Transponder — I sort of knew what that does. It’s an electronic thing that sends electronic signals automatically, from one airplane to another, or to and from airplane and satellite, or to and from an airplane to a receiver-transmitter on the ground. It sends these signals automatically, at designated intervals. Unless it’s turned off.
But we’ve learned some new words, some new terms lately, haven’t we? (I’m assuming most of you, like me, aren’t pilots or flight attendants or aviation technicians or air traffic controllers, and that you don’t design and build airplanes). There’s ACARS, the acronym for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. It sort of like a transponder in that it sends information via satellite to a ground station. The transponder reports the plane’s location, course heading, speed and altitude, while ACARS is concerned with an aircraft’s operating systems — engine performance and radar and fuel flow. As does the transponder, ACARS transmits the data automatically. Unless it’s turned off.
Then there is the FMS, which is the Flight Management System, yet another onboard computer, which employs what are called “waypoints.” A pilot friend explained them to me this way: You’re on the way to Lake Village from Little Rock so, as you drive to the southeast you see Cummins prison, a waypoint, through your left window, there, just to the north. But you change your mind and decide you really need to see your aunt in Fort Smith, so you turn around and, and soon there’s Lake Pine Bluff, another waypoint, to your right; depending on your speed you’ll pass the Little Rock skyline and then the UA-Morrilton exit and then Entergy’s nuclear generating cooling tower. They all would be waypoints, each with its own designated code. Unlike the big jetliners these waypoints aren’t — well, not yet — programmed into your car’s computer. (Come to think of it, your GPS navigation system, if you have one, is a close cousin). If and when they are required you would enter them manually, as does an airliner’s cockpit crew, and then change them on the road should you elect another destination. The F.M.S. computer (or G.P.S.) would guide you past the waypoints, steering you west to Sebastian County instead of east to St. Francis. But you’re driving at night, and you have passengers in the back seat, absorbed in good books or watching a movie on their tablets, or napping, and who assume they are still bound for Lake Village instead of Fort Smith.
Then something happens, something bad. The driver dozes, or there’s a blowout, and the car leaves the road and careens into thick brush. Or submerges in a rain-swollen creek. In a more sinister scenario, he stops to pick up a hitchhiker who commandeers the car and aims it toward New Orleans. Or the man at the wheel simply goes nuts, surrendering to some long-suppressed demon or embracing a fresh vision of immortality, either of which commands the summoning of mortality; he turns off the headlights and drives toward destiny, doom.
The search for the missing car and passengers begins hours later. Make, model and fuel capacity are calculated, and credit card transactions are reviewed for any gas purchases. But it’s one car in a small state suddenly grown large, larger still when a full tank is measured against the potential, regional range. Pings from the cell phones of the driver and passenger would narrow the search to a matter of miles but, deepening the mystery, no such signals are detected. Likewise, the On-Star system isn’t transmitting, malfunctioning, or disabled — turned off.
All of Arkansas is abuzz: where’s the car? Accident or foul play? Are the police telling us everything they know? The driver and passengers — alive? How are their families bearing up? It consumes local TV news and the radio talk shows, it’s on the front page every day. Bloggers speculate: carjacking (earthly or interplanetary), kidnapping for ransom, terrorism.
We keep driving, we keep flying. Me? For safety’s sake I’d rather fly to Fort Smith or Lake Village than drive, and if surface travel requires secondary roads and if the weather looks icy I’d just as soon pass. The potential for horror is there whether on the highway or in the air, but a certain fatalism presents: when I step aboard an airplane I assume it is properly maintained and its pilot skilled and sane, just as I assume my tires are sturdy and well-mounted and the brakes functioning properly when I slide behind the wheel. Then I read that for a decade GM knew of defects in some of its cars and did nothing.
Transponders, ACARS, FMS computers; On-Star, GPS, airbags — we’re all along for the ride.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.