How to Lose a Plane for Thirteen Days

When I was a young lad, I watched in awe as David Copperfield made a Jumbo Jet disappear. How did he do it? Well my immediate reaction was that during the ad break it just taxied away and when they lowered the curtain it was gone…there was much talk of the live studio audience preventing them from tricking the viewing public but he wasn’t called an illusionist for nothing. There was surely distraction involved. And David provided plenty of it with his deep tan, white teeth, hypnotic eyes and Grecian hair. So that was the distraction for the female viewers but we of the male persuasion? However he did it, he also made it reappear moments later. That too was impressive. But how about making a plane disappear for longer?

When the news had reached that Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 had disappeared off the radar, I immediately thought back to Air France flight 447. This was the flight from Rio to Paris which disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009. For a long time there was no sight of the wreckage and all investigators had to go on were the last known communications and position.  Searchers would find them 5 days later and with that a chance for the relatives of the missing to grieve. It would be nearly two years before the all-important black box was analysed. In time it was found that there was an engine stall which resulted from a combination of faulty sensors and pilot error. The plane could not be righted and splashed down in the ocean.

Spot the tail...

Spot the tail…wreckage from the XL Airways flight in 2008.

When the media is given nothing but a last known position, it is the beginnings of mass speculation. Most air accidents and fatalities tend to be at airports or runways or involve flying over land. These splash downs are more rare but when they happen there is far less to see. An exception would be the likes of the XL Airways Germany Flight 888T (An Air New Zealand lease aircraft) which crashed off Perpignan in 2008. The difference there was the witnesses on the ground and the plane itself lying in shallow water. When on water, planes can be much harder to find. We forget just how massive expanses of water are on our planet until we see pictures of the earth from above.

Channel Four has been covering live events on the International Space Station and actively involved with the crew in what has been the first real welcoming look at what goes on up there. One of the astronauts said that whenever his wife asked him ‘Where are you now?’ his pre-prepared response was ‘Somewhere over the Pacific’ and it is not until you see a full lap of the Earth as we did on Saturday night that you realise the large fraction of time the ISS spends over water. As I watched the movie Gravity’ last night starring Sandra Bullock, I was given the sense more and more, that our planet isn’t nearly as big as we think it is. The space station laps it sixteen times a day and makes it seem as if every part of earth can be spied during ones lunch break.

When it comes to missing aircraft though, the mind takes leaps. If there is no sight or sign then of course the media begins to suggest that the plane has ‘landed on some far off airstrip in the jungle and will be held until a great ransom is paid’. ‘Perhaps the pilot is a terrorist’ is another speculative line the press has taken. I would like nothing more than for all those passengers to be sitting in a far off jungle awaiting release but with each passing day that seems like a pipe dream. Recent pictures from a satellite suggest it may be off Perth, Western Australia. In time I think we will see a similar outcome to flight 447. And while this does nothing to console the families of MH370, a discovery such as that (as well as the all-seeing black box recorder) would allow them to grieve. Here’s to a speedy resolution. This is one plane that needs to be found.

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