Deep down, amid the profound blackness of an ocean at the bottom of the world, the final signals are fading from a metal box. It’s almost certainly trapped inside the body of a much larger metal fuselage that one month ago was filled with more than two hundred people, flying high above the night clouds, heading for friends, families, jobs and holidays in China. The sounds are coming from the so-called black box fitted to a 320-ton Boeing 777 airliner that vanished without trace a month ago. But soon, those sounds will vanish, too, as its batteries fade and die in the coming days. Then Flight MH370 will be silent for the last time.
Its secrets are already buried with its carcass. The black box flight recorder could tell us so many things we don’t know about its final hours — how it came to fall out of the sky; how a modern aircraft in the 21st century, well maintained with an experienced crew, could disappear without a sound, for the last few hours of its life, then crash without a trace. Even if the crew was unconscious and silent, the cockpit voice recorder would let us hear the final movements of the plane, its flaps, electronics and engine noise. Something in those final two hours of recording might unlock the mystery of the most baffling flight undertaken by any modern aircraft. But the data recorder is lost and, in a week or so, its signal will be dead.
Far above the doomed plane on the surface of the southern Indian Ocean, hundreds of seamen and women are scouring the waves for any sign of the plane, any wreckage, even a life vest, that might point them in the direction of the sunken fuselage. A Chinese ship involved in the search reported Saturday it picked up two "pulse signals" in the Indian Ocean, and an Australian ship reported that it detected an "acoustic event" 300 miles away from that spot on Sunday. But there is no official confirmation the pinging from either ship had anything to do with the missing jet.
U.S. Navy captain: Search could take “an untenable amount of time.”
One ship is towing a small but sophisticated yellow device, an underwater set of electronic ears that is listening for the pings from the black box. It got to the search zone just days ago, about four weeks after the plane was lost, and it can cover only three square miles a day, but its operators are combing their small patch of ocean in desperate hope. In truth, they have no idea if they’re in the right place.
Mark Matthews, the U.S. Navy captain in charge of the device, says the lack of information about where to go seriously hampers a search that could take “an untenable amount of time.” He is keen to point out that the black box recorder on board an Air France plane that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 wasn't found for two years, even though the debris was discovered within days. He’s not confident.
The young flight crews I’ve flown with during the search, from the U.S. and Australia, have high hopes and high morale.
“We owe it to the families to try every day,” they told me. But the mood has changed among those leading the search. The head of the Australian body now coordinating the multinational crews was quick, on his first full day, to lower expectations that any breakthrough was likely any time soon. Angus Houston said this was the most challenging search for a missing plane the world has ever seen and “not something that would necessarily be resolved in the next two weeks.” Flight crews are dampening their enthusiasm about the objects they see every day because most of the sightings turn out to be sea junk: fishing flotsam, not plane wreckage.
More and more ships join the search, more and more planes too. Satellites in space and submarines in deep water are scouring depths of up to 10,000 feet and finding nothing. In the coming days they could see the wreck of a World War II Australian destroyer, sunk in the same area, with the loss of more than 600 souls. It lay undiscovered for 60 years, until underwater cameras uncovered its ghostly wreck. That too, may be the fate of Flight 370.
For the relatives of the missing, every day is torture. They've no idea how their loved ones died, there are no bodies to bury, no graves to visit. Each new lead -- a mysterious ping, a scrap of floating debris -- brings a shred of hope that will likely be dashed. Many can’t let go of the absurdly remote possibility that, somehow, their child, or wife, or mother, or brother might still be alive. Absurd to us, but they cling to it because they trust no one, fear every day’s report, fume at the authorities and cry out for answers that no one can give them. Some are drowning in grief and pain and fury that in the 21st century, the century of unprecedented public surveillance, a dozen countries and hundreds of satellites and warships can’t trace a single piece of debris from a large aircraft.
Not since Amelia Earhart, the pioneer of ocean crossing, disappeared without trace in her small plane in 1937, aged 39, has mankind been so frustrated and humbled by its inability to solve a mystery. The U.S. sent an aircraft carrier and dozens of ships and small boats to find the wreckage of her plane in the Pacific. It was the most costly and intensive search in U.S. history. Nothing has ever been found, which is what the relatives, the searchers and the baffled world may have to accept.
It’s quite possible that we may never know in our lifetimes whether the pilot was a hero or a villain. Whether a passenger with evil intent and flying knowledge disabled the plane and rammed it into the sea. Whether the plane, and perhaps others like it, has a fatal flaw. Whether the cargo contained something combustible we should all know about.
And that’s the point. We all relate to this tragedy because there, but for the grace of God, go we all. Anyone who has flown in a plane can relate to this, but how many of us, really, have imagined the final minutes of that flight. The worry, in the dark, that the plane is very late landing, that there’s no sign of land, that the crew are anxious. Maybe they knew nothing. Maybe they were unconscious. Maybe we will never know.
The eyes of the world are turning away from Flight 370, as other crises, conflicts and controversies crowd in and take our attention away from the Indian Ocean. We would, all of us, love to know the answer to this extraordinary mystery. But as the black box pings forlornly and its batteries die down, deep down in one of the word’s most unknown places, the chances of that are diminishing fast.
First published April 6 2014, 1:28 AM