Communications Services

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: An Expert View

Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing on March 8th 2014. Each day there is a new theory about the flight’s disappearance. IDG Connect speaks with Dr. Alan, Kin-tak Lau, about what he thinks.

It’s been over a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 completely vanished without a trace and we are no closer to finding out the truth. A mass hunt is underway in search for signs of the missing plane. But with conflicting accounts, people are baffled. In this day and age, how could there have been such a big communications failure? If you can track your friends on your iPhone, then how can a plane carrying 239 passengers just disappear?

I’m on the phone with Dr. Alan, Kin-tak Lau, an aerospace expert from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is speaking to me from Hong Kong and although the line is patchy, I’m trying to get some understanding on this communication failure. How did all communications cease between the pilots and the ground?

Lau: “Normally there are two ways. One way is that the airplane crashes and everything is gone. The second is when the pilot intentionally shuts down all the buttons. So this ceases all communication between the aircraft and the ground.”

I ask Lau if this is the transponder he is referring to. A transponder is a radio transmitter in the cockpit that works with ground radar. When the transponder receives a signal from a more sophisticated ground "secondary" radar, it returns a squawk code with the aircraft's position, its altitude and its call sign. It is constantly being radar pinged, helping air traffic controllers on the ground to determine the airplane's speed and direction, too.

Lau: “Yes, of course. So now we don’t know whether it was done by the pilot or anyone that hijacked the aircraft. We do not know yet. But technologically, the pilot can do it. The pilot can switch off all of the [communication] buttons.”

“The most important thing for us right now is to find the Black box," says Lau. There are two Black boxes, one contains the whole aircraft data, the second one is the recorder that records all of the communication inside the cockpit. So we need to get these to know exactly what happened.”

There have been a lot of reports about passenger phones ringing. I ask Lau how easily the phones can be traced and his answer surprises me. He says: “Even if your phone is switched off, you can still be traced”. But what about above sea level? Would it not be difficult to track GPS signals from there?

Lau: “No I don’t think so. Unless the people inside the aircraft intentionally damaged all of the mobile phones. Otherwise you should still be able to trace.”

Lau continues: “At this stage we do not know anything. But my personal opinion is that we can trace mobile phones. Even if your phone is switched off, you can still be traced.”

It took nearly two years for an international search team to locate the flight recorders of Air France flight 447. The Air France Flight 447 was a state-of-the-art aircraft that went missing over open water in 2009 and plunged into the mid-Atlantic resulting in the deaths of 228 people. It took several years before it was concluded that both technical and human error was behind the fatal flight.

One can only hope that the black box is found sooner this time. But in this technological age, some questions remain. Should pilots even have the option to switch of its transponder? Should the Black box be replaced with something more technologically advanced?

Lau tells me that the aviation industry needs to put something in the aircraft that nobody can switch off, so that the aircraft can be traced. He says, “Now they [aviation industry] might have to think about a new way to maintain the safety of the aircraft.” 


Ayesha Salim is E-content Writer at IDG Connect


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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