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Malaysia Airlines Crash, Security Lapses and Human Failure

Though this is not my general subject matter, there are two issues surrounding this tragic flight that mystify me.  They do relate to some of the national security issues I write about, so here goes.

malaysian air flight 370The very notion that in this age of advanced technology, when we can launch satellites that can photograph objects the size of a penny from tens or hundreds of miles into space, that we should lose a passenger jet and have no idea where it or its 239 passengers are–is bizarre.  The plane could be on the bottom of the ocean, or sitting on an island runway, or it could be in a terrorist lair.  The passengers could be dead or hostages of terrorists.  It’s clearly destined to be a TV movie along the lines of Lost.  But how can this happen?

As I said, there are two especially troubling issues.  The first is why the pilots or hijackers were able to turn off all equipment that communicated directly to air traffic controllers.  After all, there have been numerous attempts to hijack airliners by commandeering them.  There have even been incidents in which airline pilots have crashed planes on purpose in an act of suicide or terrorism.  If there are legitimate reasons why a pilot might want to turn off his transponders, why isn’t there a fail safe mechanism that allows controllers to track whether a pilot has done this and to activate a fail safe communications/transponder if necessary.  If a system like this was in place, then we might have avoided the current predicament in which the world, searching for this plane, essentially has no idea where it is.  As of now, the only data we have on the later portion of this flight is what’s been gleaned from communications between the jet engines and Rolls Royce servers.

Since I don’t understand the technical aspects of piloting a plane, I offer the following in a provisional way: as I said there are both pilots and terrorists have commandeered planes in the past.  Why isn’t there another sort of fail safe mechanism that allowed either air traffic controllers or recognized personnel to commandeer any plane that appears intent on crashing or endangering itself.  I realize this is a dangerous proposition in itself, because if you allow someone to commandeer a plane who isn’t the pilot, you might enable terrorists to access such technology.  Of course, there would have to be numerous mechanisms in place to ensure the legitimate use of the technology.  But wouldn’t it make sense to add a layer of security to ensure terrorists can’t commandeer and crash an airplane?

There also should be video cameras in the cockpit and passenger compartment which cannot be disabled or commandeered by anyone on the plane that would enable air traffic controllers and security officials to see remotely and in real time what’s happening inside the plane.

Finally, the response of Malaysian officials has been abysmal.  There must be consequences for countries which fail their airlines and the international flying public.  Though I realize it’s almost impossible to embargo such a country, there must be a mechanism to punish countries which flout security regulations and fail so abjectly in carrying out their duties.  Only such penalties will force countries to honor their international commitments.  For example, what happened to the air traffic controllers who were supposed to pick up the Malaysian flight when it stopped communicating?  What did they do when the aircraft failed to appear in their airspace as it was supposed to?  Why wasn’t the Malaysian military communicating with civilian controllers to determine why the plane diverged from its flight path?  Why wasn’t there a technological mechanism in place that would highlight erratic behavior of such a rogue aircraft?  Why weren’t Malaysian aircraft scrambled to intercept the plane when it went off course?

The fact that the bizarre circumstances of this flight haven’t happened before is a mere accident.  They could easily happen anywhere (though hopefully a more vigilant military surveillance system would’ve picked this up quicker than Malaysia did).  So learning lessons from this disaster is imperative to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

The Times of Israel added further confusion by asking Israeli aviation security experts to weigh in on the fate of the plane.  A former El Al security expert believes the two Iranians with fake passports on board were involved with hijacking it.  Though he doesn’t bother to explain how they managed to fly the plane for hours and turn off all the communications equipment (unless they forced the pilot to do so).  Nor does this explain why the jet’s engines stopped communicating data with Rolls Royce servers.  The Israeli believes it was an Iranian operation and the plane landed in Iran and is intact.

The main reason this makes no sense is that Iran simply doesn’t hijack airliners.  Even if it did, what would it gain from hijacking a Malaysian airlines with Chinese citizens on board.  Another Israeli aviation consultant believes the plane landed in Bangladesh.  Presumably he believes Al Qaeda would’ve been involved though he doesn’t state this.  What’s obvious is that these Israelis betray typical Islamophobic/Iranophobic impulses and see the world through dark glasses.

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • David Sucher March 16, 2014, 4:28 PM

    My own surmise/wonder:

    Where is the NSA in all this?
    It would seem that keeping track of every aircraft — yes I know it’s many but not more than 20,000 at any one time, I think — would be both a natural, logical and doable (?) task for the NSA to have been doing since 911.
    Maybe the technical problems are greater than I understand. (My understanding is low.)
    But I keep wondering if NSA knows exactly where the plane is but doesn’t want to reveal it since then everyone would know its capability?
    So maybe the White House knows that the plane simply crashed. Sunk. Very sad but no national security issue?
    I wonder.

  • Shoshana March 16, 2014, 11:44 PM

    What is Tikkun Olam without a gratuitous and meaningless fling at Israel?

    • Richard Silverstein March 17, 2014, 12:12 AM

      @Shoshana:

      a gratuitous and meaningless fling at Israel

      Are you accusing me of making a “pass” at Israel? Or has your English become rusty after all those years living in the Land of Milk and Honey?

      • Shoshana March 17, 2014, 5:52 AM

        @Richard

        Check your O.E.D. under ‘fling';

        2. fig. (Chiefly in phrase to have a fling at.) a. A passing attempt at or attack upon something. b. A sarcastic remark thrown out in passing; a gibe, scoff.

  • AEL March 17, 2014, 5:34 AM

    All electronic gadgets including transponders are electrical fire threats.
    This threat can be mitigated somewhat by removing power to the burning gadget.

    Therefore you put a circuit breaker in front of every electronic gadget in an airplane.
    I.e. you now are able to turn off every gadget in an airplane
    (except those which are battery operated, but batteries are another fire threat so you try and reduce those as well).

    • Fred Plester March 18, 2014, 9:32 AM

      You’re right about the circuit breakers:
      One product I’ve been involved with was a phased array antennae controller, and early models could, occasionally on boot-up, try to put RF blocking current into every segment at once for a few seconds before the MPU was up and running and setting sensible patterns. This would trip the breaker, about twice a year, which meant that it almost invariably managed a trouble free boot-up on the next try and it took some years for the (Arabian) Customers to mention that they’d seen this happen, so we could investigate and fix.

      This proved to be a useful way of identifying those (American and especially Australian) Customers who’d installed the kit with no effective circuit breaker: those were the ones who’d never seen one trip on boot-up and seemed puzzled to be asked.

      Interestingly, the thing on the Malaysian Airlines 777-200ER which kept pinging after everything else was shut down, was a satellite communications antennae that was not actually used. The main difference between that and the kit I mention above, is that it’s beaming telemetry up instead of hi-res video down.

      I wonder if this satellite antennae actually had a circuit breaker, or if the person tripping all the relevant breakers simply didn’t know it was there?
      Could be a safety issue either way: in this case it’s fortuitous that the antennae wasn’t shut down, but if it had been smoking and spitting sparks and no-one could shut it down then, that would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?

      I think even some engineers assumed that an “antennae”is just like a Satellite TV Dish or transistor radio aerial, and these days it’s probably got its own “brain” and even its own GPS and pitch-yaw sensors. Such an antennae is capable of doing quite a lot without being connected to anything.

      If one of ours had been on board the 777, it could even have tried to piggyback Navtrack data from its own GPS on the (possibly non-existent) video signal it was attempting to send to ground stations. In which case, the mystery of the decade would have taken about ten minutes to solve.

      Operators of military aircraft would benefit greatly from finding out if they have installed any “mere antennaes” which are apt to give a running commentary on the aircraft’s position and even angles of attack and bank, to the ground. I think some armies and air forces could be very surprised by the answer.

      • Fred Plester March 18, 2014, 9:43 AM

        Thinking my own comment through, I think I can see why American and Israeli Unmanned Combat Aircraft manage to get themselves hijacked by the IRG and its allies! Every drone that has been hijacked, has an intelligent (directional) air to ground video antennae (not made by me) in addition to its control system.

    • Fred Plester March 18, 2014, 9:34 AM

      The circuit breakers are always there, but some of them will allow enough current to pass before tripping, to torch the equipment they connect power to.

  • ben March 17, 2014, 9:37 AM

    I was hoping one of your contacts wouldave info on this.

    The two things that make me Think of terrorism are 1. Its confirmed that the plane was taken off course deliberately and two why would the pilot need the flight simulator if not to practice flying under the radar? Moreover why was the plane brought up to 45 000 feet? Does this indicate a struggle?

    • Fred Plester March 19, 2014, 1:51 PM

      It’s certainly very hard to avoid suspicion of foul play, though this might be gain rather than terrorism.
      I am not sure if it really was 45,000′ (which would be too high) because some sources have corrected this to 35,000′
      Perhaps the information we lack, is whether or not the cargo included anything of unusual monetary or strategic value?
      There’s no demands, but no evidence whatever that the aircraft crashed anywhere. So a straight robbery can’t be ruled out as an alternative to terrorism, yet.

      Relatives of the passengers are losing patience with the authorities, very rapidly now.

  • JustMe March 17, 2014, 2:19 PM

    There are no coincidences
    If two Iranians with face passports were on the plane they are involved. Flying with fake passports isn’t known as an Olympic sport and people do not do it for fun.
    No one in Israel believes the plane landed in Iran, More likely it landed in Somalia or Yaman.

    • Richard Silverstein March 17, 2014, 3:23 PM

      On the contrary, people fly with fake passports all the time, not just terrorists. In this case they were seeking asylum in Germany.

      • Matthew Spencer March 19, 2014, 1:52 PM

        If they are still alive, it’s going to be their misfortune to be the two best known false passport holders on the planet.

  • Jose March 17, 2014, 4:22 PM
  • Fred Plester March 19, 2014, 6:07 PM

    American agencies are telling the Australians to search on an extreme southerly track, which would, according to the BBC, have ended with a crash into the sea short of the South Pole.

    However, the aircraft model, if fueled to capacity rather than the trip to Beijing, could fly for 10,000 nautical miles, and via a South Polar route, that could take it to South Africa or even Patagonia, not to mention various Pacific lslands with old wartime runways meant for B29 bombers, which would be plenty long enough.

    In that case, the hourly satellite pings would stop when the aircraft passed beyond (to the South of) the coverage of that satellite over the Indian Ocean. It might be worth someone’s while looking to see if the pings resumed a couple of hours later on an Atlantic or even Pacific satellite? But I think what happens is that the satellite pings the aircraft and the satellite antennae pings back. So if the other satellites did not know about the aircraft, they wouldn’t ping it. The two places which geostationary satellites do not cover well, are the two poles. If the pilot knew about the satellite antennae and knew he couldn’t turn it completely off from the cockpit, then flying over the South Pole would be one way to lose the track.

    If it was the pilot, he could have misled ground crew about how much fuel was needed. The aircraft has tank capacity for double the amount the Malaysian authorities think was aboard.

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