Of a plane still missing, and a planet still vast
BANGKOK — The towering Danish ship Kobenhavn set sail from Argentina one December day, bound for Australia with five dozen souls aboard. Eight days later, as it traversed the South Atlantic, it radioed a nearby ship. All seemed well.
That was Dec. 22, 1928. The vessel was never heard from again. There were reports of a “phantom ship” spotted through the haze, but searches of the icy waters turned up nothing. A year passed.
“Never in the history of shipping has a missing vessel been searched for more thoroughly,” Associated Press correspondent Alex Gerfalk wrote then. “Science has exhausted its resources in an attempt to find a plausible explanation for the complete disappearance of the largest sailing vessel in the world.”
And so it goes. For centuries, human beings have clambered aboard vessels and headed for the horizon, unsure if they would return. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes search parties were dispatched to seek survivors, bodies, answers. Sometimes they were not.
Today, the world is a year into the mystifying disappearance of the enormous jetliner that was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 without any sort of resolution. Searches of vast swaths of the Indian Ocean continue, pegged to a cocktail of science and optimism that we hope will provide some answers for those families left behind — and for the rest of us.
And we are a year into what is effectively an elaborate missing-persons case, multiplied by 239. With all that we’ve learned, it remains unique under the sun, enduring in the public consciousness, eating up millions of dollars in search efforts and still generating countless what-if scenarios.
“There is really no precedent to this,” says Geoffrey Thomas, the Australia-based editor-in-chief and managing director of Airlineratings.com.
So aside from the aviation particulars, what makes the tale of this particular Boeing 777-200ER so different from the countless vessels that have vanished throughout history and left behind only questions and confused families? Here are a few possibilities:
WE’RE CONDITIONED TO EXPECT ENDINGS
Part of it is the expectations that human beings have about how stories end, fed by a media that thrives on tidy resolutions. That’s relatively new.
Thanks to a century of storylines in movies, TV shows, advertisements, video games and social-media eruptions, human beings not only expect an ending but demand it. Remember what happened when “The Sopranos” concluded its run on our television screens by simply cutting to black? Legions of angry viewers felt cheated of their ending.
“We expect a resolution soon. And a year is not soon,” says Emily Godbey, an associate professor at Iowa State University who studies and writes about how humans respond to disasters.
THE TECHNOLOGY OF TRANSPORTATION
Items from the modern cabinet of wonders, such as GPS and radar and mobile-phone technology and flight-tracker apps that let you follow planes from your pocket, hand us an illusory sense of control — a notion that we have, through gadgetry, rendered the world finite. While human abilities have certainly increased since the days of the Kobenhavn, there are still — and perhaps always will be — places to disappear.
The patch of ocean where efforts to find Flight 370 are focused is based, in part, on data from the British satellite company Inmarsat. The data may be accurate, but the sea is a very large place.
The moral, so far: Even the best tech can’t always make the uncertain and the unknown into something definitive.
THE ABILITY OF THE RELATIVES TO BE HEARD
The mysteries of yesteryear were not accompanied by a global amplification system that beamed the anguish of the missing passengers’ loved ones into millions of living rooms and onto millions more mobile devices. In Flight 370’s case, a core organization of families has made it their business to keep attention from fading. They are, understandably, resisting the transition from news event into eternal mystery.
“How can they not find such a big airplane?” Song Chunjie, whose sister was on the plane, said in China shortly after the debris of another aircraft, AirAsia Flight 8501, was spotted in Indonesia’s Java Sea in early January. “Knowing the bad news is painful, but it’s even more painful for us to live with uncertainty and have to wait to know what actually happened.”
There’s a potential echo chamber there, too, that goes something like this: Relatives want to be heard. The media obliges because of intense interest. The families are heartened by the interest, and the cycle continues.
NO GROUND ZERO
Most tragedies happen somewhere: the spot where the towers fell on 9/11, the beaches where the waves came ashore during the Asian tsunami, the sunflower fields where the pieces of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fell after it was blasted out of the Ukrainian sky last summer.
Places focus grief, and — aside from a temporary memorial that went up in the Kuala Lumpur airport in the days after Flight 370 vanished — there has been no place for a common emotional outpouring.
“This is an event which has been rendered invisible,” says Godbey, the professor. “We are in an age where we expect to see the aftermath. We expect to see the wreckage. We expect to have some sort of visual perceptions of loss. There just is nothing to grab onto.”
Two other major air disasters that shook Asia in 2014 — Flight 17 in July and AirAsia 8501 in late December — at least provided resolution amid the horror. Wreckage was found. Salvage took place. The process that humans rely upon in such circumstances moved forward.
Just a few days ago, relatives of Flight 17’s victims gathered in hangars on a Dutch air base to view twisted and charred wreckage from the plane where their loved ones were lost. A pitiful place to mourn, but a place nonetheless. Said one relative: “It brings it very close to home.”
MUCH RIDES ON SOLVING THIS MYSTERY
When a ship sank at sea, it didn’t automatically imply that other ships were at risk. But when a plane crashes, there is enormous public and economic interest in figuring out what went wrong. Planes, after all, are a pivotal player in everything from business travel to tourism to national pride.
Thus, everyone from Malaysia Airlines to the industry at large to various governments and agencies responsible for air safety is intensely committed to ensuring the disappearance won’t remain an enigma forever.
“The aviation industry needs to find this plane to determine what happened and why,” Thomas, the airline-safety expert, said in an email interview. “For Malaysia Airlines, this disaster will not go away until the plane is found.”
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT GRIEF TODAY
Not only is grief viewed as something specific, with equally specific ways to treat it, but the number of people affected by something — the constituency of grief — can ripple far beyond the nucleus of relatives. In many cases that involve devastating, high-profile events, grief in its various intensities becomes a community experience.
With Flight 370, you can make a case that the constituency of grief is a pretty large chunk of humanity. So policy decisions made around the search — should it continue, and for how long? — extend beyond the realm of policy itself.
“So much of the world’s been touched by this event in some way,” says Alisa Hathaway, a trauma expert at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center. Searchers, policymakers, aviation experts: “All of those layers of people are affected by this process and all of the emotion that goes along with it.”
Particularly when stories about trauma are discussed on every TV channel and shared on every social media platform, uncounted millions are exposed to the grief of a few. That can have an effect when it comes to moving on. “How do you help people get on with their lives?” says Charles F. Reynolds, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist who focuses on an emerging field called “complicated grief.”
It’s all complicated, not just the grief. Perhaps the most complex question of all still hangs over everything, sometimes spoken, sometimes silent, always double-edged: How can the people responsible for the search ever decide to end it — and how do they justify continuing indefinitely, given the costs and commitments?
That suggests the long-term challenge of this slow-motion tragedy. Even in an age of possibility that has stitched us together mechanically and virtually, our planet remains a forbidding place — always ready to upend lives, swallow airplanes whole and create enduring mysteries. And humanity’s various outposts, more entangled than ever before, have to figure out, together, how to navigate it all.
A year after its final “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,” that’s precisely what Flight 370 is shouting at us in silence from wherever on Earth it might possibly be, saying the same thing that the Kobenhavn did nine decades ago: It is, most definitively, not a small world after all.