[UPDATE: Malaysia's acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, has said the report linked below from the WSJ is "inaccurate." He didn't say how inaccurate, though. He also said that the area where the Chinese claim to have spotted debris was searched and that there is "nothing."]
It’s becoming more apparent, if this WSJ article is correct, that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did not suffer a sudden catastrophic event that caused it to explode or crash quickly. Information from its Rolls Royce engines was sent to the ground periodically and automatically, and that data indicates the plane flew for four hours after the transponder was turned off or became inactive.
This is beyond disturbing, although it does raise the possibility that some of the wilder-sounding conspiracy theories that envisioned the passengers alive and held hostage in some remote area could actually be true. That would be disturbing, too, albeit in a very different way than imagining them dead at the bottom of the sea. The unspeakable torment the families are enduring is something one doesn’t even want to contemplate.
And the wild and changing reports from the varied authorities don’t help matters.
This is what we know so far—maybe, perhaps:
(1) The transponder stopped working, either through purposeful pilot action or by other means.
(2) The plane continued to fly for four hours, across an area that theoretically could have been well over 2,000 miles.
(3) There is some radar record of something that might be the plane, turning around and flying elsewhere, although we don’t know exactly where, or whether it actually was Flight 370.
(4) No debris has been found, despite reports of debris.
If anyone can think of a greater aviation mystery involving a large commercial flight, I’d like to know what it is. Sometimes we have a crash site and no apparent reason for the disaster, but in those cases we know we’ll gather information from the wreckage and the recorders. Sometimes, as with Air France 447, we know very little, but we still knew a lot more about that flight from the outset than we know about 370 today.
For example, Air France 447 had sent a series of automated messages right before crashing that indicated cockpit warnings and systems failures. Within a day after the crash, debris was spotted and identified as coming from an airplane; it included an aircraft seat. Five days after the crash, two bodies were recovered, along with a briefcase that contained a boarding pass for the flight. In other words, the location was known fairly quickly; what remained to be done was the recovery of the black boxes (which took a long time) and figuring out the why of the crash, which turned out to be a weather and equipment issue compounded mightily by pilot error.
Instead, with Malaysia Airlines 370 we have a unique situation. No transponder. No debris. A wandering plane. No knowledge of much of anything, really, including whether the plane actually crashed. Horrible.