Aircraft Accidents and a Bad Act

Johnny Carson was the King of Late Night talk shows; he earned the title by keeping politics in their place and recognizing talent. Johnny personally started comedian careers, because his producers cultivated the up-and-coming talent, preparing them for The Tonight Show stage. But, every once in a while, one bad act got through, something that should, instead, have graced the recording studio for The Gong Show, and the audience knew a producer would have a bad day the next day. Despite this, Johnny Carson was an entertainer; his impact on America was to provide a good show and some laughs. His mistakes and missteps never hurt anyone, even unintentionally.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is back in the headlines again. As per Emerging Technology from the ArXiv in a Technology Review article, new data analysis could help locate the missing airliner. The article states that, “a new mathematical model suggests searchers have been looking in the wrong place.”

Almost five years after the airplane, passengers and crew disappeared (March 8, 2014), a Danish engineer named Martin Kristensen at Aarhus University in Denmark, published new analysis from the original search data.

After recrossing over its own track, the airliner’s path became confused by hourly location requests by the geostationary satellite, Inmarsat 3F1; these were ignored by the airliner. MH370 crossed through seven circle areas, but the points in each circle where the airliner crossed were vague. Based solely on these satellite breadcrumbs, the two extensive search patterns were planned using these tenuous plots.

Kristensen suggested that the searchers were looking in the wrong place. Based on aligning airliner movement with satellite movement created several Doppler shifts. From here Kristensen’s science becomes intense resulting in four separate solutions, of which three have been discounted. The fourth puts the plane near Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean within a search pattern that is eighty-seven miles long by nineteen miles wide, thousands of miles from the original search areas.

The MH370 investigation was a collection of mistakes. A lack of proper leadership, too many experts floating their opinions without fact and overwhelmed search crews looking for a needle in a warehouse full of haystacks. For months following the disappearance, debris continued to wash up on surrounding island shores; the items arrived erratically and not all could be confirmed to be from the doomed airliner.

What is the harm in allowing yet another unproven act to follow the last bad acts in this tragedy? Aside from the tragedy of losing so many innocent lives, the families’ grief played out daily for months. False hope after false hope dashed victims’ family members’ expectations that answers to their loved ones demise would be found. This is not some small cross to bear; from the humanity standpoint, it is unnecessary and cruel.

Aircraft lost during war have been obscured from detection – often within months – by snow, ice and jungle overgrowth. Uneven land masses such as valleys or trenches have not only hidden the aircraft, but deformed them from anything recognizable, tearing off wings, empennages and engines. Indigenous tribes have stripped seats, unit load devices and exterior panels for making homes, while the animals have erased all trace of human remains. This is what happens to wreckage above sea level.

Aircraft lost beneath the waves are subject to worse mysteries. The ocean floor is as flat as the Rocky Mountains; crevasses and steep mountain peaks that rival Mount Everest can be found anywhere under the ocean surface. Ocean currents that are stronger than hurricane winds can move the parts of an aluminum and composite frame miles from conjoining parts of the same aircraft; these currents alter direction as one goes deeper.

The HMS Titanic was one such mystery that, even with technology at the time, eluded detection. Here was a ship that weighed, in total, 46,300 Gross Register Tons and it sank to a depth of 12,500 feet. The Titanic didn’t break up on the surface like an aircraft might; it slipped beneath the waves in two pieces, the bow 470 feet long by 92 feet wide, the stern 410 feet long and 92 feet wide. Currents had little effect on the two hull pieces, yet they managed to land one third of a mile apart. Despite the unquestionable makeup of iron material and the sheer size of each half, the ship avoided detection for decades.

The Boeing 777 is 210 feet long, 200 feet wingtip-to-wingtip, fully intact; it can weigh 600,000 pounds when operating. The structure is made mostly from aluminum and composite materials, very light. However, the fuselage is largely hollow, which makes it compressible.

Technically, impacting the ocean surface is akin to hitting something solid. Water is a liquid; it is not compressible; water does not give way as quickly as a gas, but, like a solid, resists motion. If MH370 had hit the ocean surface at an uncontrolled cruising speed of 550 miles per hour (MPH), the aircraft would have broken into many large and small pieces, depending on impact angle. As the fuselage’s forward momentum carried it below the surface, the tail was still moving at the impact speed. When the nose rapidly slowed toward zero; the hull collapsed nose to tail; the crown and belly explode outward, vomiting seats, luggage and electrical aircraft components in every direction. Each wing with its 11,000 pound engine, most likely separated from the hull, as would the vertical and horizontal stabilizers. Large sections of aircraft, weighed down by heavy components, e.g. landing gear or engines, would have sunk quickly, spiraling in their descent, sliding with the current.

On August 26, 2003, a Colgan Airways Beech 1900D, operating as US Air Express flight 9446, crashed shortly after take-off from Yarmouth, MA, airport. The aircraft hit the ocean surface at a steep angle, 300 yards from shore, with a speed of 115 MPH. Pictures in the accident docket for NYC03MA183 demonstrate the catastrophic results of an aluminum airliner hitting the ocean at one hundred MPH. The fifty-eight foot long airliner broke into multiple pieces. When laid out, wreckage took up a hangar floor section one hundred thirty feet long by eighty feet wide. The empennage was unrecognizable; the vertical stabilizer was twisted, compressed and folded along the tail. Insulation, wiring, seats and broken sections of wing or fuselage laid beside landing gear, engines and instrumentation.

Assuming Martin Kristensen is successful in determining the exact flight path of MH370, recovery of the wreckage will be impossible. Any human remains have long disappeared; if not dismembered by impact forces, any remains would never have survived intact after five years at sea. The fuselage sections have either been carried away by currents or given to erosion. According to the depth, they could be concealed by marine life or covered with silt. Other sections could have been lost between hills or fallen into underwater valley. The flight recorders’ flight data has become unrecoverable.

The theories for locating MH370 or any wreck should be tried; if nothing else, new discoveries in recovery will only assure future tragedies can be solved, that victims’ families will find peace of mind. However, these attempts to save the day with new technologies are better tested under less conspicuous conditions, without involving the whole world in a possible failed attempt. The original investigation was a bad act, fraught with failure. Do we have to drag the families through this again for someone’s fifteen minutes of fame?

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