Into Thin Air

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 prayer
Ahmad Zikri Mohamad Zuki—Demotix/Corbis In the town of Subang Jaya, a chalkboard bears messages of support for the missing passengers.

In an era of GPS and Google Maps, how does a jet plane disappear?

It sounds like a real-life version of Lost: a 272-ton Boeing 777, one of aviation’s trustiest workhorses, takes off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and vanishes less than an hour into a flight to Beijing, falling off air-traffic radar screens and triggering a massive search involving high-tech warships, nimble supersonic jets, all-seeing satellites–the combined technological resources of 26 countries. Days go by without a trace of the airliner. Big Brother looks high and low–and finds nothing.

The world lost contact with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the early hours of March 8, somewhere in no-man’s-sky between Malaysia and Vietnam. Every day that followed brought new theories of what might have happened as dark turned to dawn. Was the plane hijacked to some remote landing strip and, if so, where are the passengers? Or had the jet malfunctioned and crashed into the ocean–and if so, where was the debris? As search teams looked for answers to these questions, the millions of people worldwide who were watching for updates about MH 370 were left wondering how, in 2014, technology could come up so short, allowing a 209-ft. (64 m) airliner carrying 239 people to disappear for the longest period of time in modern commercial-aviation history.

The strange saga of MH 370 doesn’t fit into the narrative of our omniscient era. The world’s intelligence agencies can watch and listen to millions of us as we go about our lives. Even we nonspies have plenty of tracking technology at our disposal. Pull up a web browser and with a few keystrokes we can locate our lost iPhones, track satellites as they circle the earth, use Google Maps to explore far-off lands. How, then, with our mind-bogglingly complex infrastructure of bits and bytes, did we fail to track a jumbo jet?

The answers are disturbing. For all the post-9/11 security protocols we submit to every time we get on a plane, much of the basic technology that is meant to track our progress through the sky is full of holes. And even our most modern aircraft can be rendered invisible by the human hand.

A week after MH 370 vanished, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak gave his first official statement on the matter, saying the disappearance was no accident but the result of a “deliberate action by someone on the plane.” Less than an hour after its departure, at 12:41 a.m., someone switched off the aircraft’s two main modes of contact: the automated Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) and the transponder that sends the plane’s unique signals to ground control. At 1:19 a.m., according to subsequent statements by Malaysian authorities, the plane’s co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, uttered the last known words from MH 370 to air-traffic control: “All right, good night.” (The pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, was a 33-year veteran with more than 18,000 flight hours.)

The aircraft then strayed from its original flight path. Someone with knowledge of flight systems had punched new coordinates into the plane’s computer. Instead of making its way north toward China, MH 370 abruptly banked west, heading back over peninsular Malaysia. It then crossed over the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Days later, it was discovered that the jet’s progress had been tracked by a series of electronic handshakes sent to a commercial satellite system to which Malaysia Airlines had not subscribed, much like a cell phone making contact with an unknown carrier. The last satellite ping came at 8:11 a.m. on March 8. But the data could narrow down the possible end point of the plane’s journey only to a 3 million-sq.-mi. (7.8 million sq km) swath stretching from Central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.

Who’s Watching the Sky?

If the airliner had turned northwest and headed to Central Asia, it should have been picked up by the radar systems of nations like India, Pakistan and China, and U.S. bases in Afghanistan. Or not. The truth is that the infrastructure that watches our skies has been cobbled together over the decades in bits and pieces. It doesn’t change until disaster strikes. There are no laws mandating that the most up-to-date communications wizardry be used, and retrofitting airplanes is expensive. “In my business, there’s what they call a tombstone mentality–to get things done, you have to have blood on the ground or dead people,” says Robert Benzon, who spent 25 years as an aircraft-accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “When things go right, it’s very difficult to spend money on anticipating something going wrong.”

If that’s not unnerving enough, try this: some radar systems–like those in the region where MH 370 went missing–are kept switched off, ready to be powered up only in the event of regional tensions. High costs prevent governments from keeping all their air-surveillance systems on at all times.

A dearth of trust among Asian nations–India and Pakistan, for instance–further complicates the issue: governments can be reluctant to share any data that is considered militarily significant, or they can dawdle during times of urgency. On March 18, Thailand revealed that shortly after MH 370 stopped communicating with ground control, its military radar might have picked up the missing airplane. Although the disclosure did not trigger a change in the investigation, the fact that it took Thailand 10 days to share potentially significant military intelligence underlined the challenges involved in coordinating an international search effort.

Cooperation over international waters, meanwhile, is a patchwork: shore-based radars are effective no more than 250 miles (400 km) from land, meaning different ground stations are in charge of tracking a flight at different times. This can lead to an airplane falling through the cracks.

A more-than-70-year-old technology, radar is also limited to line of sight, meaning it doesn’t work through mountains or bend to match the earth’s curvature. “When an aircraft is in a remote area or over the ocean, there essentially is no tracking system in place,” says David Ison, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

There are more-modern technologies available, but the industry simply hasn’t taken them on board. “There should be a real-time GPS tracking system with the technology we have today,” says William Lawrence, a retired U.S. Marine pilot and aviation expert in Fort Worth. Such a system, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), does exist. But many parts of the globe, including the continental U.S., still rely on radar and radios. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration plans to convert to ADS-B usage by 2020.

For airlines, adopting the latest technology is prohibitively expensive. Malaysia Airlines was already teetering financially before MH 370 vanished. A jet, after all, is not an iPhone. It has a life span of 30 to 40 years, and the product-development cycle alone runs up to a decade from paper to plane. Upgrading fleets with the newest avionics just costs too much. Consider this: adding wi-fi to jets costs around $250,000 a pop.

Why Is There an Off Switch?

Even modern GPS systems work only until someone switches them off, as most of us do to conserve our smartphone batteries. It’s a fair bet you didn’t know before MH 370 disappeared that it’s also possible to turn off virtually all the communications systems on an airliner. Not only can a pilot switch off a plane’s transponder, but he or she can also disable the flight recorders–known as black boxes–that record inflight activity, according to Jim Cash, a retired NTSB expert on black boxes. Even if they are functioning properly, black boxes are useless if they can’t be found. MH 370’s flight recorder should emit a search beacon for 30 days, but only if it is less than 2 miles (3.2 km) underwater. The average depth of the southern Indian Ocean, where the missing airplane might have crashed had it followed a southwesterly route, is more than 2 miles.

Why do planes have locating devices that can be turned off? One reason: deliberate sabotage of the system is extremely rare, so there has been no reason to change it. Additionally, transponders were originally outfitted with an off switch so they wouldn’t interfere with radar at airports. Newer radar systems aren’t confused by airplane beacons, but again, large commercial airliners haven’t been updated with automated transponders that turn on once a plane is airborne.

The focus on human intervention in the cockpit spawned speculation about who might have been behind the disappearance and how they might have flown under the radar. Was the captain or his first officer suicidal or a fanatic? Did a passenger with aviation expertise force his or her way to the controls? It seems more likely that the plane flew undetected over the southern Indian Ocean rather than taking the northern route, which bristles with many countries’ military radar. But yet another hypothesis made the rounds: perhaps the plane flew in the wake of another airliner, escaping radar notice like a remora attached to a shark.

The possibility that MH 370 might have crashed into the ocean put many in mind of Air France Flight 447, which vanished over the Atlantic in 2009 en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro. But the two cases differ in important respects. A combination of bad weather, crew errors and wrong readings of airspeed relayed to the cockpit led Flight 447 to plunge into the South Atlantic, killing all 228 on board. It took two years to recover the plane’s black boxes, but that was because they were 13,000 ft. (3,960 m) underwater: investigators knew where to look. “In Air France, there was floating debris right away, which was a pretty good indicator, and that gave them an area to search,” Benzon says.

The MH 370 mystery has also thrown a spotlight on security procedures at airports around the world. Since 9/11, we have gotten used to packing our toiletries in transparent bags and automatically raising our arms for airport pat-downs. But that didn’t stop two men from boarding the plane with stolen passports. This was revealed soon after news of the jetliner’s disappearance broke, and attention focused on the pair, who were later identified as young Iranians. It turned out they were not terrorists but illegal immigrants seeking new lives in Europe. That they were able to easily evade immigration checks raises troubling questions. Interpol has cataloged some 40 million stolen or missing passports in a database–including the two documents used on MH 370. Yet fewer than 20 nations use the registry. The Malaysians clearly didn’t tap Interpol’s resources.

Human Incomprehension

Fixes to procedure and technology, even if they are implemented, are for the future. They do not ease the anguish of the families of those who vanished on MH 370. The majority, 153, were Chinese, and at a Beijing hotel where their relatives had been cooped up waiting for any word, some threw water bottles at Malaysia Airlines staff members they felt were withholding information. “The families have been taken as hostages,” said a man surnamed Ye, whose brother-in-law, businessman Chen Jianshe, 58, was on the plane. “It is like they have a rope around each family’s neck and they are pulling it bit by bit. It gets tighter each day.”

Many of the passengers were among China’s new middle class and relatively new to the wonders of air travel to foreign lands. Some of the relatives are only a half-step removed from China’s farms and factories. With their sunburned necks and ill-fitting suits, they wandered, lost and exhausted, around the hotel’s grand ballroom, which had been turned into a Malaysia Airlines command center. But there was little information to command. For weatherbeaten farmer and urban sophisticate alike, it is hard to make sense of the disappearance of MH 370.

–With reporting by Emily Rauhala and Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing, Per Liljas/Kuala Lumpur, Massimo Calabresi, Michael Crowley, Michael Scherer and Mark Thompson/Washington and Bill Saporito and Emily Maltby/New York

This appears in the March 31, 2014 issue of TIME.
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