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Who moved my plane?

The sudden disappearance of flight MH 370 on 8 March is an incident which continues to confound us.  A case such as this captures our attention because we like to think such things simply can’t happen. We are saturated with surveillance technology of every kind. How did a plane circumvent every technological fail safe available in aviation and disappear into thin air? These and other such questions for which we seem to have no answers, has made the disappearance of MH 370 the mystery of the year. Everyone has put on their metaphorical deerstalker caps and turned armchair Sherlock. A company by the name of Digiglobe has even launched a crowd sourcing effort called TomNod where people can scan satellite images and tag unidentified data.

To make some sense of what has happened so far we need to wade through a series of plausible explanations, debunk some wildly imaginative hoaxes and ultimately come to a conclusion, based on logic and what we know. The conclusion could be erroneous as much still remains unknown.

What we may or may not know

The so called individual sightings of the plane have proved to be a hoax. Hoaxes include the New Zealander who claimed to spot the plane near an oil rig in Vietnam, the alleged sightings by some people in Maldives, and also the satellite image of a plane flying over the Andamans discovered by an Indian techie.

The first important angle to examine is the terror aspect. Possibility of this being a terror attack first came into spotlight when Interpol revealed that there were two Iranians who were traveling on the plane with forged passports. But further investigation by Interpol found that the two Iranians had no connections to terror networks. They were students looking to immigrate to Europe using forged documentation and if possible get asylum there. Also the possibility that this is a terrorist incident seems unlikely with no terror group coming forward to take responsibility.

However aviation specialists have pointed out that certain cues point to foul play.  ‘The timing of turning off the transponder suggests that this involved someone with knowledge of how to avoid air traffic control without attracting attention,’ said Xu Ke, a Chinese aviation expert. The transponder used in MH 370 was an ADB-S which requires some amount of knowledge to operate and turn off. Although, it also needs to be stated that such knowledge can be gained by anyone with a search engine and lots of free time. Malaysian officials have also upped the ante by stating that the flight was deliberately diverted. ‘The movements of the plane are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,’ Najib Rajik, the Malaysian prime minister said. In the final analysis it is safe to say that the plane could have been commandeered but not hijacked.
Questions have also been raised as to why there were no phone calls from the missing flight's passengers. Vincent Lau, a specialist in wireless communications has explained this. According to him the high altitude of the plane (about 45,000 feet) might have prevented the passenger's cellphones from establishing contact with base stations at the ground level. In stark contrast the hijacked planes on September 11 from which frantic calls had been made were flying at a very low altitude. So even if there was foul play, given the high altitude, passengers could not have possibly alerted anyone even if they wanted to. This explains the lack of phone calls, texts or tweets.

Pilots navigating M370!

Central figures in this whole mystery are the airline pilots. Who were they? Could they have voluntarily commandeered the plane? This does not seem plausible. Both Zaharie Ahmed Shah and Fariq Abdul Hamid were described as men with firm community ties. There has been no information of the men having even the faintest history of radicalism. Zaharie was a veteran pilot with more than 18,000 hours of experience accumulated over 33 years. Fariq was also a competent pilot with more than 2,700 flying hours under his belt. He had his 15 minutes of fame when he was featured on CNN's business traveller and his landing of a 777 was described by reporter Richard Quest as flawless. With this information we can deduce two things. First, insinuating that the pilots commandeered the plane themselves seems unfair and accusatory given their track record; second, both of them were extremely competent pilots. If at all the plane was commandeered it was most likely done under coercion. Tracing the flight trajectory of the plane has been a far more difficult process than profiling the pilots. The main communications systems of MH 370 had been turned off about 45 minutes into the flight. This has forced investigators to try and piece together information from secondary sources. The radar track provided by the Malaysian government seem to indicate that at some point over the Penang peninsula the plane turned from its southbound course and could have taken two possible routes. One arc runs from the southern border of Kazakhstan in Central Asia to northern Thailand, passing over some hot spots of global insurgency and highly militarized areas. The other arc runs from near Jakarta to the Indian Ocean, roughly 1,000 miles off the west coast of Australia. The possible northern arc is full of military radars and if the plane did go on that arc it did not go far.   ACARS, SATCOM and Ping data however point to the direction of a possible southern arc.

In some positive news, two objects possibly related to the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have been sighted, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Thursday in a potential breakthrough. ‘The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has received information based on satellite information of objects possibly related to the search,’ Abbott added. If this lead proves fruitful then it could give closure and resolutions to the hundreds of families of passengers on the plane, who have been waiting for days with bated breath and anguished hearts.

The Dickensian aspect

What we’ve unearthed so far are elements an investigator would pick and dump in his quest to solve the final puzzle. However, there is a deeper human element that cannot be missed. Families and friends of those 239 aboard the Boeing 777 have suffered excruciating emotional pain over the past two weeks. According to psychologists, having a family member go missing is called an ‘ambiguous loss’. On the pain scale, it reads the highest, primarily because there is no sense of resolution or closure. Families are often stuck in a painful limbo, as they cling onto the hope that their dear ones may still be alive. Pathology amongst the kin of the missing persons clearly emanates from an irrational situation of loss. Wildly moving from hope to despair and back is what accentuates this sense of pathology. The trick, according to Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Family Social Science, is ‘to have patience with their suffering and learn to hold the ambiguity with them’. In her experience of dealing with missing persons, she states that those looking for answers and trying to solve the mystery are the one who suffer the most. ‘The ability to hold two conflicting ideas in one's mind at the same time provides the resilience to move forward even while the ambiguity persists. Given the absurdity of ambiguous loss, human strength emerges not from one absolute truth, but from holding on to an array of possibilities’, she says.

Lessons Learnt

For the aviation sector, there are key lessons to be learnt from the entire affair. According to Captain Rajesh Kumar, a former Indian Air Force pilot, and currently plying his trade in the commercial sector, there are two possible fall outs from the entire incident. ‘For a long time in the aviation sector, there has been a suggestion to mandatorily place video cameras in the cockpit to monitor the area without any invasion over their privacy, if one of the pilots were to take a nap. This might come into force,’ he said.

The other fall is a more thorough background check on commercial pilots. We are not suggesting that the pilots are guilty of anything. However, according to Captain Kumar, ‘There needs to be greater scrutiny. Double, triple intelligence background checks need to be conducted. One must look into the pilot’s family, his political affiliations, any history of substance abuse or alcoholism. In the civil aviation industry, there isn’t much scrutiny in this regard. It almost suffices if you’re just an Indian citizen. Besides the obvious security angle, concerns must definitely arise over the passenger’s safety’.

(Inputs from The Guardian, New York Times, Reuters, The Telegraph, First Post, AP and AFP)
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