at least 16 FDRs have not been recovered after aircraft have crashed: 14 were involved in accidents over water, and two were in the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center.

Pre-planning and contingency: While there has been much criticism of the way in which the initial public relations process was handled, tensions have eased somewhat. Once responsibility for part of the search moved to the Southern and Indian oceans, the Australian government assumed responsibility for this search area. This activated clear planning and operational protocols that cover virtually every possible scenario, giving a clear direction on everything from the activation of initial search missions, guidelines on the right way to release information to integration of foreign military support. 


International coordination: To a majority of the international media the search operations coordinated by the Australian government have been undertaken in a highly professional manner, largely due to the significant investment in prior logistics planning as documented in the Australian government’s National Search and Rescue Manual. The manual is supplemented by various legal, informational and instructional documents used by organisations concerned with search and rescue. It is extensive and precise where necessary. 


As the Malaysian government found out the hard way, lack of contingency planning and clear public relations protocols for appointed spokesmen exposes responsible authorities to the risk of potentially conflicting or ambiguous responses, deep criticism from relatives and can even provoke international media ridicule. 


Search risks: Mounting airborne surveillance operations anywhere in the southern oceans is risky. With aircraft flying at the limits of their fuel endurance, time over target is quite limited. Avoiding other aircraft in uncontrolled airspace, fuel planning, crew fatigue and the aircraft’s own reliability all become critical planning factors. 


Maintaining an aircraft safely for extended operations over water requires a complex and costly level of logistics and maintenance support not often appreciated. For example, the corrosive effect of salt water on engine and airframe parts accelerates the need for maintenance and parts replacement. 


Coupled with often wild weather resulting in a huge foaming swell, visibility is hampered by strong winds lifting sea-spray that obscures a visual search. Due to bad weather and limitation of using radar to search for wreckage in the sea, search and rescue aircraft have to fly at between 200 and 1,000 feet, facing additional hazards of hitting large seabirds. A bird strike into an engine or propeller can also have devastating results. 


Dangers of cargo: An investigation of MH370’s cargo manifest showed that the plane was carrying a shipment of lithium-ion batteries. In theory, LIBs are flammable, though there is no reason to believe that these caused the disaster.

However, as recently as a month ago, Bangkok Airways experienced a suitcase due to be loaded onto a regional flight that spontaneously combusted while on the check-in belt. In a similar manner, logistically any cargo being loaded into an aircraft must be carefully screened to avoid incidents occurring when airborne. 


Summary: There is still a sense of shock that a modern aircraft like the Boeing 777 can just go missing. The time and effort spent on the disappearance of MH370 and associated search logistics has been unprecedented, resulting in the mobilisation of 23 directly tasked ships, 25 long-range aircraft, more than a dozen helicopters and an undisclosed number of diverted satellites. 

There is no doubt that we have experienced one of the greatest mysteries of modern aviation and it will have an impact on global transport safety. It has exposed the capabilities and shortcomings of military air defence and conventional surveillance, possibly leading to a complete rethink of how these systems are monitored and information disseminated. 


As well, the airline industry will be considering the potential of real-time transmission of flight data recorder information and a complete revision of both aircrew psychological reviews and international search protocols.

 

Source: Bangkok Post