Aviation, I.M.H.O.

In The Age Of G.P.S., A Plane Vanishes

The lounge at the Kuala Lumpur terminal where the passengers of Flight 370 waited before boarding the plane.

“Good night, Malaysian three seven zero.”

This was the last verbal communication from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, moments before it disappeared, more than two weeks ago. In the dim glow of what we know, so far, these six words take on an aura of haunting infamy or tragic heroism.

On March 8, a Saturday, MH370, a red-eye, took off from Kuala Lumpur, at 12:41 a.m. It was a warm, muggy night. The jumbo jet, with 239 people on board, was expected to arrive in Beijing, at 6:30 a.m., local time. It was a routine flight, one of a “twice-daily milk run between two of Asia’s most important cities.”

A little over half an hour into the journey, at 1:19 a.m., when the co-pilot bade farewell to air traffic controllers in Subang, outside of Kuala Lumpur, it was cruising at 35,000 feet over the dark waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Two minutes later, the plane’s transponder, which broadcasts its identity, altitude, and speed, stopped working. It’s unclear whether someone deliberately turned a dial or a malfunction caused it to fall silent. At any rate, the plane became virtually invisible.

Unbeknown to anyone on the ground, 12 minutes before the first officer signed off, the flight plan had been altered. The triple-seven made a sharp left turn, heading west, oddly, in the very direction of its point of departure—away from its destination.

At the same time, it was also changing its altitude, soaring to 45,000 feet—above the approved altitude limit for that kind of aircraft—and then dropping to 23,000 feet. Did it make a gentle descent or did it plummet?

The passengers, who, by then, had begun to relax and nod off in the cabin, wouldn’t have known that they were no longer en route to Beijing. If they’d stared out the window, all they’d see is the night sky.

Military radar caught an unknown blip on its screens at a quarter after two in the morning. Then, it was gone. After fading out of range, where did it go? Did it explode in midair? Had it gone down at sea? Had it been taken to an undisclosed location and hidden in an unused hanger?

Surprisingly, at 8.11 a.m., it was still airborne and alive. Its ACARS system—which transmits short messages, reporting the aircraft’s status to ground stations, and can’t be completely switched off—was still sending hourly pings to a commercial satellite in orbit. Based on these signals—that gave a rough sketch of its whereabouts, if not its exact location—it was believed to have flown far out over the Indian Ocean.

Malaysia AirlinesIt wasn’t an entire hour after the flight was scheduled to land in Beijing that the airline broke the bad news. In a day and age when an iPhone can be tracked down in a jiffy, how could authorities lose track of a jetliner?

What began as muddled attempts to establish contact with the plane, believed to have suffered nothing more serious than a radio glitch, spiraled into a frantic search operation spanning land, sea, and air, in two hemispheres.

In no time in the history of modern aviation has a case been so perplexing, and a hunt been as expansive, intense, coordinated, and costly as the one for Flight 370. Why are so many nations willingly devoting their resources to the hunt for a plane that even wasn’t theirs?

It has sparked an intensity of interest perhaps not seen since news of the crash of an alien spaceship, in 1947, near Roswell, New Mexico.  Only, this incident has garnered wider. Regardless of nationality, everyone, everywhere, wants to know what happened to it.

For days now, a fleet of airplanes, helicopters, and ships, has been reconnoitering an area twice the size of Massachusetts, 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia, a region veritably, the edge of the world, churned by giant swells and the fierce winds. But they’ve all been returning to base, empty handed.

The P-8 Poseidon, a U.S. Navy submarine-hunting aircraft, is one of the aircraft, patrolling the southern rim of the Indian Ocean.

The fog of contradictory information, released by Malaysian officials, together with the absence of reliable clues, is fueling frenzied speculation.

One perspective has gained some credence, though. Marinated in logic, it suggests that the aircraft veered so wildly off course because it was flying itself, on auto pilot. And when it ran out of fuel, it began its perilous glide into disintegration. With the ticking of the clock, the pieces of strewn debris have, most likely, sunk beneath the boisterous waves, out of naked sight, awaiting discovery.

But what came prior to that? Mechanical failure is ruled out. There couldn’t have been a fire or a sudden decompression.

The change in route was programmed by an individual—one or more—inside the flight deck. Navigational codes were punched in. Switches were systematically flipped off. It’s unfair, at this juncture, however, to throw the crew under the bus, without concrete evidence.

In the New York Times op-ed, “Out of Control,” Gregg Easterbrook writes that when terrorists breached the cockpits of four American airliners on September 11, 2001, “one of the first things they did” to evade detection “was turn off the transponders.”

This plane too, may have been commandeered in a 9/11-style, but midway, the affair went awry. For reasons that can only be guessed, be it the lucky ineptness of the intruder or the brave collective resistance of the victims, the devious plan was foiled, though not without taking its toll. The mêlée may have left no one alive. Flying unguided, MH370 steered away into an untraveled, watery wilderness, more than two miles deep.

Sooner or later, the black boxes will be dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, and investigators would embark on the graft of piecing together this aeronautical puzzle. Or, it could remain a mystery forever.

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