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How can a jet disappear? In the ocean, it's not that hard

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- In an age when people assume that any bit of information is just a click away, the thought that a jetliner could simply disappear over the ocean for more than two days is staggering. But Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is hardly the first reminder of how big the seas are, and of how agonizing it can be to try to find something lost in them.

It took two years to find the main wreckage of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Closer to the area between Malaysia and Vietnam where Saturday's flight vanished, it took a week for debris from an Indonesian jet to be spotted in 2007. Today, the mostly intact fuselage still sits on the bottom of the ocean.

"The world is a big place," said Michael Smart, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland in Australia. "If it happens to come down in the middle of the ocean and it's not near a shipping lane or something, who knows how long it could take them to find?"

Amid the confusion, officials involved in the search say the Malaysian jet may have made a U-turn, adding one more level of uncertainty to the effort to find it. They even suggest that the plane could be hundreds of kilometers from where it was last detected.

Aviation experts say the plane will be found - eventually. Since the start of the jet age in 1958, only a handful of jets have gone missing and not been found.

"I'm absolutely confident that we will find this airplane," Capt. John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said Monday. The modern pace of communications, where GPS features in our cars and smartphones tell us our location at any given moment, has set unreal expectations. "This is not the first time we have had to wait a few days to find the wreckage."

Based on what he's heard, Cox believes it's increasingly clear that the plane somehow veered from its normal flight path. He said that after the plane disappeared from radar, it must have been "intact and flew for some period of time. Beyond that, it's all speculation." If it had exploded midair along its normal flight path, "we would have found it by now."

Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, whose agency is leading a multinational effort to find the Boeing 777, said more than 1,000 people and at least 34 planes and 40 ships were searching a radius of 100 nautical miles (115 miles; 185 kilometers) around the last known location of Flight MH370. No signal has been detected since early Saturday morning, when the plane was at its cruising altitude and showed no sign of trouble.

Azharuddin said the search includes northern parts of the Malacca Strait, on the opposite side of the Malay Peninsula and far west of the plane's last known location. Azharuddin would not explain why crews were searching there, saying, "There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can't."

Some aviation experts are already calling for airlines to update their cockpit technology to provide a constant stream of data - via satellites - back to the ground. Information about key system operations is already recorded on the flight data and voice recorders - the so-called black boxes - but as this crash shows is not immediately available. Such satellite uplinks would be costly and the benefit is debated.

Just about every major jet to disappear in the modern era has eventually been found. The rare exceptions didn't involve passengers.

In September 1990, a Boeing 727 owned by Faucett Airlines of Peru was ditched into the North Atlantic after running out of fuel on its way to Miami. The accident was attributed to poor pilot planning and the wreck was never recovered.

More mysterious was the disappearance of another 727 in Africa. It was being used to transport diesel fuel to diamond mines. The owners had numerous financial problems and one day, just before sunset, the plane took off without clearance and with its transponder turned off. It is believed to have crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. One theory, never proven, is that it was stolen so the owner could collect insurance.

"I can't think of a water crash in the jet age that hasn't been solved ," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co.

The Malaysia Airlines jet had been headed from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The 239 people aboard were mostly from China. In Beijing, passengers' relatives have complained that the airline has not been forthcoming with information, and that they've had to rely on news reports.

Some of those reports, however, have led to dead ends. Those false alarms appeared to leave searchers with little to go on.

The flight "was very high up in the air early in the morning, when it was still dark," Azharuddin said. "We have no witnesses on the ground and nobody on the plane can be contacted. The area is over the sea, so it's not as easy as that. There are a lot of constraints."

Whether the plane broke up in midair or crashed into the water, there would be some debris.

If the plane broke up "for some aerodynamic reason, like the wing fell off or there was a depressurization, there'd be big chunks of wing and fuselage all over the place. So it'd be very unlikely that it would just be destroyed and turned to dust," said Smart, the aerospace engineering professor.

He added that much of the wreckage may be at the bottom of the sea, which is 50 to 60 meters (165 to 195 feet) deep in the area where the plane was last detected.

The size of the debris field will be one of the first indicators of what happened, aviation experts say. A large, widespread field would signal the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation, perhaps because of a bomb or a massive airframe failure. A smaller field would indicate the plane probably fell intact, breaking up upon impact with the water.

Discovering the debris can take days.

A week after an Adam Air flight carrying 102 people vanished over Indonesian waters on Jan. 1, 2007, an Indonesian navy ship detected metal on the ocean floor. But it would take another two weeks for the U.S. Navy to pick up signals from the flight data and cockpit recorders, and seven months for the boxes to be recovered. The fuselage remains on the ocean floor, and Adam Air is now defunct.

The Malaysian Airlines jet could be less of a challenge than the Adam Air crash in one respect: It was last tracked over much shallower water.

But for now, the mystery is overwhelming.

"It's hard to imagine what could have caused it with these modern planes," Smart said.


Gelineau reported from Sydney. Mayerowitz reported from New York. Chris Brummitt in Kuala Lumpur and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.


Join the discussion

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jaxthereefer March 11 2014 at 5:56 AM

possible alien abduction....

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locketbones March 10 2014 at 7:52 PM

There is also the slim chance that the plane was indeed hijacked and is sitting on the ground somewhere. Waiting to be loaded with explosives and used as a WMD somewhere. I would not put it past terrorists to try anything.

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2 replies
jakki051 locketbones March 10 2014 at 8:16 PM

I believe that too. And with Russia needing to take the news off them... anything is possible.

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cyflighter locketbones March 10 2014 at 8:44 PM

Yes, that's a possibility too! But it would be very hard to do & go undetected for this long!

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michaelat33685 March 10 2014 at 7:55 PM

Yes it is very easy. Back in 1984 I believe A Cessna 172 or 182 dissapeared from the face of the Earth near a river in Maine. Atfer about 2-3 weeks of searching I walked into a CAP headquarters and asked if anyone had bother to check the river. I was basically told I had no idea of what I was talking about & to mind my own business especially since I have an ATP. About two weeks later the Coast Guard was taking a ship up the river & decided to throw some gaffling hooks off the stern of the ship as they do from time to time just to remove debri from the river. At some point they snagged something, reeled it in & "BEHOLD" a Cessna 172 with both people still strapped in the seats. I almost went into that CAP office & called them "IDIOTS"!

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1 reply
jakki051 michaelat33685 March 10 2014 at 8:15 PM


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cardiacbuzz March 11 2014 at 2:37 AM

Okay, back to reality.
My take on all this.....since this plane has by normal standards, vanished in flight, either this was first.......a well coordinated operation--even involving the flight crew--where the plane was immediately diverted to an undisclosed, even governmentally covert landing site where passengers are--for reasons usually suspected--silenced and detained, second.......the plane disintegrated at high altitude due to a mechanical malfunction or [some form of] foul play, which by modern technology would certainly have been detected as an atmospheric disturbance worth investigating not to mention the subsequent settling debris field, third.......there is a remote Airport 77(the movie) possibility that the aircraft is fully intact below the waters' surface, or lastly.......again, what most have believed to be science fiction is indeed science fact and the aircraft in question, of the east, has indeed entered another dimension of time and space such as the [Triangle] of the west.

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lr27048 March 11 2014 at 1:43 AM

Anything is possible at this point. Commercial Aircraft do not disappear without a word these days. If I recall there's an area in that part of the planet near Japan similar to the Bermuda Triangle. If that's the case it could be the reason for the turn and disappearance. Moreover, several vessels have vanished in the Pacific. Some scientists have also suggested methane gas released from the ocean bottom could be a cause of ships and aircraft vanishing. It distorts communication and instrumentation. Then the craft disappears into the ocean due to a void in the air. The aircrafts engines could also have ignited the gas causing the aircraft to be instantly destroyed by a huge fire ball. This area of the planet may be close to an uncharted volcanic vent or something similar. Time will tell.

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Juliocanal March 11 2014 at 1:41 AM

I was in the Kitchen,fixing my 87 yrs Old disabled father, a Galician soup,when it came to my mind like a message from ALOFT, that there might be, the case, that this B777-200 may have encountered the so called,"TIME TRAVEL TUNNEL". And entered into another Dimension or Epoc in the past or maybe the futire...

This tunnels, has been studied, by very smart proffesors from Harvard to MIT, I have seen Documentaries in the Discovery channel,as well as other Science channels, Docummentaries bout this Phenomenons, that indeed EXIST ! They have caused the dissapearances of Private Planes, Boats, Vessels, Yacths ,Airforce planes in the PAst, in the Famous "BERMUDA TRIANGLE".

I once flew with friends in a Cessna 172, they rented from Isla Grande Flight school, in 1978 or so, to fly to Saint Maarteen, precisely, few Days after the Crash In Teneriffe Canary Islands of the two B747s that collided while taking Off.

I remember seeing Actor Paul Newman walking holding hands in White Cabana Shorts and Marine tennis shoes with her wife, downtown Saint Maarteen.

Once we eat there, and had very pleasant day, we flew Back to Puerto rico, was almost 5 PM for a two Hour flight to Isla Grande Airport, when The pilot in command, call our attention, that the Instruments went crazy... !

I did SAW the Over the dash board Glass dome Kerosene filled magnetic compass, did turned almost around,the "VOR" Vertical needle went also side to side as well as the "ADF" which uses ground commercial stations and radio beacons to follow a track on the surface of the earth.

I got scared,looking down the deep sea bellow us ! What if this engine goes SKUSH-SKUSH- BLIFF-BLIFF -CAPLUM-CAPLUM !! I had a Portable aviaiton radio,with internal Gel cell batteries, I prepared the radio and tuned in the San juan Center frequency, just ot be a second transmiter on stand by should we fail the Electrical systems,since the radio had telescoping swiveling antenna, I had the radio in my Lap, and used some earphones I bought for it, and I had my own aviaiton Microphone also. I wa Prepared for the Worst !

What an experrience ! That is the fascination of flying and be in control of your plane ! Every day is a different flying experience, and a different weather, and condiitons beyon your control.

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2 replies
mark and sheri Juliocanal March 11 2014 at 1:50 AM

Hmmmmmm. Lonely?

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ludfordelec Juliocanal March 11 2014 at 3:06 AM

Did you ever consider the "Corealis affect" and the location of the Bermuta triangle, and this location on the exact other side of the planet? The affect of the land masses of both locations? This is a real consideration, not a SiFi vodoo thing.

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stonebluejetty March 11 2014 at 1:37 AM

Alien take over for sure

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revalosek March 11 2014 at 1:36 AM


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1 reply
ramblintommy revalosek March 11 2014 at 2:11 AM

I am not sure how Malaysian airlines are but on U.S. flights now, the crew will not open the cockpit door during flight. To prevent just such a thing.

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complete marine March 11 2014 at 1:35 AM

made u turn flew very low under radar to another location. hell hard to say.

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Gary March 11 2014 at 1:26 AM

Of COURSE a jet can totally "Disappear" in the ocean. This has happened MANY times before in our history. For starters, look at the flight of Emelia Earhart. That flight disappeared some 75+ years ago in the South Pacific somewhere, and to this day, there's been no sign of it! Also, look at all the disappearances that happened over the Bermuda Triangle (just after the end of World War-2). So there you go. Airplanes can and do, totally disappear in the ocean (and without a trace).

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1 reply
mark and sheri Gary March 11 2014 at 1:52 AM

Amelia's aircraft was a whole lot smaller. And, now we have surveillance Satellites up the ying yang.

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