Permanent Mystery

March 14, 2022

I WAS AT A WINERY outside Porto, Portugal, when the phone rang. I took the call and walked out front to the parking lot. It was a Sunday afternoon, March 9th, 2014. The sun was out.

It was a woman from the BBC. A Malaysia Airlines plane had gone missing, she explained. It had vanished the night before, somewhere over the ocean near Vietnam. That’s all anyone knew, really.

With almost nothing to go on, I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sure they’ll find it within a day or two,” I told her. Other accidents came to mind — planes that had fallen into the ocean. Just a few years earlier had been the Air France crash off Brazil, for instance. It took a little while, but they found it.

But then a day became two days, became three days, became a week. The possibility struck me that the jet might never be found.

Eight years later and MH370 is still missing. Only a few scattered pieces have ever been retrieved, washed ashore on the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion, presumably hundreds or even thousands of miles from the actual, unknown spot were the flight met its end.

If it helps you feel better, the air crash annals contain numerous unsolved accidents. What makes this one different, maybe, is that we live in an age that expects easy and fast solutions to pretty much everything, with a fetishized belief that “technology,” whatever that even means anymore, can answer any question and fix any problem — and therefore locate any plane.

But it can’t. Sometimes nature wins. And that’s what this is about, ultimately: nature. The immensity of the ocean, both in breadth and depth, versus the comparative speck of a 777. Oh sure, radios, transponders, emergency locator transmitters, GPS, real-time position streaming, satellite tracking. All of that is fallible, one way or the other. The wreckage is out there somewhere, nestled invisibly in some immense undersea fissure or canyon, in the ink-black darkness beneath thousands of feet of seawater. The search vessels may have swept right over it.

Consider this: We’ve all watched airplanes high in the sky. A plane flying 12,000 feet above you (that’s the average depth of the Indian Ocean) appears as just the smallest gray speck, its profile visible but indistinct. Now, imagine you’re looking down at that same plane. Except, you’re looking down not through clear sky, but through 12,000 feet of murky seawater. Indeed, for most of that depth you’re staring into aphotic blackness. And the airplane you’re looking for is, in all likelihood, no longer in the shape of an airplane; it’s in thousands of fragments scattered across miles of rugged seabed.

As the saying goes, good luck with that, even with sophisticated imaging equipment. That’s an anecdotal analysis, ignorant of the science of whatever fancy scanners are used to search the ocean floor, but I have a sinking suspicion (pardon the wording), the jet is lost forever.

And if it were to be discovered, what then? What good is a voice or data recorder that’s spent the last eight years under water?

There are a number of theories, two of which are the most plausible: Did the plane wander off course after a mishandled cabin depressurization, its crew and passengers unconscious, until running out of fuel? Or did captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah hijack his own flight? While I lean towards the latter, my insights aren’t any better than anyone else’s.

And that’s about as far as we’re going to get. Solving this mystery has become, I’m afraid, all but impossible. We’ll have to make do with our hunches.