Flight MH370: Closure may never occur

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As devastating as it will be for despairing families and friends, Flight MH370 may never be found, casting a shadow over global aviation safety, writes Luke Devine.

THE DISAPPEARANCE of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has captured the collective imagination of people across the world.

The mystery of where the plane is only compounds the sense of catastrophe attached. A plane crash in and of itself is a significant event. A plane vanishing into thin air is seismic.

It’s the information age — so where’s the plane?

The latest news says it’s in Indian Ocean, but in the absence of any actual wreckage, that’s yet another node in a story that may never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

So why are people so obsessed with it?

Statistically, jet flight is safer than driving in a car. However, when taking a flight, you are conscious of the precarious aerodynamics of the aircraft. Ultimately, it’s a piece of metal flying through the sky. Despite all the safety redundancies built into modern planes, one small failure can cause it to drop.

Aviation incidents like this are resonant because they tap into something visceral. It’s the same nervous jolt you experience when you’re on a plane and it suddenly pitches or changes altitude, sending a signal to your brain that things have gone wrong. In most cases, it’s fine. On Flight 370, however, that instant of fright manifested into something unpleasant.

That we don’t know what that was is difficult for the public to process — not to mention the relatives of those on board. This has created an environment where all sorts of theories have proliferated, from the rational to the ridiculous.

In the past week, every piece of ocean borne junk detected by a satellite inside the search radius was identified as ‘possibly’ Flight 370. Yet there is scant acknowledgement that, in all likelihood, the plane won’t be found.

Consider the precedent.

In 2009, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The Airbus 330 was a comparable size to the Boeing 777-200 and also a red-eye flight. The same agonising wait ensued after its disappearance — the difference being that a storm flagged the strife that had befallen the aircraft.

It took them five days to find that wreckage and two more years to discover the black box flight recorders that held the key to the disaster. This was the result of three extensive searches that looked like they would yield nothing.

Four years after AF447 hit the ocean, disaster series like Air Crash Investigations recreated the event in painstaking detail.

A combination of bad weather, mechanical failure and pilot error was attributed as the cause.

It was a long wait for those invested in the passengers, crew, the airline and indeed the plane itself. Yet, if they hadn’t found the black box, no one would have ever known at all.

It’s important to note, investigators of AF447 knew where to look.

The Malaysian Government has now confirmed that new satellite data provided by Inmarsat all but proves Flight 370 crashed into the Indian Ocean. This conjecture is based on the time it takes for the planes ACARS sensors to ping off the satellite.

Despite the Inmarsat data, the declaration is abstract in light of the haphazard way the Malaysian Government has distributed information about the disappearance so far. Giving the impression of finality is perhaps the first acknowledgement that the largest search in aviation history may not yield a result.

The 24-hour news cycle is now starving for information about Flight 370. Stories are being recycled and extrapolated.

Journalists are inflating the speculation into news packages. These create impression that this phase of the news cycle will culminate in the discovery of the plane. It’s a narrative construct that appeals to our need for resolution. It doesn’t psychologically prepare anyone for the possibility that Flight 370 won’t be found.

There’s no doubt not knowing is excruciating for relatives of those who were lost. But the implications for such an unsolved mystery are broader than that.

If Flight 370 isn’t recovered, no one will step onto a plane without thinking of the aircraft that disappeared. And that will be a shadow that remains over aviation safety for quite some time.

Follow Luke on Twitter @TheLukeDevine.

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