Black Swan events like Air France AF447 and more recently Malaysia Airlines MH370 appear to highlight latent weaknesses, not only in our aviation system, but more so in our ability to secure the technology that we, as an industry, operate. Add to that an apparent lack of security, not only of the aircraft itself, but more so the ease of control of critical on-board systems like Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) and the aircraft’s transponder. The reader might get the impression that Black Swan events are likely to be far more commonplace than we first thought.
Whilst the hunt for MH370 continues, perhaps it is time to turn our attention back to the potential causes of the event. Let’s consider the potential implications of the on-board technology and the potential role of aircraft engineering and maintenance will need to assume in order to ensure security of the aircraft in their care.
Putting the Genie Back into the Bottle
Surely, it cannot be that easy to switch-off the aircraft’s transponder simply by turning a knob that is easily and conveniently located on the engine pedestal. I admit it; the un-initiated will not necessarily realize that such controls for communications are actually in plain sight. Although the media have done an excellent job highlighting this point to the public.
Let us not also forget that an experienced flight simulator pilot would have already known exactly where everything is. There are breathtakingly accurate simulators that are easily purchased. Therefore we have to admit that more people know the anatomy of the B777 flight deck than we would like.
With the genie already out of the bottle, the events of MH370 seem to suggest that a fundamental change to the ability to control and the location of the transponder on the flight-deck may be merited. The question is whether the pilot truly needs the ability to switch the transponder on or off. In this author’s opinion, the only reason for the transponder to be off, must be for maintenance purposes, and none other. By removing the ability to switch transponder power on or off to a location beyond the control of the assailant or the pilot would be a good first step.
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