Real time tracking, FDR transmission needs to happen now

Scott Hamilton at Leehamnet nails it again: aviation regulators need to get off their butts and implement effective tracking and transmission of flight data, to support timely search and rescue after remote crashes.

The failure to mandate what should be a relatively cheap system installation and operation cost only encourages the news media to spin off wild misinformation, seeking to fill the news information void. In a recent post, Mr. Hamilton noted that this “… is to the great disservice and most likely distress of the families and friends of the victims on the flight….” It also substantially undermines the public’s perception of the safety of today’s passenger aviation program. Mr. Hamilton goes on to note, “…for the industry, it all comes down to costs and in this context, dead people don’t matter, only cost matters. It’s the infamous tombstone mentality that enough people have to die before there is enough of an outcry to force regulators to do the right thing and force the airlines to follow….”

A Simple & Inexpensive System

The solution is a simple combination of technology and regulation. FAA and other regulators would simply require that all commercial passenger flights operating beyond continuous radar coverage must install a system that would transmit a basic data bundle in the event of a potential emergency.

Essentially, the system would track (each second) the flight’s basic data, including latitude & longitude, altitude, indicated airspeed, pitch angle, bank angle, and heading. The system would also apply logic to identify substantial heading/speed/altitude changes within the previous 15-seconds.

A transmission of data bundles would be triggered by odd parameters, such as excessive pitch angle and/or bank angle, abnormal speeds and/or altitudes, or substantial heading/speed/altitude changes. Once triggered, data bundles would be transmitted each second.

Each data bundle would require only three basic parameters: position (lat/long), altitude, and indicated airspeed. A few additional parameters would be added to the data bundle, as appropriate; for example, if the system noted excessive pitch angle or bank angle, or substantial heading/speed/altitude changes within the previous 15-seconds, these parameters would be included in the data bundle. On the assumption that this is a flight emergency, the transmissions would continue indefinitely.

For security purposes, if the transmission was triggered during a flight, the shutoff/override authority would NOT be in the aircraft. Instead, it would be by the ground dispatch/monitor personnel, who would need to communicate with the crew via radio, satellite, ACARS etc., to ensure the transmission is an anomaly, not a real emergency.

ANALYSIS: High-Altitude Shoot-Downs in Ukraine Started Just 3-Days Before the MH17 Crash

20140717.. MH17 debris and investigators in wheat field 7-22-14For the past ten days, the world has witnessed an intensive propaganda war where both sides are trying to spin the story of how MH17 ended up widely scattered over wheatfields and farms in east Ukraine. The one known element of the story is that the Boeing 777 was shot down. The consensus is that the source was a ground-based Russian-made SA-11 missile, also known as a BUK or ‘gadfly’, but it is also conceivable that the aircraft was shot down air-to-air.

On the one side we see the Russians and pro-Russian rebels, who are seeking to separate from Ukraine. On the other side we see Ukraine. And there are other players, such as the U.S., whose top officials have satellite imagery and other advanced intelligence and certainly know far more than they are sharing with the Public.

One core element of the spin aims to create plausible deniability for the prospect of involvement by major states. Early news stories talked about Russian SA-11 missile launchers being moved into eastern Ukraine, then being seen moving back to Russia shortly after MH17 was shot down. There does not appear to be any substantial denial of these movements; instead, the early spin aims to claim that the SA-11 units were brought into Ukraine then used by separatist rebels who ‘accidentally’ shot down MH17 while aiming for a Ukrainian military aircraft. It seems hard to imagine that a complex system* would be delivered by anyone other than a trained crew, and even harder to imagine that they would then let others play with the system.*Experts note that the SA-11 has three separate vehicle units: a radar (for target acquisition), a control center, and tank-like launchers with four loaded 18-ft missiles. It seems far more plausible that the SA-11 was used by trained Russian soldiers, under a cover claiming the separatists pulled the trigger. Alternatively, there have been some charges that the Ukrainian military used their own BUK to intentionally shoot down MH17, with the intent of pinning the blame on the Russians. Given known world history, it is difficult to reject this as the possible true story.

In a world of spin-control, one strategy is to launch a diversionary story. Ukraine was shockingly quick to release a collection of alleged intercepted communications, first between rebel leaders and Russian military officials and then amongst rebel leaders. They reflect that the news story broke as a shoot-down of an An-26 military aircraft (as first happened three days earlier, in the first high-altitude shoot-down, on 7/14/14), but soon transitioned to a realization that a civilian aircraft had been hit. Some charge that this is all a fabrication to cover for what may have been an air-to-air missile shoot-down from a Ukrainian jet.

One key area where Ukraine is clearly blocking Public knowledge is their refusal to share ATC data. The airspace is managed by Ukrainian air traffic controllers, under an international agreement. Sadly, that agreement does not mandate each state to be transparent and produce data, even after a major incident such as MH17. Interestingly, Russian radar claims to have tracked portions of MH17, and in a Defense Ministry presentation on 7/21/14, Russian officials offered radar data which they interpret as showing a Ukrainian military Su-25**Ten days earlier, on 7/7/14, an Su-25 was reportedly captured by separatists. So, conceivably, the alleged shadow Su-25 may have been Ukraine, rebel, or even Russian. shadowing 3-5 kilometers from MH17. If this is true, perhaps Ukraine is trying to hide the important fact that they did have a military aircraft in close proximity to the downed airline. That same Russian Defense Ministry presentation had many other strong arguments questioning the veracity of western claims, many of which are laid out near the bottom of the lengthy 7/26/14 report by Andre Vltcheck, at Global Research.

High-Altitude Shoot-downs were New on 7/17/2014

The first high-altitude shoot-down was just three days earlier, on 7/14/14, when an An-26 was hit; eight parachuted out and two died. Then, on 7/16/14, two Ukrainian Air Force Su-25’s were downed, apparently at higher altitudes, producing no fatalities; one was claimed to have been a MANPADS hit, and the other was claimed to have been an air-to-air hit by a Russian fighter. Prior to 7/14/14, there had been numerous shoot-downs, but most were helicopters, and all were at low altitudes, generally during takeoff or approach. In other words, the SA-11 system appears to have been first used on 7/14/14, just three days prior to MH17. Given the higher altitudes, it is quite conceivable that the two Su-25’s on 7/16/14 were also shot down using the SA-11.

Certainly, the major world military powers know the precise date and time that the Russian SA-11’s were delivered into and became operational in eastern Ukraine … but we don’t know that, because the leaders are hiding this information. The spin-games will continue and all parties will ensure the Public is in the dark. This is a pattern we have all come to expect in recent decades … from the U.S., Russian, Ukraine, the agencies (e.g., FAA), the airlines, etc. It is said that power corrupts; here, it appears a key part of the corruption is to control the flow of even basic information. Where is a good Whistleblower when we need one?

We Have to Look Elsewhere for the Facts

An outstanding resource for information on aviation accidents and incidents is AviationSafetyNetwork (A-SN). It includes two databases: one that covers major aviation incidents, and another that allows user-inputs to compile data and news links for even minor GA incidents. The A-SN database was queried by aiREFORM.com, using a filter to show all recent Ukraine accidents. Nearly all ‘accidents’ are war-related; all shoot-downs are listed in the table below:

5/2/2014 (2) Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopters, shot down near Luvyansk, using MANPADS. 5 fatalities.
5/2/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-8 helicopter, damaged by gunfire near Slavyansk. No fatalities.
5/5/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopter, shot down by ground-fire near Luvyansk, crew is rescued, then Ukrainian Su-25 fires to destroy the downed helicopter. No fatalities.
5/29/2014 Ukrainian National Guard Mi-8 helicopter, shot down by ground-fire near Slavyansk. 12 fatalities.
6/3/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopter, shot down by small-arms fire near Slavyansk. No fatalities.
6/4/2014 (3) Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters were damaged/destroyed by MANPADS and ground-fire near Slavyansk. No fatalities.
6/5/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Mi-8 helicopter, hit by small-arms fire near Slavyansk, forced to make emergency landing. No fatalities.
6/6/2014 Ukrainian Air Force An-30 jet with 8 on board, hit by ground-fire near Drobyshevo, catches fire and crashes. 5 fatalities.
6/14/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Il-76 jet, hit by MANPAD while on approach to Lugansk airport. 49 fatalities.
6/24/2014 Ukrainian Armed Forces Mi-8 helicopter, hit by MANPAD while taking off near Slavyansk airport. 9 fatalities.
7/1/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jet, on an attack mission and hit by defense forces but able to return to its base. No fatalities.
7/2/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Su-24 jet, on an attack mission and hit by defense forces but able to return to its base. No fatalities.
7/12/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Mi-24 helicopter, on an attack mission near Snezhny, shot down by MANPAD. No fatalities.
7/14/2014 Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jet, destroyed by separatists (no other information available). No fatalities.
7/14/2014 Ukrainian Air Force An-26 jet, shot down at higher altitude (6,500m) near Izvaryne. 2 fatalities.
7/16/2014 (2) Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jets, one shot down by MANPAD, the other allegedly shot down by Russian fighter, both at altitude around 20,000-ft, near Ukraine-Russian border. No fatalities.
7/17/2014 Multiple older aircraft damaged/destroyed by Ukraine forces while parked at Tarasovka Airfield, northwest of Crimea. No fatalities.
7/17/2014 MH17 shot down at FL330, flying east of Donetsk. 298 civilian fatalities.

Terrorism Comes Home

Both days were bright and sunny, and yet both mornings brought the darkest of news.

20010911.. twin towers pic, second impactIn September 2001, I awoke to yet another beautiful day in Fremont, CA, and prepared to run before heading to my afternoon shift, working as an oceanic air traffic controller at FAA’s Oakland Center. I was renting a room in a house where an 89-yr-old former merchant marine was being cared for by his niece, with extra care provided by a cheerful Filipina who arrived each day. He lived in a reclining medical chair/bed next to the kitchen, adjacent to a phone and a breathing machine, and his TV was often on. I came out ready to run and walked by just to say ‘good morning’. I stopped when I saw his TV showing the images of the first tower strike, and minutes later I watched as the network showed images of the second tower strike. I watched a bit more, in shock, then went for my run. Not a quarter mile later I stopped and I bent over and I cried.

In July 2014, I awoke in my rural Oregon home, with plans to harvest more blueberries and finish building planter boxes for my Fall garden. I was having some coffee and checking the news online when I learned that a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 had crashed, and was possibly shot down by a missile. I spent the next few hours learning as much as I could about Ukraine, Russia, the history of the area, and the emerging details of what soon was confirmed to be a terrorist attack that killed all 298 aboard.

Thirteen Years Later, Things are Just Slightly Different

In 2001 I cried, but in 2014 I did not. Was it that they were different, in Ukraine, not American? No, not at all. In fact, as I hurriedly searched for information about the crash/attack, I was frankly stunned when I saw the local videos on YouTube. I was stunned, not by the black smoke and falling debris, but by the peripheral image: the rustic farm buildings, the vibrant mid-summer garden, the young walnut tree — it all looked just like my home, here in rural Oregon. 20140717.. MH17 screen-cap showing black cloud and gardenAs I studied the images, I heard the muffled crying of Ukrainians, also shared by YouTube. These Ukrainians were witnessing this event with debris and bodies raining upon their homes, and I felt they were just like me and my neighbors here in Oregon. God, this debris could have fallen here today. It has been a week, yet I still cannot help but to wonder: the way things appear to be trending, how many years will it be before domestic terrorists bring down U.S. airliners upon sleepy agricultural areas in the American heartland? Really, just how sick is humanity?

I cried in 2001 because this terrorist act was new and ramped up; and, it indicated how the world was changing in the wrong direction. I cried for my kids, and for our future. But, in 2014, I did not cry. At least not yet. I think it was the numbing effect, of a horrific human tragedy repeated. It makes us stoic; it destroys our humanity.

2014-07-17: Malaysia Flight #17, EHAM-WMKK, Shot Down Over Ukraine at FL330

According to numerous news articles, a Malaysia Boeing 777 has been shot down over Ukraine. The flight reportedly had 295 on board. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets. “We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” he said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”

20140717.. MH17 route, FlightAware flight info viewA quick analysis of data viewable at FlightAware.com shows the flight departed Amsterdam a half hour late, at 12:30PM local time (Central European Summer Time, CEST). The flight was planned for 11 hours and 28 minutes flying time, to arrive at Kuala Lumpur  at 5:59AM local time. No route plan is available at FlightAware, but the total direct distance is noted at 6,368 statute miles.

The flight on the day before (7/16/2014) appears to have flown through the same location, slightly south of the incident route, crossing the length of Ukraine and over the Sea of Azov.20140717.. MH17 route, sat.view for previous day

The flight profile shows a normal climb, a long cruise at FL310, then a climb to FL330 and a level off for less than ten minutes. The FlightAware data viewed with the earliest news reports showed a long series of positions, without altitude encoding. Later data presentations showed a 68-minute gap, from the position in northwest Ukraine where tracking first appeared to end, to a single lat/long position near Donetsk, at what appears to be the vicinity of the debris.20140717.. MH17 route, FlightAware alt-spd profile

Here are a few maps and satellite views, from FlightAware: 20140717.. MH17 full route, FW classic view20140717.. MH17 route, sat.view20140717.. MH17 route, sat.view of Ukraine, showing FlightAware route projection
This picture of a portion of the fuselage is said to have landed near Donetsk which is in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, and hundreds of miles east of where the flight data ended in northwest Ukraine. An online video shows streaming and fluttering debris in front of a background of black smoke.20140717.. MH17 fuselage piece near Donetsk
NOTE: in the first hours while this news story was breaking, the flight data depicted on FlightAware ended in western Ukraine, at approximately latitude 51.20N and longitude 25E. The flight data was eventually updated, to show one more position more than an hour later, in the vicinity of the debris field. Here is a portion of the World VFR chart, with an orange circle at the Lat/Long.20140717.. UKR-311 airspace on World VFR Chart