The Search for Flight 370

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 remains shrouded in mystery, and the hunt for clues to explain its tragic disappearance will be arduous.

03.09.14 3:30 PM ET

Whatever brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—mechanical or intentional—the search for the Boeing 777’s remains will be daunting. And the forensic investigation that follows will be even more challenging.

It’s astonishing that two days after an airplane with 239 people aboard disappeared from the radar confusion reigns over where exactly it was at 1.30am local time Saturday. Malaysian officials have added to the mystery by reporting that, after scanning radar traces, they thought the 777 may have made a turn indicating that it was returning to Kuala Lumpur. And yet no calls were made by the pilots indicating any problem.

The most critical information missing is the airplane’s actual position when it disappeared. Without that, the sea search lacks focus and has to cast a very wide and very inefficient net.

And the problem is made more complicated by not knowing whether the 777 disintegrated in the air after an explosion or hit the water in one piece. This is a highly consequential difference.

For example, Air France Flight 447 that disappeared over the South Atlantic in 2009 fell 36,000 feet as its pilots lost control and finally hit the water intact, in a path very similar to an airplane making a wheels-up emergency landing. The impact broke it into several large pieces.

Searchers have to find what is called the debris field—to locate and map every piece of the airplane on the ocean floor. To the expert investigators that map begins to describe the physical reasons for a crash, crucially the sequence of the breakup. The Air France Airbus A330 was discovered, three years later, at the enormous depth of 13,000 feet, with the debris scattered over a relatively compact area, no more than 2,000 feet wide.

If the Malayasian 777 was torn apart by an explosion at its cruise height of 36,000 feet the parts would be dispersed over a far wider area, the heaviest being the engines which would fall fast and the lightest, debris from the airframe, would flutter down far more slowly and be carried further by high altitude winds and, eventually, by ocean currents.

TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that exploded on its climb out from JFK airport in New York in 1996, left a debris field three miles long even though it was far lower, climbing to an initial cruise height of 15,000 feet. To be sure, this catastrophe had hundreds of witnesses and the wreckage was in shallow water on the Atlantic shelf—but disputes still rage about the cause of the explosion.

The South China Sea, where the search for the 777 is continuing, is technically called a “marine basin” and at its deepest is no more than 4,000 feet, whereas the South Atlantic where the Air France airplane met its end is at least four times that depth and the sea bed resembles mountain ranges and deep valleys. But the waters of the South China Sea contain a lot of sediment from rivers that spill into it and underwater visibility could be a problem.

There is, however, another similarity between the Malaysian flight and Air France 447—both airplanes disappeared in the early hours of the morning.

The absence of information about where exactly the 777 echoes confusion amongst the air traffic controllers who were supposed to be tracking the Air France Airbus. Some controllers on the coast of North Africa were untroubled by not being able to contact the airplane and other controllers at Casablanca said they had the airplane on their radar when they didn’t. In that case it took more than six hours after the Airbus disappeared for the alarm to be raised and nearly 11 hours for the sea search to begin.

All of this illustrates just how valuable it would be to have precise, real time information on the condition of airplanes flying over oceans.  Without that, the current search is, literally, working in the dark.