Mysteries don’t get much bigger than that of the missing Malaysian aeroplane and few events in world history can match it for gripping the public imagination with its perplexity.
From the initial report of contact being lost as the scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur headed to Beijing with 239 people on board, the story has lurched from one of familiarity (an accident or hijacking) to one of utter incomprehension.
Even if the missing plane were to have been found by the time these words are published, it will still have been the greatest aviation mystery and one of the most astounding peacetime events of modern history.
What to most people has been the most unbelievable facet of the enigma is that a large plane like MH370, a Boeing 777, cannot only disappear from radar screens but do so in apparent utter silence: no distress call from the crew, no automated signal and no communication from any of the passengers’ mobile devices.
Folk in shipping might have had the same initial thought: this might happen at sea but is not supposed to happen in the skies – not with aviation’s allegedly far superior safety and its panoply of anti-terrorism armour.
But then experts pointed out that, in fact, it is now more likely in aviation than in shipping because the former does not have an international mandatory system requiring the transmission of position data on a regular and frequent basis.
Five years ago, shipping became subject to the satellite-based Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system under which ships transmit at least four times a day their date and time-stamped identity and position. The system, originally intended as a safety feature to help search-and -rescue operations, was rushed into service after 9/11 and its primary function switched to preventing terrorist attacks.
Now, ships are increasingly connected via satellite for commercial and operational reasons, while aeroplanes, once out of radar range of air traffic control, rely on radio to maintain contact. The industry has to date successfully argued that, because of the rarity of incidents like MH370 and the loss of an Air France flight over the Atlantic in 2009 with 228 lives lost, the high cost of fitting aeroplanes with satellite communication equipment is not justified. That argument may not hold water for much longer.
Ships, of course, may still be lost at sea but knowledge of their last position does not mean the reasons why are any more forthcoming. In 11 weeks’ time it will be the first anniversary of the splitting-in-two of the containership MOL Comfort and, while the ship owner is suing the shipbuilder over the design and construction of the vessel, the exact cause of the structural failure remains unclear.
The incident involving a fairly modern vessel in moderate sea conditions prompted fears that it could be the symptom of a more generic problem among large containerships and echoed an earlier maritime mystery.
On 3 June it will be the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the wreck of the Derbyshire, which sank with the loss off 44 lives in a typhoon in the South China Sea while carrying iron ore from Canada to Japan. An informal inquiry by the British Department of Trade (DoT) found that she had probably foundered on the evening of 9 September 1980.
The sinking of the 170,000 tonne four-year-old ore/bulk/oil carrier was the biggest loss in British merchant shipping history and news that such a large vessel, said to have been well-built and well-maintained, could be overwhelmed by forces of nature so fully and quickly there was not even time for a mayday to be transmitted sent shock waves throughout the industry.
Without the ship, any survivors or wreckage (bar a small oil slick and a lifeboat found six weeks after the sinking and 700 miles away) the initial inquiry ruled out a formal investigation, although the British authorities commissioned research into structural strength and stability.
The void was filled by speculation and rumour in which the seamanship of the crew and standard of construction came under suspicion. Further fuel was added to the speculation when six years later a sister-ship developed a crack while carrying Canadian coal across a stormy Atlantic. Abandoned by her crew, the Kowlooon Bridge drifted onto rocks and sank.
That incident, amid a rising number of bulk carrier losses, increased pressure on government and industry from the families of the crew of the Derbyshire and trade unions and lead to the decision to hold a formal inquiry. Its findings in January 1989 were, however, inconclusive.
The Derbyshire families were disappointed but undaunted and soon found their champion in the shape of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) which agreed to finance the search.
The discovery of a widely scattered field of debris, including a poignant fragment of hull with the letters “shire” clearly visible, prompted a full survey financed by the UK and the European Commission. This in 1996-97 produced over 135,000 digital photographs and identified 2,500 separate pieces of wreckage. It was described by John Prescott, then the UK Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister, as “one of the century’s greatest feats of underwater detective work”.
The subsequent report in 1998 concluded the Derbyshire had sunk after the bow section had been flooded due to an “inefficiently secured” foredeck stores hatch and damaged ventilators. The forward trim caused by the flooding exposed hatch covers to a weight of water greater than their “collapse strength” and lead to an “implosion/explosion mechanism” that shattered the steel hull into thousands of pieces.
The mystery of the Derbyshire had been eventually solved, albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction, but it had taken 18 years. A debate could be held on whether the lessons learned from the 1980 casualty have resulted in fewer bulk carrier losses.
Aviation may hope MH370 is a one-off, a freak incident, but governments and the public may look at satellite-tracked shipping and say, “If it can be done at sea, where worse things are supposed to happen, why not in the sky?”
Author: Andrew Guest who is a freelance journalist.