JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Lost: the mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370


Joel Achenbach

From the murder of John F. Kennedy to this week's disappearance of a plane midflight, Joel Achenbach explains why it's real life mysteries that intrigue us the most.

Heartbreak: International school students light candles  for passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in Zhuji, ...

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


  • Interesting heading on the front page 'Why it won't remain a mystery for long' - shouldn't that be 'Why it's been a mystery this long'.

    Date and time
    March 14, 2014, 1:53AM
    • Because the authorities don't want to admit to this mass abduction by aliens. It would obviously spark worldwide panic!

      RU Kiddinme
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:45AM
    • Why has it been a mystery?
      Because it crashed and no one has found any wreckage yet.
      But of course that is not a good enough excuse for the press who want
      answers in 3 1/2 minutes and are not prepared to wait.
      The press on the whole have been a complete joke regarding this crash.
      The same talking head will sprout five different scenarios as basically fact and until they find the plane no one knows anything.
      Sleuth your theory is as good any.
      Probably wrong but hey so are the rest except for one.

      J Walker
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:02AM
    • Yes the Aliens have taken over Washington DC and shut down the GPS and transponders and that is why the plane can not be found, and after the previous case of mass abduction by aliens, the released captives with frontal lobotomy scars immediately took over the Congress where they are still thriving.

      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:05AM
  • Given the terrible anguish for the families involved - and for the airline - can anyone suggest a technological means to have lost situations like this rendered next to impossible? A system of satellites that track every inch of the earth for aberrations from expected flight paths? Anything?

    Date and time
    March 14, 2014, 1:55AM
    • Solution 1)
      Automated blackbox that have sensor to measured seawater level and as soon as it knowingly hits the seabed and waited say more than an hour, the box will have a designated exit route from the plane that floated back to the surface and sent out a beacon signal some beeping is more than adequate.

      [optional] thermo sensor to detect temperature of life, we all have a body temperature of 37C internally and 34C surface temperature.

      Solution 2) - fixed flight path detection (which i think most automatic pilot do anyway), using REAL SOFTWARE (i.e. AI stuff) to check current and predicate path, if by algorithm any deviation more than certain safety limit, or that manual pilot is switch over, then raise warnings.

      I'm pretty sure this is implemented! It's all just software stuff!

      Solution 3) PLANE AIRBAG ---- not airbag for passenger, actually a real airbag for the whole bloody plane. It can float on water, bounce on the ground, heat resistance from explosion.

      Solution 4+) - i let you guys continue!

      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:14AM
  • If I want to go on a bushwalk , I can go to the Katoomba police station and borrow an EPIRB, if I get lost I can set it off and it will send a signal to a satellite to tell rescuers where I am and that I need help, can someone tell me why these planes don't carry some similar system

    Date and time
    March 14, 2014, 6:37AM
    • Planes do. Every modern jet carries sophisticated communications systems - and the unsophisticated lond distance radio. The problem here is that the pilots didnt turn on those sos feature, or even radio in to indicate an issue

      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 8:58AM
    • How do you know this flight did not have a tracking device?

      I think, until the wreckage has been found and the matter fully investigated, we need to stop the rumour and innuendo.

      Already, fingers are being pointed at Malaysian officials and questions of competency. How does this help at this time when we don't yet know what went wrong.

      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:23AM
    • Things work, when they arent 7000ft under the ocean and being tracked from 500km away. Or disintegrated. Hit your EPRB with a hammer and drop it into the deep ocean and see if Katoomba can pick it up.

      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:52AM

More comments

Comments are now closed
Featured advertisers

Special offers

Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo