WASHINGTON — Watching a seat-back display with a plane-shaped icon gliding across the map, it is easy to forget that in true scale, the airplane is very small and the route very large. As the hours and days drag by with no trace of the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand early Saturday, the world is getting a reminder that if something goes wrong on a jet five miles up in the sky, traveling at 10 miles a minute, it can cover a lot of ground — or water — before it comes down to earth.
There is only speculation about what happened to the missing flight. But Arnie Reiner, a retired captain with US Airways and former chief accident investigator at Pan Am, noted, “If they somehow got turned around or went off course when the thing was going down, it could be 90 or 100 miles away from where the flight data disappeared.”
It is not yet known whether the Malaysian plane deviated from its flight path, or how long the pilots could still fly the aircraft after the last reported contact. Assuming the plane remained in powered flight or a controlled glide, the potential search area would cover thousands of square miles. After more than two days of fruitless search, Malaysian officials expanded the search area Monday.
The rule of thumb for a crew planning a normal descent to an airport is to allow three miles of distance for every thousand feet of altitude. A jetliner at 30,000 feet that cut its engines to idle would fly about 90 miles before reaching a runway near sea level. Another rule of thumb for pilots may shed light on why no distress signal was heard from the Malaysia Airlines flight. Pilots have a mantra for setting priorities in an emergency: Aviate, navigate, communicate. The first priority is to fly the airplane. Telling air traffic controllers on the ground what is going on comes third, since doing so is unlikely to instantly yield any help with the crisis in the cockpit, whatever it is.
Although officials have not ruled out terrorism in the Malaysia Airlines case, no evidence of foul play has come to light. No group has claimed responsibility for downing the plane, though Reiner said about the 747 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, “when Gadhafi’s guys blew up Pan Am 103, they weren’t talking about it.”
The mystery will probably not be solved until the wreckage, and especially the black boxes, are recovered. The wreckage alone could yield important clues, including whether the plane broke up in flight, suffered an explosion or had a mechanical failure. In most crashes, definitive findings on these questions take months or even years to establish.