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  1. International
12 January 2018

How can a jet disappear?

By Michael Oakes

The most baffling thing about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that it is so difficult to draw parallels with other disasters. The plane vanished from air-traffic control screens on 8 March and as the New Statesman went to press it still had not been found. The airline, the civil aviation authority, the region’s air navigation service providers and even the aircraft and engine manufacturers appear clueless.

Modern planes don’t disappear. They are equipped with a range of hi-tech reporting and recording systems. However, as flight MH370 left Malaysian airspace en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, almost all communications went dead. This suggests that the aircraft’s transponder stopped working immediately, which is incredibly rare. Stranger still, even with the transponder switched off, the plane shouldn’t have disappeared completely; ordinarily it would have been picked up by civilian and military radars and data would have been sent regularly to the engine manufacturers and airlines through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars).

The initial theory was that the plane had crashed when communications were lost. This is now looking unlikely: debris from the accident would have been spread over a large area – the same area that was the focus of days of search activities. The data sent by the aircraft would have indicated some change in speed or height and someone probably would have spotted the incident.

The latest developments suggest that the transponder was switched off manually as MH370 transferred to Vietnamese air-traffic control, a convenient time for a period of radio silence, and that the plane continued flying. Part of Acars was turned off, too, though it seems it could have continued sending some data for up to five hours after the disappearance. While it is relatively easy for the pilots to switch off the transponder, it is much more complex to disengage the Acars – suggesting that the operation was planned in advance and that extra help was involved.

The search area for MH370 has been expanded, in keeping with information from the Malaysian air force and signals received by a satellite above the Indian Ocean indicating that the plane could have flown in a huge curve stretching from Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean. It is unlikely that it headed towards Kazakhstan, as it would have been detected by other countries’ radars, unless it did something called “phantom shadowing”: flying very close to another aircraft to avoid detection. If it headed south, where would
it have gone? The next land mass is Antarctica.

With no facts, conspiracy theories are becoming almost conceivable. Has there been a cover-up? With no Mayday call, no data and no wreckage, there are too many possibilities. Until there is evidence that the plane crashed, there has to be hope. After all, planes don’t just disappear. Or do they?

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