Mr. Chong Chee Wah
Malaysian Maritime Academy
This article was written with the intention of learning from the MH370 disappearance such that we hope that it will not happen to a merchant marine vessel. Most of the facts of the incidents were extracted from the “FACTUAL INFORMATION – SAFETY INVESTIGATION FOR MH370 9M-MRO” published by the Safety Investigation Team for MH370, Ministry of Transport Malaysia. (Ref: MH370/01/15)
On 07 March 2014 at 1642 UTC, a Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370, a Beijing-bound international scheduled passenger flight, departed from Runway 32R, KL International Airport with a total of 239 persons on board (227 passengers and 12 crew). The aircraft was a Boeing 777-200ER, registered as 9M-MRO. Kuala Lumpur Tower cleared MH370 for take-off and soon it was tracking direct to waypoint IGARI. MH370 was instructed to contact HCM ATCC on the radio frequency of 120.9 MHz. At 1719:30 UTC, MH370 acknowledged with “Good night Malaysia Three Seven Zero”. This was the last recorded radio transmission from MH370. It has been more than 2 years and the plane is yet to be found.
Related Safety Equipment on MH370 as compared with a merchant marine vessel
Emergency Locator Transmitter/Emergency Position Indicator Beacon (EPIRB)
MH370 has four Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT). One fixed unit located at the ceiling Aft with a connection for remote operation from the cockpit, working on 406Mhz Cospas-Sarsat system. It can also be activated when the aircraft is subjected to a sudden deceleration force. In addition to 406Mhz it also transmits on 121.5Mhz and 243 Mhz.
There is also a second portable ELT located at the forward cabin of the coat closet.
There are an additional of two ELTs working on 121.5Mhz and 243Mhz which will be deployed when the slide rafts on each side are launched.
On the fateful day there were no signals were detected from the ELTs.
While on a merchant marine vessel complying to SOLAS, it is mandatory to be equipped with an EPIRB working on 406Mhz. It is also equipped with a hydrostatic release unit to ensure that the EPIRB is float free on reaching a depth of 1.5 to 4 meters. Some EPIRBs may include 121.5Mhz in their transmission and newer versions may even include a GPS receiver to allow position to be sent out simultaneously.
Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS)/Long Range Identification and Tracking System (LRIT)
MH370 incorporates an Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). The system provides a data link to the ground service provider on flight plan, maintenance data, aircraft position and engine performance through VHF or SATCOM (Inmarsat). It also provides information and messages mainly on four events i.e.
a) Out of Gate Event
b) Off ground Event
c) On Ground Event
d) Into Gate Event
Information is generally sent every 30 minutes and if no information is received, the ground service provider will ‘PING’ or call or send a message to request for information.
Until recently, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has incorporated new requirements for all aircraft to be tracked every 15 minutes by the year 2021. Some airlines nevertheless have already implemented this tracking requirement.
While on a merchant marine vessels methods provided for the purpose of monitoring are using the Long Range Identification and Tracking System (LRIT) which is incorporated into the Inmarsat-C Satellite Communication Equipment and sends the Identification, Position, Time of the vessel every 6 hours to a service provider who stores them in a database which is only accessible by the Port State, Flag State, Coastal State and Search and Rescue Authorities.
In addition, commercially, Inmarsat-C polling facilities, Automatic Identification System and other systems like Purple Finder are available for ship-owners to track their vessels.
The question is are the ships relatively safe. Many maritime administrations have indicated that many ships did not regularly send back information on their LRIT.
Since implementation in 2008, many ships which are equipped with LRIT have no means of knowing the functionality of their system on board. Some rely on feedback from shore authorities when they did not receive any position updates, while others are provided with softwares for regular checks.
Aircraft communications equipment/Merchant marine vessels communication equipment
Communication equipment on board MH370 includes the following:
a) three units of VHF that uses Selective Calling
b) two units of HF
c) Satcom (Inmarsat) providing 5 channels of voice communication and 1 channel for data
The Satcom also provides for audio, text communication and for Inflight Entertainment.
The system automatically logs in and exchanges handshakes every hour through the Land based satellite earth station.
On the fateful day of MH370 incident there was no distress alert or message sent.
On Merchant marine vessels communication equipment includes the following;
a) Terrestrial equipment using VHF and MFHF with Digital selective Calling
b) Satellite equipment consisting of Satcom-B (obsolete by Dec 2016), Satcom-C, Fleet 77 (obsolete by 2021), Iridium Communication System and other non-GMDSS satellite system like VSAT and Thuraya.
With so many different types of equipment on board we hope Merchant marine vessels will be able to send out a distress alert/ message when threatened by grave and imminent danger.
Aircraft Recorders/Merchant marine vessels Voyage Data Recorders
To enable the fuselage of MH370 to be located it is provided with two types of Flight Recorders each fitted with an Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB).
The Solid State Flight Data Recorder (SSFDR) located at the Aft Ceiling of the aircraft records 1300 parameters through sensors for a period of 25 hours. While voice recording is done by the Solid State Cockpit Voice Recorder (SSCVR) located side-by side with the SSFDR. It can record four audio channels. Both the flight recorders can withstand water pressure up to a depth of 20,000 feet.
The ULBs were designed with a battery life of 6 years and can operate on 37.5Khz for thirty days. From the factual report, the ULB fitted on the SSFDR expired more than one year on the day of incident while the ULB fitted on the SSCVR was still valid.
Merchant vessels are similarly equipped with Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) or some with the simplified one. The VDR is required to be able to record ships parameters for a duration of 12 hours. VDRs are either permanently fixed or float free. They are also fitted with Underwater Locator Beacons which can operate for at least 28 days.
The stored information in the VDR can be retrieved and used by authorities for accident investigation.
Annual testing is to be carried out by authorized engineers to ensure that it is working normally.
In conclusion, Merchant marine vessels are similarly equipped as compared with MH370. The only difference is that aircrafts travel at very much higher speeds. On the other hand Merchant marine vessels similarly equipped are dependable on the plethora of equipment which is considered adequate to meet safety requirements. However, there was no location information when MH370 ditched into the sea.
We have to bear in mind that the concept of the existing Global Maritime Distress and Safety System was introduced in 1988 and this concept has not changed for the last 30 over years. We are sure that the International Maritime Organization who has initiated a review and modernization of the GMDSS system will take cognisance of the needs to further improve the safety of Merchant marine vessels.
It is hoped that “GOODNIGHT MERCHANT MARINE VESSEL” will never happen.