The normal international soap opera has been interrupted by the unexpected drama of MH370 -- the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner traveling from Malaysia to Beijing. It has all the elements of a blockbuster movie. Take an aircraft type that's never had a major loss of life due to equipment failure -- the Boeing 777 -- add its disappearance from the secondary search radar system (used by air traffic controllers), stir in reports that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was broadcasting nothing odd and then stopped, mix in two mysterious passengers using stolen passports, lace with a great deal of human interest and wild speculation and you have a cliffhanger.
There's no ending to the story yet so one of the best places to go for informed speculation on MH370 is PPRUNE, the Professional Pilots Rumor Network, where imagination is tempered with knowledge. For facts without speculation the site most likely to break actual news is the 7th Fleet Twitter account which lists out the activities of the Burke-class destroyer USS Pinckney, it's two search helicopters and a supporting P3 from US airbases in Japan in 140 characters or less.
The Pinckney arrived at the last reported position of MH370 about 9 hours ago. Generally speaking the aviation assets -- the Orion and the shipboard helos -- will use their radars and/or sonobuoys and to localize the contact. If they find anything interesting the destroyer will come up and examine the debris and put the big sonar and probably the mine hunting equipment into action.
The problem for the Pinckney is the uncertainty over where MH370 went down. The sea is a big place. The good news is that the Gulf of Thailand is shallow so any wreckage will lie within probable reach of the ships sensors. One other factor working in the searcher's favor is that the narrow seas are thick with fishing boats. One pilot who flies the route said that at night the sea below seems carpeted with floating cities.
The abundance of possible observers deepens the mystery of why nobody saw anything unusual. The most probable causes of MH370's loss are catastrophic airframe failure, a bomb or crew incapacitation. The bomb theory, which is the most dramatic of all, might at least have been observed from below. If the the 777 blew apart in the air, then why did none of the fishermen report it?
One reason it turns out is that many of the boats have no comms. It will be necessary to wait until the fishermen make port to piece together any observations they may have. In other words the observation data is there, it just hasn't been collected yet. The same may be true of the primary search radars in the area, mostly military (which work on actively receiving echoes from their transmitters as opposed to transponders). These may contain vital data left out of operator displays by software in order to cut down clutter on the scope. Thus, like the fishermen, the data may be hiding in the weeds waiting for an analyst to tease it out.
Why the fuss? One of the unstated concerns, exacerbated by the circumstance there were two passengers traveling with stolen passports with onward tickets from Beijing (to avoid the visa requirements) is that some terrorist group has found a way to bring down an airliner that the security people don't know about. Feeding this speculation is a tantalizing report that another commercial pilot contacted the missing plane after Malaysian Airlines had failed to raise it, responding to a request to any aircraft in the area to try and contact it by HF radio.
The captain, who asked to not be named, said his plane, which was bound for Narita, Japan, was far into Vietnamese airspace when he was asked to relay, using his plane's emergency frequency, to MH370 for the latter to establish its position, as the authorities could not contact the aircraft.
"We managed to establish contact with MH370 just after 1.30am and asked them if they have transferred into Vietnamese airspace.
"The voice on the other side could have been either Captain Zaharie (Ahmad Shah, 53,) or Fariq (Abdul Hamid, 27), but I was sure it was the co-pilot.
"There were a lot of interference... static... but I heard mumbling from the other end.
"That was the last time we heard from them, as we lost the connection," he told the New Sunday Times.
The report suggests that something was wrong at that point, perhaps the crew or its flight systems were impaired. But nobody knows for sure. One of the problems with the MH370 is that the exotic elements of the narrative -- the sudden disappearance, the stolen passports -- may be irrelevant to the issue -- a distraction from the actual cause driven by suggestive mysteriousness. Perhaps it was simply equipment failure. The cabin may have blown apart at cruising altitude, where the pressure differential between the cabin and the outside area is greatest. Or maybe there was some complete failure in the electrical systems. Or maybe the two or more mysterious passengers released some substance to gas everyone on board.
For that reason the labors of the USS Pinckney are probably our best bet. They are starting at the last known position of the airplane and may do an expanding search from there. Just the facts ma'am. Block by block. Sergeant Joe Friday on the job. Sooner or later -- with any luck sooner -- the physical data will lead to the truth.
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