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?

Kish’s New Rig

We’ve replaced the Blue Beemer with a brand spanking new Acura mini-SUV, and the new car has been something of a revelation.

It’s been about a decade since we last bought a new car, and it’s obvious that a lot has changed since our most recent new car purchase.  For one thing, cars are a lot more expensive.  For another, designs seem to have moved away from a soft, rounded look toward a much more angular appearance.  And the biggest difference, to us at least, has been the technology.

We got the “technology package” when we bought the car, and it makes us feel like slack-jawed rubes.  If you sit behind the wheel, you feel like Mr. Sulu at the helm of the Enterprise.  We’ve got a built-in garage door opener.  We’ve got GPS.  We’ve got Sirius XM satellite radio.  There are multiple toggles and buttons and a large central knob that functions like a mouse.  We’ve got a hands-free cell phone that linked with Kish’s cell and, through the miracle of Bluetooth technology, downloaded all of the phone numbers from her address book.  And everything is voice activated.  We can ask the car to find the nearest Chinese restaurant and, a few seconds later, it will give us a report on every Szechuan, Hunan, or Mandarin option within five miles, including phone numbers in case we want to call for a reservation.  It’s pretty amazing stuff when you are used to a simple dashboard that has a few gauges, a clock, a radio, and a CD player.

We don’t know how to use even a tiny fraction of the features that are available on this space-age vehicle.  It will be fun learning.

Thank God For G.P.S.

Completing our weekend travel adventure, Kish and I drove home from Vassar today.  Russell graciously let us use his car after it became apparent that it would be very unlikely that we could fly back today, due to the disruption caused by the weekend snow storm in the Northeast.  (Even today tens of thousands of people were without power, as the heavy snow tore down tree limbs that knocked down power lines.)  The airport we were to fly out of, Stewart International Airport, got around 50 inches of snow in the space of a day or so, lost all power, and then couldn’t get its computer systems up and running.  Rather than risk a total travel failure, we decided to drive home today, and it was a good move.

One last travel observation:  I think a G.P.S. system is worth renting if you are making a strange drive.  On Friday, after we arrived in Philadelphia to learn that our flight to Stewart International was canceled, we rented a car from Budget.  They had no maps, but they did have a G.P.S. device we could rent.  It was a godsend!  It faithfully guided us out of Philly, across New Jersey, and up to Poughkeepsie, taking us through some back road short cuts and allowing us to avoid some of the traffic snarls that bedeviled the area due to the monster snowstorm.  I don’t make many unexpected road trips, but I am still wondering whether a G.P.S. system is worth the investment — just in case.