I was very young, but the memory remains. When Tampomas II sank, one of Indonesia’s worst maritime accidents, Mom carefully explained the basics of the event before sternly forbade me to mention it in my Balinese dancing class. Capt. A Rivai, who bravely rescued passengers before going down with the ship himself, had a daughter in the class, and Mrs Rivai hadn’t figured out how to tell her.
Yes, got to hand it to my mother to explain the notions of death, nautical catastrophe and collective white lie in one sitting to a little girl who still believed in Santa, but that’s another story.
The world has gone much more wired and advanced than the days of Tampomas II. We get breaking news on our handheld devices through multiple portals we can choose, in addition to the good old TV, radio and prints. Mrs Rivai’s honorable act to shield her young daughter from the horrific news would be a virtually impossible feat now. When news broke that a Malaysian Airlines flight had gone missing I was in a building with awful cellular signal, yet tidbits still managed to find me.
Many people go on their lives with general awareness of what modern technologies have brought— digital data, biometric trackers, autopilots, satellite feeds, trained drones, mapped gnomes, Moon and Mars landings (next, Jupiter!) and, oh, the God’s particle. An esteemed global magazine even proclaimed last year that there was no more room for major inventions. But this latest incident sorely showed how we Earthlings haven’t figured it all out.
It has been a circus– growing wilder every minute we found no trace, frustrating authorities and agonizing the loved ones of 239 souls onboard MH370. Even Malaysian government who appeared in control at the beginning started issuing conflicting statements, while Malaysian Airlines’ seemingly well-placed crisis management eventually came under fire. Having a soft spot for aviation, I’ve been glued to TV for official press conferences and roamed the Net for commentaries and charts from aviation tech professionals or air safety experts that turned out to be a circus on its own.
Without debris, distress signals, or the certainty of the plane’s last position, the pros could only work with assumptions, valid or otherwise. Aviation is a cutting-edge industry getting technologies straight from military, where math and physics reign firm, yet it’s interesting to observe how pros couldn’t even agree on, for example, whether the Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) model had SatCom High Gain Antenna or if transponder had underwater pinger like flight recorder (black box). I even stumbled upon a sensational decompression scenario from, don’t ask, Professional Pilot Rumors Network.
Beyond those highly technical issues there were aspects we laymen assumed close to our increasingly gadget-assisted life, hence sprouted public ideas using GPS, Google Earth, weather satellites, even Find My iPhone feature—most of which were refuted by credible tech writers. I pored over their columns and humbly realized that, though we often utter the words, laymen know nothing about the basics of satellite and radar let alone primary vs secondary or military vs civil, each has different range, capture and record mechanism.
Then to turn speculations more colorful, those stolen passports and canceled bookings. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch jumped gun on Twitter regarding jihadists—drawing worldwide scorn and contradicted by Interpol soon, but not before getting retweeted by many Chinese tweeps. The terrorism talk returned after US officials indicated possible flying activity after the aircraft last detected by radars. Yet what’s more worrisome is the fact that not all countries are linked to Interpol’s database (currently has 42 million passports, which in 2012 was consulted against 800 million times and resulted in 60,000 hits of stolen passports).
It’s a 250-ton state-of-the-art jet with experienced pilots on a clear weather, it can’t just vanish—people have argued. Yet MH370 is not the only flight ever disappeared without leaving traces, indicating emergencies or both. Nobody has located any wreckage from Amelia Earhart’s 1937 flight or the US military plane leaving Guam in 1962. Indonesia needed ten days in 2007 after Adam Air 574 plunged into Sulawesi Sea. In 2009 Air France 447, a hi-tech Airbus 330-200 carrying 228 souls, vanished sans signals somewhere between Rio and Paris. It pays to note that the bewildered Air France took five full days to find debris and two years for black box in 17,000sqkm search area (half of Belgium). On its 6th day the joint SAR of at least 42 ships and 39 aircrafts from 12 countries including Indonesia were searching the area of 27,000 nautical miles (roughly the size of Portugal), five times the search area for AF447.
So there, how much we know, don’t know, or thought we knew, about the mode of transportation that has become common and affordable for highly-mobile global citizens in recent decades and related SAR efforts. Undoubtedly there’s still a huge room for major inventions, and for us to grow. More than what we don’t know, I think, is what we don’t even know that we don’t know.
Fully aware that MH370 carried fuel enough only for 6-7 hours, I’ve been praying that wherever it landed God was there to safeguard it until we could discover it. Loved ones of 239 people deserve a closure. The rest of us deserve to get a chance to learn more on air safety, travel security, SAR technology and, oh God, so much more.