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Missing jet creates legion of armchair sleuths

March 13th, 2014 4:02 pm by SCOTT MAYEROWITZ, AP Airlines Writer

Missing jet creates legion of armchair sleuths

Vietnamese Air Force Col. Pham Minh Tuan uses binoculars on board a flying aircraft during a mission to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Gulf of Thailand, Thursday, March 13, 2014. (AP Photo)

NEW YORK (AP) — There aren't supposed to be any mysteries in the Digital Age.

The answers to most questions, it seems, can be found using Google or Twitter. So, maybe that's why the world is captivated by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and why it has created a legion of armchair sleuths, spouting theories in some cases so strange they belong in science-fiction films.

Casual conversations in supermarket aisles, barbershop chairs and office building cafeterias have centered on the mystery and how much we don't know. With the search for the missing Boeing 777 entering its seventh day, the passengers' families are left without closure while the intrigue — and hypotheses — continue to grow for the rest of us.

"We're fascinated by it. We don't know what happened and we hope for a miracle," says John DiScala, who runs the travel advice site JohnnyJet.com. "People want an answer and the suspense is killing them."

Normally, travelers turn to DiScala for the latest deals on flights. But this week, he says, a page on his website dedicated to the latest news about the flight has received most of the attention.

The pros are just as perplexed. On TV and in online forums, aviation experts are more measured and analytical than the amateurs but in the end can't say with any certainty what happened.

With no distress call, no sign of wreckage and very few answers, the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane is turning into one of the biggest aviation mysteries since Amelia Earhart vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

"Anybody who travels is intrigued with this story. How can a plane disappear? We've got satellites beaming down on everybody ..." says Andrea Richard, a French-American in Paris who travels widely, including to Asia.

Theories abound. Some are serious: there was a catastrophic failure in the airframe or engines or there might have been a pilot error. Other ideas are the kinds to be found in science fiction movies: a new Bermuda Triangle, an alien abduction or something out of the Twilight Zone.

Terrorism isn't suspected but hasn't been ruled out either. But some people have come up with elaborate plots worthy of a James Bond villain where the plane is hijacked and lands on a remote island, undetected by radar.

Others have sat in their homes or offices scouring new commercial satellite images of the ocean, looking for any debris from the plane.

False leads and conflicting information have only added to the mystery, the speculation and the frustration. It's still unclear how far the plane may have flown after losing contact with civilian radar — and in which direction. On Thursday, planes were sent to search an area off the southern tip of Vietnam where Chinese satellite images released by the Chinese government reportedly showed floating objects believed to be part of the plane. Nothing turned up.

Even if the plane is found soon, the speculation likely won't fade. It can take months, if not years, after a plane crash to learn definitively what happened.

That's an anomaly in an age of instant answers. If something isn't known, we just Google it. If we are lost, we use the GPS on our smartphones to find our location. And if our flight is delayed, even five minutes, the airline sends us a text message.

In this situation — to everybody's frustration — we still don't have a conclusion.

Popular TV shows like "Lost," or movies like "Alive" or "Castaway," where people survive a plane crash only to have the rest of the world give up on them, just feed the curiosity. (Note: It was a Boeing 777 that disappeared over the Pacific in "Lost.")

"This feeds into everyone's fear of flying. It's one thing for people to have a fear of dying in a plane crash. It's another one to die in a plane crash and never be found," says Phil Derner, founder of the aviation enthusiast website NYC Aviation.

Those within the aviation industry are enthralled with the mystery too, but from a much more methodical, scientific viewpoint.

"There's a lot of head scratching going on," says Daniel O. Rose, a partner with the aviation accident law firm Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which is representing the survivors and victims' families of July's Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco. "It becomes like a murder mystery almost, these clues that you're getting and trying to piece it together in a way that makes technical and logical sense."

Airlines and their employees don't like to talk about crashes. It's not in their nature. Instead, they defer to the crash investigators. Part of it is that they have nothing to gain by speaking and part of it is superstition.

Jason Rabinowitz, a self-proclaimed aviation geek whose hobby includes snapping photographs of airplanes taking off and landing, said those within the industry are bringing up previous incidents and previous searches "rather than clinging to straws."

Normally, aviation experts have their theories and stick to their guns. This time, he said, people are throwing out theories left and right only to have other experts shoot them down.

"The aviation community is more puzzled than the general population because we know more of what would cause an accident and we still have no clue," Rabinowitz says. "I keep going to sleep every night and hoping that I wake up with some shred of good news but it isn't happening."

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With reports from Elaine Ganley in Paris.

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