People & Power
Malaysian plane and the limits of technology
Posted Sunday, March 16 2014 at 02:00
Last Saturday, March 8, 2014, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200, flight number MH370, took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and headed for Beijing, China.
But just over an hour into the flight, the aircraft suddenly went off the radar. More than a week later, no single authority has any idea of what happened to this plane.
At first, international news reports treated this as one of the many tragic plane crashes that happen from time to time, with loss of life but investigators usually arrive at the scene and soon are able to establish the cause of the crash.
But 48 hours later, however, there was still no firm word on what might have happened to the plane. No wreckage was sighted, no radioed messages from the pilots received, no trace of it via radar.
The navies and airforce of several major world military powers, the latest in satellite imaging and sonar detection, global positioning systems and radar technology were brought to bear.
But more than a week since the aircraft vanished there is still not the slightest trace or clue about its whereabouts.
“A modern plane cannot just fall out of the sky like that!” exclaimed many an aviation and aeronautics analyst and specialist on TV and radio. But this one did.
In 2003, a Boeing 727 took off from the Angolan capital Luanda and disappeared, never to be seen again. Since this was a country just fresh from a 27-year civil war, it was put down to poor infrastructure and the limitations of African states.
But, as the US magazine, the Atlantic wrote on March 13, “[S]o far MAS 370 is in a category of its own, in the shortage of useful data and the mismatch of what is known with most imagined scenarios.”
In case of an emergency, there are any number of pilot protocols, in-built safety mechanisms, signals emitted by the plane’s instruments and the all-important flight recorder, the “Black Box”.
Surely this cannot be happening in 2014, most said.
Initial blame by frustrated relatives, the media and the plane’s manufacturers Boeing was laid at the feet of the Malaysian Civil Aviation Authority officials and the government in general for their disorganised handling of the press conferences, information and conflicting reports.
But that was no comfort. Countries with much more sophisticated technology and frigates and spotter planes such as China and the United States deployed assets into the sea around Malaysia, Vietnam and China but they too failed to find any clue.
By Friday March 14, growing international alarm and puzzlement over what might have happened to the Malaysian Airlines plane even caused the story to displace the crisis in Ukraine as the world’s most read news story, according to the aggregate of Google’s computers that track traffic across the Internet.
More and more people fly these days than at any other time in history and over the next decade, the giant Asian aviation market is expected to add millions of new passengers to the global air paths.
So what happened to this Malaysian plane is something being watched closely and with much nervousness around the world.
In a headline on March 11, the Wall Street Journal newspaper stated: “The Malaysia Airlines Disappearance Shows Technology’s Limits”
We have got so accustomed to putting our faith these days in technology, in the smartphones increasingly a part of most people’s accessories, in software and Apps that can do almost anything and solve any problem we encounter at work and at home.
There is no corner of the earth that has not been explored, captured on National Geographic Society’s and Google’s Maps, GPS, all connected to the Internet.
We take real-time transmission of data, news, satellite information and tracking of flights for granted.
After the Soviet Union successfully launched into orbit the first ever artificial satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, this breakthrough was greeted as the latest proof of mankind’s ingenuity and scientific genius. This alone, declared many, was proof that it was high time we abandoned any belief in any power and intelligence outside ourselves.
The Soviet magazine Krokodil published a poem in honour of human achievement shortly after Sputnik’s launch:
And here we have our Sputnik/No secret; the newborn planet/Is modest about its size./But this symbol of intellect and light/Is made by us, and not by the God/Of the Old Testament
But less than 30 years after the triumph of Sputnik’s launch, in 1986, the Soviet Union was to witness the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, when a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded and sent atomic radiation as far as Sweden and toward the Arctic Circle.
Earlier, in January 1986, the U.S. space shuttle Challenger suddenly exploded just over a minute after lift-off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, killing all on board.
When the social media network Facebook had its initial public offering in May 2012 on New York’s NASDAQ stock index, a glitch in the computer system caused major delays that first day of share trading.
Once again, the limits of what technology is capable of have been brought starkly to us through this tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft.
So next time you board a plane, take off and arrive safely at your destination, remember to mummer a form of prayer. Technology does not yet have all the answers and the solutions to our circumstances.