The plane that ‘vanished into thin air’

Officials from 25 countries focused their search on two vast northern and southern corridors that the Boeing 777 may have traveled.

What happened

With the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 now officially a criminal investigation, officials from 25 countries this week focused their search on two vast northern and southern corridors that the Boeing 777 may have traveled after vanishing with 239 people on board. The Beijing-bound plane stopped communicating with air traffic controllers over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8, approximately half an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 a.m., local time. Malaysian investigators this week announced they were focusing on the possibility of foul play—including hijacking and pilot suicide—because of evidence suggesting that someone had disabled the plane’s communications systems and made a 90-degree turn to the west. Satellite pings indicated the plane could have flown on for another six hours, placing its final destination somewhere in a huge area stretching 2.9 million square miles from the north in Kazakhstan all the way south to the Indian Ocean and Australia—an area 10 times the size of Texas. “The plane vanished into thin air,” said Malaysia’s defense minister.

Investigators were exploring multiple theories, including pilot suicide, a pilot or hijacker stealing the plane and landing it for use in a future terrorist attack, and a “hijacking gone bad,” with the plane winding up in the ocean. Malaysian authorities this week removed a custom-built flight simulator from the home of Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, hoping to restore data that Shah apparently deleted last month.

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What the editorials said

“You’d think something as big as a passenger jet would be easy to find,” said USA Today. But “the ocean is immense.” In 1979, a Varig Brazilian Airlines 707 disappeared off the coast of Japan, and “no trace of the plane has ever been found.” When an Air France Airbus broke apart in a storm over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, it took 23 months for searchers to locate and recover its black boxes in waters 13,000 feet deep. So far, there is little evidence about why Flight 370 disappeared or even where it was headed, so “all the guesses are just guesses.”

One thing is certain: “This was an avoidable mystery,” said The Washington Post. The world still relies on decades-old radar networks and black boxes, when it’s “eminently feasible” to require commercial aircraft to stream live data to satellites. Until now, airlines have avoided the costs of updating their planes’ emergency and tracking systems. But what about the “huge cost, financially and psychically, of launching an armada on a highly speculative hunt” for a vanished plane?

What the columnists said

Thanks to a satellite ping received at 8:11 a.m., hours after the plane changed course, said Amy Davidson in, we now know that Flight 370 crossed one of two arcs. The first curves northward toward China, and would support the theory that the plane was hijacked by a pilot or passenger and flown to one of several “countries of political and military interest,” such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iran. Given that whoever commandeered this plane was deliberately deceptive, said Jeff Wise in, this possibility seems most likely. Flight 370 might have landed somewhere undetected, since a number of the countries through which it might have passed have “far less capable military radar systems” than Western officials imagine.

A simpler explanation makes more sense, said Chris Goodfellow in I think the jetliner’s pilot was confronted by a serious electrical fault or fire “that made him make an immediate turn to the closest, safest airport.” He navigated west toward the 13,000-foot airstrip of Pulau Langkawi, but he and the crew were overcome by smoke and fell unconscious. The plane continued onward “until it ran out of fuel,” crashing somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Of the two theories, “more likely is the Indian Ocean scenario,” Clive Irving in It would explain why the plane seemingly disappeared without a trace. The Indian Ocean near Australia truly is the “Big Void,” plunging to depths of 21,000 feet. That’s “far deeper than faced by any other aviation deep sea search,” and since the plane’s black boxes only give off electronic “pings” for a month, the search teams are in a race with time.

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