Malaysia 370 Update: Landing Strips, Cell Phones, and More

Has the plane landed at a secret site? Probably not; here's why.

Update: See previous articles at the bottom of this post.

The ongoing Malaysia 370 investigation coincides with my being in transit, with family, and away from the Internet most of each day. (Writing this from the passenger seat of a car on a four-hour drive, hoping that my TMobile hotspot via Samsung Galaxy III holds up.) Here is a quick update on some of the developments since the inflight dispatch yesterday:

1) Derek Thompson sums up recent news for the Atlantic. You can see it here.

2) Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What's most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight -- whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.

It's possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word "confirms," before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful "journalistic" figure in the world is ... well, it "confirms" a lot of judgments about Murdoch.

3) What about those cellphones?  We all know that cellphones can minutely track our movements as we walk or bike through cities or drive through the countryside. So why aren't they being used to track this flight?

One answer: We don't know whether all the phones were seized and disabled, if this was a hijacking. Another: phones can track us in our normal life because we're operating right at ground level, and in places designed to offer phone coverage. At airliner-flight levels, 35,000 feet in the case of this plane, and at airliner speeds, there usually is no coverage. (Try to make a call from 30,000+ feet on your next cross-country flight.) At any altitude there is usually no coverage over open water or in remote, jungle, mountain, or desert areas, which describes most of the path of this flight. More in a good AP explainer here.

4) What about some other runway? Buried in our collective memory is the image from You Only Live Twice, or even Dr. No** (which I mention as an excuse to use the poster above),  or other fantasy movies of a hidden, secret runway that magically opens up just long enough for an airplane to land, and then disappears or is covered over again. Sadly I do not see such an image on the Internet right now.

Based on the facts as now understood, it is conceivable that the plane, rather than crashing, was deliberately flown to some remote side. (In another Tweet, Rupert Murdoch said it would be somewhere similar to Osama bin Laden's Af-Pak hideout.)

The main challenge here is that a Boeing 777 is a big airplane, which needs a big, flat space on which to safely land. This Boeing technical manual suggests that in normal circumstances, you'd want 7,000 feet or more to land a plane full of passengers and have margin for error. Slate quoted a 777 pilot who said that if the plane was on fire (ie, the worst kind of in-flight emergency), he would try to put it down on anything above 5,000 feet.

WNYC has produced a map showing the 5,000-foot runways within conceivable flight range of the plane. Sample here:

Theoretically possible landing sites, via WNYC

Congrats for the work that went into this  -- and I mean to sound supportive rather than churlish in hoping that the next version of the map will have popups giving the names of the relevant airports, plus elevation and runway length. My guess is that only a small fraction of those shown would be suitable -- by terrain, location, elevation, and other factors -- as a deliberate diversion site. And even if all of them were feasible, it's a finite list. Most airports that big would have control towers; in that part of the world, many would be military-run; and spy satellites can easily pick out mile-long runways from above.

My claim: if the plane had landed at a runway big enough to handle it, we would know that by now.

5) What about the 45,000-foot altitude claim, and the 40,000-feet-per-minute descent? Reports since last night speculated that the plane had climbed very high, and then descended very fast, perhaps indicating: an incompetent/amateur pilot; a professional pilot bent on disorienting the passengers or destroying the plane; or something else strange.

To put this in perspective: in normal airline flights, you have rarely if ever been above 40,000 feet. Most airliners operate in the high-20s through the high-30s, in thousands of feet. Assuming that pressurization systems still worked, passengers wouldn't necessarily have noticed a difference at 45,000.

They certainly would have noticed a 40,000-fpm descent. In normal airline flights, you've rarely if ever felt a descent of more than 2,000-fpm. Most of the time, airliners go down by 1,000 - 1,500 fpm. Descending 20 or 30 times that fast would mean that the plane was pointed more or less straight down, with engines running.

So if this happened, it would have been remarkable, and terrifying. And among the problems would be pulling out of the dive without subjecting the plane (and crew and passengers) to G-forces beyond what any of them were designed to tolerate.

6) What about the Chinese role? There will be a lot more here, but for now, before we head into an area where my little hotspot will give out, here is a note from a reader making good points:

Since you're one of the few people left who think of aviation as part and parcel of a national identity, the Chinese reaction has been fascinating as well.   

1.  The highly responsible and flexible response by the Chinese leadership

2.  The obvious panic by the public and family members who are not being kept in the loop and may (or may not) have easy access to information.

3.  The inability of said Chinese leadership to 100% control their own people (the satellite leak,etc).

The now default American security response (Terrorists!  Coming to get us!) is pretty weak as well.  Although one would hope the NSA can get away from Yahoo Chat for a few minutes to do something useful.

Signal is flickering out. More when back on line.

Previous posts on Malaysia 370:

1. The first grim indications

2. Why cable news should be on a 24-hour news delay

3. How airplanes report their data while flying and more

4. Why a better black box won't help and more

** My Atlantic colleague and movie guru Christopher Orr writes in to set the record straight:

This is Thunderball, where the pilot's twin brother takes his place, hijacks the plane, and lands it on the bottom of the ocean. 

Though the purpose is less clear in this case, given that MA 370 presumably wasn't carrying nukes.

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