The Difficulty Of Making A Modern Airplane Disappear

The missing Malaysia Airlines flight was in contact with a satellite for hours after it vanished. Amid all the technology designed to keep it from doing so, how does a plane just disappear?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's now been a week since Malaysian Airlines flight 370 vanished on its way to Beijing. The search for the missing aircraft now stretches from the original search zone in the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea, hundreds of miles to the west. Adding to the mystery comes news that the plane appears to have been in contact with a satellite for several hours after it vanished. And joining me to discuss these developments is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, tell us more about this satellite transmission.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, basically this Boeing 777 aircraft is equipped with a satcom antenna, and so, a satellite orbiting way above the Earth was in contact with it. Every hour, the satellite would send a little signal going, are you still there? And the plane would send a signal back saying, yep, I'm here. Now, as far as we can tell, that's the only data that was being transmitted.

But it may be possible that the company that owns the satellite, Inmarsat, might be able to use that signal to sort of get a sense of where the plane was, where it was moving and what it was doing, basically. The signal went on for at least five and a half hours after the plane vanished off radar scope, so it really is a mystery what's going on.

BLOCK: Well, why wasn't the plane transmitting more data?

BRUMFIEL: You know, this satcom link could have transmitted more data, and one reason it may not have is that Malaysian Airlines may have not paid to have the data sent. Inmarsat told me that it could cost as little as $2 an hour to send really basic flight data but it's not clear the airline was paying for any sort of service like that. The other theory, though, that's coming to light here is that somebody may have intentionally shut off the systems designed to transmit data.

BLOCK: And what's behind that theory?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it has to do with the way this airplane disappeared. Airplanes have transponders that tell air traffic control where they are. And at 1:30 in the morning, about an hour after the plane took off, those transponders went dark. A little while later, Malaysian military radars saw what they thought was a plane heading the other way to the west. And so that's led people to speculate that maybe somebody tried to make this plane vanish.

BLOCK: And if you wanted to do that, to make a plane vanish, how easy is that to do?

BRUMFIEL: On a 777 like this, it's really not very easy to do at all. Airplanes have communications that's both voice and text, kind of like your cellphone. And, I mean, those communications are pretty hardwired into the systems of a modern aircraft. I spoke to four commercial aviation pilots, two 777 pilots, and they said they had no idea how to turn these systems off.

They said you would have to go through big checklists. You would have to possibly pull the circuit breakers if you want to deactivate them. So to make this happen would really require some degree of premeditation and a lot of knowledge of the aircraft.

BLOCK: Is there anything in all these scenarios, as you talk to people, that lines up? Or are people really stumped by what they're seeing with this plane?

BRUMFIEL: I think if you've been following the media coverage all week, you know that there really isn't a single theory emerging about what happened to this aircraft. And frankly, one of the really troubling things is the facts just don't line up. I mean, any one theory just doesn't really, you know, it's not borne out by what all the facts give us.

BLOCK: That's NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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