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    AirAsia Flight 8501 – Risky Environment and yet Another Example of Need for Deployable Recorders and Satellite Tracking Systems for Airliners

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    Posted on December 30, 2014 To

    By Robert A. Clifford

    AirAsia Flight 8501 was cruising at high altitude in an area of the world that has a reputation not only for high accident rates (3 times that of North America), but also for severe thunderstorm activity at altitudes that can exceed the ceilings of any airliner. Air traffic control (ATC) voice recordings reportedly show the pilots had asked for diversion around a storm cell but ATC denied that request. Minutes later, the airplane disappeared from radar screens and remained lost for 2 days until today’s discovery of floating wreckage and bodies. Flight at high altitudes in thunderstorms poses dangerous system, flight control, and structural overload risks for airliners. The most prudent course of action is to avoid these weather cells entirely by changing course, if possible. However, some pilots try to climb over them, adding to the risk of an accident due to decreased safety margins and pilot inexperience in upset recovery at high altitudes and high speeds. Airplane systems can also malfunction, especially in severe weather environments, and Airbus models including this one have had their share including recent events that prompted mandatory Airworthiness Directives from safety regulators just this month. While the cause of the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 remains undetermined it is once again clear that there are two existing technologies that would help prevent such airliner disappearance – albeit only 2 days of disappearance in this case – and that they should be required as soon as possible on all airliners world-wide. The world is growing tired of watching families cry and wait for word from airlines and governments regarding the whereabouts of the large jet airplane their loved ones were flying on. First, deployable recorders that jettison upon impact, float, and transmit their position to satellites world-wide, would assure location of the recorder with flight data and cockpit voice recordings within hours of a crash anywhere in the world, including remote ocean locations. Deployable recorders such as those made by DRS Technologies have been installed on military airplanes, including variants of commercial airplanes such as the Boeing 707 and 737, for over 50 years. And since the 9/11 terrorist tragedy, Congress has been funding various deployable recorder studies and demonstrations that show deployable recorders are ready to go for commercial airliners. The commercial aviation industry and relevant government agencies have completed the required technical standards for deployable recorders for commercial airliners. So now we just need the NTSB to recommend the use of deployable recorders to the FAA and for FAA to require them on all US airliners. And ICAO should make them a recommended practice for airliners of all signatory nations. Second, satellite asset tracking devices, some of which cost less than $100 to purchase and less than $150 per year in tracking service fees per asset/airplane, would allow authorities and owners to track airliners anywhere in the world on Google Maps from a smart phone, laptop, or desktop computer. These devices, such as the SPOT Trace from Globalstar, can be hidden inside airliners to prevent tampering, operate off battery power for weeks after losing airplane power, and work anywhere in the world. SPOT satellite tracking devices have been in use for tracking boats, cars, people, private airplanes, and other assets for many years. So with a SPOT Trace on AirAsia Flight 8501, AirAsia and government authorities would have known its flight path from takeoff to the end in almost real-time. And while FAA certification and standards development will add time and cost to these systems, the need and usefulness are obvious and justify the effort. So as with deployable recorders, we now just need the NTSB to recommend their use to the FAA and for FAA to require them on all US airliners. And ICAO should make them a recommended practice for airliners of all signatory nations. (Robert A. Clifford, a senior partner at Clifford Law Offices, in Chicago, has handled and led litigation on behalf of aviation crash victims nationally and internationally for three decades.)