Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written material only.
It was a Saturday, March 8th. A Boeing 777, one of the most advanced and safest airplanes in the world lifted off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a regularly scheduled flight to Beijing in the People's Republic of China. The flight was tagged by the International Air Transport Association as Malaysian Air Flight 370. By all expectations, it was expected to be a routine trip. But 40 minutes into the flight, something went terribly wrong. For reasons that were, and still remain, utterly unknown, the aircraft made a hard turn to the west, descended almost 40,000 feet in one minute, and then vanished. The transponder and other communication devices had been deactivated, apparently in a deliberate attempt to evade detection. The engines continued to ping satellites, a maintenance-related automatic communication back to the engines manufacturer Rolls Royce in England. The last surmised location of the airliner could have been either over the southern Indian Ocean, or near Kazakhstan.
Today, nine days later, the aircraft, and the 239 souls aboard, remain missing.
This incident, or incipient tragedy, has consumed the attention of the world. Even a pending war between Russia and it's former client state Ukraine over the Crimea seems to have taken a back seat. A big part of the attention has to do with the shared incredulity that in this age of GPS, satellites, radar, and a sky filled with some 90,000 airplanes each day that something as big as a jumbo jet could simply vanish without a trace.
This is, unfortunately, not the first time. Since 1910, some 160 aircraft have disappeared from the skies, without leaving a single clue as to their fate. Perhaps the most well-known and most researched was the loss in 1937 of a Lockheed Electra with pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific. The last passenger plane to disappear was a de Havilland Twin Otter under the banner of Merpati Nusantera Airlines which disappeared in 1995 while flying across the Molo Strait enroute to Ruteng, Indonesia, along with its 13 passengers and crew. Bad weather was the suspected culprit.
Other airliners have crashed, but they've always been eventually found, even those which crashed at sea. Even the Korean Air 747 shot down by the Soviet Air Force over the North Pacific was eventually found Anytime this happens, a huge effort is launched utilizing ships, planes, submarines, and satellites in a carefully dogged search mission. To lose a commercial aircraft, and even after days of searching come up empty is something that pushes us all to the precipice overlooking the dark pit of the unknown.
In recent days, information has been released possibly indicating that the pilot(s) may have "stolen" the aircraft for reasons that are assumed to have something to do with an impending act of terrorism. While the world spins in conjecture and speculation, the almost-forgotten families of the passengers and crew suffer in a very exquisite and private agony.
Despite the lack of hard information, the media has gone on a speculatory binge of epic proportions. Experts from just about every conceivable field remotely connected with aviation have populated the airways, all with their version of might have happened. The truly ironic part of all this has been the near-universal lead-in to these interviews..."We of course don't want to speculate, but what do you think happened?"
In the original "Cosmos" series, Dr. Carl Sagan spoke about the early attempts at earth-bound observation of other planets. When it became apparent that the planet Venus was covered in clouds, early astronomers speculated about the nature of the planet. Without information about the chemical makeup of the clouds, it was widely assumed that they were water clouds, just like Earth. So, they surmised, the surface must consist of bogs and swamps. And if there are bogs and swamps, then there must be grass, moss, ferns, and trees. And...hey, weren't those plants a food source for dinosaurs? Then it might be true that there may be Venusian "thunder lizards" feeding thereon. That's it! Dinosaurs are walking the surface of Venus!
Observation: Can't see a thing.
In a very real sense, we are in the same position.
Observation: Don't know a thing.
Conclusion: Alien abduction. (Or fill in the blank.)
There is a fundamental desire in the human psyche to know the unknowable, and when facts are unavailable, we have an unfortunate tendency to make them up. We simply cannot abide the vacuum.
Another aspect haunting the public is that assumed sense of safety we all have when we walk on board an airliner. We assume that someone is going to know where we are from the moment the plane leaves the gate to the moment when we pull up to the gate at our destination. That this bubble of assumption (or perhaps delusion) has been popped to the tune of 239 human lives is, at the very least, disquieting. Come to find out, rather than being safely within a locatable bubble wherever we fly, there are vast stretches of trans-oceanic air routes which have no radar coverage at all.
There are obvious technical solutions which could be applied to this kind of scenario. Some submarines are equipped with satellite buoys, which are released in situations when the boat is in extremis. These buoys then float to the surface and begin broadcasting to satellites, pinpointing the last known position of the sub. Such devices can be adapted to attach to an aircraft and would be ejected automatically when the plane is close to crashing. Another possibility would be the orbiting of radar satellites specifically to fill in the black holes of radar coverage between the continents. I'm sure there are other solutions being thought up as we speak.
The scariest part of this whole business is the dark looming cloud of terrorism. If, in fact, this plane was stolen for eventual use as a terror weapon, then we may not discover what the end game is, until after that end game plays out.
The advent of global air travel was said to have "made the world smaller," in that people could now get from one side of the globe to the other in hours. In decades past, such journeys would have taken months, if not years. Now, all of a sudden, a plane and it's precious cargo of people has disappeared over the ocean, it's fate remaining unknown.
We know now that the world is still a much bigger place than we assumed.