MH370: Chinese ship detects pulse signal in Indian Ocean. How to never lose a black box again?

A Chinese ship involved in the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 in the Indian Ocean reportedly detected an underwater ping like those emitted by the aircraft black boxes.

On Apr. 5, the sonar detector-equipped Haixun 01 picked up an acoustical signal on 37.5 kHz frequency, the same as emitted by the Underwater Locator Beacon of flight recorders.

According to Xinhua news agency, the “ping” was detected at about 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude, within the search area of 88,000 sq. miles in the Indian Ocean to the west of Australia, where aircraft, ships and submarines from 26 nations, are currently searching for any debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 mysteriously disappeared since Mar. 8.

On the same day the signal consistent with the aircraft black box was picked up, a Chinese patrol plane (most probably an Il-76 deployed to Perth), spotted some floating debris (see image below).

possible debris

At the moment, there is no confirmation that the signal and the pieces are related to the missing MH370.

Lessons Learned

Is there a way to prevent a plane from disappearing from the skies as happened to the Malaysian B777?


Current airplanes make several different kind of services available to passengers: interactive media, movie, games, music, but also Internet and telephone. The latter use satellite channels. This links could be used to stream CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) and FDR (Flight Data Recorder) data (or just a subset of flight parameters) or, to reduce transmissions and save much money, simply report the black boxes position (coordinates) to ground stations in real time.

Another option is to make Underwater Locator Beacons more powerful and capable to operate for longer periods (they are currently limited to 30 days).

Then there’s another problem to be addressed: the capability of pilots to switch off all communication and navigation systems to make the plane (almost) invisible to radars. Since we can’t be completely dependent on aircrews to track airplanes wherever they fly, any “new” system should be designed in such a way pilots can’t switch it off.

Top image credit: Reuters


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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Also, why not encode the pulse of the black box with the registration number of the plane?. The signal is then unique and easy to identify.

    • Forgive me, I’m not an aviation expert by any means. I’m just an interested geek.

      It seems flight recorders could be radically different if we used modern technology. For example:

      Record data to multiple redundant SD cards per flight recorder. This would mean the recording medium would be so light that the recorder could float on water. (and if the medium is light then it will have less chance of ripping itself apart on impact) Floating opens up the possibility of using GPS and of sending out radio transmissions (e.g. Unique ID and GPS location) that could be found by search planes (or drones). Floating also opens up the possibility of using solar panels to keep the batteries topped up. Solar panels might even give the system enough energy budget to transmit ID and location to satellites every, say, 6 hours.

      The flight recorders should be cheap enough to allow for multiple units per plane (data would be copied to all recorders).

      • Knowing the strength necessary (think resist the impact of a tank shell) I am highly dubious that the black boxes could be made to float. Also the way that they are situated they are fastened hard and fast to at least a few hundred pounds of plane. It is well within current technological capacity to increase the pinger capability this is a big case of 30 days being good enough (until now). Remembering in any case weight savings reigns supreme and what ever solution is rendered airlines will want it cheep and light not adding and entire multimillion dollar communications suite weighing hundreds of pounds. A current limitation is the actual satellite communications network being in place. It is a tragic story the disappearance of this flight and discomforting to most not having the modern technology to fall back on.

      • The only trouble with “floating” units would be that the unit would have to be ejected from the aircraft before the crash to eliminate the probability of the unit sinking with the craft. Anything attached to the interior of the aircraft structure would be subject to that part of the structure’s liklihood of sinking to the bottom, as do the currently installed units.

      • An interesting thing that I just remembered…the older model Beech Bonanzas used to have a series of flare cartridges mounted near or behind the rear baggage compartment that could be deployed which exited the fuselage horizontally, in the case of an emergency. Not really a viable solution here…just a memory of mine some of you can grin upon.

    • Pro’s
      -a longer window in which to find the CVR/FDR underwater, the cost would be unjustifiable.


      -larger battery has greater weight which will require the aircraft to carry more fuel and increase the cost of each ticket
      -an alteration to the supply chain

      -cost to install larger batteries on all flying and in-production aircraft

      -cost of disposal of replaced batteries
      -alteration to servicings may require retraining of technicians
      -re-certification of CVR/FDR and certification of battery (very costly)

      The frequency of event in which the larger battery would be useful is so small that the con’s clearly outweigh the pro’s

  2. We need an RFID type of system with a circuit that only becomes active if it touches water and then we can send a pulse and the black box will receive the ping and retransmit a response. It would be short range and only good if we had a general idea of where to look.
    We also need a DYEPACK that is will show up in the Infrared and UV so that it will provide a witness mark or a stain that can be seen from a search aircraft or satellite

    • I like the dye pack idea…however would be subject to the ocean currents just like any debris field would….All these ideas get our minds thinking because there has to be a simple and robust solution out there somewhere.

  3. The industry is ready for it.
    DK-120/90 for the 90 days period, same signals as DK-120 (e.g. AF447)
    DK-180 at a frequency of 8,8 kHz, but 30 days operating time only. In addition another pulse mode – 10 ms pulse at 10 seconds repetition.

    But the stream problem for CVR and FDR requires a lot of upgrades for the infrastructure.
    I remind you for the network elements of such a system. You need powerful DSP for the handlers, a lot of intermediate storage capability, secure transmission and a high reliability of the system overall.

    I imagine the beancounter worlwide…

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