Grief as Malaysian plane is declared lost

Tragic vigil: Students pay their respects to the 239 passengers who have lost their lives © PA

Malaysian authorities have narrowed down the hunt for the missing plane to the Indian Ocean. Is a believable picture of what happened beginning to emerge? Will we ever know the whole story?

They cried, slumped desolate in chairs, or beat the walls in frustration. The many relatives who had been waiting for news of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 since it disappeared had just heard the unthinkable confirmed: that none of the 239 passengers could have survived. ‘The last hope is dashed,’ mourned one. ‘I cannot believe it ... my heart is tearing apart.’

After weeks of speculation over what might have happened, new evidence from British aviation company Inmarsat was strong enough for the announcement to be made. While the pilots stopped communicating as the aeroplane approached Vietnam, its satellite system continued to emit ‘pings’ for seven hours afterwards. Inmarsat checked how long it took these pings to reach satellites, which helped to reveal the plane had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Search teams from 26 countries had been scouring over half the world in the hope of finding plane debris, but the search is now focused on an area west of Australia where satellites have spotted two objects that may be wreckage. However, the search has been hampered by bad weather and experts say debris could have drifted for hundreds of miles since the plane went down.

So what do we now know? The continued pings rule out a sudden crash or explosion, and the plane veered far off its course to Beijing. It did so as it was passing from Malaysian to Vietnamese air traffic controllers, the time it would be least noticed. Its course was smooth and controlled, suggesting its disappearance was deliberate.

Yet understanding anything more than this has proved difficult. Intelligence services have looked into the backgrounds of all the passengers and crew searching for links to terrorism, but found nothing. The Telegraph claimed to have ‘insider’ knowledge that the plane was downed by a suicidal crew member, but it offers no evidence for it. It also emerged that this was the pilot’s first unsupervised flight in charge of a Boeing-777. But again, experts say this should not have been a problem.

The hunt for the black box

The details of the flight’s disappearance will most likely always remain a mystery, but if there is a possible explanation, it lies in the black box. This onboard monitor records the flight’s details and the last two hours of the pilots’ conversation. It would provide the onflight information we so desperately need.

The box sends out faint pings after a crash, but only for 30 days. Rescue teams have scrambled to the Indian Ocean before it becomes too late. The box will have sunk to the ocean’s bottom, and it may be too deep for any equipment to trace. It seems to be our last hope for answers, but experts say we will be very lucky to find it.

You Decide

  1. Has the disappearance of flight MH370 made you think differently about flying?
  2. What, if anything, should be done to help the families of passengers?

Activities

  1. Print off a map of the world. Plot the flight’s intended path. Then, using the maps of the flight’s known movements in the ‘Become an Expert’ links, draw its actual path onto your map.
  2. Write a diary entry for one of the family members waiting for news of the missing flight in a Beijing hotel. Would this latest announcement bring any relief?

Some People Say...

“There can be no closure while questions remain unanswered.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This whole story has put me off flying. Is that reasonable?
It’s a horrific story, but flight accidents are very rare. The US National Safety Council estimates that, on a per mile basis, we are 180 times more likely to die in a car accident. What makes the MH370 story baffling is that it happened when the plane was cruising, which counts for 60% of a plane’s time in the air but when only 9% of accidents occur.
Will the black box have all the answers?
The microphone recording of the cockpit usually provides insights into what is going on in the crucial moments before a crash, but it only contains two hours of information. Since MH370 flew for several hours after it stopped sending signals, it may not record whatever caused the plane to veer off course. Yet it remains our best hope for answers.

Word Watch

Apart
While the Malaysian authorities tried to tell families in other ways too, many were informed via a text message that their relatives were dead. This has added to the anger over how they have handled the disaster.
Pings
ACARS, a system that usually relays engine and other flight data, left a clue as to the plane’s whereabouts: a series of ‘pings’ picked up by the system’s satellite.
Satellites
Inmarsat looked at how the ‘pings’ from the plane reached satellites and used variations in them to calculate its speed and position. It is similar to the ‘Doppler effect’: how the frequency of a signal from a moving object alters. A good example is the changing sound of an ambulance’s siren as it approaches and then recedes. Analysing the signals revealed that the plane had moved over the Indian Ocean before disappearing.
Indian Ocean
This encompasses a vast region as the ocean covers an area which represents 20% of all water on the Earth’s surface. Adding still further to the difficulties is the fact that some parts of the Indian Ocean are 7,000 metres deep. If parts of the plane have sunk there, they will be very hard to recover.

Subjects

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