The mysterious fate of Flight 370

One month since the Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared, believed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean

The world is on the verge of finally locating Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, believed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean west of Australia last month.

This week, two search vessels have recorded “pings” that could be coming from the Boeing 777’s black box transmitter —just days before the battery on the boxes was expected to run out, silencing the aircraft forever.

Today marks a month since the doomed flight was reported missing, and all over the world people were aghast at the idea that in the technology era of the 21st century, an airplane can simply disappear.

The 777 is a reliable aircraft: prior to this event, it has only be in one fatal crash since it was placed in service in 1995. That incident, in San Francisco in 2013, is thought to have been caused by pilot error.

Just to recap, Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing just before midnight local time on March 7. Not long after, air traffic control in KL spoke to the pilot, who signed off for the night as the plane left Malaysian air space. There was no indication that anything was amiss.

What happened in the airplane shortly after, we may never know for certain. The subsequent investigation has found that the vastly experienced pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, turned the plane around soon after that last communication.

With search efforts now focused on the deep and turbulent Indian Ocean west of Australia, officials believe the plane flew until it ran out of fuel, and then crashed into the sea.

239 people were on board. All are presumed dead.

Theories range from the wild and controversial to the tragic and desperate. The theory that rings the most true to me — and of course, with all news stories reported to the extent of this one, we must all make up our own minds — is that of Canadian pilot Chris Goodfellow.

Goodfellow suggests that Zaharie Ahmad Shah would have known the location of every airport in the vicinity should something have gone amiss during the flight, and would have turned the plane to the Langkawi aiport, with an approach over water and no obstacles for an easy landing.

Goodfellow’s theory is that an electrical fire took out the communications on the plane, and prompted the pilot to turn the plane. But, he suggests, the crew may then have been overtaken by smoke or the cabin may have been depressurized, causing a loss of consciousness or proving fatal for those onboard. The plane was then left to fly itself until it crashed.

Although Hollywood may have us predisposed to look for the most dramatic explanation to major catastrophes, in real life it is often the most ordinary theory that proves to be true.

For those of us who fly long-haul often — I can’t even count the number of times I’ve flown on a 777 — this entire story is terrifying. It’s easier not to think about what may have happened inside that cabin — whether passengers were aware, whether they lost consciousness around the same time, and such horrible thoughts that will torment the friends and family of the lost for many, many years.

Perhaps because it’s such a horrible tragedy, many people have chosen to focus on one question: how is it possible in 2014 for an airplane to go missing?

I have an app on my smartphone that shows me on a map the location of a plane in flight. Last Christmas, when my sister-in-law’s flight from Vancouver was unable to land in Cranbrook because of fog, I watched on the map as it approached the Kootenays, then I watched as it turned and headed back to Vancouver.

So how did air traffic control “lose” Flight 370? Apparently once planes fly over the ocean, radar is no longer able to track them. Instead, pilots use high-frequency radio to “check in” at certain recording points. Air traffic control knows the plane stopped communicating between two of those points.

Similarly, GPS would have told the pilots where the plane was, but with the communications system knocked out, the crew would not have been able to report that to anyone on the ground.

Whatever happened to Flight 370, whatever caused it to disappear over the South China Sea, the world has learned a difficult lesson. Even with all of the safety precautions surrounding air travel, the worst still can and does happen. And that is a realization that won’t leave any of us in a hurry.

Sally MacDonald is a reporter at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman.