The Great Escape

I read a wonderful story in Private Eye last week about a Chinaman. He must have loved airports—I love his ingenuity and his, well, just plain zanity.

I hasten to add that if anything, the term should be zaniness, but this is my new word for today, zanity as opposed to sanity—language is a living thing.

What this industrious fellow did was to buy himself the most expensive, re-bookable, fully refundable, first class airline ticket he could find. It cost a fortune, and was valid for one year.

On the day he was due to fly, he availed himself of the dining facilities of the VIP lounge. He enjoyed a most satisfying repast—so pleasant, in fact, that he decided his post-prandial bliss would be marred by the flight experience, so he changed his ticket; he would travel the following day.

Next morning he once again prepared to travel, and what better way to do that than to enjoy a copious lunch in the first class lounge, courtesy of the airline? After eating, he again decided to change his travel date to the next day.

He did this for three hundred days straight.

At which point, the airline took him to task. Three hundred seems rather inattentive to me, but there we go, perhaps the staff were encouraged to be discreet.

The fellow pointed out he was doing nothing wrong, merely profiting from the conditions of the ticket. Somewhat peeved, the airline agreed to take no action, provided the man have one last supper and promise never to do it again.

At which point, the guy exercised his right to a full refund of the fare and vanished.

In The India Road I mention that a good many ships vanished during the days of the Portuguese discoveries. There are recurring discussions about whether further expeditions took place between 1488, when Dias returned, and 1497, when Vasco da Gama sailed.

It seems unlikely, but not impossible. On the one hand, the Perfect Prince was consumed by the ambition to sail to India, but in 1491 his only legitimate son Afonso died—apart from the personal tragedy, the crown prince’s death presented a huge succession problem.

My view is King John had other concerns on the political front and held off the expedition. Three years later he was already seriously ill, busy negotiating the Treaty of Tordesillas, and by 1495 he was dead.

There are no records of any vessels attempting the voyage to India in the nine years after Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope—if it happened, it’s the best kept secret in the world.

When you sail or fly in remote regions of the planet, an understanding of weather patterns and ocean circulation is often the difference between life and death.

Today, for the first time since the Malaysian Airlines 777 vanished without trace, I heard an oceanographer being asked for comment and interpretation. After fourteen days? It’s about time!

In the meantime, I’ve heard persistent nonsense about the ocean area being searched, including the marvel that the sea is four thousand meters deep in the region.

Bathymetry of the North Atlantic. All the areas colored medium to dark blue are deeper that 2-3 miles.

Bathymetry of the North Atlantic. All the areas colored medium to dark blue are deeper that 2-3 miles. You can see how shallow the North Sea is, compared to the Atlantic, and how narrow the shelf off Iberia is, compared to the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Er… in oceanography 101 you learn that’s the average depth of the oceans—yes, the oceans are deep and dark. No light beyond the first few tens of meters, over two miles deep, and cold—four degrees centigrade, or 39.2ºF, for the most part.

There are trenches in the world ocean, and those are the deepest areas on the planet, but the Indian Ocean only has one, compared to three in the Atlantic and eighteen in the Pacific.

If the current search pattern for the missing airliner is correct, then the debris is headed for the Antarctic Ocean, a truly enormous challenge. The probability of retrieving anything significant in the water is remote, as is the chance of locating black boxes.

The last two weeks have revealed how fragile our knowledge really is. The fact that a succession of countries have been unwilling to contribute radar data, or allow their records to be scrutinized by international experts, suggests that those data are poor, if indeed they exist at all.

Pakistan boldly stated no airliner could have entered its airspace without detection—that doesn’t check against the recurrent drone overflights, or the SEAL mission that killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the old British garrison town from the days of the Raj.

The same applies to the hijacked planes on nine-eleven, flown way off course without detection.

Satellites have shown they’re good for specific purposes—wide and shallow, or narrow and deep. Unfortunately, finding this aircraft calls for wide and deep.

Interpretation of imagery is also pretty subjective, with some experts suggesting that the eighty foot fragment detected off Western Australia is nothing more than a large glint of sunlight—I confess that was my first thought when I saw the image.

But there are now very sophisticated computer models that simulate ocean currents. These models are regularly used to track oil spills, and couple with weather models to improve our understanding of the ocean.

Whatever happened to the plane, it occurred up to seven hours or so after it lost contact with Kuala Lumpur. Satellite tracking has predicted the two western arcs are the only possible routes.

Circulation models can hindcast that seven hour window north or south, and generate maps of probable locations. The theory that the Boeing 777 flew south is based on the presumption that the route north was overland—which may or may not be true.

Let’s be contrarians for a moment, and imagine it flew north. Unless the plane landed somewhere, which would mean a conspiracy at the national level, it’s lost at sea.

The probability of locating the airliner if it was lost in the North Indian Ocean is pretty high—ever since the days of Alexander the Great, the area is a major traffic route. These days, apart from dhows and warships, it’s full of bulk carriers and oil tankers.

If it went down in the Southern Indian Ocean, everything changes. There, the wind-driven ocean circulation is anti-clockwise, and the southwestern arc projected from satellite data, with the plane heading roughly south, lies above the West Australian Current flowing in the opposite direction.

What does this mean? If the plane went down well before it ran out of fuel, debris will be moving north, and then west with the South Equatorial Current toward the coast of Mozambique. With the onset of the summer monsoon, some of the floating material will then turn north and move into the Arabian Sea.

On the other hand, if the Boeing went down toward the end of its range, it may have flown past the southern limit of the gyre. In that case, it would make sense to work backward from the last possible drop point.

One thing is certain: everyone’s dead, and the poor families are despairing of ever finding out what happened. But airlines, intelligence agencies, and governments are burning to know why, and trying to work out how.

There’s a perception that when the plane is found, those questions might be answered. Unfortunately, it’s very possible that will happen only in a few months, when debris washes up on a coast somewhere.

Foam seats, clothes, and teddy bears. Not high-value intelligence.

Meantime, just like in The India Road, the only hope is to throw more oceanography at the problem, particularly if the ongoing search is on track.

Because in the Southern Ocean, the days are getting shorter. Winter’s coming.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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