It flew to Afghanistan or the Maldives. It was shot down by China. It caught fire, lost pressure and crashed into the sea.
A near-complete absence of facts has spawned a rich field of speculation, much of it Internet-driven, about what happened to missing Malaysian Air Flight 370.
Airplane conspiracies have long assumed lives of their own even when there’s hard evidence to disprove them. Seventeen years after TWA Flight 800 went down off Long Island, New York, the U.S. issued a public rebuttal of a documentary reviving claims that the airplane was shot down by a missile. Books have claimed that aviator Amelia Earhart landed safely on a Pacific island in 1937 and was captured by Japanese imperial troops.
“Things are explained eventually,” said Ted Lopatkiewicz, a former director of public affairs for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “And until that happens it’s only natural that people wonder what happened: could this have happened? Why aren’t they telling us the truth?”
Conspiracy theories about Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS)’s Flight 370 have flourished since investigators determined early on that the flight bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur was deliberately steered off course to the west. Whoever was piloting the jetliner turned off the plane’s transponder, which helps radar pinpoint location, and a text-to-ground messaging system.
Initial optimism became more muted after U.S. and Australian reconnaissance aircraft today were unable to find possible debris spotted in satellite images in an area 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth in the Indian Ocean. No clear signs of what happened to the Boeing Co. 777-200ER (BA:US) have surfaced 12 days after it went off radar screens, making it the longest disappearance of a modern passenger-airline flight.
The 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 within view of the U.S. coast “was really the first Internet accident,” Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB, said in an interview. The safety board concluded the aircraft broke apart when a fuel tank exploded, probably due to an electrical fault.
Goelz, now a Washington-based aviation consultant, ticked off a list of purported causes of the disaster that killed all 230 aboard: stricken by space junk, felled by a meteor, enveloped by methane gas, and hit by a missile fired from a mysterious flotilla. The latter theory was popularized by former U.S. presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger.
“We spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money tracking these things down and disproving them,” Goelz said.
One theory spreading on blogs about the Malaysian Air flight has the plane catching fire, disabling the pilots and knocking out electrical systems, then cruising zombie-like on autopilot until running out of fuel.
Chris Goodfellow, 66, a retired businessman living in Palm Coast, Florida, said he posted his blog on the Google Plus social network espousing that theory because other speculation about the flight “was totally out of hand,” with missives including a meteor strike.
“We don’t know what happened,” said Goodfellow, whose blog was republished on Wired.com, a technology news site.
The fire theory runs counter to the evidence so far, three people familiar with U.S. investigators’ analysis said. They asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak about the probe.
Critical electrical systems stopped functioning in a way that suggests they were switched off, rather than failing as they would have in a fire, the people said.
Airline crashes due to fires occur less than 20 minutes on average after blazes break out, while satellite transmissions show Flight 370 was operating for as many as seven hours, said John Cox, a Washington-based aviation safety consultant who co-wrote a 2013 U.K. Royal Aeronautical Society report on aircraft fires.
“If it were an on-board fire, it would explain a whole lot of things,” Cox said. “But you just can’t get there.”
Theories flourish because they offer the illusion that someone is in control of complex, frightening and otherwise inexplicable events, Sander van der Linden, a visiting research scholar at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, said in an interview.
“We don’t like the idea of uncertainty and not having answers,” said van der Linden, who studies social psychology. “As soon as there’s some explanation we tend to grab onto it. There must be some group or entity that has planned something.”
Some bogus claims have been spread on Facebook Inc. (FB:US)’s social network that has 1.2 billion users, possibly as bait to lure people to sites that can steal identities and online passwords, according to anti-malware website Malwarebytes.
Facebook has removed links when notified of them, Matt Steinfeld, a spokesman for the Menlo Park, California-based company, said in an interview.
Some theories are less seriously offered than others.
Malaysian authorities have refuted supposed eyewitness accounts of Flight 370 being spotted flying low over the Republic of the Maldives, an island chain south of India. The Maldives are hundreds of miles west of any satellite transmissions U.S. investigators say were picked up from the jetliner.
Users of Google Inc.’s search engine conducted more than 100,000 searches of “Maldives” yesterday to rank it among the most-requested terms of the day, according to the company’s rank of trending searches.
One accounting has Flight 370 disappearing into an unknown Asian equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. A widely shared image digitally inserts the missing plane into a scene of the 1960s U.S. television show “Gilligan’s Island,” which featured feckless castaways marooned on an uncharted speck of land.
“Flight is such a mystery to people that when there is an accident, it really captures everybody’s morbid fascination,” Goelz said.
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