Heartbreak: International school students light candles for passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in Zhuji, Zhejiang province. The placards held by children read "Pray for life". Photo: Reuters
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is the kind of mystery that's not supposed to be possible any more. The Information Age is also the age of surveillance, of interconnectedness, of cloud computing, of GPS satellites, of intelligence agencies that can monitor terrorists from space or call in a drone strike from a control console on the other side of the world.
But so far, all the technological eyes and ears of the world have failed to find the missing plane. The Boeing 777 jetliner, with 239 people aboard, silently vanished early on Saturday on its way to China, disappearing from radar so suddenly and inexplicably that it might as well have flown into another dimension.
The civilian and military assets of multiple nations are being devoted to the search for wreckage on both sides of the Malay Peninsula, in the Gulf of Thailand and the Strait of Malacca. A commercial satellite firm, DigitalGlobe, is crowdsourcing the hunt by asking volunteers to scan images for signs of the plane.
But the satellite coverage of the planet isn't as complete as some people might assume.
"Despite the impression that people get when they use Bing and Google Earth and Google Maps, those high-resolution images are still few and far between," said John Amos, president of SkyTruth, a non-profit organisation that uses such images to engage the public on environmental issues.
The pilots of Flight MH370 never communicated distress. No one activated an SOS signal. No debris or fuel slick has been found. The plane's flight recorders may be on the sea floor, buried in sand.
Scenarios abound. Did the plane disintegrate at 35,000 feet from a mechanical failure and sudden decompression? Did the pilot commit suicide by flying it straight down into the sea? Did terrorists blow it up? Did a passenger plant a bomb so that his family would collect life insurance? Was the plane shot down by a jumpy military? Could it have crash-landed in a jungle somewhere, where the passengers are now fighting to survive?
From a long list of possibilities that range from the unlikely to the extremely far-fetched, the truth about what happened to Flight MH370 will probably emerge eventually. For now, it's the mystery of the year - and a source of immense anguish for the families of the missing passengers and crew.
There were media reports on Tuesday, quoting Malaysia's air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, saying that military radar picked up the plane Saturday flying far off-course, to the west, far from its flight path. That would suggest foul play - for example, a cockpit intrusion and forced diversion - if the reports hold up. But these reports still do not reveal where the plane is, whether it crashed on land or at sea, or is intact somewhere.
The case has some similarities to that of Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic after leaving Rio de Janeiro, killing all 228 people aboard, in 2009. But in that case, when air-speed measurements failed and led pilots to put the plane into a stall, the computers on the plane sent error messages to computers on land before the plane disappeared. Wreckage on the sea surface was spotted five days after the crash, and eventually most of the bodies were recovered, though it took two years for the black-box flight recorder to be retrieved from the sea floor.
The lack of a solid explanation for the Malaysia Airlines disappearance has spawned rampant speculation. Two Iranian passengers travelling with stolen passports do not appear to have any connection to terrorist groups, intelligence officials have told reporters.
Hans Weber, a US-based aviation consultant, said a case such as this captures our attention in part because we like to think such things can't happen.
"We like to think that we're in control. That's our culture," Weber said. "Not knowing means you're not in control. That's hard for us to take."
The missing plane may be a mystery, but the search for answers is likely to produce some sooner rather than later. Space aliens don't abduct Boeing jetliners. Anyone wondering whether there's the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle off the coast of South-East Asia should remember that the Bermuda Triangle is a myth. The plane is out there somewhere.
The Washington Post