Malaysian 370: More Loss Ahead.


At least as important as finding the wreckage of Malaysian Flight 370 is uncovering the facts that caused the disaster. But based on the real-time performance of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry as it has unfolded since the jet disappeared, there’s little hope that the facts aren’t just a deeply buried and even less likely to be recovered than the missing jet, because of three cold, hard facts: politics, incompetence, and liability.

First, the political factors that mortgage the Malaysian investigation of this tragedy. Most of these center around the Malaysian Acting Minister of Aviation–a post left vacant since May of 2013–who is also the appointed Minister of Defense,  Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein.

mh370-press-briefing

Hussein’s official resume  lists neither aviation nor military experience or expertise, and his primary qualification to hold both titles appears to be largely that he is the son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, and the nephew of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak. He is seen as a likely successor to his cousin, Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Hussein has built a political career as the icon of nationalism predicated on race, and the symbolism of the native garb so prominently displayed during the initial phases of the MH 370 investigation are his trademark:

Hisham_Keris

The above photo was taken at a speech he gave at the 2005 United Malays National Organization, as Hussein waved the traditional Malay “keris” in a fiery call for Malay racial solidarity (his cousin, the present Prime Minister, is seen applauding in the background), earning him the derisive nicknames Hishammudin Tauke Keris (“The Keris Merchant”) or simply as Hishammudin Keris (“Hishammundin Keys”) in the Malaysian press. Hussein defended his usage of the keris, saying it was meant “to motivate the Malays” and that it “is here to stay,” denying that it was a symbol of Malay supremacy.

The early opportunity to politically brand the authoritative spotlight in official press conferences with the racial purity signature quickly gave way to more sensible and less political garb in subsequent press briefings, but both the intent and the liability were clearly set forth on day one of the investigation: politics will be at the forefront of the MH370 investigation.

Hussein has the dual political liability stemming from his two ministry titles, Defense and Aviation. First, given the fact that Malaysian military radar detected MH370’s rogue turn that penetrated Malaysian sovereign airspace without clearance–indicating a possible 9/11 threat to the nation–why weren’t Malaysian Air Defense Forces sent to intercept and investigate?

 

Had Hussein’s Defense Ministry handled this routine (in the west) airspace alert and scrambled interceptors, they would at least know where MH 370 was headed, and perhaps how and why. With Hussein directly in the political hierarchy topped by his cousin the Prime Minister, the military intercept fiasco has been downplayed by Hussein and his Ministry of Defense.

But even more liability accrues to Hussein in his responsibility as Minister of Aviation. The regulatory function of a national aviation agency must encompass inspections, compliance, licensing, and accident investigations.

 

In modern aviation regulatory practice, the accident investigative arm–the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States–operates independently from the regulatory, licensing and operations inspections agency, the FAA. This is fundamental to fair and objective accident investigation: the NTSB must not be subservient to the agency that is liable for the failures leading to an accident.

Not only does Hussein’s Malaysian Aviation Ministry not have such a vital separation between key branches, but in fact, most of the Malaysian aviation oversight structure remains unstaffed and vacant, as the Malaysian Ministry of Aviation’s own organizational chart clearly shows:

image

Unfortunately for the entire world demanding unbiased and thorough investigation of the MH370 disappearance, this is where objectivity collides with liability–both political and financial–as well as incompetence: in a nation whose national airline operates state-of-the-art jetliners worldwide, the Safety and Compliance leadership positions are largely vacant? What does that say, in retrospect, about the competence of not only the regulatory function of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry, but also the air carriers certified–including the national flag carrier–regulated and inspected and certified by the Ministry of Aviation?

Further, what does the direct linkage to both the sitting Prime Minister and his heir apparent create in terms of political incentive to meter and constrain the flow of investigative facts while that nation’s credibility declines as the investigation is filled with, as Reuters described, “misinformation or conflicting reports” from the agency charged with both certifying competence and investigating  failures?

With no firewall between the agency liable for the regulatory failures and the investigative body responsible for discovering and reporting such faults, with the national leadership embedded through family relations in both the governance and the liability in both the MH370 disappearance and the ongoing investigation, what chance is there that the unvarnished truth will ever be discovered or divulged?

FDR

Because even if the Digital Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice recorder are ever recovered–and that’s a hope that grows dimmer by the hour–the final authority over the data transcription will not be the aircraft manufacturer, nor the data units’ manufacturer, nor the NTSB.

In fact, the investigative findings and all supporting data belong to the Malaysian government–until and unless they elect to turn over the data and investigation to a third party. Given the political and personal stakes involved, the chances of a fair, factual and unbiased investigation seem as lost to the world as the jet itself.

Malaysia Plane

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18 Responses to “Malaysian 370: More Loss Ahead.”

  1. Reblogged this on Sharing my professional and personal interests and commented:
    But based on the real-time performance of the Malaysian Aviation Ministry as it has unfolded since the jet disappeared, there’s little hope that the facts aren’t just a deeply buried and even less likely to be recovered as the missing jet, because of three cold, hard facts: politics, incompetence, and liability.

  2. Somewhat unrelated, and perhaps a dumb question – but why aren’t the black boxes made from (or encased within) a buoyant material, to aid in the event of an incident over water?

    • Not sure, but the better option IMHO would be constant data stream from the jet, archived on the ground, not recorded on a chip or tape on-board. These black boxes date back to the days prior to datalink. Time to update.

      • Cedarglen Says:

        I second Andrew’s question have wondered… Your response, Chris, is likely to be the best answer. That said, some participants will squawk about hardware, software and bandwidth costs. They always do. If real-time reporting ever becomes mandatory, we must also consider in-flight control of the system vs. the crew’s potential need to pop a breaker. Perhaps we should begin by mandating CVR data retention requirements far greater than +/- two hours. Many pilots (and their unions) will fight this, but with the proper protections the additional data are essential. If there are no events, discard. If there are events, every word uttered, gate-to-gate is relevant. What say you? Thanks for another great post, -C.

      • We in the US already have a data linked report of every maneuver and multiple performance parameters for every flight that is screened and analyzed. This is with the agreement of the pilots’ union who work hand-in-hand with analysts to weed out anomalous flight performance. But again, this is the US standard, funded by the airlines and managed by our regulatory agencies. As I noted, most of the Malay government oversight of aviation is simply unstaffed and such a mandate doesn’t even exist.

      • Let’s separate the three issues here: locating the crash site, locating the FDR, and getting the AC flight data leading up to the crash.

        Taking last things first:
        The cost of monitoring and storing all this data on the ground is an ongoing expense if done real-time, and requires expensive new infrastructure. Storing all the info on the AC and overwriting it in the usual case of a non-crash, as done presently, minimizes that cost. This puts all of the high-bandwidth storage on the AC, at the cost of having to find it in the event of a crash.

        Locating the FDR once the crash site has been roughly located: The existing ULB is based on 50 (or more) year old technology. It works moderately well if the crash site can be quickly localized, but it expends its energy whether or not this is the case. It’s like yelling “help” when you aren’t sure there’s a rescuer to hear you.

        There’s a 20+ year old patent ( US 4951263 A) for a much more sophisticated ULB that has apparently been swept under the carpet by the agency(ies?) involved. It provides longer life from the same battery, and longer detection range, and/or the possibility for being accoustically interrogated for range info, a la a radar transponder. Battery life might be years (certainly many months) if operated in the transponder mode.

        This device would make the finding of the FDR an easier operation, assuming that the crash site can be moderately localized. Not necessarily guaranteed, but with a much higher probability than the present ULB. The failure to adopt this newer ULB is an example of “save money at any cost”, IMO.

        As to crash site location: In the MH370 case, where the crash site is incredibly far from the intended flight path, either ULB technology would need some considerable technical assistance in locating the crash area. Assistance provided , in this case by the fortuituitous existence of doppler data from the datalink. It took a couple of weeks for this to be realized, and analyzed. Until it was, we didn’t even know which hemisphere to look in!

        Chasing satellite images of floating junk is a really low probability method of locating a crash site, simply because there’s so much junk in the sea. In the absence of other data, it was arguably better than nothing. Do something, even if its wrong.

        All bets are off wrsp prompt crash site location if the cognizant agency does not fully and truthfully share all available data at the outset of the SAR mission. It’s probably pointless to speculate as to motivation when this is not so.

      • After AF447 there were proposals to have streaming triggered by unusual aircraft attitudes, certain performance parameters, certain cockpit warnings, etc. I imagine these same triggers could also automatically cause to download the data for the entire flight (which would, admittedly, require modestly more on-board data storage capacity then many a/c currently have). The streaming could also deactivate itself if specified criteria were later met.

        This sort of compromise seems heartily responsive to the anti-streaming cost arguments. But I never really see it talked about, at least in the media.

  3. Ron Dolan Says:

    This whole tragedy reminds me of a famous line in a movie…”you can’t handle the truth…” We will never know without a shadow of a doubt what happened. There will be rumors that swirl for a long time and then unfortunately it will fade into the forgotten. Could this plane be in tact and another event worse than a hijacking took place…could it be the signal of things to come….I for one am not a conspiracy advocate, but something’s really just don’t add up…. Politics sure has a way of “spinning” every detail not only on this but other tragedies around the world and even here at home in the USA….

  4. […] of Aviation, MH 370, Tun Hussein Onn. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  5. What? No alien abduction theories?? (Thank you.) This loss is certain to lead to changes and improvements in several areas; sadly, Malaysia’s political nepotism won’t be one of them.

  6. peggywillenberg Says:

    Chris, do you buy this?

    “It turned left, then climbed to 39,000 feet — below its peak safe limit of 43,100 feet — and maintained that altitude for about 20 minutes over the Malaysian Peninsula before beginning to descend, the source said”.–from CNN

    It seems the jet then went on to “avoid” Indonesian airspace (I hope I got that right) .

    What on earth could this mean?

  7. Cedarglen Says:

    This is good! The original post was excellent and most of the comments are on-topic, legitimate questions and relevant. (Perhaps good reasons to read this blog, Duh?)
    So, other than cost, what are the arguments against real-time, down-link’d aircraft (and pilot) performance reporting? I cannot think of any, but there must be a few. What are they? Who objects and why? Let’s consider those issues and then make it happen. Only safety is at risk. Thanks Chris. -C.

  8. I’d like to make some observations, all based on probability, which I think is fair given that at this point in time no answers of any kind have emerged and hence probability is all we have – 5 weeks after the event. I’ve seen false hope after false hope and its time to start being sceptical.

    1. This was not an accident.

    I’m being lazy now but rather than argue my point, does anyone think it was? Transponders turned off ‘accidently”. ‘Accidental’ turn ?
    In the entire 100 year history of aviation there’s no precedent for this in the context of modern aviation. Any bizarre accidents were always solved by this time point, especially in the modern satellite area.

    2. this plane did not crash in the sea AND whoever (?plural) is behind this does not want this plane found.

    am sorry if this causes hurt – but when the Swissair MD80 hit the sea off Nova Scotia due to an on board fire it disintegrated into one million pieces (350 knot impact speed). There is just now earthly way that in this case, no trace of the plane has been found floating or has been washed up on any coastline. We have been misled. The search is a charade. It started in the wrong place and progressed to the wrong place . Another ‘accident’ perhaps? More likely all part of the charade.

    3. There is no physical way of hiding a plane that size if it crashed – 1 million pieces or more – give or take – hence it’s intact – minus the passengers. This is an operation. This was a planned event . I am not saying it went to plan – these rarely do – but on balance of probability it was a planned operation and there’s o wreckage on any ocean floor where the searchers are looking.

  9. Chris,

    You are of course right that there is no evidence. But how do you respond to this in the context in which the event has happened?

    We have a wonderful saying in medicine ‘ is absence of evidence evidence of absence?’ The answer is of course that it is not. What it really means is that in the absence of any evidence nothing is impossible – or rather that most outcomes that are within the realm of possibility cannot be dismissed – and in the case of this plane, also , nothing is impossible (within the limits of what physically could have happened). What is impossible is to make 150 tons of matter vanish altogether without any trace after 6 weeks of genuine searching.

    i’d like to continue your theme in your priceless article “…what didn’t happen’ onto what has not been found. My point is that this investigative vacuum itself has meaning. It is a ‘relative negative’ – aka – ‘relevant negative.’

    I fear that we have all been misled – a them you wrote about when referring to the ‘mortgage on the investigation’ in ‘More loss ahead’

    • Your argument is founded on an equal footing with those who say since there’s no proof that aliens haven’t landed at Area-51, therefore it’s possible that they did.

      Can’t prove that Elvis didn’t cut my hair in a UFO, so …

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