Sometimes I start a post and fail to finish it before it ceases to be relevant, so it ends up in the trash. Other times I will write something and realize before completing it that it's not very good. And occasionally I look at an orphaned post fragment and feel fortunate that it was never completed, because everything about it that seemed intelligent at the time now seems quite foolish.

Last weekend I wrote half a post about the media coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, the main point being that what the media were attempting to sell as some great "mystery" was really just a mundane and predictable, if tragic, set of events. But after another week of following that story, I give up. I yield. This is ridiculous and fascinating. Each new detail that becomes public makes the story more bizarre instead of less.

If we can accept that a relatively new aircraft of a type with a nearly flawless safety record does not simply disintegrate in midair without provocation, then the range of plausible explanations is broad. Aside from the tantalizing details about stolen passports (which are as likely to be used for crimes like drug smuggling or illegal immigration as for terrorism) there is the revelation, apparently plausible, that pilots on this crew allowed passengers into the cockpit. Now there are claims that the plane flew for hours after communications were lost – I was under the impression that it was extremely difficult, although not impossible, for modern planes to have their transponders switched off and its means of external communication silenced.

Most baffling of all, though, is the idea that the plane could have flown around off-course for hours in radio silence without a single passenger using a mobile device to make a call, text, or post regarding the flights. In a much shorter amount of time, passengers on the 9/11 planes made dozens of attempted calls from the air. Even if we buy that the pilots somehow made the plane radio silent, how could the passengers be prevented from communicating?

Every time I think I have this one figured out the story gets more bizarre. My latest guess is that one or both pilots concocted an excuse for the passengers, switched off the transponder, and flew around over the ocean until fuel was exhausted in some kind of laborious act of suicide. In a few hours something else will probably seem like a better explanation. Half-cocked theories welcome in the comments.

58 thoughts on “NPF: SCOOBY-DOO MYSTERY”

  • Obviously I have no idea what happened, but there were at least 10 non-pilot crew on board. Surely they would have known something was up and acted accordingly.

    Very strange.

  • The boring one says:

    As to the phone calls: I gather from the map given at the BBC that the plane's last known location was about 100 km away from the coast. If it then kept some such distance until it crashed, no normal cell phone would have had reception (Wikipedia's entry on 'cell site' gives a physical maximum range of 70 km). Although if the ocean there is peppered with small islands that have cell phone towers, my line of thought is pointless, I guess.

  • It's baffling. It's like the setup to a bad modern horror novel or movie, the sort where people would roll their eyes and say "oh yeah, a fully loaded modern passenger plane just disappears in midair and no one notices for several hours. Man, what a bullshit premise", except it's real.

    I guess this was someone's way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the premiere of LOST?

  • There is a plausible hypothesis on Charles Stross' blog:

    Briefly, this model of aircraft is known to have a fault with the satellite communication antenna. This could result in cabin decompression as well as loss of communications. If there was also a fault in the pilots' emergency oxygen supply (unlikely, but possible), they would have had a few seconds to follow procedure, reduce altitude, and set the autopilot before they blacked out. The cabin crew have portable oxygen bottles, but would be unable to break through the post-9/11 locked and armoured cockpit door.

    Nobody knows whether this is what really happened but I don't see any obvious holes in it.

    @The boring one: There are islands, but they are uninhabited apart from a few military installations, so probably no civilian cellphone towers:

  • How this would turn out in a movie

    1) ghosts. Don't ask me how. But ghosts. Or aliens. Same thing.
    2) zombies or some really stupid monster. "Oh god the luggage was full of chupacabras
    3) clever plot by thieves stealing something that was onboard the plane that shouldn't have been.
    4)Govt plot to trick people into war for some vague political reasons.

    A veritable smorgasbord of terrible choose your own adventureness

  • My conspiracy theory is that it was flown to an Iranian military base.

    Also, what FMguru said (Lost)

  • I was hoping to read a plausible explanation or coo-coo conspiracy theory in the comments section. Disappointed.

    In my mind for absolutely nothing to be found, no oil slick, nothing, there would have had to have been a massive fireball & yet some one would have noticed that. This happened in Asia, there are fishing boats galore our there on the water & people living in the remotest of locations.

  • middle seaman says:

    First, the media didn't know how to react because they weren't told what to write. The NSA, the Russians and the Chinese have more information about the flight than anyone admits.

  • RosiesDad+1. How could we get to the eighth comment without mentioning that bad-ass motherfucker.

  • I don't fly the 777, but on every other airliner I've flown the transponder had an on/off switch.

    Likewise the ACARS (datalink) could be turned off by pulling a circuit-breaker in the cockpit.

    That plane would have at least two VHF radios, two HF radios, two transponders, SATCOM and ACARS. I can't really think of any electrical malfunction that would render it totally without communications. Even if you're down to battery power you've got one VHF radio still working.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Mebbe it wahr the same aleenz dat kidtap me yeerz ago, 'n no 1 beleeve me, watt gott dat dere plain!

  • My guess is that there was explosive decompression starting in the cockpit, effectively eliminating the crew before they could take any action, and the plane, already on autopilot, kept flying for some time before ditching into the ocean.

    But it was probably a giant shark leaping out of the water.

  • +1 on the Laurence Fishburne reference. However, the correct answer is 'Benghazi'. We'll fill in around that later.

  • @gulag: i hear that IBM is planning to bring 500 jobs to the Buffalo area. I hope you can jump on this opportunity.

  • @BD

    Or a larger version of the JFK jr crash?


    Someone stole it. A Boeing 777 starts at $250 million. DB Cooper asked for a whole lot less than that (yes i went there, sorry), and $15k Hondas get car jacked all the time. So what would someone do for $250 mil?

  • The confluence of multiple (possibly independent) uncertainties does not mean they all have to have the same explanation.

    1) Plane's "radio silence":

    – Could be intentional (I haven't ever flown a commercial jet, but Major Kong has. Certainly, any transponder on the plane could be adjusted to a frequency nobody's monitoring.)
    – Could be accidental (a sudden loss of power to the communication systems, due to faulty wiring, too much heat near a microchip, a poorly maintained transformer, etc.)
    – Could be catastrophic (Kaboom!)
    – Could be extraterrestrial (Oooh, Papa Zlork! Get me a plane!)
    – Could be political (Someone could have echo-cancelled the signal from the plane, from the ground, by transmitting cancellation signals based on expected path, either in conjunction with the pilots, or opposition to them.)

    2) Passenger phone silence:

    – Could be basic science (the radios are not powerful enough to work over the ocean, that far)
    – Could be catastrophic (kaboom)
    – Could be extraterrestrial (Oooh, Papa Zlork! Get me a plane!)
    – Could be biological (a sudden loss of cabin pressure may knock out everyone on board, rendering them unable to help, even as the conspiratorial pilot is wearing his/her oxygen mask)

    It could even be a combination of things (Iran was trying to echo-cancel the plane's signal, and get them to land it elsewhere. The echo-cancelling explains the "communications long after it disappeared", but the plane either crash landed on some desert island, or traveled where it was supposed to go, while everyone on board is dead except the pilots)

  • Much of the confusion is because several of the countries who know more aren't willing to divulge "sources and methods" (e.g. satellite imagery, radar effectiveness). So they are hoping some other country will confirm what they know, or they'll drop a hint and hope it will get picked up.

  • I had a laugh with my gf—FYI she's from neighbouring country—over one of the quotes from Malaysia's security minister on "Asians with European passports and names" not piquing immigration's interest.

    An Indonesian girl I knew had a Swedish boyfriend named Heinricke Svenssen. So we went for drinks after class and Heinricke was going to meet us at the pub. Three beers in and this "SE Asian" guy shows up. "X, this is Heinricke." Turns out that Heinricke was adopted.

    So there's one way.

    Now if an Australian minister had made the same comment… Hooley Dooley!!

    What I was surprised by however was that passports are not automatically checked against a database. For serious?? This is KL not one of the back provinces. I'd understand that you'd be able to puddle jump between Indonesia and Malaysia via the islands, but to check on to a major international flight?? Far out!

    The obvious answer re: cellphones is… well they're cellphones. They have limited broadcast distance. Also they require carrier service access, "No pay. No play." I believe international cellphone emergency (911, 000, 999, etc) is *1-1-2* which automatically connects to any available service. I have no idea what emergency is through out that part of the world, do you?

    Sadly too many people automatically dial "911" in an emergency—thank you American TV and movies—which is causing a rethink in portocol to make *any* emergency service numbers reciprocal.

    On the fun side I keep getting a James Bond, or Rooby Roo! style of plot line. Where they're able to hack the electronics mid flight, thus stealing them for international sale.

  • Whatever happened, it appears we can rule out terrorism. So far as I know, based on my sporadic news reading habits, no one's taking credit for the plane vanishing.

  • Meteorite. Getting dinged by a 1kg rock moving 3,000m/s would lead to all kinds of 'catastrophic failure'.

  • Or a larger version of the JFK jr crash?

    Not likely. JFK Junior was a VFR-only pilot who pushed the weather, got disoriented, and departed controlled flight.

    That's a very common accident scenario for general aviation. Many private pilots, probably most actually, are not instrument rated because of the expense of getting that rating. They will depart on a day with marginal weather and then the weather deteriorates to the point where they can't fly based on visual references any more.

    Once that happens they'll either:

    a. Controlled flight into terrain because they can't navigate.

    b. Stall/Spin the aircraft and crash.

    c. Get into the classic "graveyard" spiral which is an ever increasing descending turn until they crash.

    That just doesn't happen to trained airline crews who have thousands of hours of instrument time.

  • My theory: We know the co-pilot had a history of inviting women into the cockpit. This time, the women he invited were Amazons, who overpowered the pilots and flew the plane to Paradise Island, home of the Amazons. There, Queen Hippolyte, wearing her magic girdle, plans to use the plane to transport her Amazon warriors to a weakened Greece, where they will reclaim their rightful territory. Makes about as much sense as any other theory.

    On a more serious note, it's hard to believe that the plane entered the airspace of any country with even a rudimentary air defense system without being detected as an unidentified aircraft.

  • I'm wondering how much is known that hasn't been revealed to the public because the relevant local officials don't want to take the heat or be embarrassed.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Thanks, but that's a long commute from where I live – near Poughkeepsie. ;-)
    And right now, taking care of my 82 year-old Mom, is my fulltime job.

    Btw – My sister and I recently finally convinced my Mom that our house needs to be sold.
    We'll be putting the house up for sale, when it warms up a bit.
    We're going to start looking for an apartment complex near my sister's house, in New Paltz.

  • It's probably been said, but my money would be on cabin decompression, ala Payne Stewart or Helios 522.

    But really, who the hell knows…

  • The latest news has Military radar plots showing it make two course corrections after it fell off Civilian radar along a known commercial route to the west.

    Its looking like it was hijacked by a sophisticated person(s) IMO.

  • @duquesne_pdx That's an interesting theory you've linked to, indeed. When I first heard about this story, I quite sincerely hoped that a group of hijackers had safely landed the plane on a secret-supervillain-lair island and covered it with leaves. Ed's puzzlement at the radio silence from the passengers definitely got me thinking catastrophic decompression, though.

  • Uh, didn't it take place at night? So, if a couple of hijackers gain access to the cockpit without people knowing (such as when the pilots let in a couple women like last time), a quiet takeover could happen. And since it was at night, a fair amount of fliers will be asleep, and without the sun it would be near impossible to notice if you are flying the wrong way. If people aren't aware of a hijacking, then they have no reason to "call it in" with cell phones, assuming they'd even work that far over water.

    Personally, I believe it redirected, flew somewhere else, then crashed. I doubt a 777 could just land anywhere it wanted, and a big enough airport would likely have called it in by now.

  • Cinna the Poet says:

    Stolen by North Korea (co-pilot was sleeper agent) for the technology, hostages and cash for spare parts. Tom Clancy would have made some mileage with that scenario. Sigh.

  • OliverWendelHolmslice says:

    "…everything about it that seemed intelligent at the time now seems quite foolish." That is basically Bill Kristol's resume.

  • Well, obviously this is Vladimir Putin showing Obama what happens when you don't wear a suit to talk on the phone.

  • Couldn't be the rapture because there were certainly Moooslems on that plane–including the pilots. They would have been left alone to fly the plane.

    I gotta go with the snakes on the plane (thank you Rosie's Dad) causing catastrophic decompression. The ocean is a giant place. Not at all hard to lose something in it–even something as big as a plane.

    Or DARPA's transporter prototype finally worked and the thing is sitting on the tarmac on some base somewhere. The MIB are using their memory erasers to take care of all the passengers and get them home.

  • Los Marathons says:

    I'd really like to believe that in 5 years this aircraft is going to call in to air traffic control requesting landing clearance. All passengers will exit the plane in the exact same condition they disappeared, being none the wiser that 5 years have passed.

  • I like Gore Vidal's reply to the accusation that he was a conspiracy theorist: “I am not a conspiracy theorist, but a conspiracy analyst!”

  • Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    It's baffling. It's like the setup to a bad modern horror novel or movie,

    Now, if the flight arrived and landed tonight, I'd be really interested in THAT movie…

  • They've all taken off to Galt's Gulch. The withdrawal of their genius labour from the market has had exactly the result anticipated.

  • It's a tough one. Seems to me that if it were terrorism that…

    a) Someone would have claimed responsibility by now.


    b) The record of plane and the passengers' demise would be very publicly and horrifyingly documented.

    If it were suicide, it require that the two pilots be in on it together – which seems highly unlikely – and even if they were, it's inconceivable that whatever misguided point they were attempting to make could be made by having the plane and passengers disappear into thin air. I'm no expert, but it seems to me those willing to die and take others with them are looking for some sort of infamy. This is hardly served in this case.

    This leaves some sort of cataclysmic event or failure. Except for the fact that plane changed course, flew for hours and had the transponder turned off. A mystery indeed.

  • The NYT had a good article about the general incompetence of the Malaysian military and civilian air traffic control. I can't imagine that in the US or Europe or China, etc, a commercial jet could go completely off course for hours and have no one notice or do anything about it. Maybe I'm naive, but it seems like this plane vanishing could have only happened because people on the ground who should have known about it really dropped the ball.
    Theories? Aliens, bigfoots, alien bigfoots, Lost-esque islands…. who knows. The jet is most likely sitting on the bottom of the Indian Ocean right now, and we'll never know what happened.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    FWIW, it was none other than James Earl Jones who asked "What happened to Major Kong?" in Kubrick's "Doctor Strangelove".
    It doesn't get any better than that.

  • The only theory I can think of that hasn't been suggested yet: A giant, incredibly well-planned act of performance art. One that will end all performance art forevermore, as nothing could ever top this.

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