If the Missing Plane Isn’t in the Indian Ocean, Where Could It Be Now?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 14 2014 6:39 PM

If the Missing Plane Isn’t in the Indian Ocean, Where Could It Be Now?

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The search for MH370 continues.

Photo by MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the continuing uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, recent reports have added weight to speculation that the plane did not merely succumb to an accident but was taken over and absconded with, perhaps by one of its own pilots. If that’s the case—and if the plane is not, as some U.S. officials apparently now suspect, in the Indian Ocean—where could the plane be now?

As I wrote earlier on Slate, MH370 was last in communication with air traffic controllers shortly after it left Malaysian airspace and before it was due to contact Vietnamese controllers—exactly the spot where a pilot intending to abscond with his jet would have the most time to turn off his electronic transmissions, change direction, and be as far away as possible before anyone noticed that the plane was missing. Controllers would continue to see the plane’s symbol traveling across their screen on the intended flight path, even as the plane was actually hightailing it in a different direction.

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Military radar operators, however, use a different system, which doesn’t rely on transmissions from each plane but merely detects radiation being passively reflected. That means that they would see the wayward plane on its new course. But, crucially, they wouldn’t be able to identify it.

Indeed, soon after MH370 disappeared, reports emerged that recordings of Malaysian military radar returns showed an unidentified track that could correspond to the flight turning left onto a westward course and descending. At the time it was difficult to assess the validity of that claim. It’s been bolstered, however, by a Reuters report earlier Friday stating that Malaysian military radar showed the flight following a course westward over the Malay peninsula and then heading out over the Indian Ocean, passing specific navigational waypoints as it went.

According to the report, this latter portion of the flight followed an unusual zigzag trajectory as it worked its way toward the north and west. This is a very inefficient way to get from one place to another, but it had some consequences that may have been useful for whoever was in control of the airplane. For one thing, by navigating between well-traveled waypoints, the plane would have seemed to military radar operators to look just like all the other well-behaved commercial traffic traveling over that stretch of ocean. “That’s going to seem like unsuspicious traffic,” says Maarten Uijt de Haag, a professor of electrical engineering at Ohio University. Had the plane left the well-traveled routes and struck out on its own, it would have been far more conspicuous.

Another consequence of the zigzagging trajectory is that, like a fox crossing back and forth over a stream to eluding a pack of hounds, it obscured where exactly it might be heading.

As it neared a waypoint east of the Andaman Islands, the plane reached the limit of Malaysia’s military radar coverage and headed out over the open sea. At this point, whoever was flying it could have ditched the evasive maneuvers and made a beeline for his destination. Aiding his elusiveness would be the fact that, since he was heading west, he would be able to complete more of the journey in complete darkness.

Where might he have gone? The possibilities are vast. So far, the assumption is that the plane is limited to a circle of about 2,000 nautical miles radius. But if its actual range were somewhat better than that, it might have reached quite a few countries with large sparsely populated areas and histories of ambivalence toward the West: Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to name a few. It may seem hard to imagine landing a jet in a remote place without someone noticing. But consider Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted Iran hostage rescue mission back in 1980, in which the U.S. staged eight helicopters in the middle of the Iranian desert without anyone realizing (until one of them crashed and the mission was aborted, that is). As I reported earlier, though the 777 is a very large plane and usually lands at large, well-developed airports, it is actually capable of landing in much more primitive conditions, including a runway of hard dirt, a highway, or even (under the right conditions, and in the hands of a very skilled pilot) a paved strip of barely 3,000 feet in length—about the size of what you would find at a modest municipal airport in the United States.

If the plane were able to refuel and take off again—not likely, but not impossible, either—it could literally be anywhere in the world right now. Then again, there’s still the very real possibility that the plane never made it to any destination, but crashed in the ocean, as many searchers have long assumed. Indeed, CNN has just reported that U.S. and Malaysian analysis of satellite and electronic data indicates that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean. If that’s the case, the discovery of wreckage should settle the issue before long.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based magazine writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. A contributing editor at Popular Mechanics and Travel + Leisure, he specializes in aviation, adventure, and psychology. He tweets as @ManvBrain and blogs at JeffWise.net.