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The baseless rush to blame the pilots of Flight 370

The baseless rush to blame the pilots of Flight 370

Commercial aviation has never faced a crisis as grave as the one presented by Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370. At a time when flying has never been safer airplanes just don’t go missing without trace. And yet one has, taking 239 people with it. Vanished.

Public confidence in the governance of international air travel is shaken. The reputation of two world-esteemed companies, Boeing and Rolls Royce, is at stake. Not only that, but the whole technical hubris of the age of super-connectivity has been rendered hollow by the discovery that, in fact, we are not being watched all of the time wherever we are on the planet. There are, it turns out, vast voids as little watched over as the moon.

This sad drama has been compounded by an engulfing fog of speculation, frequently reaching a tone of hysteria. People are spooked. They want information that nobody is able to provide. We have come to expect quick enlightenment. That isn’t possible. We demand transparency and coherence. They’re not happening.

What little evidence there is has been contaminated by the performance of the Malaysian authorities. They resemble a bunch of dumb cops blundering over a crime scene, arguing over what it reveals and what it does not and competing for attention. In a sadly familiar ploy of the pursued, the prime minister himself was put up to float a theory so far lacking in any persuasive facts: the pilots did it. Dead men have no defense.

So, after nine days, what can really be understood about the forensics of this tragedy?

There are two apparently solid facts that condition everything else:

After their last routine exchange with controllers the pilots never sent any Mayday or distress message. The captain’s last reported words were calm and normal: “All right, good night.”

The transponders – the airplane’s continual link with the outside world, receiving and sending information about its position, were turned off.

Essentially, these two triggers ensured that the Boeing 777 would disappear. That could be either by design, by deliberate human intervention, or as a result of a technical failure.

There were two other ways for the airplane to automatically report its progress. All modern jets have computers constantly monitoring their systems and, in a limited way, able to send status reports to flight control centers on the ground. The 777 was equipped with Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). In the case of Flight 370, no messages sent to Boeing and engine-maker Rolls Royce indicated a problem.

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