How does a major commercial airliner filled with close to 300 passengers and crew simply vanish into thin air? Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Friday afternoon, March 7 U.S. Eastern time, bound for Beijing, China.
Yet air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane 52 minutes later over what they thought at the time was the Gulf of Thailand. Gone without trace or even a radar blip. How?
Sid McGuirk, an associate professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida tried to make sense of it. "This is a very unusual event, it's highly unusual for an aircraft at altitude, according to the press, and this aircraft was to drop off the radar. Primary radar determines a plane's position by analyzing signals that bounce back off the aircraft; the "secondary" or "enhanced" type requests information from each plane, which is then sent by a piece of equipment aboard a jet known as a transponder.”
“Radar facilities are based on land, and each one has a range of about 200 miles (320 kilometers). So passenger jets on transoceanic flights do go off the radar map for a period of time, but that doesn't mean nobody's keeping tabs on them,” he told True Science.
Emily McGee of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Alexandria, Va. said, "The flight crews use combinations of high-frequency (HF) radio, satellite-based voice communication and text-data networks to report to ATC (air traffic control) the exact time, position and flight level when the crossing begins."
It’s not unusual for commercial aircraft to briefly fall off the radar screen as they duck behind thick clouds, high mountains, etc. That can lead to some difficult tracking, one that terrorists conducted successfully during the 9/11 hijackings.
It is common for hijackers to turn off the transponders, then they turned the aircraft back toward whatever their target was.
McGuirk said, "Of course, it's kind of hard to hide a 777. Wherever it lands, somebody's going to say, 'Hey! There's a Malaysia Air 777. It didn't crash at all, it was being stolen."
Another scenario could be the ill-fated flight of Air France’s MH370 flight 447 that vanished over the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009 after departing Rio de Janeiro en route to Paris.
Flight 447 went down in extreme weather, claiming the lives of all 228 people aboard. It took five days to locate the wreckage and nearly two years to locate and recover the Airbus A330's "black boxes" from the ocean floor.
The aviation world waits to see the outcome of this mystifying event.
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