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The Continuing Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

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Right, so the blockbuster satellite shots of floating wreckage turned out to be something unrelated -- perhaps a shipping container full of Adidas sneakers or knockoff handbags -- bringing us back to where we were.

And what's required first and foremost is some immediate clarity is whether or not the missing plane did indeed continue on for some length of time after the point at which contact was lost.

There have been, from the start, two main avenues of possibility: foul play, or some catastrophic malfunction.

But we need a yes or no as to whether the plane remained flying, possibly for several hours, to give us at least a slightly better sense of which where to search and of which theories to rule out. We're getting conflicting information about this. Frictions between the different investigative parties, combined with people's insatiable demand of instant answers, isn't helping.

Neither is the confusing vernacular of commercial aviation. The media is throwing around words like "transponder" and "radar," without really understanding what these things do and don't mean, leading people's theorizing astray.

To that point, several readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder. In fact very few of a plane's components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, "always on." In the interest of safety -- namely, fire and electrical system protection -- it's important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device -- switching it off, then on -- or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are on board, and you can't run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit "off" might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or "modes" -- for example, mode C, mode S -- responsible for different data.

And transponders are only used for tracking in areas of air traffic control radar coverage. Much of the world -- most of it, actually, when you consider the size of the oceans -- is not covered by ATC radar. Tracking and sequencing in these areas is accomplished through other means. So all of this fixating on transponders isn't necessarily relevant. The transponder stopped working, but apparently so did the rest of the plane's communications equipment. Or did it? This isn't clear.

Power loss.
People keep asking "How can a plane simply disappear?" It's an idea that doesn't seem to compute in an age of instant and total connectivity. But consider: if somebody yanks the power cord out of your computer, suddenly all the wonderful immediacy and connectivity of the Internet is effectively vanished. Similarly, all of the fancy equipment in a 777′s cockpit is only useful if it's actually running. Thus, together with an absence of primary radar over much of the ocean, the idea that a plane can disappear becomes a lot more conceivable.

And if everything did stop functioning, how? Was it intentional sabotage or some bizarre and total power loss? Nobody knows.

Another scenario I've been asked about multiple times:
Could a rapid loss of cabin pressure rendered the flight crew, and possibly everyone else on the plane as well, incapacitated, at which point the plane deviated from its course before eventually crashing. This is conceivable, yes (though maybe no more so than assorted other scenarios). Depressurizations by themselves are perfectly manageable and almost never fatal (see chapter two of my book for a story about the time it happened to me), and something that all airline crews train for, but only if the crew understands the problem and does what it's supposed to do. See Helios Airways.

And as I was saying in my last update, no matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn't let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe. Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation. Hopefully their number continues to diminish, but a certain number of accidents will always be inevitable. In some ways, the weirdness of this story speaks to how well we have engineered away what once were the most common causes of crashes. Those that still occur tend to be more mysterious and strange than in decades past (have a look at the year 1985 some time, for an idea of how frequent large-scale air disasters once were).

Meanwhile, it's fascinating how this story has moved from being one about a presumed airplane crash to, really, a mystery story. It's the very missing-ness of the plane that the public finds so captivating. If and when the wreckage is discovered, I have to wonder if suddenly people will stop paying such rapt attention. If so, that's too bad, because the question at hand ought to be what happened on board the jet, not where is the jet.

I say "if and when" because I think people need to reconcile with the possibility that the plane might never be found. I know that sounds absurd to many people in this day and age, where fast and easy answers are taken for granted, but it might happen. I don't expect that to happen, but it could.

Patrick Smith is an active airline pilot, air travel blogger and author. His latest book is Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections. This post first appeared on his blog, www.askthepilot.com.