Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MISSING MH370: 'Terrain masking is possible'

MISSING MH370: 'Terrain masking is possible'

DARING MANOEUVRE: Trick is to know the location of radar, its range and terrain, say experts

PILOTS are trained to safely fly aircraft in low altitudes and able to perform "terrain masking" at night if they have the data of the terrain or topography map of the area.
Several former military pilots, who turn commercial airlines pilots after retirement from service, agreed with the New Straits Times' exclusive front page report yesterday that investigators were looking at the possibility of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 dropping to an altitude of 5,000 feet during most of eight hours it was missing from the radar coverage of possibly at least three countries.
"A plane is very similar to a car. It can fly anywhere the pilot wants it to go. There is nothing to stop it as long as the pilot is daring enough," said a pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Terrain masking" is a means of avoiding active radar by positioning the aircraft so that there is natural earth hiding it from the radio waves sent by the radar system. This technique is used by military pilots to fly to their target stealthily, using the topography to mask their approach from prying radar microwaves.
This type of flying is considered very dangerous, especially in low-light conditions and spatial disorientation, and airsickness could easily set in. The stresses and loads it puts on the airframe, especially of Boeing 777-200ER's size, are tremendous.
"The pilot only needs to come up with a flight path within the limit and ability of the aircraft," said the former military transport aircraft pilot.
He said any aircraft could be flown low as long as the pilot was able to control it.
"Terrain masking is possible."
Another pilot, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said flying in low altitude at night was possible if the pilot was well-planned.
"To plan on the right altitude to take, a pilot only needs to know the highest peak, obstacles or terrains along his flight path and add another 1,500 feet to it for safety.
"In the northern peninsular, there are two peaks to be avoided -- Gunung Tahan (2,286m) and Gunung Bintang (1,828m) in Pahang.
"So, to fly around the peninsular, a pilot needs only to maintain the aircraft's altitude at 9,000 feet and you can fly safely, even at night."
As modern aircraft are equipped with the latest technology, he said, the pilot simply keyed in his target destination to create waypoints to be followed.
"Just punch in the coordinates into the flight management computers, then research for the obstacles to avoid, what altitude to fly at each waypoint, use the altimeter and a pilot can easily fly at night."
However, he said, it took skills and guts as no commercial airline pilot would attempt to fly below 5,000 feet at night without advanced planning.
"At night, there are no visuals to guide you, so you do not know what it is in front of you."
He said there were two ways to avoid detection: to hide behind an obstacle or to fly under the radar.
"So, if a plane flies low at a location far from the radar station, it will not be detected.
"The trick is to know the location of the radar, its range and the terrain. Once you have this information, any daring pilot, not just those who are military-trained, can fly without detection."
United States Aero Consulting Experts chief executive officer Captain Ross Aimer told the New Straits Times that airlines pilots were trained to fly in low altitudes, adding that Boeing 777-200ER was a stable and easy aircraft to fly, both in low or high altitudes.
The retired United Airlines captain said the pilot had to be familiar with the terrain and topography to perform the manoeuvre.
"A low-range radio altimeter and onboard group mapping radar provide additional terrain clearance awareness for such manoeuvres.
"Therefore, most average airline pilots can safely perform this type of flying with relative ease."
Universiti Kuala Lumpur Malaysian Institute of Aviation Technology principal specialist Ahmad Maulan Bardai said if the Boeing 777 went below commercial radar, the pilot would have undergone "special training".
"It is possible to perform terrain masking with the Boeing 777, but it is very challenging as the plane's configurations need to be changed accordingly to match the terrain."
United States crew members onboard a P-8A Poseidon aircraft searching for the missing MAS flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean on Sunday. AP pic

source MISSING MH370: 'Terrain masking is possible' - General - New Straits Times http://www.nst.com.my/nation/general/font-color-red-missing-mh370-font-terrain-masking-is-possible-1.518383#ixzz2wKNtUCph

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