Why it's so hard to lose a plane

Getty ImagesAmelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called ‘Friendship’ in Newfoundland.
  • Amelia Earhart disappeared in her plane over 80 years ago, but since then there have been many technological advances to keep that from happening.
  • Today, radar, satellites, and other flight-tracking systems keep a close eye on planes around the globe. It’s a mix of old and new technologies which come together to create a larger system of checks and backups.
  • Despite these advances, however, there are still problems with tracking planes in certain remote regions. To remedy this, coordinated international reform efforts are set to take hold over the next few years.

In July of 1937, Amelia Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her Lockheed Electra plane took off from New Guinea, at the tail-end of her quest to circle the globe. They were never seen again.

Fast forward to March 2018, when a report from Forensic Anthropology claimed to have identified Earhart’s bones, found on a remote atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1940, with 99% accuracy – contradictory to the initial original report, which said the bones were from a man. Even now, the circumstances of Earhart’s disappearance remain somewhat of a mystery. Her plane, for example, is still missing.

Nowadays, a disappearing plane is almost unthinkable (though it can happen – many of us remember when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished in 2014).

Amelia EarhartJustin Benson-Cooper – Pool/Getty ImagesPilot Russell Adams searches from a Royal Australian Airforce AP-3C Orion from Pearce Airforce Base during a search mission for possible MH370 debris on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia.

But for the most part, technology has taken us far from the days when a person could fly out into the unknown, never to be seen again. For one thing, the unknown feels hard to come by these days. For another, air traffic is highly regulated, backed up by technological advances and overlapping systems that allow planes to be monitored at almost every stage.

One such system is radar, or “Radio Detecting and Ranging,” which uses radio waves to keep air traffic controllers aware of each aircraft’s location, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. The concept of radar has been around since before Earhart first climbed into a cockpit, according to Britannica. Despite its age and relative simplicity, it remains a staple for most flight-tracking systems, Mark Millam, a vice president at the Flight Safety Foundation, told Business Insider.

But some programs, like the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program, are focusing on switching from radar to a more accurate and reliable satellite-based tracking technology. In fact, most planes operating in U.S.-controlled airspace must be equipped with satellite-compliant technology by January 2020, according to the FAA.

When radar and satellites aren’t available, in remote areas for example, it’s up to flight crews to report their position back to air traffic control centres, Millam said. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, has recommended that commercial planes be required to report their positions every 15 minutes, according to The Guardian. This recommendation applies starting on November 8, 2018.

Millam said that most countries are already complying with that standard. But it still leaves a bit to be desired, especially when you’re travelling hundreds of miles per hour.

That’s where the Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS), another set of potential reform initiatives, comes in. It calls for things like automating the location-reporting process for planes in distress, thereby shrinking the search radius for missing planes to a six-nautical-mile radius. That standard goes into effect on January 1, 2021.

“You’ll get a tighter and tighter window of where that aircraft is if it begins to show signs that it’s not operating like a typical aircraft. Altitude, pressurization … GADSS is meant to be able to identify these aircraft early, report more information back to air traffic control and help recover the aircraft,” Millam said.

As it stands, however, these layers of accountability have fallen short in the not-so-distant past. Consider, for example, the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The plane, which had over 200 people on board, was never found, as Business Insider previously reported. It was the catalyst which later prompted the ICAO to create GADSS.

It’s worth noting that this event was an anomaly for modern aviation.

“That aircraft flew for hours after it reported that it was not on its planned flight path. That is something that had never been seen before,” Millam said. “With the changes that are proposed since Malaysia 370, since Amelia Earhart – there’s been so much more that’s been set up in terms of coverage.”

Amelia EarhartJ. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesAmelia Earhart on June 20, 1928.

When planes crash on land, force-activated emergency-locator transmitters are meant to help search and rescue locate the ones that don’t make it home. And larger aircraft flying internationally are required to have underwater locating devices, which activate automatically and send out a signal for at least 30 days.

Despite the loss of that Malaysia Airlines flight, however, the expectation that your flight will arrive at the intended destination is still mostly taken in stride. Planes still crash, but it’s much more difficult for a plane to disappear than it was in Earhart’s day. And given the flight-tracking proposals on the table, it will only become more difficult as new initiatives and technologies become the norm.

Over the years, Earhart’s mysterious disappearance has taken her from a person of public fascination to that of an aeronautic legend and an icon of female empowerment. In honour of her impressive life and pioneering contributions to aviation, July 24 is celebrated as Amelia Earhart Day.

Although we’ve mostly managed to move beyond the phenomenon of vanishing aircraft, her disappearance does still resonate with a certain degree of fascination, reflecting our deepest desires for exploration and discovery – even if that means confronting the unknown.

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