Onboard the Malaysian Airline flight to Beijing, the seatbelt signed turned off as the plane reached cruising altitude. It’s impossible to know what many of the passengers were thinking. It is probable that they weren’t thinking that in a few days they would become the target for a massive search party and the source of a growing mystery. When people think that any tiny scrap of information is just a button away, the idea that a Boeing 777 could just vanish is almost beyond belief.
“The world is a big place,” says Michael Smart of University of Queensland. If the plane drops into the middle of the ocean without a shipping lane close, there is no telling how long finding the wreckage could take.
Adding to the mystery is the possibility that the Malaysian plane may have started a U-turn. Investigators have also said the plane could be hundreds of miles from the spot where radar last tracked it.
While many lay people wonder what is taking the searchers so long to find the plane, Captain John Cox, CEO of Safety Operating Systems, says he is “…absolutely confident…” the plane will be found. With GPS in many cars and on all smartphones, it’s no wonder that people are confused about the delay in finding the world’s safest aircraft model.
Investigators believe that it is becoming clearer that the plane somehow, and for some reason, wandered from its intended flight path. Cox says the plane “…must have been intact and flew for some period of time.” If the plane had exploded in midair along its routine path it would’ve been found by now according to Cox.
The chief of Malaysian civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, is leading more than 1,000 people and dozens of planes and ships in the search. The search area so far is covering roughly 100 nautical miles — about 115 land miles — around the last verified location of the plane. Searchers are still trying to pick up a signal from the plane’s transponder which was lost Saturday.
Covering Malacca Strait northward, the search is starting to focus on the opposite side of the peninsula and westward of the plane’s last known position. Searchers are not explaining why crews are searching there, only telling reporters that there are some things that can be said and some things that can’t.
Even before the wreckage is found, some experts are calling for regulatory agencies to require an update to onboard technology. Currently, flight information is recorded by two recorders which are kept onboard the plane. The CVR, cockpit voice recorder and DFR, Data Flight Recorder capture the previous two hours of information, voices and ambient sounds during the flight and records the input on digital technology in the two boxes contained in the tail section. Experts want to see the data uplinked immediately to satellites and transferred back to ground stations so that information is stored. Others say the technology is too costly and the potential benefit is not justified.
In 1990, a Boeing 727 from Peru had to make a water landing in the North Atlantic after running out of fuel. The accident involving the Miami-bound plane was eventually blamed on poor pilot planning and the wreckage was never retrieved.
Another 727 disappeared in Africa while it was being used to ship diesel fuel to diamond mines. The owners of the plane had experienced numerous financial challenges. Speculation still exists, although never proven, that the plane was “stolen” so the owner could collect insurance. That wreckage has never been found either.
The ocean depth at the Malaysian Airlines last known location is between 165 and 195 feet deep. Once it is found, the size of the debris field will be one of the first clues to tell searchers what happened. A debris field spread out would show the plane most likely broke apart at a high elevation, while a smaller field would show the plane probably broke up on impacting the water.
Malaysian Airlines officials are looking at all possible options as a cause for the apparent downing of the plane in the South China Sea, including terrorism.
By Jerry Nelson