William Langewiesche, a pilot and journalist, has examined some of the worst air disasters in modern history. I read Fly By Wire in an hour and a half. His reporting on the demolition of the World Trade Center is legendary.
In the upcoming issue of The Atlantic, Langewiesche assembles the best evidence we have about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on 8 March 2014. It's a must-read for anyone interested in aviation:
Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar. It depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane and contains richer information—for instance, the airplane’s identity and altitude—than primary radar does. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar. The time was 1:21 a.m., 39 minutes after takeoff. The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with other traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply didn’t notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere out beyond his range.
The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking in. They tried repeatedly to contact the aircraft, to no avail. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens. What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance. By 2:30 a.m., it still had not been. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response was finally begun, at 6:32 a.m.
The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.
This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.
What follows should give anyone who cares about functioning institutions pause. Langewiesche doesn't so much indict the Malaysian government for incompetence as simply lay out the facts and let the reader decide, a la Robert Mueller. Example:
For all its expensive equipment, the air force had failed at its job and could not bring itself to admit the fact. In an Australian television interview, the former Malaysian defense minister said, “If you’re not going to shoot it down, what’s the point in sending [an interceptor] up?” Well, for one thing, you could positively identify the airplane, which at this point was just a blip on primary radar. You could also look through the windows into the cockpit and see who was at the controls.
Had MH370 belonged to (or flown out of) a functioning, institutional government, we might actually have found it and known what happened.
Langewiesche alone should give you enough reason to subscribe to The Atlantic. Grab this month's issue and see so many others.