MH370 and other aviation mysteries

Sarah Coles
Philippines Malaysia Plane
Philippines Malaysia Plane

We now know that the missing plane, flight MH370, is very likely to have crashed into the Indian Ocean, but how and why it did this is still one world's biggest aviation mysteries.

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing on Saturday 8 March, it was just the beginning of what became a long, complex, and increasingly far-reaching search. Theories as to what happened to the plane stretched from a fire which cut off communications and caused the plane to ditch into the sea, to a hijack and a subsequent landing at a remote and hidden airstrip.

As the days stretched on and the theories got wilder, the scope of the investigation widened to include every passenger and crew member - without any significant discovery. The physical search on the ground, meanwhile, involved every country from Australia to China scouring hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.

But how could a plane just disappear, and why did it happen?

David Thompkins, an aviation consultant and Vice Chairman of the British Association of Aviation Consultants told AOL Travel that it's incredibly rare for a plane to disappear in modern aviation history. By far the majority of planes that have disappeared were lost back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and since then only one plane has disappeared entirely - in 2003 in Angola. Aside from this, in every case the wreckage has been found and the cause of the disaster has been ascertained.

He said: "That's why there are so many theories around. Many of them seem improbable, but looking at the rarity of this sort of event, it could mean that the improbable becomes possible."

He added: "If this does turn out to have been a crash, the cause may remain a mystery if along with the transponders, the flight recorders and cockpit voice recorders ceased to work. The black box may provide an answer, but even then it may only record the last period of the flight, and if the plane continued to fly for hours after the incident, the cause of the crash may not be recorded."

Will we ever know exactly what happened on MH370? There is a possibility that we won't. Over the decades there have been some truly strange incidents that have never been properly solved.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart was attempting to fly around the world in 1937 when her plane simply disappeared over the Pacific. There were a number of theories at the time: some thought she was a spy on a mission to the Marshall Islands, and was captured by the Japanese; others claim she simply ran out of fuel; and still more claim she landed on an uninhabited island where she eventually died. The US spent $4 million searching 250,000 square miles of ocean before calling off the search.

Flight 19
This was one of the most famous incidents that have occurred in the so-called Bermuda Triangle off the southeastern Atlantic coast of the US. Flight 19 was the name of five torpedo bombers, which flew into the area for a training exercise in December 1945 and never emerged. Some 14 crew members were lost. Subsequent reconstructions and investigations have concluded that the most likely explanation is that the flight leader became disorientated when compasses failed and flew further out to sea in his efforts to get back to base. The planes then ran out of fuel and all ditched in the sea. However, the planes themselves have never been found.

Pan Am Flight 7
In November 1957, a flight on its way from San Francisco to Hawaii disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. No distress signals were sent when the plane went down. In this instance, wreckage and 44 bodies were recovered a week later northeast of Honolulu. The bodies showed unusually high levels of carbon monoxide.

Flying Tiger Flight 739
In 1962, a US military plane with more than 90 people on board was flying from Guam to Vietnam when it disappeared in good weather without sending a distress signal. Witnesses on a nearby tanker said they saw an explosion, but although the area was searched for 8 days, the plane was never found.

Uruguay Air Force Flight 571
In October 1972 a plane carrying 40 passengers, including a Uruguayan rugby team, crashed in the Andes. They were presumed dead, but 16 survived, and two of them made it out of the Andes on foot seventy-two days later to get help. It emerged that to stay alive they had resorted to eating some of the dead passengers.

USAir Flight 427
In September 1994, a plane was on its way from Chicago to Pittsburgh, when it crashed ten minutes before it was due to land, killing all 132 people on board. The investigation into what happened took four years, before it eventually emerged that a defect in the rudder meant that the pilots lost control of the plane.

TWA flight 800
TWA flight 800 was a Boeing 747 which exploded and crashed into the Atlantic just after take-off from New York in July 1996, killing all 230 people on board. A report four years later concluded that the cause of the crash was most likely to have been a short-circuit which caused an explosion in the fuel tank. However, it didn't stop people speculating that it could have been an act of terrorism or an accidental instance of friendly fire from the US Navy.

Egyptair Flight 990
In 1999, flight 990 from New York to Cairo fell into the Atlantic about 60 miles off the US coast, killing all 217 people on board. There was plenty of speculation after it emerged that the flight officer had been recorded saying 'I rely on God' just before the crash. However, an investigation revealed the accident had not been deliberate, and the Egyptian authorities said the cause was mechanical failure.

Angola 2003
In May 2003 a Boeing 727 set off from Angola without clearance or a flight plan. It wasn't painted with any airline logo, and had its lights off and a dysfunctional transponder. It has never been seen since and it is unclear exactly who was on board.

Helios Airways Flight 522
In August 2005, Greek air traffic controllers lost contact with a plane - which was on a path to Athens Airport. The plane flew for an hour longer, but a fighter jet was scrambled and saw the pilot slumped over the controls. Soon after that, the plane descended, crashing into hills and killing all 121 people on board. The investigation showed that a gradual drop in cabin pressure caused the crew to pass out

Air France Flight 447
In June 2009 a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris went missing, with 228 people on board. There was no distress signal. It took several days to find any wreckage, and two years to find the black boxes at the bottom of the sea. In 2012 an official report concluded that the crash was due to ice crystals forming while flying through a thunderstorm. The speed sensors malfunctioned, the pilots misconstrued what was happening, and they put the plane into a stall.

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