It’s been a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared. And every day, it seems, another theory – typically voiced by an anonymous official or “expert” based on little hard information (or none) – emerges.
Mechanical failure. A suicidal pilot. Sabotage. Accidental shoot-down and cover-up. A rapid loss of cabin pressure. Piracy.
Reports are made, then debunked. Oil slicks; no oil slicks. Debris that might have come from the airliner; no debris. Seismic reports indicating a possible explosion; no, that was a minor earthquake.
It’s a human tragedy, of course, particularly for the families of the 239 people – 227 passengers and 12 crew members – aboard Flight MH370.
How strange has it gotten?
Renowned illusionist and psychic Uri Geller – he of the mind-bent spoons – says he’s been asked by a “substantial figure” in Malaysia to employ “remote viewing” to help learn of MH370’s whereabouts, reports the British newspaper the Daily Mirror. At this point, his theory is that the pilots were overcome by an onboard fire.
Meanwhile, professional pilots and those in the travel industry have been weighing in.
"We're fascinated by it. We don't know what happened and we hope for a miracle," John DiScala, who runs the travel advice site JohnnyJet.com, told the Associated Press. "People want an answer, and the suspense is killing them."
Patrick Smith has been paying close attention. He’s an airline pilot, author of “Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need To Know About Air Travel,” who wrote Salon.com’s “Ask the Pilot” column from 2002 to 2012.
Noting reports that the plane, which was headed from Kuala Lampur northeast over the South China Sea to Beijing, turned west and tracked along a series of official navigational waypoints toward the Indian Ocean, Mr. Smith wrote on his website Friday:
“It would be difficult … for this to happen accidentally. So, if true, it suggests the airplane was very much under the control of somebody in the cockpit. How far this tracking continued, and along which path, exactly, is very important. Does this indicate a takeover of some kind? Or, was the crew diverting to a nearby airport because of a fire or some other emergency? Did the plane crash shortly thereafter, or were the pilots overcome by smoke or fumes, at which point plane continued on for a length of time?”
(See Smith’s fuller explanation of transponders, radar, cabin decompression, and other aspects of airline flying here.)
Mounting evidence that MH370 kept flying after it stopped communicating with ground controllers, either by radio or transponder, “obviously works against possibilities that the plane vanished from radar coverage because it blew up – via bomb, some structural failure, missile strike, meteorite, what have you,” writes James Fallows on Atlantic.com.
“The fact that the plane kept flying, with its transponders turned off, also works against any ‘pilot hypoxia’ assumptions,” writes Mr. Fallows, who is an instrument-rated private pilot. “Possibilities involving deliberate destruction – by the flight crew on its own, or by attackers who got control of the plane – thus become more likely.”
Late Friday afternoon, CNN reported this: "A classified analysis of electronic and satellite data suggests Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 likely crashed either in the Bay of Bengal or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean.... The analysis used radar data and satellite pings to calculate that the plane diverted to the west, across the Malayan peninsula, and then either flew in a northwest direction toward the Bay of Bengal or southwest into the Indian Ocean."
If true – the focus now is on further confirmation – that still doesn’t explain why the Boeing 777 (which has one of the aviation industry’s best safety records) diverted from its planned route to Beijing.
But CNN’s report is in line with what US officials quoted elsewhere speculated Friday – the latest theory to gain attention, which is some form of piracy.
“It’s looking less and less like an accident. It’s looking more like a criminal event,” one official told the Washington Post.
A US official said Friday in Washington that investigators are examining the possibility of "human intervention" in the plane's disappearance, adding it may have been "an act of piracy,” according to the AP.
In any case, cautions Mr. Smith, the airline pilot, “No matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn’t let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe.”
“Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation,” he writes.