Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The mystery of MH370

(Published in Business Standard on March 22, 2014)

Two weeks on, the world is in one vast group hug to deal with the fact that we seem to have…well, misplaced a ginormous plane. The only newspaper in the world that doesn’t have something about it on the front page every day, is every newspaper in the world two weeks ago. Headlines have gone from restrained-tragic (‘Malaysian Airlines carrying 239 disappears’) to openly frustrated (‘Where’s the damn plane?’).

People in public places crowd around television screens to watch the non-stop coverage of MH370 with their mouths open. And, since there’s nothing like the internet to make you an instant expert on everything, everyone has a theory, especially when the thing is growing to epic proportions—twenty countries, a three million nautical mile search area, about a million hypotheses ranging from highly technical airmanshippy stuff to highly deranged aliens-and-black-holes stuff.

It’s all we’ve been talking about. I see your two oil slicks and raise you one yellow floating object. Forget the 14-minute gap between communications shutting down—what about the Indian military radar in the Andamans that they turn off to save costs? (Shh, don’t tell China.) There hasn’t been so much shouting about a sharp left turn since the Tea Partiers beheld their current Commie Kenyan Muslim president.

People who can’t change a light bulb in their own houses are chatting blithely about transponders and ACARS and the $10 Swift upgrade that Malaysian Airlines never bothered with. People who haven’t put a coherent sentence together in years are arguing about the Goodfellow electrical fire theory versus the Ledgerwood shadow flight path theory.

Everyone now knows that there’s a thingy between the pilot and co-pilot into which the flight path and emergency alternatives are programmed. Everyone now knows that a flight recorder ‘black box’ is actually orange, and gives off a signal for 30 days. Everyone knows that you have to Aviate, Navigate and Communicate, in that order, and that you’d have to get out of your seat, crawl through a trapdoor and tame a lion to disable both communication systems on a 777. Nobody will ever say “All right, good night” the same way again.

Knowing these things practically makes us all pilots, even those of us who have been flying planes for years from the economy cabin, selflessly staying awake wild-eyed and white-knuckled through every flight in order to ensure that the stupid thing stays aloft and the rest of you can sleep peacefully. But events like the Mystery of MH370 show that there’s always room for improvement—for instance, it never previously crossed my mind that you could conceivably take control of a flight from a computer terminal on the ground. I now have new things to worry about.

If there’s an upside to misplacing an enormous aircraft, it is that everyone’s geography stands vastly improved. Every bonehead at Riverdale High now knows where the Gulf of Vietnam, the Malacca Strait, the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean are. Also, Malaysia. The only exception is the Malaysian government, which doesn’t seem to know anything.

As I write this, the Aussies have just found two large floating objects in the southern Indian Ocean. It could be MH370’s wreckage, which would be such a huge breakthrough that we’ll all have to go to a bar for a drink and a cry; or it could be something that fell off a cargo ship, which happens all the time—who knew?—in which case we’ll all still be living on caffeine and suspense.

Here’s to closure soon. I’m so emotionally exhausted from looking for the plane that I have nothing left to give to the Indian election—which is okay; the feeling, I fear, is mutual.

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