RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Added to the question of who or what might have brought down that missing Malaysian airliner is the deeper mystery of where it might have gone down. A veritable fleet of ships and planes are carrying international searchers over a vast stretch of water, hunting for even a trace of the airliner. They've checked out oil slicks and debris hundreds of miles from where the plane was last seen on radar, which, so far, have turned out to be unrelated to the jet. For help in understanding why simply locating the lost plane is so hard, among other things, we reached aviation reporter Stephen Trimble this morning at his home in Virginia. Good morning.
STEPHEN TRIMBLE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: I think a lot of people are asking: How is it that authorities have so little idea of where this flight is? It obviously fell off the radar. But put that in perspective for us. Do planes retain connection with radar in the middle of the ocean?
TRIMBLE: This is the kind of event that exposes certain things that people just don't think about, but the fact is an aircraft can fly off radar. Once it gets over the water, radar coverage is not nearly as robust as it is on land. And, of course, if you go below certain altitude, because of the curvature of the Earth, radar can't see you. And that appears to have happened here.
MONTAGNE: But one would like to think, at least, that there would be better technology for tracking flights, these big flights. What about tracking planes via something like GPS, instead of radar?
TRIMBLE: The airplane does track itself with GPS, and it has a transponder that updates its position every second or two. That system stopped working at the last-known radar contact. Why that occurred, we don't know. And it's impossible to speculate, given the information we have.
MONTAGNE: But is it possible for a plane to fall off the radar, and the GPS-like system go out, and still be flying?
TRIMBLE: Yes, yes. In fact, the crew themselves can turn off the transponder, and then fly below radar altitude, radar detection altitude - either in control of the aircraft or out of control of the aircraft - and not be detected.
MONTAGNE: You wrote a piece yesterday for the Guardian newspaper online, where you called the black box, the flight recorder - and I'm quoting you - "one of the most galling anachronisms of modern aviation technology." Why?
TRIMBLE: Well, it's galling because it's a fairly simple problem to solve, but because of the superb safety of air transportation, it hasn't been acted upon, and that's that the black box goes down with the ship, so to speak. It goes down with the aircraft. So all the information that we're craving right now about what happened and why is possibly wherever the aircraft wreckage is, possibly at the bottom of the ocean. And what we haven't done is connect the black box to the communications grid that's already onboard the aircraft that could give us some idea of what is going on and what happened, even now.
We couldn't get the entire amount of information on the flight data recorder, because it's accumulating megabytes worth of data every few seconds, but it could give us some better idea, possibly help us find where the aircraft is now.
MONTAGNE: Why is this not done? Is it a cost issue?
TRIMBLE: Well, it's a cost issue that's sort of transposed with the fact that air travel is so safe, this so rarely happens. Something like this is - still seems almost unthinkable, that it's been hard to justify the cost. I think now that we've had two of these incidents in the last five years - the last one was in 2009, with an Air France aircraft off the coast of Brazil, and now this one. And this one's so much worse in terms of the mystery and just our inability to find this aircraft, that I think it's going to draw a lot more attention to this issue of getting more information off the plane, especially when it's crossing over water.
MONTAGNE: Stephen Trimble is aviation reporter and editor for Flightglobal's Americas Bureau. Thanks for joining us.
TRIMBLE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.