The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – with 239 people on board – is unusual in that two days after the aircraft lost communication there is no reliable evidence of debris.
No radio calls were received from the flight crew indicating that the aircraft had any sort of problem before it disappeared somewhere over the Gulf of Thailand at 2.40am local time on Saturday.
The plane might have suffered catastrophic and immediate destruction, or at least lost all of its electronics and communications. If that was the case, it might have descended rapidly to the sea surface in the general area of its last reported flight location. But if some systems remained operating so as to allow the pilots to glide down, the area where the aircraft may have crashed would be much wider.
Assuming a typical gliding angle of say 10:1 from a height of 10 kilometres above sea level, descending in an unknown direction, the possible area of search would be more than 30,000 square kilometres – an area roughly the size of Belgium. That is a vast area to search thoroughly, and is possibly the reason no debris has yet been found.
There are various possible causes: weather and environment – unlikely, as the weather seemed benign. Space junk or asteroid strike are also remote possibilities. Pilot error – unlikely in cruise unless some serious malfunctions occurred (although that was what happened to Air France Flight. AF447). Technical failures and illegal interference are also more likely than the first two.
Severe malfunctions such as a double engine failure or inflight structural failure would likely still leave the pilots time to issue a mayday call. With Malaysia Airline flight MH370, it appears the aircraft , a Boeing B777-200ER, did suffer wing tip damage in a ground collision in 2012, although failure of this repair would appear to be an unlikely cause of communications failure as well.
Aircraft and base Acars systems are not usually in constant communication as this increases satellite communication costs substantially. So we are left with the probability that all major electronics systems were disabled, to the extent that no communications were possible and the aircraft could not continue to fly.
What might cause this? Maybe an explosion and/or fire in the electronics compartment because of electronics failures. A fourth possibility is illegal interference, and the passengers holding false passports might be complicit, or might be irrelevant.
A terrorist might have packed sufficient plastic explosives, then set these off in the area just rear of the cockpit, with the result being both loss of systems and possibly pilots. Explosives in the cargo compartment or in checked baggage also cannot be ruled out. As of the time of writing, no group appears to have claimed responsibility.
A version of this article first appeared on the conversation.com