Black box could shed light on plane mystery

Some say no known signal from device suggests it was deliberately disabled.

Satellite images of what could be the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Southern Indian Ocean set off renewed speculation among local experts about the sequence of events that led up to the jet’s disappearance.

While everything from terrorism to black holes have come up in round-the-clock discussions, some angles are taking on greater prominence as the search continues.

Ken Curell, a veteran commercial and military pilot with decades of experience flying large passenger jets and fighter aircraft, is focused on the fate of the nearly-indestructible black box that should have been aboard. If the plane had crashed either in the ocean or on land, it’s likely the box would survive. The black box contains a digital recording of the aircraft’s flight and transmits a locating signal.

If a crash happened in the water, it should also be transmitting now and providing a signal for searchers. The fact that there is no known signal from the device is additional reason for thinking something beyond the ordinary occurred.

Was the box disabled by pilots in the cockpit or before the flight by someone on the ground? Did a technical problem cause it to malfunction? Could the plane have plunged into a deep ocean trench that prevented the signal from being located because radio transmission limitations?

The box should have been checked for functionality before the plane left the ground, Curell said, and is capable of signaling a malfunction. There are also two detachable emergency transmitters on board and no signal has been reportedly heard from those devices either.

One speculated scenario is that the crew was overcome by smoke and fumes in the cockpit before they were able to turn the jet around. In that sequence of events, the plane’s autopilot would take over and keep the craft flying until the fuel was exhausted.

Curell said it would take considerable activity in the crew compartment of the jet to shut down or compromise the data reporting system and the plane’s transponder. Assuming there were no technical failures, shutdowns of that equipment on similar aircraft would require some very deliberate circuit-breaker pulling, Curell said.

If the aircraft broke up in flight, the black box would most likely remain intact; once the device hit the water, the signal is water-activated and would start sending out a location beacon over an emergency frequency. Satellites monitor those signals to pinpoint locations of crashed aircraft.

“Again, we’ve heard no reports of such a signal being heard,” Curell said.

Donna Schalagheck, chair of political science at Wright State University, said although there has been a decline in the number of international hijackings since Sept. 11, in part because of all the safety precautions that have been implemented, modern terrorism has shown it is adaptable.

Screening passengers and crew, locking cockpit doors, and other security methods would have to be circumvented.

“Terrorism does not cease to surprise or adapt,” she said.

Schalagheck wonders what evidence government officials in the Peoples Republic of China have about the plane’s disappearance.

“China has been very quiet,” she said. “Half of those on board were from there. What is going on behind the scenes there?”

If the plane landed in some remote area as part of some terrorist plot, it would still need jet fuel to take off again, a very difficult logistical problem, she said.

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