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The facts we don't know: Steve Braunias on Flight 370

Mar 20, 2014 etc

Three days after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was reported missing, I started thinking: They’ll never find it.

Gone, disappeared, lost. An awesome object reduced to one of the new words we’ve learned in the past fortnight – “pings”, the hourly messages sent via satellite. The aircraft was scheduled to fly 4418km in six hours and 40 minutes. A father of one of the passengers screamed at Malaysian Airlines officials, “Time is passing by!” That was a week ago. More time has passed by. The only thing that isn’t entirely lost is hope.

Hope, that the plane is on land, the right way up, in one piece. Hope, that at least some – one would be incredible, fantastic – of the 239 passengers and crew are alive.

The very best sentence I’ve read anyone say about the disappearance came from someone called Todd Curtis. He is described as a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on its 777 jumbo jets. He said on day four: “At this early stage, we’re focusing on the facts that we don’t know.”

The facts we don’t know: it’s the title of this past fortnight. The plane may have flown above 45,000 feet, which may have incapacitated or killed the passengers. It may have flown as a low as 5,000 feet, to escape radar detection. Sensitive headline, London’s Daily Mail newspaper: “Aviation experts say passengers would have felt it plunging.”

May have, could have, would have. There was the early discovery of those two oil slicks: nothing. There was the curious testimony of the New Zealander working on an oil rig, who saw a plane on fire: nothing. There were “three suspected floating objects” spotted by a Chinese satellite, measuring  13 by 18 metres, 14 by 19 metres and 24 by 22 metres: nothing.

The South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait: nothing.

Oceanic gulfs, black holes. Stupidity loves a vacuum. You should never read the comments section for any reason, because you will always find something like this, in the Daily Mail newspaper: “The plane went back into time to the era of the dinosaurs. End of story. The exact same thing happened with a Boeing 707 flying from London to New York in 1961. If I recall correctly it was Flight 33. Google it.”

You know someone on board. You don’t want to hear about dinosaurs. You have the basic, minimal amount of human decency and empathy for people who do know someone on board, and you don’t want to hear about dinosaurs. You want to hear information. But all you’re left with is pings, and the facts we don’t know.

Someone called Captain John Cox, described as a former US Airways pilot, said on day three: “We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don’t know a whole lot.” We don’t know hardly anything.

We know that life sails on. “Everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Auden wrote. Malaysia Airlines flight number 318 has replaced the flight number of the missing airplane; 370 was retired as a mark of respect. The flight route remains unchanged. It still shows up on the little screens in front of passenger’s seats – that straight line connecting Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, over blue water and green land.

The line that 370 took is lost. The world is looking for clues. The experts are on hand. The media is doing its best. Fox News is usually thought of as nonsense, an alarming showbiz, but I’ve watched it more than any other news channel on the Sky network. It’s sized up every angle. It’s found rather a lot of ex-CIA covert operatives to come on and discuss the possibilities of terrorism. It’s  talked and talked and talked, which is better than silence.

In one of the breaks (“Fox Extra!”), it featured an interview with a former Navy seal, who was plugging his new book. He had a crewcut. He looked fit, alert, quite good-humoured. Cade Courtley’s book is called Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster.

His advice included, “Assess the situation. Make situational responses.” Maybe that’s come in use for someone on 370. Maybe it was crucial. You can only hope. But among the facts we don’t know is beyond the Navy Seal’s remit, something beyond everyone on earth: we don’t know the situation.


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