Traceless

traceless

It’s going to be more than a month since MH 370 disappeared and yet the search teams from 14 countries are nowhere near finding the spot where the jetliner may have plunged, let alone zeroing in the debris. However, this is not the first time in aviation history that a passenger plane has vanished into thin air. According to records assembled by the Aviation Safety Network, more than 80 aircraft have gone missing in the 20th century alone. SANGEETA YADAV brings you a report on some such mysterious disappearances & the conspiracy chirp around them

It was 1.19 am, just 38 minutes after take-off from the Kuala Lumpur Airport that MH370’s co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid said from the cockpit: “Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero” — and the radar transponder was switched off.

From here on, began a manhunt that includes 14 nations, 43 ships and 58 aircraft. From Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan to Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia to Australia and the US — many bigwigs have joined the probe to find the lost jetliner with 239 people aboard. The trail kicked off from the Gulf of Thailand to the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea to end in Indian Ocean. Yet, the world is clueless about what happened to the flight and where it vanished.

With no news about what happened to the plane, no trace of bodies and no means to find a closure, not even floating debris, an oil slick or other remnants for over a month now, it’s been a traumatising time for the passengers’ families.

However, this is not the first time that an aircraft has disappeared without a trace. According to the Aviation Safety Network, more than 80 aircraft have gone missing since 1948, and the costliest, lengthiest search in the world started in an otherwise unhappening year of 1937 when 39-year-old Amelia Earhart, pioneer of ocean crossing, disappeared without trace in her small plane.

The search for her and the craft is a mystery that remains unsolved. The US sent in dozens of ships, boats and even air carriers to find any trace of wreckage in the Pacific. The $4 million, intensive search was finally stopped on July 19, 1937 without a result.It was July 2, 1937, midnight GMT that Earhart and Fred Noonan took off from Lae. Their intended destination was Howland Island, a flat sliver strip of land 6,500 feet long and 1,600 feet wide, 4,113 km away. Their last known position report was near the Nukumanu Islands, about 1,300 km into the flight.

At 7:42 am, Earhart radioed: “We must be on you, but can’t see you but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” Her 7:58 am transmission said she couldn’t hear the Itasca and asked them to send voice signals so she could try to take a radio bearing. This transmission was reported by the Itasca as the loudest possible signal, indicating Earhart and Noonan were in the immediate area. They couldn’t send voice at the frequency she asked for, so Morse code signals were sent. Earhart acknowledged receiving these but said she was unable to determine their direction.

In her last known transmission at 8:43 am, Earhart said: “We are on line 157337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.” A few moments later she was back on the same frequency (3105 kHz) with a transmission which was logged as questionable: “We are running on line north and south.” Whether any post-loss radio signals were received remains controversial. The last voice transmission received on Howland Island from Earhart indicated she and Noonan were flying along a line of position (taken from a ‘sunline’ running on 157–337 degrees).

Much like the many conspiracy theories around the disappearance of MH370, there are as many around Earhart. Besides the crash and sink theory, and the one that believes Earhart and Noonan ditched the plane because it ran out of fuel, the uninhabited Gardner Island theory of the Electra landing on an extensive reef flat near the wreck of a large freighter was the loudest. Earhart and Noonan, are said to have finally died here. Then there was a snoop buzz too, speculating that Earhart was spying on the Japanese in the Pacific at the request of the Franklin Roosevelt administration and a claim that she survived the flight, moved to New Jersey, changed her name, remarried and became Irene Craigmile Bolam still does the rounds every time her name is mentioned.

In 1966, CBS correspondent Fred Goerner published a book claiming Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed when their aircraft crashed on the island of Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands archipelago, while it was under Japanese occupation.

In 2009, Earhart’s relative stated that the pair died in Japanese custody, citing unnamed witnesses, including Japanese troops and Saipan natives. He claimed that the Japanese cut the valuable Lockheed aircraft into scrap and threw the pieces into the ocean. Thomas E Devine (who served in a postal Army unit) wrote Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident which includes a letter from the daughter of a Japanese police official admitting that her father was responsible for Earhart’s execution.

Back in March 16, 1962, the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation Flying Tiger Line Flight 739 which took off from Guam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines carrying 93 US soldiers and three South Vietnamese on-board went missing. The search, one of the largest air and sea searches in the history of the Pacific, failed miserably. The Civil Aeronautics Board determined that the plane had suffered a mid-air explosion, the cause of which remains a mystery. No wreckage was ever found in the large-scale, eight-day search operation.

In 1974, a Douglas DC-4 TAM-52 operated by Transporte Aereo Militar, the civilian branch of the Bolivian Air Force, disappeared on a non-scheduled passenger flight from Santa Rosa de Yacuma Airport to El Alto International Airport in La Paz. No trace of the aircraft, its three crew or 21 passengers was found.

Another flight, Fuerza Aérea Argentina C-54, which disappeared with 68 people on-board on November 1, 1965, is shrouded in mystery. A distress call by the crew was made which said that they would divert to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, but nothing more was heard. Investigators later recovered 25 lifeboats, personal belongings and some wreckage in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

The speculation was that the plane may have developed a technical snag, or the pilot and co-pilot may have sent the distress message to confuse the authorities or even that the flight may have been hijacked. The chirp also suggested that there was a passenger on the ill-fated flight who disabled the aircraft which plunged into the sea. Investigators, however, could never pinpoint on any of the above mentioned theories.

In 2003, meanwhile, a former American Airlines Boeing 727-223 departed from Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Angola with its lights off and transponder malfunctioning. That plane is yet to be found, despite a worldwide search by the FBI and the CIA. Investigators believe that the flight engineer and a private pilot Ben Charles Padilla were in the cockpit when it took off. Their whereabouts remain a mystery.

Of course, one can’t forget that over 100 planes and ships have vanished into thin air in the legendary Bermuda Triangle. While the mystery surrounding the region may have been ‘solved’ in 2009 but it doesn’t take away the fact that over 1,000 people disappeared in various vessels in this area.

Journalist Tom Mangold’s 2009 probe for the BBC provides plausible explanations for the disappearance of two British commercial planes. One plane developed a technical failure because of poor design and the other ran out of fuel and hence, they crashed. Other ‘solved’ theories insist there’s no mystery since some of the vessels weren’t anywhere near the Bermuda Triangle when they disappeared.In 1945, five American bombers ran a training mission over the area and were never found. The aircraft charged with finding the men deployed with a 13-man crew also vanished.

In 1948 and 1949, two British South American Airways disappeared with more than 51 people aboard. Many search missions were conducted but to no avail. On January 30, 1948, a BSAA Avro Tudor IV plane disappeared without trace. Twenty-five passengers and a crew of six were on board The Star Tiger. No bodies or wreckage were found. On January 17, 1949, the pilot of Star Ariel sent a routine communication of his position to the ground staff — and that very instant, the plane vanished without trace from 18,000 feet. No wreckage, debris or bodies were ever found. In 1918, a large cargo ship went missing in the triangle area without a trace with over 300 crew on board. This is probably one of the largest loss of lives in the Triangle which was at one time the most discussed area on Earth regarding alien hijackings.

While statistics insist that flying is still the safest mode of transport, what happened to MH 370 and all those 80 odd aircraft will remain a mystery. Was the crew anxious? Were they aware that their time was up or did they fall unconscious before the crash? Was there a crash? Did they die painlessly? Or were there screams as the jetliner probably went down or blew up into fragments midair? The answers will always elude the world at large and dog the families of the victims forever and ever.

Never found

Noorduyn Norseman, Bedford to Paris, 1944: On December 15, a single-engined aircraft left Twinwood Farm air base in south-east England Glenn Miller on-board. Within two minutes, the plane vanished into fog. It is said that the plane caught fire or more accurately was a victim of friendly jettisoning after a fleet of 139 Lancaster bombers returning from an aborted mission to Germany dumped their bombs over the English channel, right on to Miller’s plane.

Avro York, UK to Jamaica, 1953: A Skyways passenger plane on its way from Stansted airport to Jamaica disappeared after an SOS call over the north Atlantic in February, with 39 people on-board. No trace of the plane or its passengers was ever found.

Flying Tigers Line Flight 739, 1962: A propliner chartered by the US military disappeared with 93 US soldiers and 3 South Vietnamese from Travis Air Force Base. The flight landed in Guam for refueling and departed for Philippines. After 80 minutes the pilot radioed a routine message and reported no trouble. That was the last contact ever made.

Varig Boeing 707-323C, 1979: A cargo aircraft of Varig Brazilian Airlines disappeared on January 30, half hour after takeoff from Narita International Airport in Tokyo. The Rio-bound flight had just six people on board, but it was carrying 153 paintings valued at more than $1.2 million, adding to the intrigue. The plane, people and paintings all remain missing. Investigators said that depressurisation in the cabin was the cause of its disappearance.

Boeing 727, Angola, 2003: This American Airlines passenger jet that was converted and leased to an Angolan airline before being grounded at Luanda airport for non-payment of bills with an American mechanic started moving and took off in May 2003. Without a transponder, it disappeared over the Atlantic never to be found.

Merpati Nusantara Airlines Flight 6715, 1995: The Merpati Nusantara Airlines Flight 6715 went missing on a scheduled sortie from Bima Airport to Satartacik Airport, Ruteng, Indonesia, on January 10, 1995. The four crew and 10 passengers aboard the Twin Otter 300 are believed to have crashed in the Molo Strait in bad weather, but investigators were never able to find the plane or its occupants.

MH 370 Timeline

Saturday, March 8: Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 departs at 12:41am local time on Saturday. It is due to land in Beijing at 6:30 am the same day. The flight was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew — in all, 239 people were on board. The passengers were from 12 nationalities. The crew was entirely Malaysian.

An hour after take-off, the flight loses contact with air traffic control. The last-known position of the plane was 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu. The hunt for MH 370 begins.

Sunday, March 9: Radar tracking the flight suggests it may have ‘turned back’ from its scheduled route to Beijing before vanishing. Search radius widens to 50 nautical miles from 20 nautical miles of the last-known position of the plane, including the Strait of Malacca. Countries like China, US, Singapore, Philippines join the search.

Monday, March 10: Malaysian authorities receive test results from the oil slick spotted off Vietnam’s coast, which came back negative for jet fuel. The oil turns out to be fuel oil typically used in cargo ships.

Wednesday, March 12: The area of search for the missing aircraft expands to 27,000 nautical square miles covering the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca, with a total of 14 countries participating in the operation. A total of 43 ships and 58 aircraft were involved in the search. A Chinese Government agency releases satellite images of what could be 370 debris.

Thursday, March 13: Malaysian Transport Minister Seri Hishammuddin dismisses claims that the missing aircraft may have flown for about four hours past the time it disappeared.

Saturday, March 15: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak says at a Press conference that actions taken on board Flight MH370 were deliberate — including the disabling of the aircraft’s communications system shortly before the plane reached the east coast of Malaysia as well as the flight’s divergence from its planned route.

Tuesday, March 18: The AP reported that checks into the background of the Chinese citizens on board the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner uncover no links to terrorism. The radar tracks a plane flying towards the Strait of Malacca, which is where the Malaysian radar tracked MH370 on March 8. Information suggests the change in the flight’s direction was plugged into a computer in the cockpit by someone familiar with airplane computer systems.

Monday, March 24: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak says fresh analysis of satellite data tracking MH370 shows that the flight went down with passengers and the crew in the southern Indian Ocean, west of Perth — a remote location, far from any possible landing sites.

Wednesday, April 9: The search for MH370 continues with reports of debris sightings and theories about what happened to the ill-fated flight and its passengers. At 9:50 am, the news of four pings raises hopes.The search zone calls it ‘the loneliest place on Earth’ because the sounds came from a very remote spot around 4,500 metres under water. Since April 8, the search has narrowed down to 57,923 sq km.

Friday, April 11: A fifth beep was heard but no conclusive proof still. The search continues.

(The article was published in Sunday Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/investigation/traceless.html)

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