We may never know
In the end, a perfectly rational explanation may yet turn out to be the reason for the mysterious disappearance from the skies of Malaysia Airlines MH370. One plausible theory, propounded by a veteran pilot, suggests that the plane’s cockpit suffered a sudden catastrophic fire that overwhelmed its two pilots before they could radio for help or manage an emergency landing. They managed to turn the plane leftward, however, in the direction of Langkawi, Malaysia, where there was an airstrip, but with the pilots rendered incapacitated, the plane flew on until it ran out of fuel and plunged into the sea. A cockpit fire may also account for the breakdown in the transponders and communications systems, which prevented the plane from sending any SOS before its presumed crash.
But that “startlingly simple theory about the missing Malaysia Airlines jet,” as the now-viral article was titled, has been debunked by recent developments. More than a month after the March 8 disappearance of the plane carrying 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the search has gone much farther away from the original area of interest in the Strait of Malacca to a swath of ocean off the western coast of Australia, the vastness and depth of which are yet unfathomed.
Says News.com Australia: “The underwater search zone is currently a 1,300-square-kilometer patch of the seabed, about the size of Los Angeles… The surface area being searched on Sunday for floating debris was 57,506 [sq km] of ocean extending about 2,200 [km] northwest of Perth. Up to 12 planes and 14 ships were participating in the hunt.”
The pivot to this remote part of the southern Indian Ocean came after the Malaysian prime minister himself announced that satellite data suggested most strongly that the plane had gone down in this area. Australian and Chinese ships helping in the search an nounced after a few days that they had picked up what sounded like “pings” from the plane’s black box flight recorders—an encouraging but tenuous lead, because the black box batteries are said to be running out (or have done so, with no new sounds heard since April 8). Still, finding the exact origin of such ultrasonic signals remains a herculean prospect. A robotic submarine has just been deployed to scour the sea floor—but the Sydney Morning Herald reports that it had to turn back “six hours into its first 16-hour mission because it had reached its maximum operational depth of 4.5 km.”
The latest updates also brought a now-familiar refrain: contradictory statements from Malaysian authorities that have only added to the confusion and rampant speculation clouding the inquiry into the plane’s final hours. First, a government source told a Malaysian newspaper that copilot Fariq Abdul Hamid appeared to have tried to make a call when the plane swung low over Penang before disappearing from radar screens—if true, a hint that perhaps he was trying to send a warning about what was happening in the cockpit. But that claim was immediately pronounced “baseless” by the Malaysian defense minister, who has also remained tight-lipped on the possibility that the plane could have been hijacked. Another investigator—anonymous, given the opaque world of Malaysian politics—has been more up-front: The plane was “thrown around like a fighter jet, flown very low at very high speed to avoid radar”—meaning its disappearance could turn out to be not an accident at all.
That prospect has stoked the hopes, and also the anguish, of the families of the passengers, as the mystery deepens with not even debris found from the plane. The death of a loved one always cuts deep, but in this case, the absence of bodies precludes any of the gentle mitigations—the final respects and the last goodbyes—that may lead to acceptance and a merciful peace.
More than a month into the event, and a staggering thought strikes: No one knows anything. It’s said that we now live in a world where satellites in the sky can see the littlest crack in a dirt road, and Google Earth can zoom in on a home porch. But the Great Unknown presented by the vanished plane yanks us back to deeply uncertain ground.
“It speaks to us because of the awful yet wonder-inducing possibility that we might never know,” writes Sam Leith in the London Evening Standard. “It upsets the sense that in the modern world there is nowhere left to disappear. It hits something atavistic… The illusion evaporates.”
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