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Easy, there, conspiracy theorists. The jet is just missing.

March 13, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
So, how the heck can a big 777 just vanish?

It’s not 1937, after all. It’s not like Amelia Earhart just radioed in from the Lockheed Electra that she was looking for Howland Island. I mean, she’d be 116 now, so surely aviation has changed since its most famous lady pilot vanished over the Pacific.

Or has it?

Turns out that, according to my best placed and most respected aviation source, pilots still talk over high-frequency radios to check in over the ocean.

And beyond that, this week for me has been a matter of learning lots of stuff that puts the theories to sleep, stuff I should know but cannot explain and stuff I just plain don’t know.

For instance, if airliners have WiFi, how come we can’t just figure out when the last data was sent or received to the airplane?

I’m told by folks who search for missing people and things that WiFi signals on planes just don’t include the location data. So, despite my fears that the NSA is watching me right now as I type this, apparently if I did so aboard a transoceanic airliner, they’d never find me.

How come the cell phones that family members said they were calling two days after the crash were still ringing? If they were destroyed in a plane crash or were under several hundred feet of salt water, how come they weren’t going to voice mail?

Well, turns out that when cell phones are out of range of ground-based cell towers, it can take a moment or two or more for the phone to be located through GPS or whatever system might be trying to patch through the call. That means the person placing the call might hear ringing back before the system decides the search is futile and sends the call to voicemail.

Then, there’s always the possibility the phone was lost on the way to or through the airport and was just ringing because it’s a lost phone in the back of a taxi or buried in a lounge chair in some airport terminal.

Why can’t they pinpoint the jet from radar returns?

As near as I can tell from what I’ve read and followed, there is no transoceanic radar system. Unlike flying from PIT to DEN, the plane is not being handed off from air traffic control center to air traffic control center with some coffee-sipping controller watching every blip -- with position information tagged on -- as the radar sweeps. Just doesn’t work that way over the ocean. Planes periodically ping GPS satellites and pilots radio in their position. Other than that, it’s not really a Big Brother Is Watching You scenario. Your plane could just as well be Amelia Earhart’s Electra out there in the big blue, just a bigger miniscule dot, with more passengers and fuel aboard, over the big ocean.

And, why aren’t the emergency locator transmitter beacons sending out a signal from the jet or its black boxes?

Because if they’re under water, the signal could only be heard under water, that’s way, according to the scientific folks. And in that event, somebody would need to be listening nearby. Now, I’ve watched “Crimson Tide” and “The Hunt for Red October” enough times to think that a properly dispatched American sub should be able to listen to the signal. Some fellow who looks like Courtney B. Vance should be wearing a headset and yelling, “Bingo” or “Got it!” or something.

But where would they be listening?

There are reports of some kind of engine data download that might indicate the plane flew on for hours after it disappeared from its last known position.

Maybe it’s like the awful crash of golfer Payne Stewart, whose Learjet depressurized in 1999 and flew from Orlando to a field in South Dakota. The thing flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.

And I’m sick of hearing experts on TV saying there is no way that all the redundant systems aboard the 777 would never allow a complete electronics failure, so the transponders and radios had to be working.

Remember the Sioux City, Iowa, DC-10 crash back in 1989? No? Well, the redundant hydraulic systems of the Denver to Chicago bound jetliner all three failed. That wasn’t supposed to be possible, except it was. And it was only through the airmanship of pilots who knew how to fly without all the automation that anybody survived. The crew managed, using only power differentials between the left and right endines, to get the plane to the ground at Sioux City’s airport.

And, by now, in my opinion, if it were terrorism, wouldn't someone take credit or boast somewhere? What good is making a big statement if nobody can figure out what it means.

So, despite all the conspiracy theories and The Boss at Work insisting there’s too much technology for a plane to just disappear, I’m not convinced of anything yet.

Only this: The jetliner will one day be found, hopefully in my lifetime, and hopefully intact enough to give us some answers. Until then, I’m not ruling out anything including aliens or terrorists, psycho pilots or a catastrophic failure that wiped out all the avionics.

Or that the plane is on an uncharted island where a kindly professor is listening to an AM radio with a skipper and his mate, a movie star and a rich couple and an Iowa farm girl.

Anything remains possible, including, unfortunately, the possibility that the plane will remain missing for years.


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