Malaysia comes to terms with another crash, even as it is still searching for its missing jet

This untranslated news broadcast of the Russia-24 television channel shows the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, which may have been shot down by an antiaircraft missile. (Reuters)

The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 follows another air disaster four months ago involving the same company, the same type of commercial jetliner -- a Boeing 777 -- and the same airport, at Kuala Lumpur. There is no precedent in aviation history for a major airline to have two significant disasters so close together.

The memory of the first incident involving Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has barely begun to fade. It was en route from KL to Beijing on the morning of March 8 when it ceased transmitting electronic data while over the Gulf of Thailand. According to ground-based radar, the plane abruptly changed direction, flying west, across the Malaysia peninsula. Satellite data suggested that the plane then turned south and flew into an extremely remote region of the southern Indian Ocean.

No one knows what happened on that plane. Officials suspect that this was a criminal act, likely involving the intentional diversion of the plane by someone in the cockpit. The case remains very much a mystery and is still under investigation.

The search for the missing plane continues amid dwindling hopes that it will ever be found. Earlier searches were marked by false leads and exaggerated hopes. Search vessels initially reported “pings” that might have come from the plane’s black box locator beacon, but officials later determined that they were either not from a man-made source or came from within surface ships.

A new phase of the search will begin August 4 with the deployment of ships with sonar devices designed to map the terrain of the ocean floor in the region where the plane is thought most likely to have crashed.

A report by Australian authorities in June concluded that the passenger and crew likely died from hypoxia as the plane flew on autopilot.

“It is highly, highly likely that the aircraft was on autopilot, otherwise it could not have followed the orderly path that has been identified through the satellite sightings,” Australia deputy prime minister Warren Truss told reporters, according to a Reuters report.

Truss said the primary search area would shift south and to the west, to a 23,000-square-mile region more than a thousand miles west of Perth.

On the Malaysia Airlines website, the company posted a statement July 6 reaffirming that the search is ongoing:

“Malaysia remains committed in the search for MH370. It must be stressed that Malaysia, together with Australia and China are doing our utmost in the search and our top priority remains to look for the missing MH370 and giving closure to the families of those on board MH370.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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