This Missing Plane

Has it occurred to anyone else, or is it just me, that the system of tracking aircraft seems to be somewhat archaic?  I remember when the Air France plane came down between Rio de Janeiro and Paris they first knew something was up when, having been last seen by a Brazilian radar station, it failed to show up a few hours later on a radar situated somewhere on the African coast.

And now with this Malaysian plane not only don’t they know where it came down, but they aren’t even sure off which coast of the peninsular to carry out their search.  Apparently they have a theory that the plane could have turned around and crashed somewhere in the Andaman Sea, in the entirely opposite direction to the way it was supposed to be heading.

I find this astonishing: in the age of GPS tracking and technology which can locate your iPhone anywhere in the world from your pocket, there is no system in place to monitor aircraft in real time?  And they’re relying on various radars, controlled by different authorities, picking up the aircraft when they come into range with seemingly huge gaps in between, unable even to tell if a plane has turned around and flown the wrong way for an hour or two?

Like I say, I’m astonished.


There is an article here from the BBC explaining how aircraft are tracked, and yes, it appears to be somewhat outdated.  I’m sure this incident will open up a debate over whether aircraft should have real-time tracking.


19 thoughts on “This Missing Plane

  1. You mention tracking cellphones. Were none of the 100s of cellphones on board tracked at any point in time in the 5 hours the plane supposedly kept on flying? Tracking works even when powered off: you have to take out the battery, which you can’t even do on most smartphones now.

  2. “Peninsula” is the noun, “peninsular” the adjective.

    Anyway, as CP implies, where’s the NSA when you need it?

  3. “Peninsula” is the noun, “peninsular” the adjective.

    You’ve picked me up on this before (hangs head in shame).

  4. I learned this week that tracking can be switched off manually from the cockpit.

    Apart from terrorists or a very well organised plane thief, who does that benefit?


  5. Call this a wild conspiracy theory, but an airliner would be the perfect delivery device for a really, really nasty bomb to a really densely populated area. It would be entirely indistinguishable from legitimate civilian air traffic until the ~3 minutes of attack run, by which time it is too late to do anything. You could even conceivably get a fake flight plan into the system for extra cover. There are just too many of these things up there for anyone to bother challenging – even in this case, a radar trace of an unidentified aircraft heading west across Malaysia or Thailand didn’t wake anyone up. Presumably because it happens all the time.

    All you need in the meantime is a Bond villain private island in the middle of the Indian ocean with a long airstrip, ability to refit the transponder and other tracking systems, and enough guerrillas to dig a mass grave for 200 people.

  6. Could you build such an airstrip that could be hidden from satellites? It would need to be within the plane’s load of fuel from the take-off point, the plane having been provided only with enough fuel to reach Peking, and having to fly part of that flight path first.

    Maybe you build a submersible landing strip at sea, and submerge it whenever a satellite comes close. Then …..

  7. Yeah, it’s a wild shot, but if I wanted to steal a 777 and was a ruthless bastard, this is how I’d do it. It might be easier to walk into an airport and fly one off (kinda), but then everyone is hunting for you. They aren’t if the assumption is that the plane is at the bottom of the ocean. And hijacking a plane from a muslim country? No better cover for a hijacker. That most of the passengers are kuffar that you can send straight to hell is an added bonus.

    I suspect there’s thousands of abandoned WW2 airstrips in that part of the world that are discreetly located and could be made serviceable (at least for landing) without attracting too much attention. If terrorists have the wherewithal to build dirty bombs or even nukes (and some of them have at least been trying) then stealing an aircraft and hiding it for a few months until everyone has given up looking for it would be the easy part. You’d hope the intelligence agencies would be on to something like this, but they weren’t on top of 9/11 and are now too busy reading your email.

    I agree, it’s extremely far-fetched, but the alternative to the potentially limitless far-fetched scenarios seems to be a perfect storm of rare things happening (all electronics and navigation down, pilot unable to use alternative navigation systems such as smartphone-based GPS, and has forgotten how to do it manually) that just happened to come together to doom the aircraft.

  8. At least it would make a great plot for a season of 24, or a Freddie Forsyth novel.

  9. It might be easier to walk into an airport and fly one off (kinda), but then everyone is hunting for you.

    I discussed this topic this morning with a Malaysian colleague, but we both agreed that if you need a passenger aircraft for some future nefarious deed, it’d be better just to buy a cheap second-hand one. I’m sure they’re not hard to get hold of in places like Africa.

    You’d hope the intelligence agencies would be on to something like this, but they weren’t on top of 9/11 and are now too busy reading your email.

    Yes, I’m sure feeling people’s bollocks in US airports and making me unpack duty-free wine from the clear carrier bags upon arrival at Manchester from Charles de Gaulle is doing wonders for our safety. As is scanning my iPad in a separate tray.

  10. I bet that if you walked into Kamprobi Fourth-hand Scareliners Ltd (free guarantee!!! – expires after first take off) and walked out with the keys to a clapped-out 727 the CIA would know within minutes who the new owner was.

  11. I’m sure they would, but dodgy airlines are being set up every five minutes in Africa and the former Soviet Union, it’d be pretty difficult to spot somebody who was obviously going to use it for terrorist purposes. Gaining the approval to enter countries’ airspace would probably be more difficult.

  12. The system is archaic. It is also completely standardised and highly effective at its intended task of stopping planes from crashing into one another. Such things change slowly

  13. Interesting theory there Bloke in Germany, the hijack angle that is.

    The most confusing and contradictory information coming out of this incident was whether or not and if so how long the plane did or could have flown after it went ‘off the radar”. I don’t know why there should have been so much contradiction on this subject and wont attempt to speculate why.

    It does appear now that it may have flown for a number of hours after it disappeared and this theory is not been as hotly contested as it originally was. As for the questions asked about building and hiding an airstrip big enough to land a 777, there are many military air strips within the four hour flying radius where an aircraft of that size could have landed.

    As for the comments on the phones, some information on phones ringing after the plane disappeared. Not sure what this means either but it is of interest.

    The other piece of information that has not yet been published is the passenger lists and a description of who they were. One thing that has emerged is that 20 Chinese employee’s of Freescale Semiconductor were on board, again this may not mean anything other than there were twenty of them onboard. The passenger list will be of interest though when and if it is released.

    So Bloke in Germany your theory may not be as fanciful as first thought, especially given the weird initial news releases, that shouldn’t happen when dealing with facts. It doesn’t look like the plane suffered a sudden catastrophic and immediate crash event, so maybe points to a hijack or intentional steering off course unbeknown to passengers and maybe cabin crew and that there are many destinations that it could have flown to and landed.

  14. If this was a “theft” the airline should look at what fuel the plane was actually loaded with before taking off. I suspect the pilot has a huge say in that, and the aircraft was fully-fuelled then about half the planet was in range.

    It was definitely not a classic hijacking (except perhaps one that went wrong). Not only can I not see passengers meekly accepting a hijacking post-9/11 (one of the few positives to come out of that), we’d have had some demands from the hijackers by now.

    Also not impossible that in the course of this it got shot down by the Indian air force or some other military for not identifying itself, and they don’t wish to own up.

    We can only clutch at straws now, so why not pick some fun straws to clutch?

  15. What about the funny unconfirmed straw that some of those missing IT guys on the flight had taken out a patent on something that was subsequently issued a few days after they disappeared?

    By the way on 9/11, I’m in the “no planes camp”.

  16. Well I’ll be……the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has just came on the box on evening news down under time and said what we thought. It would have been good if some journo had the balls to ask him, why the hell have we been searching in the wrong places for so long, something very fishy here, as this now confirmed information would have been available real time.

    The thieves could have landed at Diego Garcia then, Bloke in Germany?

  17. No, US military involvement is not plausible. About as plausible as the moronic “no planes camp”.

    I don’t doubt they have a better idea than we do, that’s normal. Any country it could have flown over will now be furiously checking its radar data from that night, but it’s clear this stuff is a lot less linked up and “real time” than you might imagine.

    I am fairly sure it is the aircraft, or something (or small number of people in it) that was of interest. Climbing to 45,000 feet was to kill the passengers, done early so they wouldn’t be aware of anything going wrong.

    If you want a military conspiracy I’d be more inclined to look at Baikonur than Diego Garcia. Still less likely than some Islamic terrorist motive. I don’t think it likely either the Americans or Russians would go to such lengths, or more importantly take such a risk of discovery, just to get their hands on equipment, data, or people.

  18. Hey BIG I thought we were having fun clutching at straws, yet you mock fun straws except your own?

    As for the 45,000 feet death climb, the guys over at the Professional Pilots Rumour Network don’t think so. They say that the reason that 50 seats were not sold is due to a heavier than usual or high value cargo. So don’t discount that from your certainty on it being the aircraft or someone on board that was of inetrest. They also say that 39,000 feet would be the likely maximum flight level and that it was unusual for a very senior pilot to fly a red eye trip. Indicating that there was either a high value cargo or VIP on board.

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