Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has gone missing.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, you know that already.
Those longtime readers who are familiar with my military background know that I have some experience in looking for downed aircraft, and other things, lost at sea. Most Navy sailors do. If you spend any significant time at sea, sooner or later you’re going to be looking for missing airmen, foundering vessels, and men overboard. That is simply the terrible nature of the beast. As a former intelligence officer who directed and coordinated certain aspects of visual and electronic searches using shore, surface, and air assets, I perhaps have a bit more insight into this process than the average Sailor, but any person who spends time in the fleet know at least something about it. We’re trained that way.
Which is no doubt why people asked me about it.
Much of what follows appeared on my Facebook page two days ago. That social media post was simply intended as a quick casual response to my Facebook audience in answer to queries about the missing airliner and the various conspiracy theories that have sprung up since the plane mysteriously disappeared from radar. I hadn’t intended it to be an actual essay like the kind that typically appear here on Stonekettle Station. However, that simple Facebook post went viral, and continues to spread virally across the internet and various news media. It has been reprinted in a number of places, sometimes with permission and sometimes without, and I’ve been receiving offers to appear on various radio and TV shows to discuss my comments further. This amuses me and I’ve declined all such offers so far.
I apparently underestimated interest in this topic.
Nor did I realize just how utterly starved the public is for any reasoned counter to the raging and rapidly mutating conspiracy theories surrounding this strange event. If you’re a member of the media, especially somebody who has the power to influence format and content, you might want to give that some hard thought – seems to me there just might be a vacant niche in the 24 hour news cycle for actual, non-hysterical, non-conspiracy laden, non-partisan, good old fashioned fact-based reporting.
But I digress.
Back to the missing jetliner:
On Saturday, March 8th, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 239 passengers and crew onboard disappeared somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.
A week later, the fate of the aircraft and the people onboard remains unknown. 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 Vader, right?
I mean, what else could it be, right?
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 Dick 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 #007.
Most likely, and by "most likely" I mean the probability is approximately 99.999999999999%, the plane and its unfortunate passengers are scattered like confetti across a large portion of the seafloor under the Gulf of Thailand or the Andaman Sea.
Okay, Jim, I hear you ask in that long suffering tone you use when you’re convinced I’ll see reason if you repeat the bit about Obama and his Magic Negro Ray of Evil Chocolate Mojo just one more time, if the plane went into the ocean why can't they find the wreckage? Huh? What about that?
The search and recovery teams haven’t found the (presumed) wreckage of MH370, because the earth is a damned big place.
Nowadays, largely due to advances in air travel and ubiquitous instant on-demand broadband global communication, many people seem to think that we’ve conquered this planet. It appears that we humans inhabit every nook and cranny from the deepest ocean rift to the highest mountaintop and beyond right up into orbit, and there is nowhere left for a single human to hide, let alone some lost place for a large airliner to crash and its location not to be instantly tweeted and instagrammed and Facebooked to every corner of the globe. But it only appears that way.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view, that is simply not even close to true.
The world and especially the sea are vaster than you can imagine unless you've travelled across it, inch by inch and mile by mile – and maybe not even then.
If the plane fell into the ocean, which is the most likely scenario, even when you know exactly, and I mean exactly, where to look, it is still extremely difficult to find scattered bits of airplane or, to be blunt, scattered bits of people in the water.
And yes, I mean exactly that: scattered bits of people.
A comment in the Malaysian Times, which reposted my Facebook comments without permission, boggled that I would say such a thing, scattered bits of people. But that is how it is. When an airplane hits the water at high speed, it might as well be hitting a slab of concrete. Ditto if it comes apart at altitude, from explosion or structural failure, aerodynamic forces tear the airplane to pieces fairly quickly and what ends up in the water is scattered bits. Bits of plane, bits of cargo, bits of people. Most of which is burned and torn and unrecognizable to the untrained and inexperienced – which is why crowd-sourcing the search and rescue process is likely to be unhelpful.
Over two and a half decades as a navy sailor, I've spent many days searching for lost aircraft and lost human beings in the unforgiving ocean. 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, every scattered bit no matter how small – 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 an 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. And again, to be blunt, after a few days, a human body and a waterlogged tree stump are nearly indistinguishable from each other, all you see is a dark wet lump in the water – if you see anything at all – and to find out which is which you’ve got to put a boat over the side of the ship and go look at it in person.
Yeah, but what about a fuel slick, we should be able to see that, right? That would be huge, impossible to miss, 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 encompasses ten thousand square miles - every inch of which has to be searched by the Mark 1 MOD 0 human eyeball. If you fly over it in an airplane, that’s like looking out the window for an object the size of a man, or smaller, over a distance equal to three and a half trips between San Diego, California and Bangor, Maine.
But it’s much worse than that.
The search area now covers more than two hundred thousand square miles. That’s 200,000 square miles, and more.
That’s like driving the distance from earth to the moon, looking out the windows hoping you don’t miss scattered bits of debris that may be no larger than a pack of cigarettes.
Starting to get the picture?
And yes, a fuel slick is maybe much bigger than the rest of the debris, but we're not talking thick heavy bunker oil, a big black sludgy stain on the surface of the sea. No, we’re talking about high grade light fuel, like the kind burned in commercial jet turbines. Jet fuel 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 or even over remote territory like northern Canada or the Gobi Desert or undeveloped areas of Africa, Central America, and Mexico. Hell, if we could track every plane in detail, the US and other countries wouldn’t have so much trouble with airborne drug smugglers, would we?
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. What Air Traffic Controllers see on their screens depends on where they are and what their particular job is. Near an airport, the images are usually very accurate and in real time, but out away from those concentration points things aren’t quite so clear. Why? Money mostly. Ironclad coverage takes money and lots of it. And it’s not practical in a lot of places. It’s damned hard to build and man a radar tower in the middle of the ocean, or the jungle, or the Arctic. Oh, it can be done, and has been. I’ve been stationed in places so remote you wouldn’t even believe they exist, Shemya Island at the far tip of the Aleutian Islands for example, we built radars there and in even more harsh and distant places during the Cold War – but those were military systems and the cost is astronomical. There are other constraints such as International cooperation, or the lack thereof, and limited and widely mixed technologies, some modern some dating back decades. And so on.
Well, Okay, but you mentioned military radar systems, how come the military wasn’t tracking the plane?
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. A blip. Since commercial flights are regular and known and their schedules are public knowledge, those blips are predictable and expected. They’re 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 moving in patterns that a trained radar operator recognizes as a suspicious contact.
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. And so those recordings will have to be analyzed, and the hundreds of contacts will have to be sorted out just to determine if MH370 even appeared on their scopes. 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.
Sure, Okay, but what about the ringing phones?
You ever call a cell phone that was turned off? Ever call somebody and it goes straight to voicemail, but you know the phone is active and the other person has call waiting? You ever call somebody, their phone rings and rings and rings and rings and then they finally answer and when you ask, the guy on the other says his phone only rang one time?
Folks, you hear ringtones even when the phone you’re calling isn’t physically ringing because the cellular network doesn’t want you to hang up while it tries to connect the circuit. Minutes equal money, if you hang up, if your call isn’t connected, the phone company is out profit. So, they send you a ringtone while the systems looks for the phone you want. If the phone doesn't respond immediately the network doesn't know if the device is active but in an area of weak signal or limited connectivity or heavy congestion, or roaming out of network, or turned off.
Sometimes you get different behavior depending on what cell system you’re using, analog, second generation digital, 3G, LTE, GSM, and so on.
So, some networks send you a ringtone to let you know they’re working.
Some just give you dead air until they connect.
Some do both depending on programming and happenstance. There's no standard, even in heavily regulated North America, and sure as hell not across the various countries of Asia. This isn't some big conspiracy, it’s no mystery, 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.
Yeah, but what if the plane was intact and underwater. The cell signals might penetrate water even if the people were dead or unconscious, so the phones could ring until their batteries wore out. That might account for the ringing after the plane was lost, right?
No. Wrong wrong wrong.
Take some science classes, radio 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. It doesn’t matter what you read, or what some conspiracy goof said on TV, it can’t happen. Physics is physics, it’s not magic, and the principles are very, very well understood.
Now just wait a damned minute, Jim, I hear you protest, don’t they have those giant radio transmitters that can talk to submarines underwater?
Yes. But those operate in a different wavelength. Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency (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 frequencies and there is no way around that. Also, those frequencies are slow, it takes hours to send a few characters of text, they cannot be used for voice or cell phone communications. Period.
Yeah, but what about reports that the plane turned before losing contact?
What about reports that the plane’s computers continued to send engine performance data hours after last voice contact with the pilots?
What about reports that the 777 might experience cracks around an antenna mounting?
What about the pilots? What about the fake passports? What about this? What about that?
Look, that's what experts are for.
Search and rescue, forensic crash investigation, fault analysis of complex systems, anti-terrorism investigation, air traffic control, all of these things are complicated, they require experience and training and years of education. Just because you read some stuff on World Net Daily or on Facebook or heard it from the guy in the cubicle next to yours, doesn’t make any of those people experts.
Investigation and analysis takes time, if it was easy and obvious, anybody could do it.
And that's what's taking so long. Maybe the plane turned around, maybe it didn't. Maybe the cabin lost pressure, suddenly or slowly. Maybe the plane exploded at altitude. Maybe it augered in. Maybe maybe maybe. At the moment, nobody knows anything. Period.
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.
That confusion is not evidence of some cover up, or even something unusual. 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 hell he's talking about, but that doesn't stop him from getting on the TV or the Internet and speculating away. It’s human nature to fill up the unknown with nonsense, and you should be smart enough to recognize that and demand proof and evidence and fact.
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 and your sanity, stop listening to TV pundits and World Net Daily. News media has to fill up bandwidth, and they will with whatever drooling idiocity that comes along, but you don’t have to listen to it and you certainly don’t need to go around repeating it.
It's unusual for a plane to vanish 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. Ships, planes, people have vanished before. It happens. It used to happen a lot. They fall into the sea or into the remote jungle or the empty desert and are lost for months, sometimes years and even decades.
The world grows ever smaller, but it is still a vast, vast place, there are plenty of dark holes beyond the reach of technology for things to drop into and vanish for a while.
I have no idea what happened to this airplane, but the difference between me and the media is that I’m not afraid to admit it.
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.
Act like a rational adult and deal with it.