The Mysterious Fate Of Flight 370

Pilot-blogger Patrick Smith is debunking speculation about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished from radar screens on Saturday while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Smith’s bottom line:

Unfortunately it could be weeks or even months before we have a solid idea of what happened. And tempting as might be, we should be careful not to speculate too broadly. Almost always the earliest theories turn out to be at best incomplete; at worst totally wrong. Seeing how little evidence we have at the moment, any theories are, for now, just guesses.

All we know for sure is that a plane went missing with no warning or communication from the crew. That the crash (assuming the plane did in fact go down) did not happen during takeoff or landing — the phases of flight when most accident occur — somewhat limits the possibilities, but numerous ones remain. The culprit could be anything from sabotage to some kind of bizarre mechanical problem — or, as is so common in airline catastrophes, some combination or compounding of human error and/or mechanical malfunction.

Jordan Golson explains how a plane can disappear in this day and age:

It is a misconception that airline pilots are in constant communication with air traffic control, or that planes are constantly watched on radar. Once a plane is more than 100 or 150 miles from shore, radar no longer works. It simply doesn’t have the range. (The specific distance from shore varies with the type of radar, the weather, and other factors.) At that point, civilian aircraft communicate largely by high-frequency radio. The flight crew checks in at fixed “reporting points” along the way, providing the plane’s position, air speed, and altitude. It isn’t uncommon to maintain radio silence between reporting points because cruising at 35,000 feet is typically uneventful. Some aircraft communication systems don’t require pilots call in; flight management computers transmit the info via satellite link.

Rachel Lu observes how Chinese media are covering the disappearance of the plane, which was carrying 153 Chinese nationals:

On Chinese social media, a particularly anxious place after the Kunming horror, some speculation about the cause of MH370′s disappearance has linked it to terrorism or sabotage. On March 10, well-known television host Yang Lan wrote to her 34 million followers on Weibo that “more and more signs are pointing to a terrorist attack.” Huang Sheng, a professional investor and author, compared MH370′s disappearance to the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 in 1988. Ran Xiongfei, a sports commentator, also wrote, “Everything is unknown, but signs of terrorism are becoming more noticeable.”

By contrast, Chinese state-owned media have been very cautious not to draw conclusions about MH370′s disappearance. While some state-owned media have translated international reports about possible probes into terrorism, People’s Daily and China Central Television (CCTV), two of the Communist Party’s flagship media outlets, have not explicitly associated the plane’s disappearance with terrorism. Although many readers would likely prefer those outlets to engage the question directly, state media’s hands are tied. According to the U.S.-based China Digital Times, China’s Central Propaganda Department has issued instructions prohibiting “independent analysis or commentary” of the incident.

Update from a reader:

Here’s how I’ve been explaining the Malaysian Airlines search to friends: Suppose I asked you to find my car (yes, it’s smaller than a plane but no smaller than a life raft or debris field). I don’t know exactly where I left it, but I think its somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas (250 miles – about the over-water distance between Malaysia and Vietnam). It was dark, so I don’t know if I was on the main highway or a side road, and there wasn’t anyone around in the desert to see me go by. Oh, and it’s possible I made a turn and ended up somewhere in Arizona (although, based on the latest news, maybe I ended up turning around and driving towards San Francisco?)

One more thing: I might have parked it in an underground garage.

Another:

Your reader’s analogy is off base. The car would be the ONLY car in the entire vicinity, with no cities, or buildings, or other cars in the way. If you have 100 of that guy’s friends and some experienced helicopter pilots and sent them into a barren area with only one car to find, you would expect they would find something – especially if your friend can tell you the last GPS point his car was recorded at. And the underground garage is simple a red herring: the plane might be at bottom of the sea, but it certainly smashed into pieces when it hit the water, and would be visible.

Something is very very bizarre here, especially if it’s true that after going off of civilian radar, it kept flying in the opposite direction for more than an hour.

Followup from the first reader:

I don’t dispute the suggestion that my car would stand out in the desert … IF YOU CAME ACROSS THE CAR. The point of my analogy was to address the sheer immenseness of land (or water) mass to be covered by an aerial or sea search, much less at satellite level (more coverage but smaller detail). I’ve been working with Tomnod, the crowd-sourced satellite image analysis site, and there’s a whole lot of nothing to work through before even covering a small fraction of the original expected crash site.

Of course, the new indications that the plane turned and headed for the Straits of Malacca mean all bets are off in even remotely guessing how long it will take to find the plane.

Doug Chini needs to get on Tomnod ASAP.