Book review: ‘Malaysia Airlines Flight 370,’ by David Soucie
One would have to have been living under a rock in the past year to miss hearing about the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014. Now, a year later, the mystery remains, and the raw anguish of the victims’ families has deepened into scars of despair and anger. Outside of the fictional realm of the television show “Lost,” it is unusual for jumbo jets to go missing in our hyper-connected world, and it is even more unusual for a plane not to be found — eventually — especially after the exhaustive and costly searching that has taken place over the past 12 months.
It seems, too, that everyone has a theory about just what happened to the plane, from the plausible to the absurd. High-tech computer graphics have played across our TV screens for months now, placing the plane’s final resting place anywhere from Kyrgyzstan to deep in the distant Southern Ocean. CNN air safety analyst David Soucie enters the fray with his latest book, “Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Why It Disappeared and Why It’s Only a Matter of Time Before This Happens Again,” providing a more reasoned and carefully handled study of the events surrounding the lost plane.
But unlike armchair pundits, Soucie has the chops and the expertise to back up his analysis. His book is short and no nonsense, and it is filled with raw data, including the entire passenger list, which runs for a heartbreaking 10 pages, reminding the reader that the plane’s disappearance is more than just an aviation puzzle; there are hundreds of families still yearning for answers to this modern mystery.
Aside from the obvious closure finding MH370 would bring to those grieving loved ones, Soucie emphasizes the importance of undertaking a complete investigation, which means persevering until the plane is located and retrieved, however costly. To prevent future accidents, it is imperative to understand what led to the disaster in the first place. He goes on to outline, in concise detail, the crucial timeline that immediately followed the final farewell from the pilot, a simple goodnight uttered with professionalism and no sign of duress or stress. Analyzing those critical minutes is at the center of determining the possible final resting place of MH370.
But even without finding the airplane itself, Soucie says, there is enough information to know that specific changes can be made to prevent another similar disaster. It is clear that air traffic control made mistakes on the ground after MH370 left Kuala Lumpur. After the plane was determined to be missing, several hours passed before a report was sent on to Malaysian authorities, delaying essential search time. Communication, in general, was hampered, namely between civilian flight trackers and nearby military radar operators, who were tracking the plane after it had been reported missing, as they weren’t notified earlier that there was trouble.
In spite of MH370’s normal takeoff and its routine climb to cruising altitude, which included scheduled communications with a satellite, things took a puzzling turn very quickly, as the transponder was actively disabled during the specific window of time when the plane was being passed from the initial Air Traffic Controller’s jurisdiction to the next. When the two radar sites realized that the “pass” had not occurred, it was determined that something had gone wrong.
Soucie details how changes can be made to shine light onto those dark minutes when a plane passes between radar monitoring locations. Real-time data transmission would go a long way to improving safety, he says. There are methods to eliminate the chances that a plane can disappear from tracking; more frequent satellite contact, for example, can significantly decrease the window that ground crews are blind to a plane’s progress.
Crucial, too, Soucie writes, is the effectiveness of the signal beacons on the flight data recorders, which become valuable evidence in the aftermath of a crash — firstly for pinpointing the downed plane’s location and secondly for the vital data they contain. In the case of MH370, as is standard, the data box was equipped with a battery designed to last 30 days (though recent reports have surfaced that the batteries were expired), but Soucie feels the time window is not sufficient and is a proponent of a 90-day battery life. He contends that change is slow in the aviation industry, mainly because of the immense costs involved.
But he insists that the cost/benefit ratio has to be discussed, as airline companies bank on the odds that an accident won’t happen — and for a large percentage of the time they don’t. But when they do happen, the costs go well beyond any savings, at the very least because of the priceless human lives lost. Also, passenger confidence suffers, and not just for the afflicted airline but across the board, as unanswered questions fester and contribute to a general unease about flying.
Some answers may come in time, as the search continues, focusing still on the vast waters of the Indian Ocean. It remains to be determined whether MH370 went down due to an electrical failure, hypoxia, sabotage or pilot suicide, among other possibilities, but for now, Soucie’s book provides a succinct account of what occurred on that tragic and puzzling day just more than a year ago, and he postulates on the viable causes in a reasoned and experienced voice, leaving all the crazy tin-foil hats theories behind him.
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