First, I need to apologize. I inadvertently published a series of notes for a post I may or may not write. It only sat on the front page of my blog for a few days before I caught it (I’ve been busy!), but nevertheless, it was cryptic enough that those of you who visited recently were probably a bit puzzled. It’s gone now.
Secondly, I’d like to talk about Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
As of this writing (March 13th), the Malaysian government has released numerous, sometimes conflicting reports, and everyone is currently mulling over a slew of information from Chinese satellite imagery, reports from an oil company employee, and automated reports from the Rolls Royce engines that powered the plane (which are apparently untrue). There are also a wide variety of theories as to what happened to the aircraft–including some really wacky ones–but I suspect only two of them are likely: Hijacking or an in-flight fire.
An in-flight fire would fit best with the evidence offered by the Chinese and by the gentleman who witnessed an object in the sky burning briefly before disappearing. However, most other aircraft that succumbed to in-flight fires were located rather quickly (see Swissair flight 111), debris was found shortly after the accident, and at least some declaration indicating an emergency on board was made. The lack of contact with the aircraft is troubling and is suggestive that, whatever may have happened, it was unlikely to have been such an emergency.
The next theory toys with the prospect of a hijacking, either failed or otherwise. It might explain the supposed data received from the engine’s reporting systems as well as the aircraft’s behavior. But where might it have gone? The aircraft had 5-7 hours of fuel in the tanks, and it might have been able to make it as far as Pakistan, but wouldn’t it have been spotted by India’s military radars? This theory fits some of the facts better but at the expense that whatever questions remain are more difficult to answer than those posed by an in-flight emergency.
I’m not sure which is more likely, but as much as I’d like to suspect a hijacking, the lack of a motive or place to land such a large aircraft renders it remote at best.
I still can’t shake the thought that it could have been an in-flight fire. A recent report suggests that the automated reporting systems in the cockpit were turned off 20 minutes after the transponder (or vice versa?), which could have been–and maybe likely was–performed manually. But examining disasters like Swissair flight 111 where the flight recorders stopped functioning about 5 minutes before impact due to the blaze eating through power couplings indicates that there may exist other possibilities. Yet an in-flight fire would have lead to some attempt to contact air traffic control, unless it happened rapidly, but in that case the aircraft also wouldn’t have flown for as long as some reports are speculating.
So that leaves us with only one uncomfortable option: Wait.
The unfortunate side effect of disasters-in-the-making like MH370 is the shear number of armchair specialists who come out with their pet theories, explain why the others are so unlikely, and often spread misinformation and distort facts. At the risk of coming off as such an armchair commentator, I want to remind everyone that until wreckage (or a plane) is found, we simply have to admit that we don’t know what’s happened. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for the families who are seeking closure–or just want to know where their loved ones are–but given the lack of factual information and the Malaysian government’s unwillingness to part with anything substantial, waiting is our only option. Unless one of the eleven or so countries currently participating in search-and-rescue operations makes a lucky break, we may never know.
Or worse: If this flight is never found, MH370 could become the mystery of the century.
What do I think happened? Well, that’s a problem. I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t as nefarious as a hijacking or terrorist attack, but even if it was the result of a fire on board (or similar emergency), if the aircraft stayed aloft for any substantial percentage of the total time its flight was planned for, the damn thing could be anywhere. I do think there’s too much emphasis on water search, or at least searches in the wrong waters entirely, but where do you begin? Unless papers or other debris (or bodies) start washing up somewhere, this is a mystery that may never be solved.
I’d probably start looking in the Indian Ocean nearest Malaysia or maybe the western Pacific in the event its navigational computers were really off the mark, searching for small debris including paper and seat cushions. There’s no point looking for oil slicks at this stage. They’ll have dissipated days ago.
I’m inclined to believe we’ll find out that something happened to knock out communications (either accidental or otherwise) and the aircraft spent a few hours circling before finally crashing into the sea or a dense jungle forest. That still doesn’t do anything to dissuade the hope that–maybe, just maybe–they found somewhere safe to land and are simply waiting to be found.
Again, if nothing is found in the next two or three weeks, it may never be found.