Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Makes it Clear: We Need to Rethink Black Boxes

Your iPhone is more powerful than the evidence-collecting computers in the cockpit. Simple changes could mean faster answers for plane crashes

Why is a normally safe aircraft – the Boeing 777-200 – missing over the South China Sea, with all 239 passengers and crew on board Malaysia Airlines flight 370 presumed dead?

I’l tell you why: it was a fireball ignited by faulty lithium-ion batteries carried on board by cellphone-wielding passengers.

No, it wasn’t. It was a bomb planted by terrorists – possibly the passengers who were reportedly carrying stolen passports.

Rubbish: it was structural failure triggered by internal damage sustained in an airport fender-bender involving the same aircraft two years ago.

These, of course, are not answers. It would be generous to call them theories. They are really a tiny sample in an online orgy of wild guesses that erupted on social media over the weekend, in the hours after the aircraft was reported missing off the coast of Malaysia.

As search teams continue scanning the waves for signs of debris, these online truth-seekers should be asking a different question: why couldn’t the plane itself tell us exactly what happened when it went off-radar?

In one of the most galling anachronisms of modern aviation technology, the “black box” that carries most if not all of the answers seems to have vanished, too.

Depending on the location of the wreckage, it could be days, months or even years before anyone turns up the black box – which is usually orange – and there remains a remote possibility that the device and its precious recordings of audio and flight sensor data will never be found at all.

The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is the fault of a bizarre quirk in our networked society. Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner – perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport – still exists in the age of radio.

Air traffic controllers today must orchestrate the most congested airspace using primarily voice commands. You can send and receive text messages from most aircraft, surf the web and even stream House of Cards. The system that powers the plane is limited to pre-dial-up internet connection speeds.

There is simply no datalink onboard an aircraft with the bandwidth to continuously stream the volumes of data collected and stored during every second of a flight by the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder.

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