New York Times: Malaysians are stupid because they ignored radar blips

In “Series of Errors by Malaysia Mounts, Complicating the Task of Finding Flight 370,” the New York Times says the following:

The radar blip that was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did a wide U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand and then began moving inexorably past at least three military radar arrays as it traversed northern Malaysia, even flying high over one of the country’s biggest cities before heading out over the Strait of Malacca.

Yet inside a Malaysian Air Force control room on the country’s west coast, where American-made F-18s and F-5 fighters stood at a high level of readiness for emergencies exactly like the one unfolding in the early morning of March 8, a four-person air defense radar crew did nothing about the unauthorized flight. “The watch team never noticed the blip,” said a person with detailed knowledge of the investigation into Flight 370. “It was as though the airspace was his.”

It was not the first and certainly not the last in a long series of errors by the Malaysian government that has made the geographically vast and technologically complex task of finding the $50 million Malaysia Airlines jet far more difficult.

The implication seems to be that the Malaysians are stupid while we Americans, especially New York Times journalists and our military personnel, are smart. We would never have done anything like this. The article certainly does not link over to Wikipedia, which notes “As the first wave [of Japanese aircraft attacking Pearl Harbor] approached Oahu, it was detected by the U.S. Army SCR-270 radar at Opana Point near the island’s northern tip. This post had been in training mode for months, but was not yet operational. Although the operators, Privates George Elliot Jr. and Joseph Lockard, reported a target, a newly assigned officer at the thinly manned Intercept Center, Lieutenant Kermit A. Tyler, presumed it was the scheduled arrival of six B-17 bombers. The direction from which the aircraft were coming was close (only a few degrees separated the two inbound courses), while the operators had never seen a formation as large on radar; they neglected to tell Tyler of its size, while Tyler, for security reasons, could not tell them the B-17s were due (even though it was widely known).”

4 Comments

  1. J. Peterson

    March 16, 2014 @ 4:32 am

    1

    Question for the pilot: Why does the transponder that reports the airliner’s ID, location and heading even have an off switch? Keeping track of the plane seems like a critical function for ATC, the airline, and potential rescuers.

    Are there valid or routine situations where it makes sense to turn it off?

  2. philg

    March 16, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

    2

    J: Transponders, like everything else in aviation, seem to fail from vibration plus old age (remember that a lot of planes flying around are more than 30 years old). They are required to be recertified every two years if you’re going to use them (and they are required in busier airspace even if you are not flying under instrument flight rules). Sometimes ATC will call and say “We’re showing you at 10,400 ft.,” which is a polite way to say “Put down the crack pipe and get back to your assigned 10,000′ altitude.” But if the pilot has the correct altimeter setting and the altimeter is reading 10,000′ then it might be time to turn off transponder 1 and switch to transponder 2 (fancy airlines usually have two).

    You’re not supposed to have the transponder on when you’re on the ground, though it doesn’t do any harm and at some big airports it is required (they have a RADAR-based system designed to prevent runway incursions and other such problems). In airplanes with Garmin-brand GPSes and Garmin-brand transponders (i.e., ones built or retrofitted within about the last 15 years) the transponder will go automatically from standby to active when the GPS reports a ground speed of more than 30 knots (I think).

    If you had avionics that were integrated to the level of Windows 95 (which nobody does) it would probably make sense to disallow the situation of “airplane is flying but no transponder is active.” That would have prevented the mid-air collision of the B737 with the Embraer bizjet in Brazil (bizjet pilots likely disabled transponder inadvertently with knee). But on the third hand the pilots usually have control over the circuit breakers and could likely disable transponder(s) by pulling breaker(s).

    (And finally the typical transponder does not report location, I don’t think. Mode C transponders certainly don’t. Mode S transponders supply more data but I think they rely on ATC (ground-based) radar to establish location. The glorious era of ADS-B is what you are thinking of. That will be upon us in 2020, unless the airlines complain so much about the $1 million cost to retrofit each airliner that the FAA delays it. I think an ADS-B transponder for a little Cirrus or Cessna would cost about $4000 installed, but Boeing is not going to be charging that for a 777! And remember that already there are Cessnas that are worth only about $20,000 and by 2020 there will be plenty of Cirruses that are worth $20-40,000. So this will be a big burden to impose on aircraft owners. The cost of the actual hardware, stripped of regulation, is pretty minimal. http://www.foreflight.com/stratus is a box that has about $100,000 of stuff in it, including ADS-B receiver, WAAS GPS, and AHRS for figuring out the aircraft’s attitude. It sells for $899.)

  3. Federico

    March 18, 2014 @ 5:20 am

  4. Jim Howard

    March 19, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

    4

    To be fair to the U.S. Military of 1941, the exact same thing happened in Japan during the Dolittle raid, only it was the Japanese who didn’t see it coming.

    My favorite case of the military not seeing an incoming threat happened on December 7, 2000 when to Russian fighters paid a surprise visit to our Navy, where they beat up the pattern above the USS Kitty Hawk. To be fair, the Navy saw them coming, but not soon enough to do anything about them.

    News story here:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/12/AR2008021202693.html

    To get a better sense of what happened, read this eye witness account:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20021208185311/http://www.mipc.net/Flyby%20by%20JO.htm

    Extract:

    [quote]
    Anyways, I’m sitting there bullshitting with my XO who is also getting his qual and we
    hear on the CO’s squawk box a call from CIC (Combat Info Ctr). They said,”Sir, we are getting
    indications of Russian fighter activity.” His first response was,”launch the alert fighters.” Combat
    told him the highest alerts were Alert 30′s.

    The Captain got pissed and said “launch everything we got ASAP!” I ran to the Navigators phone and
    called the SDO. Our squadron didn’t have alert duty that day, bummer, so I told him to find out
    who did and to get their ass moving up to the flight deck (only alert 7′s are you actually sitting
    on the flight deck ready to go, alert 30′s means you are in the ready room). Anyways, 40 min after the
    CO called away the alerts, a Russian Su-27 Flanker and Su-24 Fencer made a 500 knot, 200 foot pass directly
    over the tower…it was just like in Top Gun, shoes on the bridge spilled coffee and everyone
    said,”Holllllllly shitttt!”. I looked at the captain at this point and his face was red. He looked like he just walked in on his wife getting boned by a Marine. The Sukoi’s made 2 more high speed, low altitude passes before
    we finally launched the first aircraft off the deck…an EA-6B Prowler! That’s right. We launched a ****ing Prowler and he ended up in a 1 v 1 with a Flanker just in front of the ship. The Flanker was all over his ass (kind of like a bear batting around a little bunny right before he eats it). He was screaming for help
    when finally a Hornet from our sister squadron (I use this term in its literal sense because they looked
    like a bunch of ****ing girls playing with the Sukoi’s they way they did) got off the deck and made the
    intercept. It was too late. The entire crew watched overhead as the Russians made a mockery of our
    feeble attempt of intercepting them albeit totally OBE. The funny part of the story was the Admiral and
    the CAG were in there morning meeting in the War Room and they were interupted by the thundering roar of the
    Russians buzzing the tower. A CAG staff dude told me they looked at each other and
    looked at our Airplanes, noticed we didn’t have flights scheduled until a few hours from now, and said,”what
    was that?” “Four days later the Russian intelligence agency emailed the CO of the Kitty Hawk and enclosed pictures
    they had taken of dudes scrambling around the flight deck frantically trying to get airborne.
    [/quote]

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