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What happened to communications for Malaysian Flight 370?

There’s been speculation about the mystery of Malaysian Flight 370 ever since the world heard of its disappearance. With all the rumors of terrorism, pilots deliberately cutting off contact and the possible horrifying accidents (for example, a meteor spotted around the planes time of take-off), the world is sliding out of their seats and biting nails just waiting for answers. Although some people might feel they have a reasonable knowledge of a plane’s technology from watching “Lost,” others must speculate how in this day and age an enormous Boeing 777 could completely disappear. Don’t we have technology for this type of situation?

Yes, we do. Planes are equipped with two types of communication technology: the transponder and ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System). Both pieces of equipment are meant to keep air traffic control from ever losing contact with a plane.

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A map of significant points of the plane’s trip. Image from Local tv.

Unfortunately, both the transponder and ACARS lost communication before Flight 370 and its 239 passengers went missing.

A transponder is more or less a radio for the pilot(s) to communicate with air traffic control and other planes. These are active communication devices. Flight 370’s last communication to air traffic control was a now ominous “All right, good night.” Both the transponder and backup transponder were afterwards disconnected, which is thought to only be possible when intentionally turned off or during a massive power failure.

Fourteen minutes after the transponder went silent, Flight 370’s ACARS was also disconnected.

The ACARS is a passive, digital system which sends simple messages, commonly referred to as “pings,” from the plane to air traffic control. This system doesn’t have an on or off button which hijackers could have flipped with ease. Instead, the only way to disconnect the ACARS is to pull a circuit breaker within the cockpit. Due to this revelation along with other suspicious indicators, many experts are now pointing the finger at Flight 370’s pilots for the plane’s disappearance.

Regardless of the true cause behind this tragedy, conversations about how to better improve the surveillance of planes in transit have already begun. This disaster will more than likely spark further developments in technology which can prevent such a complete disappearance in the future.