By the time you read this, authorities may have solved the biggest mystery of the year: What happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? But I doubt it. Even if wreckage is found, it will take a long time — if ever — to figure out who or what caused the jet to diverge from its assigned flight path and disappear from radar. And why.
The incident has passed beyond news into folklore — and, as is inevitable these days, a social media meme. Have you seen the picture that's going around of Gilligan, the Captain, and the Professor from Gilligan's Island with the Malaysian airliner in the background? And, as could have been predicted by those of us who occasionally watch episodes of The UFO Files, alien intervention has also been raised as a possibility, even on CNN. That would be a real game-changer, eh?
As I write this, it's been 11 days since the plane disappeared. The backgrounds of the captain and crew members have been thoroughly examined. The passenger list has been scoured for anyone with possible terrorist ties. Nothing has emerged to justify suspicions of foul play from anyone on board. Hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean and land in 14 countries have been surveyed for wreckage with no success.
What is known is that 40 minutes into the flight, the ACARS system that sends information on a plane's engines and other data was turned off. Fourteen minutes later, the transponder, which allows a plane to be tracked on radar, was also turned off. The final words heard from the cockpit to air traffic controllers were, "All right, good night." But this communication happened well after the tracking devices had been turned off. Evidence suggests the plane then abruptly turned east from its designated northward flight path. Why any of this would happen is at the heart of this mystery.
Were the captains working together to steal or destroy a plane? That seems highly improbable, but turning off the tracking devices would have to have happened in the cockpit. Were the passengers aware of any of this drama? If so, why is there no evidence of attempted cellphone communications?
Those of us of a certain age were schooled on the disappearance of pioneer American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whose plane was lost in the Pacific Ocean during an attempted circumnavigation of the globe in 1937. Her plane was never found, and that mystery endures to this day. But that was a small plane carrying two people, and the incident occurred well before the kinds of sophisticated radar and tracking devices that now exist. This is a mystery on a much larger scale.
And there's another mystery of sorts, one raised by Gregg Easterbrook, an aviation expert writing in The New York Times, who pointed out that one reason the terrorists of 9/11 were so easily able to fly into the World Trade Center was that they had turned off their hijacked planes' transponders. Why, Easterbrook wondered, would we still be using planes with transponders that can be turned off?
Good question. Among many.