Real Time Tracking Follows MH370


For 239 people on board the vanished Malaysian Airlines MH370 the latest International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) announcement is moot.  For those using airliners to gad about, its not.  ICAO has ordered three important changes to commercial aviation.

  • Aircraft must carry autonomous distress tracking devices that can transmit location information once every minute in distress circumstances
  • The Cockpit Voice Recorder or CVR must record at least 25 hours so that they cover all phases of flight for all types of operations
  • Aircraft must be equipped with a means to have the Flight Data Recorder recovered and made available in a timely manner

This is significant.  In an age where Facebook knows exactly where you’ve been and where you are,  where you can carry a little piece of software to locate your own phone when its stolen,  not having a proper tracking device for a commercial airliner seems to be rather anachronistic.

Nay, stupid.

A bit like FIFA refusing to use goal line technology but much more relevant to life.  And death.

Reality check.  Airlines have five years to institute the changes.  But at least there’s change.  So lets take a little look at what it could mean.

  1. Aircraft Must Carry Autonomous Tracking Devices

The device cannot be switched off by naughty pilots wanting to commit suicide in the air.  Unlike a possible scenario in the case of MH370.  Someone turned off the ACARS and Transponder both of which allowed radar and communication.  These would then switch on in a “distress circumstance”.   So they’re not actually on all the time?  Why not?  And they’ll then transmit at least once in a minute.  A minute is a very long time in flying/aviation.  Things happen in milliseconds.

Just a side note.  I ran a mobile phone applications company in the early part of this century called Mobile Active Digital.  One of the projects we worked on was a 140 character system which used global positioning satellites to download short bursts of messages to the Around the World Yacht Race crew featuring bad weather warnings and alarms.  And the crew could miraculously upload 140 back.  Kind of GPS email.  That was in 2004/5.  This is 12 years ago and still ICAO doesn’t seem to get its head around a basic need.  Track these aircraft from satellites in real time.   The system doesn’t have to link to mission critical computers on board.  It can be separate so that ground-based hackers can’t do it any damage.

We produced a 140 character system which used global positioning satellites to download short bursts of messages to the Around the World Yacht Race crew.  And they could upload 140 back.

2. The  CVR must record at least 25 hours

At the moment CVR’s record up to 2 hours on a loop.  It’s presumed that this is not long enough to pick up conversations about issues on board by previous crew or incidents like hard landings which may not always be reported.   The recordings would not mean more weight as the existing hard drive recording systems using hardware that could be upgraded to capture more time quite easily and for very little additional cost.

3. Must make FDR recoverable in a timely manner 

This is an odd one.  The ICAO report has not specified how this is supposed to be achieved. The present system using a beacon that gives off a radio signal for around 30 days and is  insufficient for the kind of search underway in the Southern Indian Ocean where MH370 is thought to reside.

Recoverable in a timely manner?  So will it deploy using an explosive device?  Will it give off a dye of some kind in air and water?  Will it expand or provide a more powerful radio signal?  Will these FDRs and VCRs give off a magnetic signal or some kind of ultraviolet radiation so that a probe under water or on land could locate them using light?

It’s five years to go so these questions will obviously have to be answered sooner rather than later.

Tick tock.

Mercy Flight Death & Big Swamp Man Syndrome

So you’re picked up on a mercy flight somewhere in West Africa.  Lets say its Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.  The mode of transport is a Beechcraft King Air, early nineties model.  You’re not really aware of the situation because you’re lying on a  stretcher and unconscious.  The emergency team snaps down  the locks over the stretcher legs inside the fuselage of the medium sized twin engine aeroplane.  Then its cleared for take-off and everyone is moving quickly because after all, its an emergency and someone is very ill.

A few hours later you’re dead.

Along with the entire crew on board – a total of seven.   Because your mercy flight collided with a commercial airliner.

This is what is reported to have happened near the Senegalese Capital, Dakar, on Saturday 5th September 2015.   Senegalair HS125 Medevac from Ouagadougou to Dakar is reported to have crashed after a collision with an Equatorial Guinea airline operated by CEIBA, flight number CEL071.  The scary thing is the Boeing 737-800 was carrying 100 passengers.   The contact is reported to have occurred at 18h12 min GMT and about 300 NM from Dakar.

The Boeing landed at Malabo in Equatorial Guinea and the passengers were then ferried to Benin with the crew reporting a near miss.

It’s now known that the near miss was not a miss but a very real hit.   Because the wing of the Boeing had signs of a collision.   After that incident, the Senegalair Medevac aircraft continued flying out over the ocean and eventually plunged into the sea.  There was no communication from the King Air crew, indicating that either comms were down, or the Boeing struck the Medevac aircraft (type to be clarified) close to the cockpit incapacitating the crew.  There are a few other obvious reasons for the comms silence,  but the two noted above are the most likely.

The combined speeds involved could have been above Mach 1, giving neither crew much time to do anything even if they’d seen each other.  The Boeing was likely using Airway UA601 eastwards.  The HS125 mercy flight was flying west.  Being close to dusk made the situation worse because the crew on board HS125 were likely to have been staring pretty much into a setting sun.  On board the mercy flight  were three members of the crew (an Algerian and two Congolese), a Senegalese doctor and two nurses as well as a French national.  He was the patient.

It was a fairly murky Saturday early evening with storms reported in the area.  Yet one thing is abundantly clear.

With the ever increasing number of flights of all kinds across Africa, surely its time to take a closer look  radar and Aircraft Traffic Control?  While its too early to say what caused this accident,  its obvious that a lack of radar is one of the big issues hampering safety and has been much commented on by pilots for years.

Africa is a dark continent for aviation.

There’s not much in the way of radar coverage nor VOR beacons,  many of the airports have no GNSS or GPS approaches mapped,  and many ATC and aviation authorities are, let’s say, a little hampered by capacity.

As Africa ramps up growth the reality is the middle class is expecting to get around the continent.  And when you have a few dollars for travel,  you automatically gravitate towards aviation.  I mean, who wants to take the chance of pirates on both West and East Africa?  No ships please.  Roads are generally a mess.  Railway lines are like hens’ teeth.  So flying is the only option.

This has created a challenge for civil aviation authorities across Africa.  With many tied directly to their national strategies,  its become rife with conflict.  Post colonial aviation bureaucrats are forever trying to stymie each other based on nation-state pressure.  Kenya vs Ethiopia,  Ghana vs Nigeria vs Senegal,  South Africa vs everyone.   Games are played.  Positions are taken.

To be specific, primary radar is available in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Flights between SA and Europe rely on position reports from aircraft to aircraft.  While SAA, Kenya Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines aircraft have installed collision avoidance systems due to the lack of control,  smaller airlines have not.

IATA has developed a special  Inflight Broadcast Procedure or  IFBP for Africa.   All traffic flying at Flight Level25 or 25000 feet and above need to send blind reports on routing, level, position and estimates on the single standard VHF frequency 126.9.

So its up to pilots to monitor the airspace and coordinate between each other when it comes to conflicts on separation.  Because ATC services are unlikely, this is the prime operating procedure by most airlines now.

But things could be so much better if the authorities decided to work together to plug the gaps.

As these aviation-clueless nationalists play big man in the swamp games, customers are in real danger.


A quick search – the official website,  is packed with malware. - not a healthy place right now. – not a healthy place right now.

It’s other site,  is about to be deregistered.

Deregistering website.
Deregistering website.





It was an almost two hour simulator session and I was flying a  Piper Seneca or PA-34. It’s my first attempt at controlling a twin.   That alone had created some challenges as managing manifold settings below the redline and balancing power was a unique experience.

It’s supposed to be second nature.   In the meantime, I’ve got to think about power issues while balancing the props and flying on instruments accurately.  I was put through my paces for an hour flying the approach and missed approach to Bloemfontein (FABL).

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 2.36.18 PM
Instrument approach chart, FABL

All was going fairly well until the last segment which put me back over the airspace above Lanseria.  I’ve flown this leg on sim as well as under the hood and generally flew safely without any major hiccups.  Even the break-cloud and ILS approach while sometimes a little high, was not an outright fail.

That unfortunately changed when I flew on ADF alone.  The VOR was disabled by CFI Russell Donaldson and I was forced to fly the pattern without GPS or VOR – aiming at Lanseria’s NDB known as Lima Alpha or LA.  Because I have not used the ADF as a stand-alone instrument for months,  I confused a few things.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 2.42.38 PM
Lanseria RNAV courtesy of CAA.

All appeared normal until I was 3.1 nautical miles from LA.  Then the DME remained unchanged for a minute.  I thought it was Russell purposefully throwing another curve ball to add a little more spice to the instrument flying recipe.

But all was not normal.  I had turned north instead of remaining on track and had actually begun to ignore the ADF in favour of the broken VOR.   What compounded my confusion was the fact that the red error flags had been removed as it tended to obscure the Artificial Horizon.

Eventually I realised that things were going pear shaped.  In these circumstances the idea is to report



to control that I would have to reset my approach and do the entire approach again.  Instead I thought I’d wait another minute just in case the DME kicked back into life.  By the time it was clear I was now heading north and was over 8 nautical miles away from the beacon and on my way to Thabazimbi.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 2.42.45 PM
Altitudes and reporting points, FALA.

But the experience convinced me that while I was practicing flying on instruments, I was unable to properly process a restricted instrument panel.  Not that the plane was in danger – unless fuel became an issue.


So its back to the drawing board with my copy of X-plane.    When I next train on instruments (probably this weekend) its going to be on a limited panel and only on ADF for part of the training to imbed the logic and practice efficiently.    It may be true that the NDB’s are being allowed to “die” as the technology is replaced by GPS.  Still, aviators know that mantra.  Use all tools at your disposal in order to ensure survival.

Yes, I have backup technology.  I have a hand-held Garmin (about to upgrade to an iPad) for GPS navigation,  but its still not good enough.   More practice please.