August 1, 2015
I WAS IN AMSTERDAM yesterday, and the headlines of the Dutch paper de Volkskrant were screaming about last year’s Malaysia Airlines disaster. This was no big surprise, given that the first pieces from the vanished MH370 have been discovered washed ashore on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. Except, the headlines weren’t about MH370. They were about MH17, the Boeing 777 shot down over Ukraine last summer.
Obviously the discovery of debris from MH370 is a major story. What’s a little distressing, however, is that while the flight 370 mystery has never really disappeared from the headlines, the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 has all but vanished from the news. No, not in Holland, where the flight originated and where most of the 298 victims were from, nearly a hundred of them children. But the rest of the world, it seems, long ago stopped paying attention.
In some ways this makes sense. What happened to flight 370 was and remains a confounding mystery, while the details of MH17 are at least generally known. But in most respects the downing of flight 17 is the more significant tragedy. This was the seventh deadliest air disaster in history, and one that occurred in circumstances of abhorrent malice and negligence. We all want to know what happened to MH370, and perhaps it too was the result of intentional human actions. But what about MH17? Where is the outrage? Where are the cameras? Will anybody — any individual, government or entity — be formally held accountable?
My money says no. It’s doubtful that either disaster will ever be satisfactorily solved. The investigation into MH17 is permanently stonewalled by geopolitics. As for MH370, a limited number of clues can be gleaned from random wreckage. Investigators might be able to tell, for instance, if there had a been a cabin fire or explosion before the plane crashed. Nothing can be known for sure, however, without recovery of the black boxes, out there somewhere under millions of tons of seawater. I’ve predicted all along that some of the wreckage would eventually, probably, be found. The recorders, though? I reckon they’re lost for good.
Why, some are asking, did it take so long for this debris to turn up? Why didn’t we discover these pieces sooner, considering how extensive the search efforts were? We simply missed them, is why, and this shouldn’t be shocking. In which part of the Indian Ocean MH370 crashed has always been subject to estimation. The ocean is massive, and the area most intensively searched was only one possible region. If the calculations were off, the impact point could have been hundreds or even thousands of miles from where the spotters were concentrating.
Standing on the ground, you sometimes see planes high overhead, white contrails trailing behind. Notice, from your perspective, how tiny the actual airplane is. Without the contrails, you’d barely see it. Now imagine that airplane fragmented into pieces, most of them tiny. Could you pick out even one of them? Now, reverse the image. You’re looking down instead of from above. And instead of empty blue sky as a backdrop, you’ve got the ocean, a disorienting surface that is constantly in motion, deeply textured, undulating and spattered with waves and sunlight.
Meanwhile, by the time searchers had an idea of where to look, wreckage would have dispersed and larger pieces of may have quickly sunk to the bottom, leaving only smaller, scattered pieces. To have any hope of picking these out, search planes needed to be very near the surface, which in turn limited how far they could hunt horizontally. The closer you have to be, the more range-restricted the search becomes.
It’s possible too that wreckage has been floating right past us and washing up on beaches all along, ignored. Bits of insulation, shredded fabric, chunks of composite material, small cabin furnishings and so on, would appear entirely anonymous, just more of the trash and pollution that swirls throughout the sea every day, washing up on beaches everywhere. Those tell-tale wing parts from Reunion are perhaps the biggest surviving pieces, and the only ones that say “airplane” to the casual observer. I’m not surprised that we missed them, and to finally have found them is perhaps a stroke of luck.
What an odd thing, too, for an airline to have suffered not one but two appalling tragedies, less than a year apart, about neither of which are we likely to learn the whole story.
THE MALAYSIA AIRLINES MYSTERY