Thursday, March 20, 2014
Solving the mystery of the missing Malaysian plane is proving to be as easy as cracking a homicide without a body.
Or a witness.
Or a motive.
All while billions of people are waiting for the kind of quick and clear resolution that we've come to expect in the information age — and speculating in sometimes wild ways when that resolution doesn't come.
Eleven days after Flight 370 took a sudden, and still unexplained, left turn over the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, a sense of bewilderment and frustration has settled in among not just the family members of the 239 passengers and crew, but also within the worldwide aviation community.
"I don't think anybody has a good idea what happened or where to look," said Jim Hall, who as a former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board chairman saw the inner workings of dozens of crash investigations.
Indeed, there have been more false leads than verifiable facts.
Chinese satellite images showed plane debris — except they didn't. A Greek tanker found floating suitcases — not actually.
Even some basic understandings change depending on the day.
What started as a relatively confined search of the South China Sea shifted hundreds of miles west to entirely different waters in the Strait of Malacca, and ultimately to an area the size of Australia. The areas were targeted first because that is where the plane lost contact with air traffic control, then because of records from military radar and finally because of digital "handshakes" between a satellite and an on-board text messaging system.
Fundamental questions remain unanswered.
If the plane was commandeered by the pilots or hijackers, as investigators from Malaysia and other nations aiding the search have concluded — why?
During as many as seven hours after two key systems the Boeing 777 used to communicate with the outside world went dark, what happened to the passengers — were they incapacitated or killed? Sleeping? Panicked by the realization that something was terribly wrong?
And where is the plane — along a northern arc that stretches into the steppes of Central Asia, or an opposite arc that sweeps down into the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean? Or, possibly, neither?
"Something that's troubling to a lot of people like myself who are looking at it is the facts of the situation really don't add up," said John Gadzinski, a Boeing 737 captain and aviation safety consultant.
Like everyone else, Gadzinski has question after question, with no way of knowing the answers. For starters, why were both the transponder signal, which identifies the plane to civilian radar and provides information like altitude, and the information portion of the plane's messaging system turned off? It must have been deliberate, but was it done to troubleshoot a problem on board — or to disappear?
Foreign governments continue to offer Malaysia help, and hope the small Southeast Asian nation accepts, but get very mixed results.
American officials have complained that Malaysia was slow to share radar data and has not welcomed the range of resources that the United States can offer.
"What you see from the Malaysians is, 'Hey, we're a sovereign nation. We're capable. We've got this,'" said a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation, said earlier this week. "That's apart from whether they're actually capable, or whether they're actually running down leads that we would run down."
On Wednesday, the FBI said it has been enlisted to analyze files that the airplane's captain deleted from a flight simulator he kept at home.
The government in China — where two-thirds of the passengers were from — has criticized Malaysia, saying it has been slow to release reliable information. A group of passengers' relatives in Beijing, the flight's destination, announced a hunger strike to express anger over the handling of the investigation.
Malaysia has defended its investigation, saying it wants to release information only after it is corroborated and pointing out that the search is arguably the most complicated in aviation history.
Meanwhile, search teams from 26 nations were active. There are Chinese satellites, Australian surveillance planes and Indonesian naval ships. All spend tedious hours "mowing the grass," as surveillance plane crews call the task of meticulously covering thousands of square miles of ocean each day.
Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, likened finding the Boeing 777 to locating a few people somewhere between New York and California.
In other words, luck is at play. Or perhaps something more mysterious.
When it became clear that the plane was going to be harder to find than initially thought, help came from an unusual quarter. A shaman, known in the local language as "bomoh," appeared at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, apparently uninvited, to offer his services.
Ibrahim Mat Zin — who calls himself Raja Bomoh Sedunia, or "World Shaman King " — strode into the departure area of the airport wearing a suit and tie and began his ritual: With hundreds of curious onlookers watching, he used bamboo binoculars and a fish trap to begin zeroing in on the plane's location.
Lowy reported from Washington, Pritchard from Los Angeles. Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Eric Tucker in Washington and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this story.
Contact Joan Lowy: https://twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
Contact Justin Pritchard: https://twitter.com/lalanewsman