Picking up the Pieces
Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
written content only
Aircraft, both civilian and military, vanishing over the "trackless ocean" is not a new occurrence. Vessels of the atmosphere ranging from balloons to jet bombers have a long history of failing to return from overwater flights. The latest instance, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, remains missing as of this writing, and has become the most intriguing air mystery since Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. What made MH370 so hard to comprehend was the sudden realization that beyond a certain radius from land, radar is nonexistent. Since it's invention by the British during World War II, it has provided a sense of security for airline passengers as well as nations seeking to guard their airspace against hostile intrusion. As senses of security go, this one proved to be false.
Radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, works by sending out an electronic signal. If there is an object within it's range, the signal "bounces" or more properly, reflects off the objects solid surface and is gathered in by the receiving antenna. The difference in time between when the signal was sent and when the reflection was received provides data on distance. There are literally hundreds of different types using different frequency ranges depending on the application.
But radar has it's limitations. Some types are severely degraded by weather, since water in the form of cloud droplets and raindrops is largely opaque to radio signals. Also, radar beams don't follow the curve of the earth. Past a certain point, the beams continue out into space. Range of a particular radar depends on a host of factors, both technological and meteorological, which would take too long to discuss here. To make things easier to understand, think of a radar as a flashlight.
When you turn on a flashlight, you send a beam out in front of you. If the object you're trying to locate is there, the light reflects off its surface and is returned to your eyes. But if the object is too far away, even if the beam hits it, there's not enough power remaining to reflect the light back to you.
So even the most powerful shore-based radars can only reach out so far. Elevating the transmitting antenna can "lower the horizon" enough to pick up objects much further away.
So, when an aircraft flies out over the ocean and leaves the umbrella of land-based radar coverage, it is essentially on it's own. Normally this is not a problem, since modern navigational technology does a great job of keeping the aircraft on course and on time.
But as recent events have shown, that may not be enough to ensure the safety of the plane, crew, and passengers.
As the Cold War progressed, satellite technology improved by leaps and bounds. Military and intelligence satellites kept watch over a good portion of the world, always looking for that sudden unexpected heat bloom that would indicate the launch of a missile, or that cluster of radar video that would reveal a formation of aircraft headed inbound with hostile intent. In a very real sense, the presence of those "eyes in the sky" ensured that not only could a nation detect a surprise attack, the other nation well knew they couldn't launch one without anyone noticing.
Information about those satellites in use today is, of course, classified for very good reasons. But the older technology, used in the '80s, is likely now available for civilian use.
Simply stated, in order to prevent another disappearance like MH370, the international aviation community needs to consider the option of putting that kind of capability into orbit over those vast ocean areas where radar simply doesn't work.
Tracking an aircraft can be done in several ways. Visually, if you have a imagery system sensitive enough, electronically through the aircraft's IFF transponder or any number of automated beacons, GPS, and infrared, which detects the heat sources of the aircraft's engines. This is all doable with off-the-shelf unclassified tech. Yes, the sats would be kinda expensive, well into the millions of dollars, but that's a cheap price to pay in order to keep track of a 300-million-dollar airliner and the priceless, precious lives of those onboard.
Why not use the military's existing satellites? Understandably, part of what makes them work so well for national defense is that nobody outside knows exactly what their complete capabilities are, and it would be dangerous for a government to get too loose with that kind of information. But you wouldn't need anything nearly that sophisticated for this task. Airliners don't have stealth capabilities, nor do they spend a lot of time below 500 feet altitude, which is where you would find most of the kind of hostile targets. And you wouldn't have to do real-time tracking. If an airliner went missing, all you'd have to do is access the stored tracking data and zero in on the one you're looking for. A good enough system could tell you a lot about the fate of the aircraft. A sudden bloom of radar data would indicate that the aircraft came apart in the air. A loss of infrared signal would show that the engines lost power. Altitude data would show where the aircraft left it's assigned altitude. And imagery of the ocean surface could probably detect the large splash when the plane impacted. If the sky was cloudy, you would lose the visual data, but the infrared, radio beacons, and a certain amount of the radar signal would still get through. If nothing else, you would have a very small circular area of probability with which to begin the search.
This is doable. It's not pie-in-the-sky Star Trek stuff. Such a cluster of satellites over the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans would provide a large measure of information which would pretty much eliminate the locational uncertainty of a lost aircraft, as well as a jump start on the process of finding out why it went down. And the sats could be up and operational in as little as two years.
Sadly that's too late for the poor souls of MH370.
But it won't be too late for the next one.