As I write this from my seat on a Boeing 777 bound for China, I realize I no longer have the same degree of nonchalance I had on previous long-haul flights. I am aware the airplane, one of the most modern jetliners in the sky, is functioning exactly as intended, the comforting whoosh of its powerful engines omnipresent as it courses smoothly through the air above the Arctic Circle. Yet in the back of my mind, thoughts drift to another Triple Seven, also China-bound, which more than a month after its disappearance still has given investigators little clue as to where it actually ended up and why. It’s not supposed to be like that, in this era of orbiting satellites, which allow us to communicate instantly around the globe and monitor vast swaths of land and sea, and telecom networks of ever-increasing capabilities. We expect our technology to provide all the answers, and it still boggles the mind that such an advanced machine can simply vanish without a trace.
How it did so is the question my family and friends asked me in the days and weeks since its yet unexplained detour, as if my vocation as an aviation journalist gave me some sort of behind-the-scenes insight as to what really happened aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. A recent national telephone survey found more than 1,000 people with nothing better to do than answer questions about what they feel happened to the airplane. Of their responses, 3 percent believe it was shot down by a foreign government, a la Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983. Slightly more people believe it was abducted by aliens. So much for surveys.
While the latest daily media reports note this government or that government said it heard pings on a frequency that could be the one the missing jet’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder transmit on, the window on their battery life is supposedly closing, making it that much harder to zero in on the wreckage if it is indeed lying 15,000 feet below the surface of the Indian Ocean.
Somewhat disturbing is the fact that not a single piece of debris conclusively linked to the flight has been found, despite an extensive air, surface and underwater search. Those same media reports early on described debris fields that, once investigated, served only to remind us of nothing more than just how much junk is floating in the world’s oceans.
It calls to mind the photos of the vertical stabilizer of Air France 447 located adrift less than a week after its crash in 2009. In that case, searchers had a clearer idea of where to find the aircraft, yet the search to find the fuselage and recover the black boxes from 13,000 feet under the South Atlantic still took nearly two years. That flight ended soon after the trouble that affected its air data systems and the cascading effects that doomed it. Its black boxes still held all the data preceding the crash, which allowed investigators to re-create the situation and find a probable cause, hopefully preventing the same problem from ever harming another airplane.
For MH370, the prospects are less clear. Investigators have built their search on the knowledge that the passenger jet was still in the air several hours after it vanished from radar screens. Whatever incriminating evidence its black boxes (if recovered intact) held could well have been recorded over, indicating only that all systems were functioning within parameters when the fuel-starved jetliner finally met the ocean.
Some suggest that whoever was at the controls when the airplane headed out over the lonely reaches of the Indian Ocean knew exactly what they were doing, in an attempt to lose it in one of the most inaccessible regions on the planet. For the families of people aboard that airplane, not that it would bring much solace, I can only hope they someday learn why.