Missing Malaysian Plane: How Is This Possible In Information Age?

Missing Malaysian Plane: How Is This Possible In Information Age?
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Between Google Maps, NSA spying, and creepily accurate targeted web ads, it would be easy to be paranoid and feel like someone knows where we are every second of the day. So it’s all the more bizarre when an entire plane disappears without leaving a trace, but as Jordan Golson reports for Wired, the difficulties that search and rescue teams are having locating the aircraft really aren’t that strange.

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Planes’ locations aren’t tracked in real time

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been missing since last Friday. The flight was traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and almost certainly went down somewhere over the ocean. The problem is that the ocean is, obviously, enormous, and air traffic control doesn’t keep track of planes’ precise location when they’re flying far from land. Radar is only useful up to 150 miles from shore, sometimes less depending on the type of radar or bad weather. GPS lets a pilot know where he or she is while flying, but that information is sent to air traffic control at regular intervals (as opposed to updating in real time), so search teams can only use the last update to make educated guesses.

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Communication isn’t the priority during an emergency

Some of the speculation has centered on the lack of a distress signal, but according to experts that’s to be expected.

“It’s actually uncommon for there to be a distress message,” airline pilot Patrick Smith told Golson. “It goes one of two ways. The first is something happens so catastrophically and so suddenly that there wasn’t time for it. Secondly, crews are trained so that communicating with the ground is secondary to dealing with whatever urgency is at hand.”

Once the pilot loses control of the plane, it can go far off course, so search teams have an enormous range that needs to be searched, and they don’t even necessarily have the advantage of looking for something as large as a plane. If the plane was still in one piece when it crashed into the ocean (not very likely) it would have sunk, making it extremely difficult to find. If it broke into pieces, pieces are still difficult to see from a quick flyby.

None of that is to say that Flight 370 won’t be found, but locating wreckage over sea is a lot harder than finding it over land, and even if the lack of details doesn’t surprise people involved in the search, it certainly doesn’t make their job any easier.

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Michael has a Bachelor's Degree in mathematics and physics from Boston University and Master's Degree in physics from University of California, San Diego. He has worked as an editor and writer for several magazines. Prior to his career in journalism, Michael Worked in the Peace Corps teaching math and science in South Africa.
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