Posted by : Des Ross Tuesday, 30 December 2014

It is almost 2015 and large, complex and very well designed jet aircraft are still being lost. Seven airline aircraft have crashed in 2014, in different countries, including the very well-known MH370, MH17 and now we know that Air Asia QZ8501 has crashed in the ocean on a short 2 hour flight from Surabaya to Singapore. This latest tragedy would not have been prevented by enhanced tracking of the aircraft but it should certainly have shortened the time taken to find the wreckage.

It appears on initial assessment, that the A320 of Air Asia has impacted the water and considerable speed, or possibly broken up in mid-air. The debris field will now be examined, and as much of the debris and all possible bodies will be recovered and taken to shore for examination and proper, respectful, burial.

However, the investigation is only just beginning and the recovery of the Flight Data (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), erroneously known as the “black boxes” are now essential to allow a full understanding of the cause of this tragic accident. We should not jump to the conclusion that the aircraft has been destroyed by the storm but it does appear that weather has contributed to the accident, possibly by causing the flight crew to lose control.

The actual cause of the accident should be revealed by the recorders which are fitted to all large aircraft. They capture all vital information about the flight and exactly what the flight crew were saying and doing in the two hour period leading up to the time of the accident.

It is a weakness in the system that this information is currently held within the recorders on board the aircraft making it essential for the recorders to be recovered and analysed. Why is that so? The technology certainly exists to allow all the recorded data to be downloaded to a ground based station in real time so that recovery of the recorders does not become such a priority after the event.

Streaming of the data may not be able to avoid an incident which results in a crash, but it will certainly assist by informing operations centres on the ground of the last known position of the aircraft to facilitate any search that is needed and, of great importance, it will provide information on exactly why the aircraft did crash so that lessons can be learnt to avoid such an event from repeating.

In the case of QZ8501, Air Asia and the Indonesian authorities would have known what was happening on board the aircraft in real time, prior to the crash. All large airline aircraft, and many smaller passenger craft, are already required to be fitted with this equipment, so it simply needs to be enhanced with the transmitters to stream the data to the ground.

Not so difficult you may think. However, anything that is to be fitted to a modern and very complex jet airliner needs to be tested and proven to be compatible with everything that is already fitted and certified in the aircraft. This is to avoid any possibility of interference with existing navigation or control systems, and it takes time and considerable expense. Therein lies a big part of the problem. Whilst the major “legacy” carriers of the World may be willing to invest in this equipment, and it would seem like a good marketing idea to do so, the budget or low cost carriers (LCCs) will be reluctant to spend large sums of money, possibly millions of dollars, unless it is regulated by the country in which their aircraft are registered.

Working groups with IATA, ICAO and pilot’s associations are already meeting to find a solution to this issue, prompted by the loss of MH370. Now that QZ8051 has gone down, it should accelerate the decision to legislate for fitting of additional data streaming technology.

It was understandable in the earlier days when pioneers such as Amelia Earhart were lost because they simply did not have the technology to assist with accurate navigation and communication, nor did we have the satellites circling the Earth which now provide accurate positioning data for every aircraft equipped with a GPS navigation system. We now have the technology which will allow aviation authorities and aircraft operators to know exactly what their aircraft are doing at all times and which can be used to pinpoint the site of any accident. However, there is a catch. This clever navigation and avionics equipment needs electrical power to function.

Therefore, if an aircraft suffers a catastrophic event in the air or as the result of a crash, the equipment will cease to function. Therefore, it may prove to be more effective to have a 'look down' capability within the satellite system itself so that information can be acquired by ground stations even if the aircraft ceases to transmit its position.

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