A professional perspective on the mystery of MH370

Written by: Nick McFarlane
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The disappearance of MH370 this March was an awful tragedy and the greatest aviation mystery of our time. We need to find out what happened for the families concerned but also to prevent it from happening again. At a side seminar during the Farnborough Airshow, we hosted a discussion on the topic with a group of industry experts including current and former pilots, satellite specialists and air traffic controllers.

There are many aspects that we can't address in this blog for reasons of lack of information or space, so I will focus on a few that came up in our discussions and that resonate particularly with me.

A genuine mystery

The first thing to emphasise is the total mystery of the disappearance, even for aviation professionals. In preparation for the seminar, after reviewing the known facts, I spoke to three professionals – a retired pilot, a former air traffic controller and an expert working in the space industry. All three had completely different theories as to what happened – one a hijack, one a suicide and one an electrical fire. It is clear that no single theory neatly fits all the facts.

Don't believe everything you read online ...

Whilst the internet has revolutionised how we research and share information, in cases such as this the presence of misleading information can actually hamper progress. For example, several media websites are reporting that the ACARS communication system had to be disabled by crawling through a trap door in the galley. This is not accurate – it can be disabled from the cockpit. There are many examples of other "facts" that are confused or simply wrong. Perhaps it just shows the size of the information vacuum and the need for media to fill the gap? For whatever reasons, it is very hard to get a clear view as to what is known and what is conjecture, and the operational implications for the various events that occurred.

Throwing the spotlight on civil-military cooperation

MH370 was still tracked by military radar after it was beyond range of civil radar, but it appeared to take some time for this to be known and the details established. Of course, there are great sensitivities surrounding the release of military information, but nevertheless this is an area where greater transparency and co-operation is required.

Finally, the event demonstrated to me the need to re-invigorate the role and strength of international standards and co-operation. ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) and IATA (the International Air Transport Association) have both established task forces considering aircraft tracking, so that another aircraft cannot be "lost" in this way again. However, this work needs to be accelerated. Developments in air traffic management are notoriously slow to be realised and are often triggered by tragic events. So it's not surprising that it feels as if they come "after the event". To avoid another MH370 the industry actually needs to get ahead of the curve.

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Nick McFarlane
Tel: +44 1252 451 651

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