The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

CNHI News Service Originals

March 18, 2014

Why didn't the missing airliner's passengers phone for help?

— One of the most commonly asked questions we've received is: Why didn't the passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 use their cell phones to call for help? We all remember United Flight 93, whose passengers communicated with the ground by phone after the plane was hijacked during 9/11. Given how famous the incident subsequently became, it's hard to see why none of the 227 passengers aboard the Malaysia Airways flight attempted something similar.

One part of the answer is that, at least at first, many or all of the passengers might well have been oblivious to the fact that anything was awry. There is no evidence that the takeover of the plane was violent; the view has become increasingly widespread among investigators that the captain himself diverted the plane. By this time, it was past 1 a.m., and many passengers were no doubt asleep. Apart from the lights of the occasional ship, the sea below would have been completely dark. In such a situation, without visual reference or navigational instruments, it is almost impossible to determine one's orientation. The only way a passenger could have detected a change in course is if he happened to be watching the plane's course on the entertainment system - but the cockpit can shut that down. "There's the circuit breakers for all that stuff," says retired 777 captain Gerard Baer.

Some reports indicate that after the plane turned off its transponder and changed course to the west, it climbed sharply to 45,000 feet and then descended even more abruptly. If true, such maneuverings quite conceivably might have alarmed the passengers. But it's hard to know how much weight to give the altitude-deviation reports, since it seems unlikely that a fully-loaded 777-200ER can reach such an altitude and flat-out impossible that it could have descended so quickly. So the data might have been produced by faulty instrumentation.

At any rate, once an airliner is at 30,000 feet, cell phones no longer work. "At 3,000 feet, you can make a call, but go much higher and you can basically forget about that," says Wouter Pelgrum, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Ohio University. "You don't have coverage." Part of the problem, he says, is that cell tower antennae are pointed down, toward the ground, not up into the sky. If you're over a city, with its dense cluster of coverage, you'll have a decent chance, but not in a rural area, and even less so over the ocean.

So what about the United Flight 93 passengers? Most of their calls were made using GTE AirFones, a technology no longer in use that relied on radio waves to communicate with the ground. Malaysia Airlines offers an "air-to-ground phone" service in business class that also allows passengers to send email, but the captain can shut this down, too. Only in the later stages of United Flight 93, when the plane was nearing Washington, D.C., and below 10,000 feet, did a few cell phone calls manage to go through.

One reason for this lack of pinging might be that the passengers all had their phones in airplane mode, and it never occurred to them that something was amiss. If the plane's final destination was near Kyrgyzstan, it would have landed within an hour of dawn, giving passengers little time to notice that something was wrong with the landscape outside their window - and by the time they did, they might have been over sparsely populated landscape with little cell phone service, and/or at low altitude, where electronic transmissions of any kind would have been hard to detect.

Text Only
CNHI News Service Originals
  • Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.16.35 PM.png Are Americans smart to stop drinking diet sodas?

    Recent data from Beverage Digest suggest many are cutting back on diet sodas. Consumption of diet sodas fell more than that of sugary sodas in 2013. This raises two questions: Why is total consumption declining, and is drinking diet soda harmful to health?

    April 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 10.43.57 AM.png VIDEO: Amazing dance moves at NCAA title game

    Eye-catching action wasn't confined to the court at AT&T Stadium Monday night during the NCAA Championship game between UConn and Kentucky. This pair -- apparently a father and son -- delighted the crowd during a timeout with some synchronized dance moves.

    April 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_twitter.jpg Travelers fly on Air Twitter

    The enlightened age of social media has dawned over the airline industry, casting shadows over telephone call centers and on-site agents. Facebook and Twitter are racking up the friends and followers while the hold music plays on.

    April 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: White House may ban selfies

    The White House wasn't too pleased after Red Sox player David Ortiz snapped a selfie with President Obama that was later used promotionally by Samsung.

    April 8, 2014

  • 297px-Starbucks_Corporation_Logo_2011.svg.png Why Starbucks won't recycle your paper coffee cup

    When you drop that used white paper cup into the bin next to the door at a Starbucks, have you done your part to save the planet? Starbucks has long hoped that you would think so. After all, there's no better way to attract an affluent, eco-conscious clientele than to convince customers that your disposable product is "renewable."

    April 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • A man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal

    Although not as celebrated as the late American amnesiac H.M., for my money K.C. taught us more important and poignant things about how memory works. He showed how we make memories personal and personally meaningful. He also had a heck of a life story.

    April 8, 2014

  • At many leading schools, football fails to make cut

    To my astonishment, 67 of the top 100 schools, ranked by participation in college-level tests, said they do not field a team, denoting a shift in American high school culture, at least in those schools that challenge their students most.

    April 8, 2014

  • Investigators seek cause of fire that killed three brothers

    Authorities searched the rubble of a burned-out farm house over the weekend for the cause of a fire that took the lives of three young brothers left home alone while their widowed mother worked the overnight shift at a direct mail company.

    April 6, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 3.36.06 PM.png 3 apps to make your flight easier

    Whether you fly once a week for work or once a year for a vacation, you can bet that all areas of your trip are being monitored by smart phones. While it isn't hard to find an app with your flight info, some apps make the process of flying a lot simpler.

    April 6, 2014 1 Photo

  • Don't blame voters for low turnout

    Suppose nobody votes this year. On Nov. 4 the doors to the polling places are thrown open, and there isn't anyone in line. No absentee ballots are filed. No one litigates, charging either fraud or discrimination, because there weren't any voters.
    It won't happen. But if it did, pundits and activists would surely blame public apathy for such a catastrophe. I'd name a different culprit: the major parties, their candidates and their acolytes in the news media.

    April 6, 2014

Front page
Clinton Herald Photos


Browse, buy and submit pictures with our photo site.

Poll

What are your plans for the weekend?

Enjoying the outdoors
Staying in out of the heat
Traveling
Other
     View Results
AP Video
Olympics 2014
Featured Comment
Featured Ads
Blue Zones Project
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.