When airplanes go missing in the ocean…

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April 6, 2014 by kittynh

The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines fight MH370 has captured the imagination of newscasters and the public.The mystery of just where the flight went down will be solved, and with time the mystery of why it went down will most likely also be solved through the process of recovery of the wreckage.

News organizations seem confounded that the airplane was not immediately found.  Interviews abound with non aviation experts complaining, “My phone knows where I am all the time, how can an entire airplane go missing?”  There seems to be some confusion about how anything can go missing in this day and age of constant monitoring.

As a skeptic, my ever continuing education has included the works of Larry Kusche.  “The Bermuda Triangle Mystery- Solved” and “The Disappearance of Flight 19” are primers on how to conduct a skeptic investigation.  Kusche is an experienced pilot, and his knowledge of flying was instrumental in his research.

The people complaining about “how can an airplane just vanish?” are not aviation experts like Kusche.

Avenger trainer

Avenger trainer

I was decided to re-read “The Disappearance of Flight 19” because of all the media attention on the missing Malaysian Airliner.  The book I feel solves the mystery of the missing Torpedo Avenger bombers stationed at Ft.Lauderdale Florida Naval Air Station right after WWII.  The war had just ended and the five planes went out on a training mission under the command of the perhaps less than responsible Lieutenant Charles Taylor.  The wreckage of the Torpedo Avengers has never been found, but this flight was lost in 1945 not 2014.

Still, the comparisons are there to be found.  Nature, be it forest or ocean, can often conceal victims of misfortune.  A small plane was lost flying into a small airport in New Hampshire. It was lost minutes before it was to land and the remains were not found for years.  Since I live in NH, I am very familiar with the area where the plane was lost.  Remember this plane was close to landing and on radar.  When this plane was lost, people commented they could not believe it could not be found.  One theory was that is was an elaborate plot for the occupants to disappear and establish new identities.  Instead, the plane with the remains of the occupants, was eventually found.

Still, I wondered if Kusche could offer anything that would help me understand how hard it is to find any plane lost over water, be it 1945 or 2014.

The search for the Avengers was impeded by the same problem as the search for the Malaysian airliner, just which area should be searched?  Determining the approximate area in which a plane went down can take time.  Kusche points out the first 24 hours are crucial if there are any survivors.  After 24 hours, the chance of finding any survivors or debris goes down.

Memorial for Flight 19.

Memorial for Flight 19.

The Avengers went down in rough seas, an almost impossible scenario for a successful ditching of the plane.  Kusche writes about the delay in searching the correct area where the planes may have gone down:

“Because in rough seas survivors die more quickly, wreckage is more rapidly sunk, and oil or gas slicks, if any, are promptly dispersed…”

While the Malaysian airliner might have gone down in calm seas, the expectation of finding oil or gas slicks and debris after all this time seems unlikely.

Kushe writes of what an Avenger crashing into the ocean would be like.

“The impact of a plane traveling nearly 100 miles an hour can be as great with water as it is with the ground.  Windows may break, canopies tear off, seat belts snap, and seats come loose from the floor.  As often as not, the plane will cartwheel or turn upside down.  It may nose under and just keep going down.  Helmets provide almost no protection.  The head offers little resistance to the smallest knobs.”

What applies to a small plane can also apply to a large airliner.  Any plane is small compared to the sea.

Watery fate awaits...

Watery fate awaits…

Still, where is all the debris that everyone seems to expect from the missing airliner.  Kusche writes of the lack of debris from Flight 19:

“After an Avenger accident, life rafts, bodies and jackets would remain only if someone had lived through the ditching and escaped from the plane.  Bodies are rarely found anywhere in the ocean, being readily attacked by sharks and other predators.  A life jacket tends to slip off a lifeless body allowing it to sink.  Popular belief to the contrary, oil and gas slicks are rare after an aircraft accident.”

He continues:

“Parts of the plane itself are seldom found unless it explodes.  An airplane is quite sturdy.  It does not normally shatter into a ‘junkyard of debris’ upon impact; it is far more likely to go down intact.”

No debris was ever found from the loss of Flight 19, though much debris was found and examined by the Navy.  Debris floating in the ocean is very common.

I highly recommend reading “The Disappearance of Flight 19” for what I feel is the solution of the mystery of the missing Avenger planes.  Also, the reader will gain great insight into the problem of finding a missing plane lost at sea.  Both of Kusche’s books should be on the top of any skeptics reading list.

I hope there is soon a solution to the mystery of the missing Malaysian Airliner.  Kusche’s book also includes the history of the family of the lead pilot Charles Taylor, and the impact his death had upon the family.  Not finding any debris or remains left questions in the minds of many surviving family for many years, including a false hope that somewhere there were survivors just waiting for rescue.

Only finding the remains of the Malaysian airliner can put to rest any hope the families of those lose may still have.  The question “What happened?” without an answer would be the saddest end for this mystery.


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