Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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?

Content from our partners
Are we there yet with electric cars? The EV story – with Wejo
Sherif Tawfik: The Middle East and Africa are ready to lead on the climate
How deception can become your friend

Topics in this article :