Malaysia Airlines' altitude problem

Nicholas Watts

From Future Perfect Issue 2, Summer 2014–15. Buy a copy here.


When the the rolling coverage of the MH370 stretched from hours to days to weeks, I felt something distinctly eery and dystopian. Its complete disappearance felt like a terrorist attack, but not by any of the usual suspects. Instead it was the demented plot of an anarchist who wants to pull threads from the seams of a globalised world, to remind us that our technology can be rendered pathetically feeble. The terror was great hesitation and unease. For days I imagined the passengers would be unveiled in a spectacular media event, where they’d been captive in Kazakhstan the whole time, and taken care of very well. 

That was my wild theory, likely fostered by episodes of Black Mirror and the remarkable 2014 novel Silence Once Begun. I turned so few key details into an elaborate hoax. It hid an unknowing that we quickly elide into fantastic stories, because without a story, the details are too few and too disparate to be sensible by themselves. The internet’s new legion of aviation specialists had to come up with something new to write about each day, even though they were given no or very little new information. While my story about an imaginary techno-terrorist may seem a little far fetched, it wasn’t terribly far from the rest of the media’s speculation that we were all taking very seriously. 

Before MH370 mania could properly calm down, another Malaysian Airlines passenger plane hit international headlines, with a whole new set of confusing circumstances. Flight MH17 seemed to have been shot down by a sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missile system over a dangerous area of Ukraine. One of these Buk surface-to-air systems had been spotted crossing the Russian border into Ukraine not long before the strike. A proud Ukrainian separatist had posted on Facebook in the minutes following the attack, congratulating himself on downing a Ukrainian airforce supply jet. It turned out to be a passenger jet. 

Luckily for the down-in-the-polls Tony Abbott, there were lots of Australians on board. His quick decision to blame Russia and Vladimir Putin, and continue to publicly assign responsibility for the attack to the Russian government, made the international community wince. In October he pledged to physically assault Putin on his arrival in Brisbane for the upcoming G20 economic summit. The most breathtakingly stupid part of this chest-beating salvo was not the continued demand that Russia recognise its guilt (it likely is guilty) but that Abbott would challenge Putin himself. If Russia’s propaganda machine has taught us one thing, it is that he is a proficient user of every type of hand-held weapon, can shoot bears, tigers and whales, races Formula One cars, hang glides in strong winds, beats Finland at ice hockey, has a black belt in judo and rides motorcycles without a helmet.

Tony Abbott’s belligerence kept the Australian media happy, but the rest of the world’s new caché of aviation specialists crawling the internet needed new things to write about. It was clear that Russia had supplied the Buk missile system and very likely that its users were trained by Russian military specialists. It was also clear that despite remonstrations and outrage, and quite a few sanctions, the struggle in Ukraine was not radically affected by the MH17’s horrific demise. From there, from an aviation perspective, there wasn’t much more to talk about.     

The few reporters and writers with enough sense to stop the tired speculation dug up past stories of downed aeroplanes very much forgotten until now. 

In 1988 an Iranian Airbus A300 was shot down in error by the US Navy floating nearby. 290 passengers were on board. Initial press briefings told the public that the pilot had lost control of the plane. A short time later, the US said the plane was descending and set to plunge into the Navy ship, that the plane was not following a commercial air route and that it was “squawking” over a military-only radio channel. All these factors led the captain to think it was a fighter jet and that it needed to be shot down. A later Pentagon report found that all these claims were false—it was not descending, it was on a normal route, it was communicating on a civilian channel. Still, despite this damning report, the captain was given the Legion of Merit for exemplary service, and it took eight years before the US government publicly admitted that there had been an error on its part. Years later it emerged that the ship’s captain was a known rogue and that it had been in Iranian waters at the time. When questioned over the incident, George H.W. Bush, on the campaign trail at the time, said “I will never apologise for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are”. Bill Clinton later relented, admitting his “deep regret” and compensating the families of the victims and the Iranian government. 

In light of this, Russia’s refusal to even admit there was one of its anti-aircraft missile systems in Ukraine has precedent. 

MH370 is still somewhere under the sea, in the twelfth dimension, in the middle of Australia. In its absence the conspiracy theories continue. The MH17 and MH370 might be the same plane. Malaysian airlines might have been transporting a mobile Large Hadron Collider and it went supercritical over the Indian Ocean and achieved enlightenment.


More in Issue 2

Speaking between the lines

Interview with Robert Lehrman, speechwriter for former US Vice
President Al Gore

Buried at sea

Unpacking the insane rhetoric behind our government’s immigration policies, featuring drawings by children in detention