Thursday, May 28, 2015

Lost and Confounded Until Hiker Finds Missing Plane

What forces of fate allow thousands of people to cross the same terrain without seeing the crashed airplane that John Weisheit discovered on May 20th? And what does his find tell us about the still-missing Boeing 777 that disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014?  Stay with me because I believe these two stories are related.

River guide and Colorado River advocate John Weisheit was hiking in the Grand Canyon National Park with several others last week when the group came across the wreckage of a plane wedged between two boulders. The aircraft was "smashed, so compressed that it was really hard to find an actual skeleton," Weisheit told the Associated Press, because seeing something like that really does beg the question, “Is anybody inside?” The answer was yes.

"We did notice vertebrae in the cockpit."

If it is the airplane officials think it is, a homebuilt RV6 experimental aircraft, then the remains of the sole occupant in the wreckage should be the plane’s owner, Joseph Radford, of Glendale, Arizona who took off from Grand Canyon National Park Airport on March 11, 2011 and was never seen again.
Radford was a Pilots 'N Paws volunteer. Pilots 'N Paws photo

Without plane or pilot the National Transportation Safety Board was unable to conclude much more than that the airplane was missing and so three and a half years ago it concluded "the cause of the crash is unknown." Though in interviews the NTSB did learn that the pilot told his girlfriend he was going to use the plane to commit suicide. 

In the weeks that followed Radford’s disappearance, the National Park Service and the Sheriff of Coconino County, flew a helicopter and a fixed wing airplane to search a 600 square mile area based on three pieces of information; where an emergency locator was heard transmitting, radar information from the airport and location data drawn from Radford's cell phone.

CAP plane with Surrogate Predator National Park Service Photo
The final search flight was a last ditch effort in which the Civil Air Patrol participated with some fancy new technology. To the underside of the Cessna 182’s wing, a Surrogate Predator sensor ball was attached. This high definition camera is normally used with unmanned aircraft. But even slung below the prop plane, the intent was the same, collect images of the fly over zones that could be reviewed and analyzed for clues. The video would allow the search flight to be repeated without limit. The imagery from the Surrogate Predator would be used “in a continued effort to locate the missing plane,” according to a press release from the U.S. Park Service.

Whether the video was useful isn't clear, but the image-gathering trip seems to have been the last aerial effort to find Radford.  High technology may be useful but it was the observant Weisheit and his companions who seem to have solved the mystery.
So low-tech was their find, that it took Weisheit four days in the wilderness to find a park service ranger to whom he could report the discovery.

All of which brings me to the still missing flight of Malaysia 370 and the just published story by Reuters journalists Swati Pandey and Jane Wardell reporting a rising chorus of criticism of the Dutch company handling the search for the missing jet.

Within the small universe of companies that do underwater search and recovery of aircraft, a few are claiming publicly that inexperienced personnel and inappropriate technology are being used by the Fugro NV, the Dutch company with the multi-million dollar contract with Australia to find the missing plane.  It could give a false sense of completion, according to the chief executive of Williamson & Associates, an American underwater recovery company that bid, but did not get, the contract to search for the plane.

"I have serious concerns that the MH370 search operation may not be able to convincingly demonstrate that 100 percent sea floor coverage is being achieved," Mike Williamson told the reporters.

9M-MRO in Los Angeles photo courtesy Jay Davis
The Boeing 777 is a big airplane much bigger than Radford’s tiny red homebuilt, which took 4 years to find amid the mountains, valleys and rivers of the vast Grand Canyon. And yet even the Grand Canyon pales in size compared to the South Indian Ocean. 

Describing to readers how rarely people appreciate the nature of the sea floor Alan Huffman of the International Business Times described, “miles of flaming rifts, weird pinnacles and gaping chasms that make the Grand Canyon look like a gully.” 

People who know I am writing a book about the MH 370 to be published by Penguin Books in 2016, nearly always ask me this question, “Where is it?” And I also try to describe the challenges of finding something so relatively small in so enormous and deep and dark an ocean as the one where Malaysia 370 now certainly resides.

Whether the Australians have hired the best search team for the job, I cannot say. I have my ideas about what happened to the flight and I am writing about some of the many other airliners lost without a trace since commercial air travel began 100 years ago.  

The surprising find in the middle of John  Weisheit’s walk in the wilderness is a reminder that over the years, many airplanes have been lost and left the world confounded. Sometimes these planes are found. Not all of them, though and often not in the way we expect. 

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