Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a Titanic for our times

We've fallen (again) into the trap of over-reliance on the infallibility of all our technology

A message card is seen below a paper plane of a Malaysian airliner, on the message board for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
A message card is seen below a paper plane of a Malaysian airliner, on the message board for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Relatives are still waiting for news on what happened to the missing Malaysian airliner (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Relatives are still waiting for news on what happened to the missing Malaysian airliner (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
A relative of a Chinese passenger aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 shows a paper reading "Hunger strike protest, Respect life, Return my relative, Don't want become victim of politics, Tell the truth" as she speaks to the media outside a hotel ballroom after attending a briefing held by airlines' officials in Beijing, China, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
A relative of a Chinese passenger aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 shows a paper reading "Hunger strike protest, Respect life, Return my relative, Don't want become victim of politics, Tell the truth" as she speaks to the media outside a hotel ballroom after attending a briefing held by airlines' officials in Beijing, China, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

In a way we forget just how big the world used to be. Before the internet allowed us to zip, virtually anyway, from one side of the globe to the other via Skype and social networking. Before Google mapped it and streetviewed it and television documented its most remote corners.

There was a time only intrepid explorers ventured into the wildernesses and jungles. Now it's Bear Grylls and Joey Essex and your neighbours who've booked that all-inclusive Highlights of Mongolia package tour they keep going on about.

But in the last week the world has expanded again. It has become, once more, cavernous, mysterious and, frankly, quite scary.

They lost a jumbo jet. And nobody could find it. More than 200 souls on board. Men, women, children and machine – all vanished, seemingly from the face of the earth, as if plucked away by some evil spirit.

What happened to them? Technology it turns out, hadn't a clue. Once the plane's transponder had been turned off, the airliner could not be easily tracked. In the blink of an eye, the Boeing 777 with crew and passengers had been erased from the monitors as if it had never existed.

And within hours, we were engulfed in the resultant tidal wave of 'expert' theory, supposition, guesswork and rumour.

It had to have been a catastrophic explosion. A terror attack maybe or a terrible accident. It went this way. Perhaps that way. Eventually the Malaysians admitted they were looking at the possibility of hijack. There was speculation that maybe the hijacker was a passenger flying on a stolen passport. The pilot. The co-pilot.

News sites began bombarding internet sleuths with theories and graphics and aviation jargon.

Within a couple of days we were all up to speed on the logistics of aeroplane hijack. Even on the logistics of cyber-hijack. No suggestion, however bizarre, was spared analysis. And all the while, at the raw heart of this story, there have been two inescapable horrors. The nightmare for the passengers and their families. And that question all the world was asking – how could a massive, great plane just disappear like that? And so many countries searching, fail to find a trace of it?

We can tell with some degree of certainty, what's going on on the surface of Mars. We can't seemingly keep tabs on what's happening within airspace on our own planet. We are assured that technology is alert to the threat from an incoming asteroid. But how reassuring is that now that it appears that technology is unable to track a large flying object already within the earth's atmosphere?

The only thing we know for certain is that there are no certainties with this story. You wonder if the Malaysian authorities (and others) haven't known all along what happened to the flight. What aren't we being told? What, most importantly, aren't the relatives being told?

Such hell those people must have gone through in the last week or so. They've gone from hope all but crushed one day, to raised again the next. And all of us – all over the whole world – have been hoping along with them. For that's part of the human condition. To hold out hope when all logic would suggest the outcome is hopeless. And we've held out hope together because in one sense, the world is still that small place where we feel connected – even to strangers on the other side of the globe.

But the bewildering story of MAS Airlines flight MH370 – a Titanic for our times – underlines how we have fallen (again) into the trap of over-reliance on the infallibility of all our technology. We thought that things like this just couldn't happen. Not that aircraft were impregnable. But there was that unspoken assumption that when planes crashed or were hijacked or brought down, we would know exactly where and how.

Our small world it turns out, is not as small as we thought. Our capability not as great as we supposed.

 

Further reading:

Thai data adds to missing jet clues 

Malaysia Airlines: Did missing flight MH370 end up on dry land? China searches its own territory for plane 

Malaysia Airlines: Courtney Love believes she has 'found' missing flight MH370 

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: Did 'terrain masking' allow plane to elude radars?

Interactive Graphic: Search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 expanded  

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