March 12th, 2014

The question on everyone’s mind: how can an airliner just disappear?

There is something uniquely terrible and uniquely fascinating about the unknown state of “missing, presumed dead” Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Airplane crashes are always dreadful and terrifying; that’s a given. But disappearance—whether it be of an aircraft, a person, or a thing—has a special horror.

That horror lies in the unknown and seemingly inexplicable, a vacuum into which rushes conspiracy theories. They are rife in the case of the Malaysian plane’s disappearance. Was it sucked into a wormhole, or abducted by aliens or merely the North Koreans? The idea that the plane is intact and its passengers alive somewhere on earth is somewhat comforting, I suppose, depending on who the kidnappers are and what they might do or want. But none of the theories I’ve heard are really all that comforting.

How could they be? A large airliner, being tracked by modern devices, simply disappears? And not over the Arctic wastes, either; in a fairly populous area of the world. The Malaysian government and airline industries have not exactly covered themselves with glory and established confidence by their seeming slowness and contradictory statements. Why, for example, did they not expand the search earlier, if they knew (as was rumored almost from the start) that the plane had gone off-course?

Looking for more than conspiracy fantasies, I read this Popular Mechanics article with the subtitle “How Can an Airliner Just Disappear?” I was hoping it would attempt to explain the science of such a “disappearance.” But it really didn’t add much to other articles, although it did mention that there are a host of technical advances being developed that could make tracking all airplanes easier, and would prevent such a lack of information in the future. But that doesn’t help us with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, whose fate so far has too much resemblance to a Twilight Zone plot.

[NOTE: This is a useful article in sorting out most of the main less-conspiracist theories and the factual pros and cons of each.]

19 Responses to “The question on everyone’s mind: how can an airliner just disappear?”

  1. Matthew Says:

    I have a feeling this will turn out to be one of those Great Unknown Mysteries of the 21st Century. I hope I’m wrong and we do find out what happened to the plane for the sake of the families of the passengers, but I just have an uneasy feeling about this.

  2. kaba Says:

    It would seem to be extremely easy and not all that expensive to incorporate GPS data into a transponder system.

  3. rickl Says:

    Maybe it was the Rapture?

    Seriously, there have been a number of cases of planes disappearing and the wreckage not being found for decades. Usually this involves small planes crashing in mountainous areas.

    Here’s a pretty famous incident that was the subject of a Nova episode: Lost plane found in Andes

    That plane disappeared without a trace in 1947. It was presumed to have crashed in the mountains, but no wreckage was found. Over 50 years layer pieces were discovered at the bottom of a glacier. The theory is that the plane hit the mountain and triggered an avalanche that covered up the evidence. Over the course of the next few decades, the glacier slowly carried pieces downhill where they were discovered.

  4. physicsguy Says:

    ” But that doesn’t help us with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, whose fate so far has too much resemblance to a Twilight Zone plot.”

    I’m beginning to think along those lines also ;-)

    Not really, but it is extremely mysterious how a very large airliner with all the satellite, GPS, and radar tracking literally disappears. Adding to the strangeness is the populations density in that area of the globe where either on land or on sea no one saw or has found anything?

    The underwater listening system the US has for sub surveillance should have picked up the blackbox pinging if they are under water. If not, then planes like the P3Orion now on scene can pick out the radio signal if on land.

    I wonder if the data is being held under wraps to protect the spy capabilities of various countries.

    The other data point we have recently is the Air France flight that went down in the middle of the Atlantic and they had that wreckage isolated fairly quickly. The fact that they can’t find this plane under much less formidable circumstances is very odd.

  5. artfldgr Says:

    how? easy… its the one thing they are NOT discussing…

    the pilot took the thing into the ocean by pushing forwards, dropping the engines, and thats that…

    at 300 miles an hour…
    1.47 feet per secone at one mile an hour

    it would take about 68 seconds to dive into the ocean. no one would have a chance to call or even fight… not even the co-pilot.

    once you kept them from taking over the pilots area, the next easiest way was to train pilots or find them. given that the majority of terrorists are western liberal educated…

    EgyptAir Flight 990 was a flight from J.F.K. International Airport in New York to Cairo International Airport in Egypt on October 31, 1990. The flight took off as scheduled and went without a hitch until the flight was over the ocean outside of Massachusetts. About that time, something went horribly wrong. The plane rapidly descended, nose first toward the Atlantic Ocean. The dive was corrected only to be repeated immediately. EgyptAir Flight 990 nose-dived into the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles off the coast of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts at 1:50 am. Everyone on board was killed”"

    The plane dropped 14,600 feet (4,500 m) in 36 seconds.

    so my guestimate from physics is about right…

    The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the Captain excusing himself to go to the lavatory, followed thirty seconds later by the First Officer saying in Egyptian Arabic “Tawkalt ala Allah”, which translates to “I rely on God.” A minute later, the autopilot was disengaged, immediately followed by the First Officer again saying, “I rely on God.” Three seconds later, the throttles for both engines were reduced to idle, and both elevators were moved three degrees nose down. The First Officer repeated “I rely on God” seven more times before the Captain suddenly asked repeatedly, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” The flight data recorder reflected that the elevators then moved into a split condition, with the left elevator up and the right elevator down, a condition which is expected to result when the two control columns are subjected to at least 50 pounds (23 kg) of opposing force.[1] At this point, both engines were shut down by moving the start levers from run to cutoff. The Captain asked, “What is this? What is this? Did you shut the engines?” The First Officer did not respond. The Captain repeatedly stated, “Pull with me” but the FDR data indicated that the elevator surfaces remained in a split condition (with the left surface commanding nose up and the right surface commanding nose down) until the FDR and CVR stopped recording. There were no other aircraft in the area. There was no indication that an explosion occurred on board. The engines operated normally for the entire flight until they were shut down. From the presence of a western debris field about 1,200 feet (370 m) from the eastern debris field, the NTSB concluded that the left engine and some small pieces of wreckage separated from the airplane at some point before water impact

    [comment on short memories removed... ]

  6. artfldgr Says:


    do i call up the quotes of the russians and romanians who claimed to have invented the use of planes this way, and terrorist attacks and so on?

    arafat, ceucescau, kgb/fsb…

    heck.. anyone remember the whole military of a country recently in the news being removed by crashing… then the video of the crash with the gun shots, the elimination of the videolgrapher, etc?

    ppl are too busy being sucked in to the distracting things so that you have so much trash you cant select the important stuff out, or even remember it from the morass of crapola…

    ah well..
    well see what others remember now that i have sparked (hopefully) some memories and references.

  7. David Foster Says:

    Speculations by airline pilot Karlene Petitt here:

  8. rickl Says:

    Art, I’ve seen a number of commenters speculating about the EgyptAir scenario.

    Now, if you mean the authorities and media are avoiding mentioning it, then I agree.

  9. physicsguy Says:

    Well, whether is was suicide or terrorists, the blackboxes (they are actually orange ) will have survived and are made to make themselves easy to find.

  10. Mr. Frank Says:

    The Chinese now report that they have satellite photos of large pieces of debris along the original flight path.

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    rickl and artfldgr:

    Actually, that possibility is not being ignored or left unmentioned; au contraire.

    I’ve seen a number of MSM articles mentioning the Egypt Air scenario, for example. They either mention it directly, citing that flight and naming it, or indirectly, citing what they call “pilot suicide” (I’d say pilot murder/suicide). I believe some even say “pilot terrorism.”

    For example, take a look at this WaPo article from 2 days ago. The headline is, “Massive search for Malaysia plane yields no evidence; experts speculate on pilot suicide.” That’s hardly ignoring, and it is the very mainstream press WaPo. A quote:

    In a vacuum of evidence about what went wrong aboard the flight, speculation turned to the possibility of pilot suicide, an extraordinarily rare occurrence.

    “You have to ask the question,” said a U.S. aviation official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly…

    There have been two cases in recent years in which a pilot or crew member is believed to have intentionally caused a plane to crash: the disaster involving SilkAir Flight 185, which spiraled into the ground in Indonesia in 1997, killing 97 passengers and seven crew members; and the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, which plunged into the Atlantic south of Nantucket in 1999, killing 217 people.

    Here’s a piece from the CS Monitor on the same subject, focusing on the SilkAir flight.

    There are many other such discussions in the mainstream press. I don’t have time to find all of them (or even all of them that I’ve read so far) right now, but the above examples should be enough to show you that it’s most definitely being discussed.

    I also read something somewhere speculating on something I’ve been thinking ever since I read the training and ages of the pilots, which is that the crew consisted of an older veteran and a younger newer pilot. It occurred to me (just as speculation of a possibility) that if it was pilot suicide or what might be called pilot terrorism, the younger man could certainly have signed on to the profession with the goal of ultimately doing something like that.

  12. neo-neocon Says:


    In addition to my response to you right above this one, I would add that I think most people are not making any analogies to the Polish flight because in the Malaysia flight (as opposed to the Polish one) the passengers were not some special elite group.

  13. Roman Says:

    Enough people will speculate (guess) as to a reason the 777 went down, someone will get it correct, and declare themselves expert. There is not a real good reason to speculate, but that will not stop anyone.

  14. rickl Says:

    Fair enough, neo. I no longer watch the MSM so perhaps I jumped to conclusions.

    Anyway, here is the Twilight Zone episode you mentioned, “The Odyssey of Flight 33″. I couldn’t find it in one piece, but this is the whole thing:

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

  15. parker Says:

    The absence of any jihad (or other) group claiming responsibility for the missing plane would seem to indicate it crashed for as of now unknown reasons and the crash location will eventually be determined. I understand the curiosity that seems to obsess the MSM but I don’t feel a need to pay attention, with bated breath, to the latest conjectures of the empty heads behind the microphone.

  16. Eric Says:

    At 40 min into the flight, it would have been at cruising altitude. That’s a long drop, if the plane crashed. The lack of a distress call is odder to me than air traffic controllers losing track of the plane.

    The expert quoted in the article says pilots would prioritize regaining control over calling in the problem, which sounds right as far it goes, but it’s not either/or. From what I understand of their SOP, the pilot would work the problem and call it in.

    Was there perhaps a sudden total system failure that caused the crash and severed the radios and any other means to communicate from the plane? A sudden break-up, such as from an explosion, would do that.

  17. neo-neocon Says:


    As I wrote in an earlier thread on the subject, in recent years it has become far less common for groups to take “credit” for terrorist attacks. They often just leave it vague and opt to sow generalized fear, as well as not wanting to give the authorities a lead on who it is.

    That doesn’t mean this flight met with terrorism. But absence of a claim means very little.

  18. blert Says:

    Because of the safety features now common: a bulk-head built into the cabin door — and the move to two-person flight crews…

    It’s very plausible that the co-pilot locked out the pilot and sent the jet straight into the ocean.


    The Communist authorities have put it out that the fanatics that knifed the Han at the train station were originally attempting to flee to Malaysia. They intended to hook up with fellow jihadis there.

    The timing makes one wonder.

    The very real prospect the Malaysia is sitting on transmissions/ readings that indicate co-pilot suicide can not be discounted.

    Their position as an Asian hub destination is going down in flames.

    I would expect that Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon will ‘step-up’ and pick up a lot of the business.

    The longer this goes on, the more paranoid everyone is sure to become. The authorities are destroying their own credibility.

  19. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    The WSJ is reprorting that engine data that was automatically transmitted to Rolls Royce despite the transponder shutoff indicates that the plane may have kept flying for 4 to 5 hours after it disappeared from contact.

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