On July 2, 1937, the Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft carrying 39-year-old American aviator Amelia Earhart and navigator Frederick Noonan, 44, was reported missing near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The pair were attempting to fly around the world when they lost their bearings during the most challenging leg of the global journey from Lae, the capital of Morobe Province and the second-largest city in Papua New Guinea, to Howland Island, a tiny uninhabited coral island 2,227 nautical miles away, located just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, about 1,700 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was in sporadic radio contact with Earhart as she approached Howland Island and received messages that she was lost and running low on fuel. No trace of Earhart or Noonan was ever found.
The disappearance of international aviator Earhart and navigator Noonan – in the midst of the worldwide Great Depression and concomitant with the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany, Benito Mussolini and fascism in Italy and the Greater Japanese Empire of Imperial Japan in the Far East, soon to collectively form the Axis powers of the Second World War – would prove riveting beyond even human interest, as something of a cautionary tale perhaps about entente d engagement to Isolationist America.
And the human interest in missing aviation stories is riveting. After the disappearance of Earhart in 1937 there was the disappearance of Flight 19, the five United States Navy TBM Avenger Torpedo Bombers that went missing over the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean on Dec. 5, 1945. We have to remind ourselves on occasion that at the heart of these compelling mysteries is profound personal loss and tragedy.
And really, little has changed in some regards since 1937.
While there is some waxing and waning, the tension between internationalism and isolationism remains, as does our continuing fascination with missing aviators. In the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, with 239 people aboard (227 passengers and 12 crew) – the most incredible missing aviation story in history – both the tension between internationalism and isolationism and fascination with the missing aviators, other crew and passengers are on full display.
As the whole world knows by now, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur after midnight Malaysia Time (MYT) on March 8 and the 200-tonne Boeing BA 777-200 never made it to its 6:30. a.m. arrival in Beijing, disappearing from civilian radar over the Gulf of Thailand as responsibility was being handed from Malaysian ground control to Vietnam. An Argentine military plane carrying 69 people disappeared in 1965 and has never been found.
The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappearance is a story where arcane and specialist aviation terms have moved far beyond the usual specialist nomenclature and proverbial "black box" flight recorder discussions.
We are now into complicated discussions in the mainstream press where everyone seemingly has an opinion on and is talking about the Boeing BA 777-200's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), the on-board system which transmits intermittent data about the performance of engines and other parts, and how it continued to "ping" for six hours after all other contact was lost with the plane, resulting in an "ephemeral satellite signal" suggesting Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was somewhere in two broad arcs – either to the northwest towards Kazakhstan or southwest in the Indian Ocean.
Surely, we have left the realm of what now might be considered even the run-of-the-mill riveting aviation mystery and are now trying to solve the most enigmatic aviation puzzle the world has ever seen.
Searchers flying the Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion and the U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon, along with imagery specialists from the Australian Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO) – who can spot an open window from space – began focusing last week on a remote section of the southern Indian Ocean, an area about 900 nautical miles southwest of the Western Australian capital of Perth.
Australian defence minister David Johnston describes the area as being among the most isolated in the world, regularly battered by high winds, strong currents and changeable weather. The search area covers an ocean ridge known as Naturaliste Plateau, a large sea shelf about 9,800 feet deep. The plateau is about 150 miles wide by 250 miles long, and the area around it is close to 16,400 feet deep.
These waters are twice as deep as those that Air France Flight AF447 crashed in en route between Rio de Janeiro and Paris in June 2009. It took two years for its black box to be recovered.
On March 24, U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Pacific Fleet's 7th Fleet to move the U.S. Navy's Towed Pinger Locator 25, a black box locator, into the region as a precautionary measure in case a debris field is located. The super-sensitive hydrophone gets towed behind a vessel very slowly, listening for black box pings and can hear the black box pinger down to a depth of about 20,000 feet.