We are currently getting a lesson in how big the earth is, and how small a jet plane is, even a Boeing 777… my thoughts…
This is also a lesson in the behavior of the media when a story, however compelling lacks facts… or hard information… In the absence of information we (especially the blogger sphere, but also the news media) collectively resort to fiction.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8th… now 2 weeks past… the lack of information has lead to theories… and revelations… and occasionally truths… (my favorite truth an article from the New York Times, March 20th ‘The Technology Is Out There,’ but Satellites Don’t Track Jets )
It is useful to understand what we know… what has been reported (aka a maybe) and what we don’t know… in the form of a time line… (The New York Times has a good article on what we know I consider this article to be as close to hard facts that are publicly available… Fox News, not so much)
12:41 am - Jet takes off from Kuala Lumpur
1:07 am – ACARS (note 1 below) system makes (last) transmission, it is scheduled to next
transmit at 1:37
1:19 am - Last communication from plane, (believed) by co-pilot “All right, good night.”
1:21 am - Transponder stops transmitting
(note the order of the last two items above… they are frequently reported in reverse order in media reports)
After 1:21 - this is a significant point in the narrative… from this point on facts are
1:37 am – ACARS fails to send scheduled transmission (see note 2)
About 2:15+ – Malaysian Military radars track a plane, believed to be flt 370 as it flies west,
climbs to 45,000’, then descends to 23,000’ and flies out over Indian Ocean. Some reports say that the military radar also tracked the plane as it made a nearly 180 degree left turn back towards Malaysia.
7:45 am Malaysia Airlines announces they have lost contact with the aircraft
About 8:15 am – last satellite transmission from engine reporting system. (note 4)
Between 8:30 am 9:15 am – the plane would have exhausted its fuel (assuming it was still
Note 1, this aircraft had at least three automatic communication systems, 1) the transponder works with ground based radars, transmitting identification information about the aircraft, and amplifying its radar signature, 2) the ACARS or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System is an automated system which communicates with the ground every 30 minutes or after certain events like landing or taking off, and 3) the engines are equipped with an automated system engine reporting system which reports their status through a satellite based system.
Note 2, There is some debate about whether the ARARS system can be turned off completely see this article
Note 3, The sensationalist news media seems to be upset with the lack of detail associated with the Malaysian Military reports and their failure to sramble fighter planes to intersept the “unknown plane”. We tend to forget that military radar, and its capabilities are national secreats, and in publishing reports of what was seen they Malaysian government is publishing information of interest to the militaries of the neighboring counties. Similarly it is possible (even likely) that militarily radars in Indonesia, Thailand, India or other countries may have “seen” this plane at some point. It is possible (even likely) that that information is either being withheld for reasons of national security, or is available to searchers, but not publicly.
Note 4 This is reported by the news media as two arcs, one of which the plane crossed at the time of the final transmission. Some reports seem to confuse the contact arcs with a possible flight path. They are not… they represent a pair of lines. One of which the plane was crossing at the time of that transmission. Being a detail freak, I would love to see the arcs for the previous transmissions, but they have apparently not been published.
Beyond the facts there are theory’s… some well thought out, some wacky… from here on we have left the world of facts… So, the options are (behind door No. 1?)
Scenario 1 - The plane broke up and crashed over Gulf of Thailand at about 1:30 am… This is the simplest explanation, consistent with the last radio contact and the transponder cut off. The lack of wreckage Malaysian military radar observations and certain US statements about “not seeing an explosion” via observation ( aka spy) satellites suggest that we should look elsewhere.
Scenario 2 – The plane was intentionally diverted, either by the flight crew or by others. The timing and location of the disappearance is consistent with that moment, when transitioning from one air traffic control center to another in a different country when a plane’s disappearance would be least likely to be noticed. Motives could be suicide (but if so, why not just crash the aircraft in the Gulf of Thailand as in scenario 1) political (if so why no public message?) ransom (again, why no demand?) or political (a government diverting the plane to arrest someone on board?) Proponents of this theory suggest the climb to 45,000’ may have been to take the plane to an altitude at which if cabin pressure was lost the passengers would be incompacitated or even die) If such a diversion happened, then we might expect to find the plane sitting on the ground at some remote airstrip… This of course is the favorite of the families who have home that somehow their loved ones are still alive. Lack of communication by those who might have diverted the plane argue against this.
Scenario 3 – Mechanical emergency, most likely a fire causing the crew to shut down electrical systems in an attempt to stop the fire. Those favoring this scenario suggest that after shutting down the electrical systems (and communications) before being overcome by smoke leaving the plane to fly on auto pilot until it runs out of fuel. This is commonly reported as the Zombie plane or ghost plane theory. This is consistent with the recent reports from the Australian Government of sighting of possible debris which might be from flt 370 (note that the preceding sentence has 3 qualifiers… separating the statement for from statement of fact, “reports, possible and might)” It is possible that debris may be found in coming days, and that debris may be identified as coming from flt 370… at that point the reports can be considered factual… until then they are at best reports or at worse speculation…)
Other theories… (and even fewer facts)
The plane was hit by a meteor – Statistically unlikely… but if so, see scenario 1 above…
The plane was taken by a government conspiracy… see scenario 2
The plane was taken by aliens... I will let this stand on its own merits… just saying…
My favorite theory… The plane crash landed on a beach on an uncharted island, where passengers will encounter a polar bear… alternately the creators of the TV show “Lost” are trying to increase sales of the DVD’s of the show…