In my piloting career of 6 years, I’ve seen this question raised by many even today. It’s definitely not the 1950’s and a lot has been learnt since then, each with plentiful ‘human sacrifices’. With over 320,000 commercial aviation Jets traversing the skies today, not to mention state-of-the-art flying machines of the 21st century, this question will surely find its niche today.
One can never actually say when tragedy strikes. Specially when we know that such horrifying tragedies happen randomly yet periodically. What are the possible reasons today that makes us ask questions like ‘How can an Airplane go missing in 2014!?’ The question has a ‘certain uncertainty’ about it. And it can be explained in this way –
An airplane is visible to ground in a few ways – one, via the radar through the transponder and two, via a positively established two-way radio communication, GPS, ACARS and satellite data uplink and downlink etc. All these systems work along the on-board electrical systems. If all of these systems were to malfunction at the same time, you can most certainly have a lost airplane.
What can cause all electrical systems to go out at once? Imagine an electrical failure. A fire can be caused due to umpteen reasons, short-circuiting, tyre heating, hazardous cargo mishap, high voltage spike, fuse burn outs etc. All these events can not always be monitored effectively at all times. A small fire can eat up the aircraft into disability and consummate in-capacitance. Fire eating away the wires can cause circuit breakers to pop out, burn out the system busses, isolate emergency power from the rest of the systems leaving everything turned off!
Result? No transponder, no GPS, no ACARS, no Radio, no nothing. There can be no questions raised at the fact that the ground control and the radar will lose the ‘blip’ of the aircraft. There will be practically no trace of the aircraft. It’ll go ‘missing’.
The next thing could be visibly spotting it by people on the ground. Well, a plane as high as 35,000 feet cannot be resolved by the naked eye, and the chance of someone looking at a potentially missing plane through binoculars is well almost a joke. If the aircraft flies off over vast expanse of a sea or an ocean, that statement turns from almost a joke to a certain joke.
The next closest way is to ping the aircraft via primary radar. That uses the echo location principle. Radio is shot at an airplane, and it blips on the radar beaming information about its speed and heading but not its altitude or identification. What the primary radar saw could very well be a large dinosaur flying or maybe one of the 300,000 airplanes in the air. We can’t identify via primary radar. For identifications, the airplane and ground relies on the Secondary radar which basically is a way in which Radio is shot at the aircraft at a certain frequency and the radio reply is shot back from the airplane at a frequency of 63 MHz offset of the primary. This ‘reply’ has identity and altitude information that helps the ground and ATC to know which aircraft has been spotted and by means of a transponder installed its altitude can be read out to the ground.
It’s not the technology to be blamed in 2014. We have it all to keep all aircrafts in air with multiple levels of redundancy and back-ups. But if tragedy of such probabilities strike, like an electrical fire, gradual decompression, hypoxia etc. then there is little one can do to avert and evade mishap.
Another good reason of an aircraft going ‘missing’ can be an airplane nose diving at speeds close to Mach 1. That can happen if an electrical or avionics fire rips through all hydraulic and electrical redundancies. Upon impact, nothing more than a crater bigger than 20 meters will remain. All living tissue, cloth, leather and the light metal of the aircraft will vaporize. It has happened in the past and the NTSB is aware of an event like this. It closely resembles the dynamics that we see when a bullets hits a concrete wall – a small crater and an almost vaporized bullet. Rubble of that sort can evade the eyes of Search and Rescue for months!
So yes, planes can go missing in 2014 and beyond until we find ways to fail-proof our flying systems and making that airplane almost invincible.