I am a pilot. Not a professional pilot, as in real life I am a CEO of a tech company. But in my spare time I became a pilot and fly a small jet, a Citation Jet. During my training as a pilot I was shocked to find out how poorly equipped planes are. Planes are all about radios, VOR, DME, ILS and other systems invented over 50 years ago and still running the cockpit. When I was involved briefly involved in the airline business (with poor consequences I must say) I could not believe how badly equipped planes are, especially when they cross the Atlantic. What just happened to the Air France airliner is but a proof of everything that can wrong in aviation.

Would you believe it if I told you that many planes that cross the Atlantic do not even have GPS systems and instead use highly inaccurate, archaic positioning systems that would be useless to report a crash position? I don´t know what happened to that Air France flight but there´s a reason neither I nor anyone knows. It´s because planes don´t report where they are unless pilots do and many times pilots don´t even know precisely where they are. This is what AP says:

The area where the plane could have gone down was vast. Brazil’s military searched for the plane off its northeast coast, while the French military scoured the Atlantic off the West African coast near the Cape Verde Islands.

Aviation today is as it was 30 years ago. Planes do not carry GPS geolocators. Even if that Air France pilot was as good as the pilot who landed in the Hudson and even if people could get out of the plane after it water landed, passengers would probably be dead by the time we found the plane. Presently in the aviation world we only know where planes are when they fly near or over land. And that is because the only way to know where a plane is is to see the plane with a radar. Planes in the Atlantic do not themselves say where they are and controllers can´t see them.

To know where they are you need a pilot talking over a lousy quality HF radio to report where he/she is using inaccurate equipment You would also be astonished to find out that even though satellite telephony has existed for over a decade many planes that cross the Atlantic do not carry satelllite phones in case the pilot´s radios fail. Flying today is still all about radars and radios and most signals don´t make it to the mid Atlantic, Pacific or many areas over which we fly today. Moreover many parts of the land mass are not covered by radars and planes have to tell each other more or less where they are or choose primitive methods such as flying at different levels not to crash into each other. Satellite technology has not made it to planes. GPS are there, in some but not all commercial planes. But they are not supposed to be used for landing. Landing is supposedly done with antiquated radio systems that seem straight out the 1950s because USA may turn the GPS off in case of war.

Why are things this way? I don´t really know. It´s a miracle that there are no more accidents. Yes planes are safer than cars but they would be much safer if their functioning combined elements of radio communications as now with elements of satellite communications and many, many more technologies available today. Indeed sometimes new piston planes have better instruments than 747s.

As we know pilots can only handle so much information. But planes could have many more instruments. If planes were in permanent contact via satellite they could be reporting the most minute details of what is happening with them to say a global Airbus or Boeing maintenance center. And even though this information would be impossible for the pilot to digest, people and/or computers at Airbus or Boeing could be monitoring a lot more information every second a fly is on its way. They could alert the airline and the pilots of minor yet possibly fatal flaws if not attended. While that Air France plane that vanished a few hours ago was crossing the ocean Airbus could have been receiving tons of information from the engines, tanks, instruments, and all critical parts of the plane. Instead we know nothing. We don´t know what happened to the plane and a tragedy could have been prevented. But now, do not have the information of where the accident actually happened. Yes, the plane has a radio that should float or be somewhere and should tell rescuers more or less where it is but is that all we can do for airline safety? Why do we need a black box? All the info in a black box should be on the ground the moment it is created. Think about this, even a passenger with a geolocator as the one used for anti car theft would have been able to send more information than the whole plane before the crash. Nowadays a person carrying an iPhone or a Nokia E71 pointed at the window could have better positioning information and software than the pilots of the plane. For 1000 euros a plane or less we could at least know precisely where each aircraft. Why we don´t it? And then there´s weather information. Planes that cross the Atlantic sometimes face ferocious CBs that go up to 40,000 ft. There is now instrumentation available over satellite that gives even small aircraft real time weather information. But this instruments are not available yet to most large commercial aircraft that cross the Atlantic. And a CB could bring down a plane and maybe that´s what brought the AF flight down.

If anything our collective lack of action is a conspiracy of people trained in the past scared of change. Many pilots surprisingly actually fear modern instruments. But I am not advocating the end of the pilot. I am advocating support for pilots who have too much in their hands and could receive much more help while flying if their planes were in constant contact with the ground but not always through them. If what brought down the AF flight was a high hurricane like cloud known as CB avoiding that cloud would have been incredibly easy with a combination of the information that is available to a pilot through his own radar and ground information as to where all the CBs maybe located. We now have extremely accurate 2 hour forecasts. It is negligence that those are not in the hands of all pilots.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Ignace Rodríguez / @micronauta on June 1, 2009  · 

I am equally astonished. Although every time I have flown over the Atlantic in the last few years I have seen satellite phones on board, and lately I have also seen realtime maps, I assumed the map shown to passengers was GPS-based and should somehow be networked. It is frankly stupid that -as you say- the plane doesn’t ping someone regularly with it’s position. Even if in some cases there is no GPS or sat-phone, I am sure an increasing number of commercial planes have both and it is most likely that the one that crashed today did, so how hard can it be to add some software and hardware to link them? I once spoke about this with a professional pilot and he cited security concerns about networking airplanes to the ground. Of course, as many are, he is an ex armed-forces pilot, a lifetime of paranoia-inducing training might be partly responsible for his reticence.

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Eduardo Loyola on June 1, 2009  · 

Dear Martin, I’m almost sure that commercial airliners DO HAVE GPS on board. As the other comment says, there are flat screens indicating real position of the plane and seemingly it’s via GPS technology. Are you completely sure of the information you have posted? On the other hand, let’s pray for the passengers of the lost plane. Regards, Eduardo.

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Martin Varsavsky on June 1, 2009  · 

Eduardo, many planes that cross the Atlantic don’t have GPS and, even if they do, their GPS does not PING controllers as to where the plane is.

andi on June 1, 2009  · 

But planes do send some information to maintenance back home when things are nor ok: “Air France notified Cindacta III at 0830 (Brasilia time) [1130 GMT], that approximately 100 kilometers from position TASIL, flight AFR 447 sent a message to the company reporting technical problems with the aircraft (loss of pressurization and electrical system failure).” Thats from a Brazilian Air Force press release.

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Martin Varsavsky on June 1, 2009  · 

Well considering that they are looking for the remains in a 2000nm radius, a distance that would take 5 days for even a fast boat to do once, it is hard to argue that they send enough information.

Alex on June 1, 2009  · 

Sierra mode, the future:

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Elliott on June 2, 2009  · 

Amazing lack of GPS location information on commercial aircraft. It reminds me of the early radar days decades ago when Eastern Airlines painted the nose of their planes black so that their passengers would think there was radar located there even on the planes that had not had radar installed yet. I just drove over 3,700 miles in the American West and my $150 GPS knew if I was on the interstate hwy or 100 feet away on the parallel service road. It also tells me if the traffic in front of me has slowed down below the speed limit due to congestion or construction. Imagine if aviators could know if planes in front of them on the same route had made diversions from the path to avoid bad weather conditions automatically instead of depending on radio reports from planes to tracking controllers and then radio reports from controllers to the next plane. BTW, our local TV weather reports show radar of local storms down to street level accuracy.

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someone on June 2, 2009  · 

I read on Wikipedia that A320 is the first commercial airliner to have fly-by-wire


That means that the controls of the plane are not directly attached to the hydraulic systems responsible of changing the orientation of the ailerons, tail, etc, but that instead a computer translates the movement of a joystick and performs the switching. So the joystick on those planes is basically like the one in computer games.

Here we can see the glass cockpit


Here the joystick:


There are not analog indicators, just computer screens.

That said, it is a very modern plane. It can have poor positioning reporting, because perhaps ground equipment can not deal with all that information, but i doubt that with so much cybernetics onto it it is not capable of locating itself.

It is even capable of pumping fuel from one part to the other of the plane, so it centers itself without having to use flaps/whatever, thus reducing fuel consumption


I have also read that the planes crossing those zones with so many storms have a meteorological radar that is used to track storms and avoid them.

F-22 fighters also have a flight-by-wire system, and a glass cockpit. The bad part about glass cockpits is that they are entirely software-based, and, unfortunately, software has bugs.

On february 11, 2007, a software bug took down the entire ‘screens’ system in the f-22 and left the pilots without navigation, communication, height indicators and the rest. Fortunately, the so called “avionics” where not affected, and they could follow the tankers (refueling planes) wich had less bleeding-edge navigation systems (analogical) to Hawaii:


The bad part of relying completely on software is that – no matter how much you test it – software is not 100% reliable.

A plane can stand lightning, and why we can see following this link:


Basically, a plane is a big Faraday Cage, but still it says in the article that “Pilots occasionally report temporary flickering of lights or short-lived interference with instruments.”

Digital electronics are very sensitive to peaks on current input, so, perhaps it never happened but a big lightning can render the computers in the plane useless, leaving the pilots only with the non electronic hydraulic system attached to the wheels they have in their hands to still fly. But what could happen when all you are holding is a joystick connected to a -dead- computer?

So my hypothesis on this crash is that perhaps an electrical storm took down the electronics of the fly-by-wire system and left the pilots without control of the plane. That’s my stake on mv’s view saying that perhaps the crash has happened due to lack of technology, mine being that perhaps it happened because of an excess of confidence on technology …

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David on June 3, 2009  · 

Hey Martin, just a few interesting point to complete your post:

1. The DFDR and CVR continuous data upload via a satellite communication such as SATCOM is technically possible. It is a subject regularly debated in aeronautics.
2. Applying it to the entire fleet will use all the bandwith of an operator such as Globalstar, around +/- 600 Mbps. (Globalstar = has the biggest bandwidth available)
3. The annual cost of using the network would be arond 500 millions $. You would have of course to include the equipement cost
4. There are many scientific articles available on the internet exploring the details of the issue…

In any case, cost issue aside, I have also always been quite surprised by the lag between technology and aviation, the main drivers being the upgrade cost and the formation of the pilots, I believe



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someone on June 4, 2009  · 

Reading this:

The navigation system failed, then display screens went blank.”

“At 2.13am GMT, all important controls failed. Speed, height and direction could no longer be controlled.”

Seems that the plane sent automatic log messages saying what failed, and that fly-by-wire in this case has not been bulletproof…

Boeing plane manufacturer includes always a method to override fly-by-wire and a backup system.


Macabre enough, seems that what I commented two days ago on #8 is getting some ground.

Hypothesizing in such a case (with people dying, and talking about security) is a no-no game, and I hope black boxes are found and the accident is investigated to the detail, but perhaps Airbus will have to modify many planes. What is assumable in an F-22 need not to be so in a civilian aircraft.

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