The fate of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared over the South China Sea on Saturday, continues to baffle the authorities of ten countries involved in the search and rescue missions. Some 40 ships and 34 aircraft have been involved in the effort so far (Business Insider, Mar 11). False alarms have been registered – the report of an oil slick, and the appearance of various objects (passenger life jackets; an airplane door). A salvaged object retrieved by a Vietnamese rescue helicopter provided false assurance – it was not a life raft from the plane. The Chinese authorities are seething – two thirds of the passengers were nationals and progress is proving slow. Satellites have been deployed and teams sent to Malaysia.
Such disappearances prompt more than just a bit of spiced speculation. They get historians interested. They cause families grief. They concern investors keen to see returns in a notoriously unreliable industry. And they spark the attention of security officials.
Ordinary occurrences can become extraordinary revelations. There was no distress call. The weather was fine. The most obvious point is that how, in an age of networked mania and constant updates, the ubiquitous “smartphone”, the presence of global tracking devices, could a large plane vanish? “Surely, given the fact that we can track a damn smartphone anywhere on Earth down to a few metres,” asks Sebastian Anthony of Extreme Tech (Mar 10), “there’s a better way of keeping track of missing aircraft?” The surveillance of passenger planes may be less sophisticated than the surveillance of private citizens.
Questions on the passengers are being posed. Why did five fliers check in but not show up? Two of the passengers boarding the flight had stolen passports, which immediately piqued the curiosity of those seeking a security thesis in the demise of the flight. Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, decided to lob in a few cultural and ethnic references. The men, possibly connected to a stolen passport syndicate group, were “not Asian looking”. Asked what exactly they did look like, Rahman ventured a footballing reference. “Do you know of a footballer by the name of (Mario) Balotelli? He is Italian. Do you know how he looks like?” “Is he black?” inquired one reporter. “Yes.”
Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble certainly had a few words on that score. According to the frustrated official, “only a handful of countries” checked passports against its databases of stolen documents. Authorities were effectively “waiting for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates.” The two passports in question were stolen from an Austrian national, Christian Kozel and Luigi Maraldi of Italy. Both were entered into Interpol’s records after they were pinched in Thailand in 2012.
Al-Arabiya News advanced the suggestion on Monday that the two men with stolen passports were Iranian, with their tickets purchased by a man by the name of Mr. Ali. Naturally, the New York Post deemed Mr. Ali “shadowy”. The tickets were also one-way purchases, involving travel from Kuala Lumpur via Beijing and then Amsterdam. Both would have then parted ways, one travelling to Copenhagen, the other to Frankfurt.
Speculation rises as knowledge diminishes. There are few clues but an abundant number of questions. There are fears of a catastrophic explosion, which brings the record of an otherwise flawless Boeing 777-200 into question. (The last fatal incident took place in the crash of an Asiana Airlines plane last July on landing in San Francisco.) There are suggestions about an ill-fated high jacking. Malaysia’s air force chief Rodzali Daud suggests that “the aircraft may have made a turn back, and in some parts this was corroborated by civilian radar.”
A few diplomats have tried to pour some water on the tittering. An unnamed European diplomat cautioned that Kuala Lumpur was a key point of travel for illegal migrants who transited through the city in order to reach destinations in Europe. “You shouldn’t automatically think that the fact there were two people on the plane with false passports had anything to do with the disappearance of the plane” (Al-Arabiya, Mar 10).
The mad pilot scenario, or at the very least one intent of suicide, has also nudged its way into the consideration of some aviation officials. One unnamed US aviation official reminded The Washington Post (Mar 10) of the violent end of Egypt Air Flight 990. In 1999, crew member Gameel Al-Batouti managed to engineer the crash even as the captain struggled with him. The National Transportation Safety Board found the crash to be “a result of the relief first officer’s flight control inputs. The reason for the relief first officer’s actions was not determined.”
The mystery narrative is getting some traction, and it may well be a matter of time before a Bermuda Triangle response or even one from the cult of ancient aliens finds its way into circulation. Mike Adams of Natural News has suggested that, in not finding any debris, we might have “some entirely new, mysterious and powerful force […] at work on our planet which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence.”
Adams may well have been overly apocalyptic – Air France flight AF 447, an Airbus A330, disintegrated in 2009 and left but few pieces of the tail to be retrieved a week after the crash. The plane’s black boxes were only located two years later.
In the absence of any corporeal basis, the finding of evidence, of anything, in fact, fear and speculation will merely grow. Governments and officials will have to brace themselves, though one touching feature of this entire episode has been the cooperation of authorities from Vietnam to elements of the U.S. 7th Fleet. Coping with such catastrophe may provide some temporary distraction from the mundane business of a regional arms race and the contesting scrum for natural resources. Others are relying on the words of the touching sand sculpture of the Indian artist from Orissa Sudarshan Patnaik, featuring the plane and a few faces of the missing 239: “Pray God, Miracles do Happen.”
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org