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Not since the American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared without a trace over the Pacific 77 years ago has there been a mystery like it.
And in so many respects the disappearance of Flight MH370 exactly six months ago today is a far more profound puzzle.
When Earhart went missing her plane was equipped with radio navigation systems, a Morse code receiver and a voice transmission system, all of which she used until her plane vanished into the sea. But this is rudimentary equipment compared to the highly sophisticated location devices on board the modern Malaysian Airlines jet.
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Earhart’s last known position was searched by American Navy ships and naval planes until, at a cost of $4 million, the most intensive search in U.S. history was called off without finding any trace of her or her plane.
But this is a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of millions of dollars (the exact figure isn’t known) spent by a dozen countries scouring a vast area of ocean for the missing Malaysian plane. Hundreds of men working thousands of hours have, for six months now, come up with precisely nothing.
And this bears repeating.
In six months, they have found not a single piece of debris that can be linked to the missing plane. Not a piece of clothing, nor a fragment of a body. Not a slick of oil. Not the slightest trace of a modern passenger jet, manned by an experienced crew, whose path was tracked by the most sophisticated radar equipment modern man has developed.
In our hi-tech, inter-connected, satellite-covered world, it is a staggering failure.
But it’s not for want of trying.
Experts from more than a dozen countries have searched for Flight MH370 with satellites from space, with planes from the air and with ships on the sea. They’ve scoured the ocean floor. On land, they've analyzed and re-analyzed the radar data and worked day and night to try to find the missing plane.
The batteries of the plane’s flight recorders, the black boxes, began to fade and die after 30 days; since then, submarines and ships have been all but blind in their search.
After a few weeks of searching, U.S. Navy Captain Mark Matthews suggested it could take years to find the plane because of the lack of information about where to go and the size of an ocean that could take "an untenable amount of time to search."
He pointed out that the search for the Air France plane that crashed into the Atlantic in 2009 recovered debris within days, yet it still took two years to find the black box and the plane.
And yet the search for MH370 goes on, and in the coming weeks it will enter a new phase.
For months now, ships have been mapping out tens of thousands of square miles at the bottom of the Southern Indian Ocean, an area more unknown to man than the surface of the moon. This has been the preparatory work to a search using submarines that will begin in earnest in October. It will be focused on a 40,000 square mile “priority area” and will last up to a year.
Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is overseeing the underwater search, says “we remain fully committed to finding the missing aircraft, and although it's taken us a long time to get there, we're at a point where we've completed almost all the planning work and can move to the operation phase of the underwater search".
There can be no doubting their best intentions; every nation involved, every one of the thousands of people who’ve searched for the plane, has done his and her best.
But try telling that to the distraught relatives of the 239 people who were on board the plane. It’s no comfort.
The families of the 227 passengers have suffered unimaginable anguish; from the early days of mixed messages and media glare, to the silence and indifference of today.
They have no idea how their loved ones died, why, when or where.
The relatives of the 12 crew members have fared little better. At first, some of the crew were suspected of causing the crash. The families of the pilot and co-pilot were questioned about their political beliefs, the theory being that one, or both, had determined to crash the plane deliberately.
Thieves tried to rob the bank accounts of missing passengers.
Flying on Malaysian Airlines became the subject of online and water-cooler comment worldwide, along the lines of “you’re flying Malaysian? Pack a parachute!”
Until a second Malaysian plane fell out of the sky, this one shot down by missile fire in Ukraine.
No one’s joking any more.
But the heartbreak hasn’t ended.
Or the puzzlement. As I flew on two search planes, skimming just 100 feet above the waves, I thought how amazing it was that there are some things modern man just can’t work out; man-made mysteries that are beyond our modern knowledge.
Soon, six months on, another set of vessels will head for the horizon off Western Australia, sailing with the glimmer of hope that they may solve one of the greatest mysteries of our time.