Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre

MH370 DECODED
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Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre

When flight MH370 went missing on Saturday, 8 March 2014 the Kuala Lumpur Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Center (KL ARCC) was activated at 0530 MYT and a DETRESFA Message was sent at 0632 MYT.

This article describes the role of an RCC, the sequence of events as they should occur, and defines some of the terminology used. The content is drawn primarily from ICAO Annexes 11 and 12, referenced below.

Background

Air Traffic Controllers are usually the first to realise that an aircraft is in distress. The pilot may have radioed a 'Mayday' call, or the transponder may sending a code to indicate the aircraft has been hijacked. The Air Traffic Control Centre, however, does not organise or conduct search and rescue, so the local Rescue Coordination Centre must be notified. (In Malaysia some air traffic controllers were trained for both roles.)

In the case of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 there was no distress call. The nature of the situation was unknown and an awareness of the emergency grew over time. The response should have been quicker, the KL RCC should have been activated earlier, and the DETRESFA Message should have been error-free and transmitted well before the expected arrival time for MH370 in Beijing.

To address emergency situations which are not initially obvious the ICAO has defined three phases of awareness which reflect the initial Uncertainty, a growing anxiety or Alert phase, and a Distress phase - all of which are independent of any action taken by a pilot and whether or not communication with the aircraft has occurred.

The logic of these phases is shown in the section below and, in retrospect, clarifies the process that should have been followed by air traffic controllers in response to flight MH370.


Notification TO Rescue Coordination Centres

ICAO Annex 11 Section 5.2.1[1] requires that air traffic services units (air traffic controllers) shall notify rescue coordination centres immediately an aircraft is considered to be in a state of emergency in accordance with the following:

a) Uncertainty phase when:

  • 1) no communication has been received from an aircraft within a period of thirty minutes after the time a communication should have been received, or from the time an unsuccessful attempt to establish communication with such aircraft was first made, whichever is the earlier, or when
  • 2) an aircraft fails to arrive within thirty minutes of the estimated time of arrival last notified to or estimated by air traffic services units, whichever is the later,
except when no doubt exists as to the safety of the aircraft and its occupants.


b) Alert phase when:

  • 1) following the uncertainty phase, subsequent attempts to establish communication with the aircraft or inquiries to other relevant sources have failed to reveal any news of the aircraft, or when
  • 2) an aircraft has been cleared to land and fails to land within five minutes of the estimated time of landing and communication has not been re-established with the aircraft, or when
  • 3) information has been received which indicates that the operating efficiency of the aircraft has been impaired, but not to the extent that a forced landing is likely,

except when evidence exists that would allay apprehension as to the safety of the aircraft and its occupants, or when

    4) an aircraft is known or believed to be the subject of unlawful interference.


c) Distress phase when:

  • 1) following the alert phase, further unsuccessful attempts to establish communication with the aircraft and more widespread unsuccessful inquiries point to the probability that the aircraft is in distress, or when
  • 2) the fuel on board is considered to be exhausted, or to be insufficient to enable the aircraft to reach safety, or when
  • 3) information is received which indicates that the operating efficiency of the aircraft has been impaired to the extent that a forced landing is likely, or when
  • 4) information is received or it is reasonably certain that the aircraft is about to make or has made a forced landing, except when there is reasonable certainty that the aircraft and its occupants are not threatened by grave and imminent danger and do not require immediate assistance.

Definitions

ALERFA
The code word used to designate an alert phase.
Alert phase
A situation wherein apprehension exists as to the safety of an aircraft and its occupants.
DETRESFA
The code word used to designate a distress phase.
Distress phase
A situation wherein there is reasonable certainty that an aircraft and its occupants are threatened by grave and imminent danger or require immediate assistance.
Emergency phase
A generic term meaning, as the case may be, uncertainty phase, alert phase or distress phase
INCERFA.
The code word used to designate an uncertainty phase.
Rescue coordination centre
A unit responsible for promoting efficient organization of search and rescue services and for coordinating the conduct of search and rescue operations within a search and rescue region.
Uncertainty phase
A situation wherein uncertainty exists as to the safety of an aircraft and its occupants

Source: ICAO Annex 12[2]

Notification FROM Rescue Coordination Centres

ICAO Annex 11 Section 5.2.2[1] describes the information which must be included in the notification issued by the Rescue Coordination Centre.

5.2.2 The notification shall contain such of the following information as is available in the order listed:

  • a) INCERFA, ALERFA or DETRESFA, as appropriate to the phase of the emergency;
  • b) agency and person calling;
  • c) nature of the emergency;
  • d) significant information from the flight plan;
  • e) unit which made last contact, time and means used;
  • f) last position report and how determined;
  • g) colour and distinctive marks of aircraft;
  • h) dangerous goods carried as cargo;
  • i) any action taken by reporting office; and
  • j) other pertinent remarks.

Comments and Notes

For the MH370 emergency the KL ARCC skipped the INCERFA and ALERFA phases and issued a DETRESFA Message.

The Safety Investigation Report MH370/01/2018 identifed some errors and deficiencies in the DETRESFA message transmitted by the KL ARCC.

Actions BY Rescue Coordination Centres

The actions to be taken by a Rescue Coordination Centre are defined in ICAO Annex 12[2].

The actions taken by the KL ARCC are documented in a paper which was prepared for the ICAO, titled MH370 SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS AND LESSON LEARNT[3]. This paper divides the actions into four stages a) Awareness; b) Initial Action; c) Planning; and d) Operation. Of those, stages b) and c) are shown below to illustrate the early role of the KL ARCC.

b) INITIAL ACTION

2.6 Upon activation of the KL ARCC by the SAR trained personnel, awaiting a full complement of staff, to commence complete SAR operations, the following actions are taken:

  • i. Sent notification to all relevant SAR agencies on MH370 by fax and phone calls;
  • ii. Requested from SAR agencies, for assets available that could be deployed to the search area;
  • iii. Requested a RADAR plot from KL ATCC maintenance unit, to verify the last known position of MH370 in order to establish the initial search area;
  • iv. Requested weather data from the Malaysian Metrological Department for search planning and tasking;
  • v. Informed Ho Chi Minh on the activation of KL ARCC and verifying with them on their actions as the last known position of MH370 was in their territory;
  • vi. Advised Singapore RCC and updated them on the situation, since the area of search is within Singapore’s FIR boundary.


c) PLANNING

2.7 Based on the last observed radar position, which was North East of position IGARI, the initial search area was determined. HCM RCC was advised of their responsibility on the provision of SAR in accordance of Annex 12. While waiting for the next course of action by HCM RCC, KL ARCC proceeded with the initial search planning.

2.8 Initial SITREP (Situation Report) and Search and Rescue Unit Briefing was prepared and sent out to the relevant SAR agencies. NOTAM (Notice to Airman) of the Search Area was sent out to notify all concerned.

2.9 The search area was revised on a daily basis, based on the number of asset available, taking into consideration of sea current conditions.

Comments and Notes

Member States of the ICAO which submitted reports related to MH370 include Malaysia, Vietnam, the People's Republic of China, and Australia. See Search for MH370 - Reports

These papers are available for research and download from ICAO websites.


Notes and References
  1. 1.0 1.1 ICAO Annex 11 to the Convention on Civil Aviation: Air Traffic Services
  2. 2.0 2.1 ICAO Annex 12 to the Convention on Civil Aviation: Search and Rescue
  3. ICAO APSAR/TF/3−WP06 MH370 SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS AND LESSON LEARNT, (Presented by Malaysia)
    Agenda Item 4: Asia/Pacific and inter-regional SAR planning, coordination and cooperation, Third Meeting of the Asia/Pacific Regional Search and Rescue Task Force (APSAR/TF/3), Maldives, 25 – 29 January 2015