Lost Malaysia Airlines 370 May Prompt Call for “Black Box In The Cloud” Flight Recorders

It’s been three days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777, disappeared en route to Beijing, China, and still no trace of the aircraft has been found. Adding to the mystery is that no distress calls were made from the aircraft, and searchers haven’t even been able to narrow the search area where the aircraft could have possibly come down. Though all large commercial aircraft are equipped with sophisticated crash recorders that retain large amounts of data, including cockpit voice conversations, they aren’t any use in locating a missing plane. They are only useful when the wreckage is found, and that can sometimes takes years, as in the case of Air France Flight 447, which crashed over the mid-Atlantic ocean in 2009. At least investigators on the Air France mishap were able to discern early on that there may have been some mechanical problems due to data sent from the aircraft to the ground before all contact was lost with the aircraft. The Air France Airbus aircraft was using ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) to send periodic transmissions to a ground station concerning the health of various systems on the Airbus. The primary purpose of this data is to highlight potential minor maintenance issues that can be addressed when the aircraft lands. Though limited in the amount of data that can be transmitted due to bandwidth limitations, it may still be possible to use ACARS as a “Black Box in the Cloud” that periodically sends vital aircraft data (airspeed, altitude, GPS location, engine parameters, etc.) to a receiving ground station where it is stored until the completion of each flight. Even with a catastrophic aircraft failure with no warning or distress call from the cockpit, at least investigators and searchers would have a pretty accurate starting point for rescue operations and accident investigation. The tragic case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may initiate an effort to upgrade ACARS for more data transmission capability, and also to require it’s use by all commercial aircraft flying over water.