Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

MH370: Can we stop telling ghost stories now?

Whether or not the latest report about possible floating objects from MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean is accurate -- we'll know that in a short time -- I have to say the constant stream of conspiracy and murder theories parading across cable TV for the last week are simply maddening to families and (some) viewers. It's been completely lacking in rigor, founded on strings of thin speculation, and morphing to fit whatever tidbits sources and clueless authorities have passed along, even when those tidbits were retracted hours later.

Among the most ridiculous notions, in my mind:
  • That the schemers would thread a ridge-hugging route through the mountains at night so they could land and hold the airplane hostage, with the supposed reasons for this changing by the hour;
  • That they could keep an entire planeload of electronics-toting passengers silent as the plane flew over populated territories, including any pax with handheld satellite phones;
  • That the early, wild flight maneuvers soon after MH370 left its standard course were an attempt to evade radar; or
  • That the plane landed in a well-populated area but was hidden in a massive cover-up.
Certainly the course changes, timeline, and lack of communication make it hard for any theory to stand up so far, barring an electrical fire that knocked out a wide range of electronics and incapacitated the crew and passengers.

If the flight data recorder is ever found and recovered, we'll find out a lot. (It's possible that the voice recorder (CVR) may have been overwritten, though, if the aircraft continued for seven hours after whatever weird event took it from its course.)

Skeptics are free to criticize the "system failure" notion, but should acknowledge that the 777 for all its virtues has not been perfect, the failure of a navigational core unit on a Malaysia Air flight in 2005 (the ADIRU) being one example. In that case, an apparently impossible combination of events came very close to crashing the plane. Yes, Boeing has ordered thorough precautions against a repeat, but what other gremlins lie in wait?

With thorough flight automation, unfortunately, also comes the possibility of rare but terrifying failures.

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