Those of you who are familiar with my military background know that I have experience in looking for downed aircraft, and other things, lost at sea. Which is likely why some of you keep asking me for an opinion on the missing jetliner. Here you go:
For those of you not familiar with this, five days ago Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 239 passengers and crew onboard disappeared somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. So far no wreckage, no debris, no trace of the aircraft or the people have been found.
Weird, man, weird. I mean, it’s totally GOT to be alien space pirates or Langoliers or Dirty Dick Vadar, right?
I mean, right?
Yeah, look, Folks, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that based on my experience with this sort of thing, we can safely rule out alien abductions and inter-dimensional rifts in the space time continuum. And I have it on good authority that Cheney was home all night, nursing an acid stomach over Obama’s reluctance to invade Russia.
Now, I suppose it’s just, just, vaguely possible that the missing aircraft is parked on a secret jungle runway in Sumatra or Cambodia (or Bangor, Maine), hidden under camouflage netting, with the passengers and crew secured in an underground prison and its mysterious cargo now in the hands of a heretofore unknown shadowy cabal of international criminals with a really cool and evil acronym for a name. But until the Queen gets a coded message demanding 36 Billion British Pounds in gold bullion to be hand delivered by Sean Connery himself, let’s just go ahead and label that Alternate Theory #1.
Most likely, and by “most likely” I mean the probability is approximately 99.999999999999%, the plane and its unfortunate passengers are scattered across a large portion of the seafloor under the Gulf of Thailand.
Yeah, okay, but why can’t they find the wreckage?
Because the ocean is a damned big place, vaster than you can imagine unless you’ve sailed across it (and, because I know you people, yes, I HAVE indeed sailed this part of the world, it’s vast, and complicated and dangerous). And even when you know exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, where to look, it’s still extremely difficult to find scattered bits of airplane or, to be blunt, scattered bits of people in the water. As a navy sailor, I’ve spent days searching for lost aircraft and airmen, and even if you think you know where the bird went down, the winds and the currents can spread the debris across hundreds or even thousands of miles of ocean in fairly short order. No machine, no computer, can search this volume, you have to put human eyeballs on every inch of the search area. You have to inspect every item you come across – and the oceans of the world are FULL of flotsam, jetsam, debris, junk, trash, crap, bits, and pieces. Often neither the sea nor the weather cooperates, it is INCREDIBLY difficult to spot a item the size of a human being in the water, among the swells and the spray, even if you know exactly where to look – and the sea conditions in this part of the world are some of the worst, especially this time of year.
Yeah, but what about a fuel slick, we should be able to see that, right?
Again, you just don’t understand how big the ocean is. A fuel slick from an airplane this size (assuming the fuel hit the sea in one mass and wasn’t vaporized into an aerosol by break-up of the aircraft at 30,000 feet) might cover, what? a square mile? Probably much less. A standard search area, a rectangle 50 miles wide by 200 miles say, along the airplane’s flight path might encompass TEN THOUSAND square miles – every inch of which has to be searched by the Mark 1 MOD 0 human eyeball. Starting to get the picture? We’re not talking thick heavy bunker oil. High grade light fuel, like the kind burned in commercial jet turbines, evaporates quickly. Slicks are broken up by wave action and wind. And in heavy seas the sheen of oil on water is nearly impossible to spot. There’s a very finite amount of time for finding a fuel slick on the surface of the ocean, assuming that one even exists, that time is past for Flight 370.
Yeah, but how come they don’t know exactly where it is? Don’t we track all airplanes via radar?
No. And certainly not over the oceans between countries. Commercial Air Traffic Control radar systems don’t work the way you think they do, at least not exactly, and not all of the time. Why? Money mostly. Practicality as well. International cooperation. The limits and wide mix of technology. And etc. Note also that this isn’t North America, things are a bit different in Asian airspace. The plane was (probably) over water, between national air control regions.
Yeah, but what about military radars?
Most military radar isn’t concerned with commercial air traffic on standard routes flying at 30,000+ feet. The skies are full of jetliners. Most just appear as a contact on a tracking scope, watched briefly as they trundle along in a straight line across the sky, and are then ignored. Military people are concerned with threats. Threats typically move in a ballistic trajectory, or a flat fast powered arc, or much closer to the surface. Military radar records might be helpful in figuring out what happened, but unless Flight 370 was behaving like a threat while passing through somebody’s radar envelope, it’s unlikely that anybody would notice or bother to identify it. Also military people charged with defending their airspace don’t like showing people from other countries their radar systems, and for damned GOOD reasons, so it’s going to take some time to get those records. It’s going to be a while before a complete search those recordings can be done.
Yeah, but what about the ringing phones?
You ever call a cell phone that was turned off? Sometimes it goes straight to voicemail, sometimes it rings. You ever call somebody, their phone rings and rings and rings and RINGS and then they FINALLY answer and you’re like, WTF Dude? And they’re like, What’s your problem, Bro, it only rang one time! You hear rings because the cellular network is looking for the phone and if the phone doesn’t respond immediately the network doesn’t know if the device is active, in an area of weak signal or limited connectivity or heavy congestion, roaming out of network, or turned off. Some networks send you a ringtone while they look for the phone you’re calling so you don’t hang up. Other times you just get dead air. There’s no standard, even in heavily regulated North America, and sure as hell not across the various countries of Asia. Again, this isn’t some big conspiracy, this is how the various evolving patchwork cell phone systems work. The information is widely available and you can test it yourself. Claiming that “ringing” cell phones mean the plane is or was still intact just means that you’re ignorant of how the technology works.
Note: I read a couple of comments speculating that GPS and Cell Phone signals might penetrate water, at least a little bit, indicating the plane might be intact on the bottom of the sea. No. Hell no. Wrong wrong wrong. Take some science classes, wave physics for starters. GPS and cell phones operate above the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) portion of the Radio Frequency spectrum, those wavelengths do NOT, repeat do NOT, penetrate water. Period. Yes, Very Low (VLF) and Extremely Low (ELF) radio waves CAN penetrate water to a significant degree, but you’d need a cell phone the size of large refrigerator/freezer and an antenna MILES in length to use those freqs.
Yeah, but what about reports that the plane turned before losing contact?
That’s what experts are for. That’s what’s taking so long. Maybe the plane turned around, maybe it didn’t. Every single person on the planet in this information saturated age should damned well know by now that initial reports are going to be conflicting, contradictory, confused, and just plain wrong. This ISN’T some big conspiracy, it is unfortunately the nature of the situation, it’s perfectly normal and it happens all of the time and it always has and you know it. EVERY SINGLE HUMAN BEING who lives in the Information Age should understand in their bones that every Joe Shit The Ragman who comes along just might not know what the fuck he’s talking about, but that doesn’t stop him from getting on the TV or the Internet and speculating away. Conspiracy theories aren’t about the truth, they’re about the conspiracy theorist. Wait for the official word and for the sake of Dread Cthulhu, stop listening to TV pundits and World News Daily. News media HAS to fill up bandwidth, and they will with whatever drooling idiocy that comes along, that doesn’t mean any of it is true. Adjust your skepticism level accordingly.
Yeah, but a plane can’t just vanish, man, isn’t it WEIRD?
Don’t start in with the conspiracy theory nonsense again. It’s unusual nowadays, yes, especially for a large modern aircraft. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the plot of a Stephen King novel, or Ian Fleming for that matter. Planes have vanished before. It happens. It used to happen a lot. They fall into the sea or into the remote jungle and are lost. The world grows ever smaller, but it is still a vast, vast place, there’s plenty of dark holes beyond the reach of technology for things to drop into and get lost.
Yeah, so, but what about the horndog co-pilot and the passports and Obama’s role in all of this? Was it the CIA? NSA? Vladimir Putin? C’mon, what do you think happened, Man, what do you think HAPPENED?
I have no idea. Could be any number of things. Again, that’s what experts are for, let them do their jobs. Sooner or later, the plane or its wreckage will be found, eventually we’ll know the reason why. Mechanical failure, accident, weather, human error, terrorists, or even time-travelling kidnappers from a dystopian future. Sooner or later, you’ll know. Yes, it’s hell on the families who wait for news of the their loved ones, but hysteria, wild speculation by the media, and conspiracy theories from the internet sure as hell aren’t helping.
This isn’t CSI or an episode of 24, sometimes you don’t get answers in 60 minutes with time out for piss breaks and a snack. Deal with it.
Jim Wright is a retired US Navy officer with an extensive background in military intelligence. Nowadays he is a military consultant and writer. You can read more of his material on his blog Stonekettle Station and be sure to follow Jim on Facebook