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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North Korea Acts Out

News stories are reporting that North Korea has fired dozens of artillery shells onto a South Korean island, killing one South Korean soldier, injuring other soldiers and civilians, and damaging houses.  South Korea returned fire.  Although the shelling has stopped for now, the two neighbors are on high alert, and the world is waiting to see if North Korea continues, or escalates, the situation.

Other countries in Asia have moved into the 21st century and focused on economic development and democratic reforms — but not North Korea.  It remains mired in the 1940s, home to a throwback totalitarian regime complete with a “glorify the leader” personality cult and ludicrous propaganda.  Its paranoid behavior on the world stage is consistently inexplicable.  It spends its scant treasure on nuclear weapons programs and other military initiatives, and all the while its poor people are starving.

You have to sympathize with South Korea.  Its neighbor is home to many suffering relatives of South Korean citizens.  No doubt South Korea hopes that the people of North Korea will overthrow their repressive government, or that reform elements in the government will emerge that allow North Korea to move toward democracy and capitalism, like China before it.  Such hopes have been dashed.  North Korea’s leader acts out his whims, he appoints his son as a successor, the son acts out his whims, and the pattern continues.  All the while South Korea waits, uneasy, its thoughts never straying too far from the unpredictable, hyper-aggressive country to the north.