Point of View

What happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 a mystery only for now

March 13, 2014 


TARAS LIVYY — Getty Images/iStockphoto

No matter what, the mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 will be solved. It is a good mystery, though, with theories abounding – from a hijacking by passengers using stolen passports to a rogue crew taking the plane to some remote place with a nefarious purpose to catastrophic disintegration.

Short of its being beamed up to the Enterprise, though, the plane eventually will be located, intact or in pieces, submerged or on dry land. The questions then will be how and why it ended up as it did.

As a lifelong fan of commercial aviation and a pilot myself, I have thought a lot about the disappearance of the flight. The immensity of the oceans means that even a jumbo jet – this, a 250-ton Boeing 777-200ER – can be very hard to spot. Many countries are helping with the search, and some of the sophisticated (and top secret) surveillance tools being used no doubt will eventually find the plane.

The question I’m hearing from nonpilots is how, in a world of GPS and extensive radar coverage, the plane’s whereabouts were not accurately tracked, no matter what was happening on board. It’s like 1927 again, when no one knew where the Spirit of St. Louis was until Lucky Lindy appeared above Paris and landed at Le Bourget.

Basic radar coverage from ground-based stations has a finite range, and once a plane has flown past that, the plane no longer shows up on the radar screen. Planes flying across oceans, outside radar range, make their own position reports by radio and satellite. The navigation equipment on board is accurate to mere meters, and the reports are generally reliable.

Transponders on planes also are used for tracking. Each plane in flight is assigned a unique four-digit code, which shows up on the radar screen, along with the plane’s identification, airspeed and altitude. This allows pretty accurate tracking, but it also depends on the plane’s being in range. The Malaysian flight was beyond the reach of radar, and without position reports from the cockpit, no one could know where it was.

Conflicting reports make this even more difficult to understand, as Malay officials have either concealed information or seemed unsure of what was going on. Did the engines send reports to their manufacturer every 30 minutes or not? The Wall Street Journal says they did, while the Malay officials say they did not. It is highly likely these reports were sent because that’s a routine function of sophisticated airliner power plants.

If the plane continued to fly and send reports for four more hours, where did it go? Scattered reports of other radar evidence of the plane are not clear, but if it flew on, then it was likely hijacked.

It’s possible the plane disintegrated, but it would have been in the safest regime of flight – cruise at high altitude. Whil0e the plane was well-used and had been in service for more than 11 years, amassing nearly 54,000 hours of flight, it was well-maintained and reliable. The 777 has a nearly unblemished safety record. The possibility of accidental disintegration is minuscule, and anything short of that would have allowed the crew to report the problem.

Because these planes do not just come apart in flight, a bomb would have to be considered. The possibility of a massive electrical failure, which would have silenced the radios and transponders, has been raised, but the plane had multiple sources of power, making this unlikely.

The bottom line is that every report is mere speculation until the plane, in whatever shape, is located. The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, the “black boxes,” will tell the tale in cold, hard digital data.

The case of Air France Flight 447 is similar – a plane disappearing while in normal flight – but in that case wreckage was spotted in the south Atlantic within days. Finding the plane’s wreckage on the ocean bottom took two more years, but when the recorders were recovered, they clearly showed what happened: erroneous readings on cockpit instruments and failure by the crew to cope with them.

Commercial air travel is amazingly safe, but it’s also a marvel in some ways and a bit unbelievable. I once flew from Newark to Hong Kong on a 777, and that 16-hour flight, which passed near the North Pole, seemed simply amazing.

That is one reason this story has so much traction. Everyone is pulled in by the specter of mystery and disaster. In the end, though, the story will be told. The fates of those 239 unfortunate souls aboard will be explained and, I hope, contribute to aviation safety in the future.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com

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