MH370: Air crew, the Titanic and the Auditor General’s report — Rama Ramanathan

MARCH 18 — Before MH370 disappeared, flights reminded me of spacecraft and nuclear reactors. After MH370, flights remind me of the Titanic. But first let me tell you about an Airbus 380 crisis:

“In November 2010 a catastrophic failure occurred on a Quantas flight six minutes after it took off from Singapore. Number 2 engine broke up. A broken piece severed a hydraulic line which controls components which are critical for flying and landing the plane (“slats, flaps and gear doors”). Within minutes the pilots dumped fuel and turned back. The slats, flaps and gear doors functioned as they were designed to. They landed safely. None of the 444 passengers and 26 crew were injured. No one was injured.”

In risky businesses, redundant systems are essential.

Designing “redundancy” for functions is normal in the airline industry. If one system fails, another kicks in. When the hydraulic system failed in the Quantas flight an electro-mechanical system took over.

For critical functions, designers are required to provide double redundancy. This means that even if two control systems fail, a third system will kick in and the function (“move the flaps”) will still work.

Here’s another example of redundancy: If an A380’s engines fail, the main electrical generator will stop; electrical power will be lost. If this happens, a wind turbine on the underside of the plane kicks in and supplies emergency power to the hydraulic pumps and control systems.

I can tell you similar things about spacecraft (despite Apollo 13 and Challenger) and nuclear reactors (despite Three Mile Island and Fukushima). But you get my drift. Modern airplanes are safe by design thanks to redundancy, which engineers insist on and regulations often make mandatory.

I will now tell you about the Titanic.

102 years ago the Titanic was launched. The Titanic was then the pinnacle of marine engineering. It was the largest ship ever built. It was billed “unsinkable”. It sank on its first voyage.

As with all catastrophes, there is no one single reason why the Titanic sank. Today we think it sank because (1) some warning messages sent by other ships about icebergs in the waters ahead were not received on the Titanic; (2) the messages the Titanic did receive did not cause the captain to change course; (3) poor-quality rivets were used to construct the ship; (4) the ship’s designers were overly confident.

There were 2,222 people on the Titanic; 1,517 people died, mainly because: (1) there was no lifeboat drill; (2) the radio on a nearby ship was not manned, therefore it did not respond to the Titanic’s distress call; (3) there was little time to evacuate people; many were asleep; (4) there were not enough lifeboats; (5) some lifeboats were launched before they were full; (6) the water was very cold.

My purpose in telling the story of the Titanic is to draw our attention to a much bigger signal being broadcast by the disappearance of MH370, a signal we are missing.

In the unfolding story of MH370 the focus is on the 227 passengers. And, oh yes, the 12 crew. The focus is not wrong. They are missing, they must be found. The passengers’ relatives are emotionally wrought. They are expressing their frustration over the lack of information. They even threw water bottles at the staff of Malaysia Airlines. They get attention, we focus on them.

One group that is traumatised by the disappearance of MH370 is compelled to remain silent. Employment rules prevent them from venting their frustration. They must certify planes for take-off. They must fly planes. They must care for passengers and planes. They are all over the world; they have lots of relatives. Their numbers are larger than 227 passengers and their relatives.

What’s that group thinking? If I’m a crew member on an airplane that is illegally diverted, whom do I think is looking out for me on the ground? Whom do I think will look for me? When do I think they will begin looking for me? What do I expect them to use to look for me? Which airlines and civil aviation standard practices and procedures give me such confidence?

I was in Taiwan when Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 crashed in October 2000. I was due to fly out two days later, on a Singapore Airlines flight. I recall that Singapore Airlines said to all its pilots — maybe to all crew — that if, for emotional reasons, they did not want to fly until they felt more settled, that would be okay. Flight delays — on on-time departure KPI-obsessed Singapore Airlines (one salient reason for the crash) — would be okay. I was glad.

Why am I reminded of the Titanic?

The systems that failed to signal early that MH370 was missing continue to operate daily. Crews are still flying. They are anxious. They are thinking: “If something happens and the pilot can’t or won’t issue a Mayday call, how long before someone looks for us? Will they know where we are?”  

The Titanic didn’t conduct a lifeboat drill. Do airlines today conduct “no signal from plane” drills? When was the last time Malaysia Airlines conducted such a drill? What was the expected result? What was the actual result? Who had to make improvements? Were the improvements made?

A ship close to the Titanic could have responded to the distress call. It didn’t because there was no radio operator on duty. What’s the redundancy for a transponder failure or shut-off that makes the plane invisible to secondary radar? Does the back-up system include the primary radar (independent of transponder) operated by the air force? Was some critical system not identified as critical? Was the air force radar working and operated as intended? Was a radar operator on duty?

In a country that, every year, for decades, ignores the Auditor General’s report, what do we expect?

* Rama Ramanathan blogs at

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

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