As a child I was fascinated by the story of Amelia Earhart: courageous, daring, and disappearing somewhere over the vastness of the Pacific in 1937, never to be seen again. Mystery, romance, intrigue, danger, the story had it all.
A mystery it may be, but the outcome is hardly surprising: Earhart was piloting a small plane across a vast expanse of open ocean not long after the dawn of aviation. Since then we have walked on the moon and sent a probe to the outer reaches of our solar system, we’ve mapped the human genome, and just confirmed the early inflationary expansion of the universe. Heck, today teenagers carry phones with capabilities and computing power unimagined by the science fiction writers of Earhart’s day.
Despite all this, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has gone missing. And what a story this has turned out to be, the plot thickening day by day. Over the last ten days I’ve been amazed by the use of technology to find the plane. To note but one example, a Slate article discusses the fact that while cell phones wouldn’t work at 35,000 ‘ (thereby answering the question “why didn’t the passengers call anybody?”) those that were not disabled in flight mode would be sending out regular pings in search of a cell tower. And those pings would potentially be detectable. The author explains:
“If it were to be taken out of airplane mode, a cell phone would begin sending out signals every 20 seconds or so, trying to locate the nearest cell phone tower. (This is why it’s a good idea to put your phone on airplane mode during a flight, even if you’re not worried about disrupting navigational equipment: The constant fruitless pinging will drain your battery.) This won’t result in your phone making a connection to a network, but it’s a source of electromagnetic radiation that eavesdroppers could pick up. “If you have 200 cell phones all pinging repeatedly at 6/10ths of a watt, it would be a chorus,” says Paul Czarnecki, a pilot and cell phone network technician. “The United States has listening stations all over the world to record and digitize every signal in the air.” (“Why Didn’t the Missing Airliner’s Passengers Phone for Help?”)
Think about that. The electromagnetic buzz of a couple hundred pinging cell phones high in the troposphere and out over a vast, dark ocean would be detectable. And yet, as incredible as that is, Czarnecki’s quote ends like this:
“It blows my mind that we don’t know where it is.” (emphasis added)
All that technological expertise, and it still ends in a question mark. Like the graduating university student who has a new grasp of the vastness of her ignorance, so our technology quickly takes us to the vast expanses of what we don’t know.
And through it all, I cannot shake one deeply haunting image. According to one of two primary flight path theories, after turning west the plane then turned south, plunging out over the deep, dark open waters of the South Indian Ocean, one of the most remote spans of ocean on earth. All the while the passengers slept, dreaming of their imminent arrival thousands of kilometers to the north in Beijing. An arrival that was not to be.
To what end? Was it a vast conspiracy planned for months? Or one mentally unbalanced pilot going rogue? Could the plane be hiding in a hanger in Turkmenistan? Or is it in pieces at the bottom of the Indian Ocean? Or…
I once heard a comedian quip: “The one thing that always survives in a plane crash is the black box. So why don’t they make the whole plane out of a black box?”