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Flight 370 didn't disappear: We missed it

Flight 370 didn't disappear: We missed it

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Every airplane crash is a teachable moment. The extraordinary safety record of flying is built on a process, carried out over many decades, of detecting, understanding, and learning from the causes of accidents. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. and their partners in Europe have in this time succeeded in eliminating many serious flaws, mechanical and human, as they were identified.

But before any physical trace of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 is found there is already a salutary lesson to be learned: This airplane did not disappear, it was our ability to see it that was missing.

No aviation drama has generated such a global following as this one except possibly the one it most mirrors, the vanishing of Amelia Earhart. The reason is that it is not actually one story but two quite separate ones: the what and the how?

What physically happened to the airplane will be, as usual, the subject of every investigative resource available.

How any airplane could just vanish, however, presents us with a compelling and alarming mystery that does not have to wait until forensic evidence is gathered to be solved.

After the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 over the South Atlantic in 2009, it was obvious that the equipment we rely on to describe the critical sequence of events leading to a crash had fallen way behind the technology now available. Although flight data recorders had become progressively more sophisticated since they were introduced in the 1950s the principle remained the same: The evidence went down with the airplane and had to be retrieved.

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