Mysteries run deep when airplanes disappear

The search for flight MH370 has become the biggest in aviation history. 26 countries are scouring a region 7.7 million square kilometres

Whatever happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

On 8 March at 00:41 (Malaysia time) the routine flight left Kuala Lumpur airport for a five-hour flight to Beijing to the north. At 1:07 am the plane’s automated maintenance system stopped communicating.  Fifteen minutes later its transponder stopped signalling its location to air-traffic controllers and to other planes. Then the final words are believed to have come from co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid as the plane left Malaysian airspace.

“All right. Good night.”

And with that the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board disappeared from air traffic controllers’ screens as it headed out of the South China Sea. But then, in an extraordinary twist of events, military radar spotted the plane over the Malacca Strait nearly an hour later. It was flying in the opposite direction from its planned flight path. Subsequent satellite ‘pings’ indicated that the plane could have continued flying for another seven hours in a northern or southern arc.

Those pings were the plane’s last link. They were a basic digital form of communication between the plane and a satellite orbiting 36,700 km above the Indian Ocean.

With next to nothing to go on except a queasy belief that on-board communications were deliberately turned off, theories over what happened have been rampant.

Two passengers were flying with stolen passports which immediately floated terrorist fears. Skyjackings always have a political purpose, pilot suicide has been suggested, and catastrophic mechanical failure has been explored. But with no sightings, no claims for responsibility, and no confirmed floating wreckage the mystery, and the unbearable anguish for the families, continues.

Planes have disappeared before.

In 1962 Flying Tiger Line flight 739, a Lockheed propliner chartered by the U.S. military and carrying 93 soldiers from California to Vietnam, disappeared over the western Pacific Ocean. It generated an air and sea search in the Pacific, covering 520,000 square kilometres. No trace of wreckage was ever recovered.

In October 1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 carrying 45 people including a rugby union team crashed in the Andes at 3,600 metres altitude. More than a quarter died, others died of injuries and exposure and still more died when an avalanche engulfed the wreckage. Search crews never found them. They were rescued 72 days later only after two survivors hiked out seeking help. The crash grabbed world attention after it was learned the survivors ate the flesh of their comrades.

When Air France flight 447 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009 went down, it was five days before floating wreckage was spotted. But it was another two years before the black box was found at a depth of 4,000 metres.

American adventurer Steve Fossett took off from a private airfield in Nevada in September 2007. He was never seen again. The remains of his plane were found in October 2008 after a massive hunt.

Chilliwack, with its rugged mountains and changing weather patterns, has had its plane disasters. On 9 December 1956, Trans-Canada Air Lines flight 810, a Canadair North Star, was en route from Vancouver to Toronto. On board were five professional football players returning from an all-star game. Approaching the Cascades the plane, encountering severe icing and turbulence, crashed into Mount Slesse. All 62 people on board died. But the crash site was not found until the following May.

The search for flight MH370 has become the biggest in aviation history. Twenty-six countries are scouring a region 7.7 million square kilometres from northern China and Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean.

Just as The Progress went to press, satellite images picked up floating debris 2,500 km southwest of Australia.

Flight MH370? It may be days before we know.

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