Flight MH370 – an aviation regulator’s views

Just a diversion but I used to be an aviation safety regulator so always take a deep interest in any aircraft accident because they should never happen.  For transport category aircraft (Boeings, Airbus, etc) the target fatal accident rate is 1 hull loss in 10^9 per flying hour; in other words, if you fly for 1000,000,000 hours, you have a good chance of not making it.  That’s 115,000 years, by the way.  OK, when you apply the statistical figure to a few thousand aircraft in a world fleet, the personal odds come down a bit but the fact remains that modern airliners do not crash for technical or design reasons.  Airliners are now safer than trains or buses, believe me.  The reason for the drive towards these extreme safety targets is that aviation is perceived as being inherently dangerous.  In reality, it is not dangerous but is very unforgiving of failings both technical and human.  That’s why there are backup systems for everything, sometimes three or four backup systems.  But it does rely on the human in the cockpit not doing something stupid and you can’t legislate against stupidity.

MH370 is a mystery.  The transponder (secondary radar) was switched off.  The ACARS (engine data) was switched off.  This can only be done from the cockpit.  Cockpit doors are armoured and locked and can only be opened from the pilot’s side.  Therefore, either the crew did it or there was someone else in the cockpit, known to the crew, who understoood these systems.  Most people would not know that ACARS trasmits even when the transponder doesn’t. The aircraft went off the ground-based radar immediately after leaving Malaysian airspace and never checked in with Vietnam.  Only the crew knew this.  Everything about this incident shouts that deliberate action of the crew.

The good news is that, if the aircraft has been hijacked by the crew themselves, it may by now be safely on the ground somewhere in central asia.  If I had a satellite I’d be looking at every airfield in central asia and look for an intact Boeing 777.  It’s difficult to hide something that big unless it’s in a hangar, and hangars that big are not common in central asia.  Even so, someone on the ground may know where it is.

The bottom line of air accidents in this day and age is that big accidents only happen when  the crew does something stupid or unexpected.  This may be combined with a number of other unlikely problems occurring at the same time (like AF447 – June 2009 – Atlantic, Rio to Paris), but the message is that these catastrophic fatal accidents need human action to make them happen.

Incidentally, I’ve written a thriller on the subject: http://getBook.at/FlightIntoDarkness.  But you knew that, didn’t you?

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