The massive international search and rescue effort in Southeast Asia entered its fourth day with very little to show in the way of solid leads on where the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 ended up, after it went missing less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur Friday night.
“This is one of the most perplexing mysteries regarding something lost at sea that I've ever encountered in my career,” says David Gallo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Gallo has some experience with planes lost as sea. He was co-leader of the team that located an Air France passenger jet that went down over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The plane was en route from Brazil to France and crashed without making radio contact. Five days later, floating debris from the airliner and bodies of the victims were found.
The case of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight is very different. The area being currently being searched includes some very busy sea lanes, and some rather shallow water.
“In another sense, there is still no evidence at all — not a shred of evidence — that that plane landed in the water,” Gallo says. It is a bit like trying to solve a murder case without the victim's body.
“We're making a lot of assumptions that it ended up in the ocean,” Gallo says. “The last known position, which is important, was over water,” he points out. But at this point, there is still no real evidence of a crash.
Debris from a passenger jet that broke apart over the water might remain on the surface for some time. In the case of the Air France crash, Gallo says, “it was amazing to me how much of that plane could actually float.” Whole galleys, along with the plane's tail fin, were found afloat. In the waters around Malaysia, however, not so much as a life vest or seat cushion has been found.
The pilot of flight 370 could have landed the plane in one piece on the water's surface, Gallo says. And then it might have sunk rather suddenly. He says this is an unlikely scenario, but possible. “In that case, you would expect that they would have popped open the doors and put out the emergency chutes and all,” he says. That would mean visible evidence — rafts, people — for all the search vessels looking for signs of a crash.
“It's entirely possible that the search craft [have] missed it,” Gallo adds. But he says he is confident the plane will be found eventually.
In the meantime, those in charge of the search effort will be under pressure to find some real clues about what happened with the plane and its 227 passengers and 12 crew. Gallo has been in that position himself.
“It's horrible,” he says. “The pressure is building from the families and friends and loved ones of the victims. The pressure is building from the international community. The questions are, 'Are you confident? Are you hiding something? When are we going to have some answers?'”