The Case Of The Missing Plane

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is one of the weirdest stories to surface in a long time. It sounds like a Hardy Boys mystery — one where the dust jacket says that Frank and Joe apply their sleuthing skills to solve The Case of the Missing Plane — yet it has exposed all kinds of surprising omissions in how the world really works.

Yesterday we watched CNN coverage of the missing plane for about an hour, and the only conclusion you could draw is that the authorities really don’t know much about what happened, or where the plane might be. Communications systems were intentionally disabled, and the plane was deliberately diverted, but beyond that, what happened seems to be, literally, anybody’s guess. (Of course, modern TV journalism being what it is, that doesn’t stop purported experts and anchors from speculating endlessly about the fate of the plane, basing huge amounts of conjecture on a tiny foundation of actual facts. I don’t watch the news much these days, and yesterday’s exposure shows why — there’s not much actual news being reported. Calling CNN a “newscast” is an embarrassing misnomer. But, I digress.)

Here’s the amazing part: an enormous Boeing 777, filled with 239 passengers carrying cell phones, can somehow leave the radar grid and disappear. In our era of GPS chips and ever-present tracking devices, where your cellphone knows where you are whenever you touch your weather app icon, you would expect a technologically advanced jumbo jet to have multiple tracking devices that constantly stream data to ground stations and that can’t be readily disabled by terrorists or hijackers. Apparently, that’s not the case. As a result, we have no more idea about the whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 than we did more than 75 years ago, when Amelia Earhart’s plane vanished over the Pacific. That’s an extraordinary, and unnerving, fact. If airplanes aren’t taking full advantage of modern tracking technology, why aren’t they — and what other modern technology isn’t being fully utilized when we fly the friendly skies?

Let’s not kid ourselves about the search effort, either. When the area being searched encompasses thousands of square miles, ranging from the middle of the Indian Ocean to a number of Asian countries that feature incredibly remote, mountainous terrain, it’s not really a search in the conventional sense. If the plane was hijacked by terrorists and flown to a secret location, it’s undoubtedly hidden in a building by now and invisible to satellite imaging technology. If it crashed, in the ocean or on land, are metal sensing devices scanning such a broad area really going to be able to pinpoint its location and distinguish it from other bits of flotsam and jetsam?

I’m guessing that we’re going to be hearing a lot more speculation before we start to hear actual facts about what happened to Flight 370. In the meantime, though, can we at least take steps to make sure that modern aircraft carry modern tracking technology?

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