Category Archives: mapping flight paths

How to Get Lost?

In the age of the globalized compass of GPS, where the world is ringed by thirty-two satellites that download continuous feeds to our mobile devices as if monitoring our every move, it’s hard to imagine how we can get lost.  Yet the ease with which AirAsia flight QZ8501 disappeared, as its pilot lost contact and communication with ground control over the waters of the  Indonesian archipelago, poses problems of how a direct flight suddenly vanished from the monitors of controllers, as much as how contact was lost, in an era when we mostly imagine flight paths as discrete itineraries.




Gone seem the days when weather systems led ships went astray, and the merchant steamship Archimedes driven wildly off of its course in the summer of 1929, when it was swept wildly off course for four days, overloaded with goods, inside the vortex of hurricane winds while preparing for a tobacco run to China.  The drama that Richard Hughes narrates in In Hazard about the event that prompted Joseph Conrad to write Typhoon described the limits of modern engineering–a challenge between engineering and the environment–as the modern steamship, aptly named the Archimedes, lost all of its forward thrust in the high winds of a hurricane while it was laden with goods.  Such meteorological challenges seem anachronistically removed, despite the still compelling nature of the narrative of the struggle to send steam to pumps to right a sloping deck, an impossible challenge in the eye of the storm for even the finest engineers on the ship.

The struggles of being swept off course described in In Hazard resonate with the unexpected disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501, however, which somehow disappeared near Borneo after it lost contact with air traffic controllers while carrying 162 on route to Singapore.  So do the problems of its loss of all propulsion and, apparently, orientation due to possible electromagnetic interference in a fateful–in this case, also tragically fatal–storm.  The crash of the Airbus airplane into the sea provoked a range of fears about the possible causes for its captain and co-pilot’s sudden disorientation, but rather than pose problems of engineering, the loss of the plane in severe thunderstorms raised questions of how it disappeared from the map.  Even given very limited radar coverage over so large an expanse of water prevents adequate tracking of the plane’s actual position by radar over the South China Seas, the loss of contact in an increasingly interconnected world may pose problems both of communication and of envisioning overcrowded flight paths on a map.  The increased crowding of flights over the archipelago in recent years poses problems of allowing safe passage over ocean waters, and indeed across the high winds of an inter-tropical convergence zone, long known for unpredictable weather systems but, we must ask, perhaps inadequately accounted for in the increasingly crowded flight corridors around Indonesian airspace.

How could the plane have gotten lost?  Airlines do not stream geolocation data in real time, partly since they use voice-to-voice communication, but no doubt  because the notion that the plane would be “lost at sea” seems so small a possibility or likelihood:  yet the difficulties in establishing communication with the plane are puzzling in an area of apparently continuous monitoring.  It is especially eerie since no actual witness’s voice survives to narrate what happened after it lost all contact with air traffic controllers shortly after having requested to change course.  After having vanished from radar screens quite suddenly, and exiting the map of monitors, the interrupted path of AirAsia 8501 is difficult to explain:  no “black box” has survived or may be ever found.  It seems the airbus carrying 162 people vanished at a time when we rarely if ever leave the map, however: the mystery of how it did strains common credulity, but some answers seem to lie in the maps of the crowded scene in which the pilots charted their plane’s actually otherwise ordinary path.  Even as dozens of bodies have been recovered, none wearing life jackets, we are left to imagine the complete panic that ensued as the plane went off its course, only to plummet and be engulfed in the sea below.  Is it possible that the tragedy of losing contact with air traffic controllers over ocean seas might be more important to map than the point at which the flight mysteriously abandoned its planned flight path?


2-10 after take-offNew York Times


The shocking density of the air traffic levels among different flights is closely tied to rapidly increasing air-traffic off the coast of Indonesia.  Several aircraft were in close vicinity of the airbus when its signal was suddenly lost.  The refusal of a request from its captain, Iryanto, to ascend course from 32,000 to 38,000 feet to avoid worrisome weather conditions from AirAsia QZ8501 was not quickly granted to the captain, we suspect, partly on account of the difficulty of balancing how many flights were in transit in the crowded airspace flying to Singapore or easterly through Indonesia.  Exactly what happened to the plane’s flight path is not clear, but it seems the pilots’ orientation or sense of what the flight path was seems to have been lost as their plane was steered into the clouds they sought to avoid, and their own navigational systems and magnetic compasses seem to have been disabled or adversely affected as a result–perhaps by a lightning storm in the vicinity.  The request air of traffic controls at Soekarno-Hatta Airport was sent to Indonesia’s Changi Airport and approved, but was asked to only ascend to 34,000 feet; when the pilot was notified at 6:14 a.m., no reply was ever received.  Jakarta’s air traffic control, AirNav Indonesia, contacted flight control in Singapore, in an attempt to accommodate the request:  “It took us around 2 to 3 minutes to communicate with Singapore. We agreed to allow the plane to increase its height but only to 34,000 feet, because at that time AirAsia flight QZ8502 was flying at 38,000 feet,” explained the state navigation operator, Wisnu Darjono, but the limited space allowed did not meet the pilot’s request.  (The recent announcement by Indonesia’s transportation ministry that AirAsia QZ8501 in fact flew on a schedule that was unauthorized reveals an additional possible reason for this delay, but has not been confirmed.)

Was the apparent hesitation of response due to the appearance of an otherwise unscheduled flight within the increasingly crowded corridors of flights over the South China Seas, or to the difficulty to predict weather systems in rerouting of flight paths?  The challenges of mapping air traffic seem considerable, as are challenges of using judgment to offer pilots with the quick responses that they require: the returning flight seems to have already obtained the increased elevation that Iryanto had requested.


traffic-720New York Times; flight path data from  FlightRadar24, rendered by Gregor Asch


Iryanto did not specify the reasons for the change in path.  But the region was dense with cumulonimbus clouds, associated with heavy precipitation, if not thunderstorms:  both the pilot and copilot are presumed to have become disoriented in what may have been severe thunderstorms–as would be typical for such a “convergence” region, it seems, where tropical trade winds from two hemispheres regularly intersect and create poor conditions for navigating not only ships but airplanes.  News Agencies and television networks have faulted poor weather conditions and thunderstorms in the area, weather systems explain only part of the mechanics of the terrible failure; but the ability to avoid such storms by a margins of twenty miles depends on a system of clear communication with air controllers after leaving Surubaya.

The sense of ‘getting lost’ is hard to communicate on the map, and few further stories will probably be told, like Conrad or Hughes, about the Airbus A302 jet and its 162 passengers and crew.  The young, low-cost airline, which flies some rightly planes across South Asia, is, according to the Times, operates more Airbus A 320’s than most firms in the world and large providers of flights in the region; the plain was. ominously, piloted by a captain and first officer may have had relatively few flying hours–some report that it amounted to only 8, 375 between them, as AirAsia earlier noted in a press release, although Tony Fernandes, the AirAsia CEO, claimed considerably more for the pilot (20,500)–7,000 with AirAsia for him alone.  Both lost contact with ground control, as the plane suddenly vanished–hours of fuel in its engine some forty-five minutes after take-off, in ways that left folks staring blankly into a map, as they would when monitoring search efforts.  While news networks invoke unforeseen weather conditions, is that even a satisfying or responsible answer?  The possibility that AirAsia was potentially regularly flying aircraft that had not been cleared for permission with Indonesia raises the fears of sort of vigilante flying to meet market demand one would rather not consider.

30indonesia-hp-jumboDarren Whiteside/Reuters


There are many such narratives in maps suggesting increasing congestion of airline flights above the South China Seas.  If, as first suggested in a tweet by Archie Tse, #AirAsia8501, and seems increasingly likely, the airplane’s disappearance was preceded by how local air traffic control prevented the plane from changing not only its flight path but altitude as requested in the face of changing meteorological conditions, responsibility may largely lie in poor preparation for an increasingly over-crowded density of flight paths.  For the ability to get lost in unexpected weather systems is greatly intensified in an area where the rerouting of flight-paths might be so problematically constrained–and where air traffic has recently so intensified that its paths are not easily rerouted in to accommodate the need to avoid or circumvent volatile weather systems, and where the plotting of a clear flight path might more accurately perceived from the cockpit–and needing to be adjusted through clear communication with local airports.  In such conditions, monitoring and mapping air traffic seems especially fraught.  An image of those planes run by AirAsia by FlightTracker on January 2 reveals the increased expansion of flights across the archipelago–


flight aware flights of airasia over archipelafgo jan 2 10-20 amFlight Aware’s live Flight Tracker, Jan 2 11:41 a.m.


And when the request from the airplane not only to ascend an additional 6,000 feet to avoid terrifyingly dense cloud cover was denied by air traffic controllers, the Indonesian newspaper Kompas reported, “because of air traffic,” the liabilities of readily plotting safe courses of travel in an area where air traffic has rapidly expanded with a proliferation of low-cost airlines–along a business model with which we are today unfortunately all too familiar for most Americans, AirAsia adopted the “no-frills” model of customer relations, charging for luggage, snacks, and choice seating, that paralleled a threefold expansion from 2003-11 of unfettered growth in the density of air traffic above the archipelago, already a region of increasing unstructured expansion and transportation congestion.  The seven years of uninterrupted growth of domestic airlines in the skies above Indonesia rapidly accelerated in recent years, meeting a growing demand for local and international travel in a region that is expected to see a huge and unchecked growth in urban expansion by 2030, at steep economic and ecological costs of growing carbon emissions across the region that is the fourth densest population in the world, or only shortly behind the United States.


Domestic Indonesian airlines Source: Innovate weekly average April 2013; Anna Aero


In the ambit of air travel, the unstructured expansion of flights around the Indonesian archipelago seems to have become particularly acute in recent years as the region is served by networks of cheap flights across the Indonesian archipelago, including such growing airlines such as Citilink, Tigerair, and Valuair.  For these airlines, whom the problem of mapping congested travel parallels better known problem of airlines pushing pilots to run repeated flights on no rest, asking air traffic controllers to work for low pay, and adopting practices of poor overall management inadequate to expanding congestion of airways over one of the most inhabited areas of the world, as the archipelago’s oceanic expanse is increasingly covered by a web of short- or long-distance commercial flights.


Air Asia routes map


The apparent failure to chart routes among planes adequately–and provide a communication infrastructure to map the course of planes to map routes in a way sufficiently flexible to allow pilots to avoid weather systems like thunderstorms, from which planes are required to maintain a distance of at least twenty miles, must have become intensified as AirAsia alone rapidly expanded service in the Archipelago and to India and Japan–intensifying air traffic by a huge degree in a region where radar often works poorly to track planes with precision, and communication between airports may lag.  The flat blue field over which so many miniature plans of different sizes swarm conceals the weather systems and winds that tragically interrupted the expected trajectory of the AirAsia plane as it passed Southern Sumatra, where it lost all contact with air controllers.  Imagine flying an unannounced plane within such crowded skies and being surprised by dangerous weather conditions.


airasia8501Flight path and last known position of AirAsia Flight 8501/


Was the airplane in fact lost because it was not granted permission to ascend, and was hemmed in by the existing flight paths of other planes?  That rather terrifying possibility would show the difficulties of accommodating the explosion of air travel in the region, and the need to create a more comprehensive system of mapping air travel across the region’s skies.  If our own air-travel experience seems increasingly suggests a market-driven decrease in quality-of-flying experience that has stratified the experience of flying with surcharges galore, the expanding free-market of the friendly skies in South Asia that led air traffic controllers to refuse to grant the possibility of climbing 6,000 feet “because of traffic” is revealed in the map of the density of air-traffic that Flight 8501 needed to navigate at the time of its disappearance, and to whom it had to offer each other adequate berth, and the reluctance of granting climbing such a height may reflect the difficulties of negotiating multiple flight paths stacked and superimposed upon one another.   (It is striking that the South China Seas were a notoriously dangerous area for maritime travel, especially in the particularly unpredictable area near the equator of an ‘intertropical convergence zone’ (ITCZ) where trade winds of both hemispheres intersect–as was well-known to sailors in the same region over a century ago.

Have we actually forgotten to adequately integrate meteorological conditions in the very maps of charting and planning airline routes on which we now increasingly rely?)  Since even at a low altitude, the plane was probably flying through clouds containing ice or supercooled water, the need to chart such shifting weather conditions in maps seems particularly complicated by questions of overly crowded skies.


traffic-720New York Times; flight path data from  FlightRadar24, rendered by Gregor Aitch


The flight seems to have landed in the water but two miles from the site of having lost contact with the AirNav controller, as the plane’s forced entry into storm clouds provoked an icing of the engine that led the Airbus A320-200 plane with 162 people aboard to crash into the Java Sea.




Debris and Plane

Although the comparisons between two recently disappeared planes which took off from the same region of the world seem inevitable, the proliferation of news maps in the media about the lost Air Malaysia Flight 370 that departed from Kuala Lumpur, with a destination of Beijing, only to take a U-turn in the South China Sea, is different from the mapping of the flight path or trajectory of the lost AirAsia Airbus A302–and not only because the path of the former could not be traced by pings, while the airbus took the path of flight that had been planned.  But the sudden disappearance of AirAsia 8501 seems especially tragic because of the record of the pilot’s apparent failure to avoid the meteorological disturbances and potential thunderstorms in which the flight may have lost orientation and been lost.

The map of the AirAsia flight also reveals the intense crowding of skies, no doubt prioritizing profit and driven by a free-market, to create the most economically efficient process for filling the skies with flights, without allowing space for variations in meteorological conditions, that seems oddly similar to the noted decline in attention to passengers or consumers in a near-monopoly of merged airlines in the United States in its discounting of the experience of the quality of the passenger or preparation of the plane for flight.  Independently from the navigational experience of the pilots at hand, the incredible lack of attention to planning paths of flight or airspace in a region where flight has so markedly expanded in recent years suggests that market forces in and of themselves are not so easily or clearly guided by the proverbial invisible hand.  In the case of an approaching lightning storm, the invisible hand might be more likely to pluck a passing airliner and its up to 200 passengers from the sky some two hours and ten minutes after take-off.


2-10 after take-offNew York Times


The ability to get lost in weather systems is dependent on experience, to be sure, but increasingly on incomplete or inaccurate communication–and on the difficulties of accommodating to weather–in ways that can become an unspeakable if not incomprehensible tragedy for all.  One cannot ask what might have been, but must untangle the liabilities of our increasingly crowded airspace.

When Malaysia’s Chief of Navy tweeted an image of the surface sectors that are still being searched for the plane effective as of 30 December, he seemed to acknowledge the broad reasons that are in need of patrolling for signs of the plane that seems now, sadly, to lie beneath the ocean waters.





The commonalities between the painful interrogation of air flight maps in the search and that for the Air Malaysia 340 flight and the AirAsia 8501 disaster lie in the déjà vu quality of viewers’ complete disempowerment before the map of air travel, and the unknown worries that the devastating disaster provoked.  And as governments are beset by the need to respond to increasing preoccupation of the dangers of air flight, we need to calm our own sense of air safety, a deep need to try to resolve the reasons for the tragic death of so many people echoes as we scurry to see how such a catastrophic outcome of an air freight might be explained.  It is in fact unclear what maps will tell us about the search for the plane at this point.  But given that airplanes are required to stay some twenty miles from thunderstorms, it seems incumbent to ensure that all flight paths can be granted the necessary latitude to be rerouted to guarantee that planes safely maintain such precautionary distances from one another.

The hurry to grant available flight pathways in a particularly crowded corridor of flight-paths seems likely to leave many staring, without hope of clear answers, at the actually quite limited information about flight conditions in given locations that can be presented in a paper map.  The delayed response–the wrenching grieving–only leads us back, uncomprehendingly, to contemplate the mute maps of the flight paths.


Indonesia Plane


The tragedy provokes a reflection on problems of engineering and extreme weather with an unexpected twist:  for rather than presenting a story of being blown off course, showing nature challenging the best practices of engineering, as symbolized by the very name of the steamship Archimedes, the AirAsia flight less faced the limits of engineering, than problems of communication and planning:  it may be that problems of re-routing the airbus were forestalled because of broken off communication and inadequate of coordinated planning to oversee congested air-corridors or most flexibly coordinate the supervision of regional flight paths.  Rather than being caught in a drama of problems of mechanical engineering, like the passengers of the Archimedes, the 162 passengers and crew seem to have suffered from inadequate oversight of an almost unfettered expansion of the marketplace for air travel in the region.  In fact, despite well-founded calls airlines uniformly adopt “real-time” tracking of their aircraft, such as the system that is sold by the Canadian company Flyht, this would be more helpful in locating the plane, rather than maintaining the security of flight paths, although the equipment would stream cockpit voice recordings and flight data in ways that would primarily be to help investigators understand the causes of the aircraft’s loss and determine where it is located.

The problem may well lie in how we collectively continue to envision flight paths as discrete ones.  In an age when we too often imagine the itineraries of air-travel to be disembodied, point-to-point trips plotted in isolation from their surroundings, we might do well to reconsider the imaginary construction by which we map airplane flights for passengers, and its possibilities of almost intentional obfuscation of isolated images of travel shown over the face of the globe.


Viewfinders imagine



Many basic questions still demand to be answered.  But itineraries are preserved in the images of mapped routes that we still use as a basis for understanding airplane travel, and indeed for planning the routes of travel that we make in increasingly crowded skies. Yet do they allow us to describe the shifting experience of flown space, in an era when the relations between flights seem as important to map as the relation between points of departure and a destination?



Indian sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik completing his sculpture of the two missing jet aircraft, the AirAsia airbus QZ8501 and the lost aircraft Malaysia Airlines MH370, on the Golden Sea Beach at Puri (India) on December 29, 2014


The questioning view from the shoreline doesn’t understand the crowded itineraries of the sky, but in rendering two jets, whose upward-tilting noses ascend as if through the clouds, above the colored interogative emblazoned on Pattnaik’s sand sculpture links the  paths of two flights, asking how their automatic pilots could have led them to be lost.  If the apparently ephemeral construction of the sand sculpture, despite the false solidity of its sharply smoothed edges, seems an apt medium to describe the loss, the poignant question below the image of a possible aeronautical collision seems an apt response to the tragedy of the sudden inexplicable loss of both aircraft at sea and improvised monument to the inexplicable deaths of their passengers.

Pattnaik’s laborious work has acquired increasing public function with almost editorial qualities of collective shaming of great poignancy to commemorate deaths at sea.



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Filed under AirAsia Flight 8501, flight navigation maps, Flight Radar, mapping commercial flights, mapping flight paths

On the Repeated Mapping of the Unknown Flight Path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The proliferation of maps tracking the diverted flight path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 repeatedly re-enact an exercise of mapping the unknown:  if the early proliferation of possible maps of its flight path matched the shock of its disappearance, the continued frenzy of the search for signs of the fate of the airplane and its 238 passengers, as if trying to help get our minds around the implausible nature of its disappearance on a rather routine commuter flight.  The rapid proliferation of hypothetical maps of plausible diversions hang on the turning points in the trajectory of the vanished plane from its last point of contact and observation all seem to be seeking to explain what happen with something like the surety we expect from maps:  in the absence of any information that is clear, we turn to the map as a way to ground what we know, and to try to find meaning in it.

But the multiplication of these maps almost seem to respond to a lack of real information, or conceal the absence of any clear leads as to what happened.  For each map includes an abundance of bathymetric contour lines, shorelines of islands, point of take off and the place of the satellite had last contact with the flight are all included in these maps, which obscure the sadly open-ended nature of the tragic narrative that exists around it.  While none presents the individual narratives of the passengers or pilots on the flight, by necessity, and may even represent the frustration of our remove from whatever happened on board the flight after it left the airport, the multiplication of news maps and digital reconstructions capture desperation at not knowing what sorts of events or potential diversions occurred.

At the same time, the underlying narratives of all accounts is often left unstated and go unexpressed:  that of how the flight path of an airplane managed not to be tracked.  The proliferation of news stories seem driven by the continued technological attempts to produce a comprehensive detailed account of what happened on the plan in its final moments–or of the location of potential wreckage –as we openly worry about the controlled nature of our international airspace, and the extent to which it can ever be fully mapped.  The inflection of this story, which is in a sense the parallel story that has been driving the story of the search for a narrative to describe the tragic events of the flight that left 239 passengers in the flight and its crew missing and presumably dead.   The assurances of international authorities on the International Investigation Team (ITT) that the search for fragments of the inexplicably vanished aircraft in the Indian Ocean will continue over a search area of nearly 50,000 square miles–aafer the perfunctory issuance of death certificates for all passengers by the Malaysian government–creates a puzzle about both our mapping abilities as tools of surveillance and effective control, and sustain a continued wish to compensate for such concerns by repeatedly illustrating the abilities to map, remap, and map again the area and the plane’s flight path, producing maps that might provide a narrative structure to events that seem dangerously incoherent.  For the map offers uniquely reassuring coherence on an event whose narratives have literally gone out of control.

Existing maps largely proceed from reconstructions of plausibly altered itineraries the airplane may have taken after it veered dramatically off-course in the course of an otherwise routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The underlying questions to which they appear to respond is how technology and ramped up security could prevent us from losing another plane, and how we can, as Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association, Tony Tyler, calls for the need “track aircraft wherever they happen to be, even if they go outside normal traffic coverage . . . in the most effective way.”  After the intentional closure of the transponder during the flight, the increased suspense of any air travel–and the anguish of the families with members on the Air Malaysia flight, increased attention has been directed to border control, as minimal information seems provided by attempts to map–or digitally reconstruct–the diverted flight.


Site of Last Contact


The map of flight-paths is often combined with maps of search missions and sites of possible wreckage in news maps and online media, as if to condense the slight information we encounter in a single map.  Chances of discovering or locating whatever is left of the lost plane–the ostensible goal of the search mission–seem remote, like a needle in a haystack, despite the lack of an appropriately marine metaphor.  The insistent and repeated mapping of the Boeing 777’s flight path and its contact with ground control is not only an artifact of the news cycle; it is an incomplete narrative we keep on trying to resolve or find resolution for:  the story of the interrupted flight path has left audiences world-wide wondering whether the storyline will ever be resolved, how the intervention in flight path was made that caused it to shift its planned itinerary, and why our apparently refined abilities of mapping can’t complete the narrative we all want to bring completion to. There is a commanding logic in matching the search area to the possible diversion of the plane’s in-flight trajectory, but everything is complicated by trying to balance a narrative of the flight’s tragically diverted course with the mute azure surface, without landmarks or points of orientation, of oceanic expanse over which jets travel on search missions and boats patrol.

In ways that have gripped viewers but also raise frustrating questions of how to best search international waters, as well as unfamiliar perspectives on mapped space, all eyes were for a time directed to the South Seas with an intensity that oddly echoed eighteenth-century speculators. For after we have watched a cycle of maps of the flight paths, we have found them substituted by the maps of the dangerous search conditions of the area, and the stories that they tell of the challenges of searching in the South Seas, at the same time as a fairly constant drumbeat of the maps of potentially sighted objects–things that can at least be mapped, unlike the plane itself–in the hope to locate something that might close the rather terrifying narrative of another potential diversion of a passenger jet’s flight path.  (That fragment of the story–an entrance into the cockpit or pilot’s cabin; the diversion of the path of a preprogrammed flight–is so powerful to summon nightmarish scenarios, and to search for any sign of resolution.)  That “other map” that has increasingly dominated news-shows and newspapers of potential fragments of the lost Boeing 777-200’s wreckage in the Southern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Thailand or even the Mediterranean has taken over, spinning the search mission into something like a cartographical myse en abyme, which lacks the possibility of clear resolution of perspective in mapping the shifting sites of searches that are super-imposed into maps of the flight path.

For fragments are repeatedly being reported in the ever-expanding and shifting search area for the tragic and still as of yet inexplicable disappearance of an airline with 239 passengers aboard:  in ways that have driven comparisons to black holes into which the jet mysteriously disappeared have created an almost near-impossibility of locating what one thought were the most trackable of flight paths, if only given the broad area of the radius of 2,500 miles which the fuel tank of Flight 370 might have allowed it to have gone after its last contact with radar.  The open seas that provided the only places to be less carefully tracked, as it left Malaysian for Thai airspace, seem a rare region removed from land-surveillance, as well, as we have since discovered, the sort of windswept area of fast-moving currents that have sufficiently flummoxed the densely concentrated and often multi-national surveillance systems that have mobilized around the area.




The mid-March findings that the airplane took a planned sharp turn westward, most likely programmed by someone inside the cockpit contributed grounds for fears of hijacking by someone on board, bolstered by the swerve of flight path toward the Strait of Malacca that the Royal Thai Air Force observed, traveling back out to the Indian Ocean, rather than its planned course to China, and the search has progressed along the lines that Flight 370 headed in another direction than was first believed, costing significant delays in time for the search for the missing plane, but not reducing the search area beyond 2.97 million square miles. But how does something like a plane fall out of contact with civilian radar or satellite?  Where, simply put, could it go, and how did it get there?  As the story has circulated in the major news outlets, a sort of popular response to the inability to map its course has surfaced or emerged.   The disappearance of the American-made airplane has recently provoked the existence of something like—you guessed it—a Bermuda Triangle, that often evoked conceit of the 1970s, or provoked (in less responsible news outlets) the existence of a “greater force” that just gobbled it up, in ways that explain (in comparable  ways) the sudden disappearance of aircraft from civilian radar monitors or satellite reception.  The notion of a “Bermuda Triangle”-like theory matches the odd absence of clear territoriality over the open seas in the region from the Gulf of Thailand or Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, whose rapidly expanding search area that has involved the Chinese, American, Australian, Malaysian, British, New Zealand, and Thai governments, and evoked potential dangers from Uighur separatists, as much as Al Qaeda.  (Or might it be, as was recently suggested by a Canadian-based economist with ties to the petroleum industry, that the United States was involved in targeting MH370?)

The notion that no government is prepared or able to adequately chart the waters of the wild South Seas suggests an absence of governmental supervision that somehow links the plane to separatist groups–even if no one seems to dare to claim responsibility for diverting the flight. The difficulty in stopping the search starts not only from the tragic disappearance of a jet with some 260 people aboard.  The compulsion evident in the maps of air traffic controllers to the sighting of debris seems almost to derive from the fact that something managed to evade the system of worldwide surveillance somehow managed to escape being tracked, despite its size–or, more probably, the fear that we are not being surveilled and mapped as well as we had all hoped.   The latter not only opens the door to invite a further future opportunity for terrorist acts that we might all of course want to avoid, but lifts the veil on the surveillance industry itself. The images distributed by the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office, no doubt in response to how frustration made the government an early target for the inquiry, seemed to suggest an eery possibility of a middle-eastern connection, now doubt familiar to American ears–even though this expanded search area suggests little basis for such fears.  How, a concern runs across the media, did it ever disappear from radar coverage and surveillance?




But the very vagueness of potential trajectories Based on the amount of fuel within the jet’s tanks, the possible position of the flight when it was last heard from satellite suggested only that it lay along one of the red arcs of potential diversion of the aircraft’s flight path from Kuala Lumpur in the 7 1/2 hours after its 12:41 take-off, tracing some  2.97 million square miles in which to conduct the search for the areas to which it was originally delimited and confined:


Estimated Range of Possible Flight PathsNew York Times


Although the area the arcs encompass approach the expanse of the continental United States, the arc to the Caspian Sea or Kazakhstan seem to have received far more initial attention:  it would, one supposes, be confirmation of the tentacles of Al Qaeda rearing their head.  The far smaller areas in which the plane had first been searched, defined by white rectangles, suggested in this map, made a week after the airplane had disappeared, as well as the difficulty of tracking what had been assumed to be so readily confined to the Gulf of Thailand, but which now has expanded to cover much of the South Seas.  But the fact that even those flying the most up-to-date jets of American Navy surveillance like the  P-8A Poseidon have been peering out of glass airplane windows and not looking at their electronic screens to spot the potentially downed craft, relying on the human eye to scan the open waters, and only spotting such objects as orange rope, white balls, or blue-green plastic reminds us of how much ocean-borne garbage might create distracting signs to frustrate the search.  And the reports of a low-flying plane sighted March 8 near the Maldives might potentially refocus attention in other areas that might well be mapped.


INitial Search AreaNew York Times


It’s a bit shocking that in over three weeks, no sign of the airplane’s disappearance has been noted, despite numerous potential sightings that have in the end proved red herrings.  The oddness of plotting an opening of an escape from surveillance and tracking that are the basis of the concept of modern airspace find reflections in the repeated maps of loss of contact with controllers, exit from tracking systems, and potential paths of flight, all concealing the absence of surety in being able to verify what happened to the unfortunate passengers on Malaysia Jet 370 more than the results of an ongoing inquiry with little sign of any clues in the transcript of exchanges between the flight and controllers for the seven and a half hours after it took off, and little indication of the expected tussle that would be associated with a diversion of flight paths. The potential sites of wreckage that have been found are something like the catalogue of a junkyard–including some 122 pieces of unknown floating objects in the Indian Oceanseventy-eight foot debris off Australia’s coast; white balls, orange string or other junk–in ways that have led to an explosion of articles on potential sightings that seems without end, each announced as potentially “credible” as the last.  So many potentially distracting objects that bear no demand for further scrutiny seem to exist that the Australian military took it upon themselves to include a list of those objects worthy of follow-up, including “debris, distress beacon, fire, flares, life jackets, life raft/dinghy, marker dye, mirror signals, movements, oil slick, person in water, smoke, wreckage.”

The demand for news maps suggest the shifting areas of the search and the aporia of inquiries that reinforce how difficult it is to believe that anything like an airplane would be so difficult to map.  The Australian government assembled a colorful collage of spots already examined, indicating the intensity of their daily attempts, which have shifted as time progressed and new theories emerged:


Australian Colorful Collage of Searches


The Chinese government sought to provide ocular proof and exact coordinates of what looked like aircraft, 74 feet long and thirty feet wide, as if to reassert their claims to be monitoring the airspace by satellite, and staking claim to a region of particularly intensely disputed nautical boundaries–but so far finding little confirmation of the wreckage by boats:


Chinese Object in India Ocean


Are we just discovering how much garbage is in the ocean?  Or are we staking a claim to rights of sovereignty over maritime lanes, when maritime sovereignty still seems particularly difficult to define–raising questions of what sort of waters the craft may have been lost in, and whose right it is to retrieve whatever of the plane is left, but also pushing the search out to international waters, to avoid fraught questions of contested maritime sovereignty.  The oddly international complexion of the search parties that have been engaged so far has all too often muted the deeper salient question of the complex contestation of conflicting lines of maritime jurisdiction in the very region of the seas over which the plane flew.  (While few would want to suggest that the search has progressed in reaction to disagreements about jurisdiction, the difficulty of mapping jurisdiction in these waters has received far less press coverage than one might expect.)


Complex Delineation of Nautical Borders Legend-boundareis


In a field of disputes of maritime boundary lines, the search for the place is filtered through the actually contested sovereignty on multiple fronts, in ways that greatly complicate questions of responsibility for searching for the aircraft and its presumably dead passengers:


Complex Maritime Boundaries   Legend-boundareis


Indeed, the territorial complexion of many of the uninhabited islands of the South Seas resembles the random bright coloration of the multiple islands of medieval and early modern isolari, or books of islands, even if the colors are no meant to denote sovereign claims:




The larger picture is even, of course, both a bit more complex, and carries deep conflicts of how one can best understand maritime bounds, in ways that raise but a corner on the difficulties of resolving maritime boundary lines:


Complex Question of Boundaries


For most Americans, of course, oblivious to contrasting claims of sovereignty over water in a globalized world, and amused by the idea of contesting the sovereignty of maps, the questions might turn around the simpler incredulity at what has happened to our satellites or systems of radar.  The amount of ink spilled over the absence of indications of a major airline’s flightpath leaves viewers aghast at not being able to interpret the map that results. The pleasure that commentators on ‘The Ed Show’ or ‘Bill O’Reilly’ take in evoking and imitating authoritative maps that show potential arcs of air travel provide a scary shock-tactic of disorienting observers to an over-observed world, and suggests the discomfort not only at the potential for future skyjackings or dangers of flying aboard airplanes–but that we’re just not being watched as well as we all wanted to be, as if that was what we wanted. Or is it that the mapping of the results of post-9/11 surveillance have let us lapse, reassured, into a false sense that we need not worry about the dangers of the diversions of commercial flights, or that all is indeed under control?  Yet the hunt has now turned to the southern Indian Ocean, based on scattered new evidence of active flight diversion, after being centered in the Gulf of Thailand or South China Sea, with concern arising from the fact that the batteries on flight data and voice recorders–the main hope of finding the plane’s location–are due to die, and with them much potential evidence of what transpired in the cockpit, as pings emitted to facilitate their geolocation are due to die, after which the hopes to find evidence of what occurred would be drastically reduced.

The search for the information is being collected in the need to affirm the continued safety of airspace, not to mention confidence in the air travel industry.  Does it also serve to conceal the huge costs that the US government is ready to spend on the search, already having allocated 2.5 million for the participation of US ships and aircraft to this mission, presumably in the hopes to find clues to the disruption of monitored airspace.  (The flight of an search of the average high-tech surveillance navy jet of the sort equipped with the requisite surveillance cameras lasts two hours, deploying the most cutting edge example of surveillance of the “sea state”:  the theater for remapping the waters by planes such as the P-8A Poseidon suggests a rehearsal of the gamut of equipment that the Navy has assembled and huge costs to use must be balanced with the eagerness of being able to deploy our latest surveillance toys.)

average Search Plane(from The New York Times)


The frames of geographic reference somehow seem part of the dramatic narratives spun about the disappeared plane, whose possible paths not only inspire limited confidence in the accurate measurements or tracking capacities but oddly orient viewers to the South Seas from a strikingly new orientation on landmasses and marine space, in which the dramatically open areas frame the aerial search along a diverted flight path far from land, in an area that is moreover swept by winds that often exceed 100 miles per hour, and rough seas:


Reconstructions of Flight PathsNew York Times


The deployment of all this technology to map the region by weather charts or debris-sightings seem designed to bolster confidence that this area, if blocked by cloud cover and rain and tremendously powerful waves, and deep waters, is still being mapped with relative accuracy. Yet what is one to make of the mapping of potential sightings? What significance does their clustering in the Indian Ocean mean save the intensity of searchlights turned to that direction, and the new horizon of expectations that results–even if the idea that pings from the airline’s data system, ACARS, dating from the period of four to five hours after the last transponder signal, and transmitted to satellites, indicate its arrival in the Indian ocean.  But why map potential sightings if they are not confirmed, except to try to restore some confidence in a search that might be akin to searching for sightings of Elvis or Christ?  In the meantime, the proliferation of alternative theories continue, from the plane being attacked by extraterrestrials, captured by folks who’ve shrouded it in an “invisibility cloak” or the locally generated theory that the disappearance of the plane is part of a an ambitious life-insurance scam, and not a terrorist plot–floated by Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar.  Over the month since the airplane’s disappearance, the biggest winner has no doubt been CNN, whose 24-7 coverage has stoked continued interest in the story; CNN President Jeff Zucker boasted how the new ratings showing reveal “a record-setting month for CNN’s digital platforms, including record-high page views, video streams and mobile traffic,” as if he was addressing shareholders, as it continued to describe and map objects floating in the Indian Ocean, without any sense of whether they were related in any way to the flight–so long as they were located along “possible flight paths.”  Is the technology of mapping a legitimation here for the absence of any actual detection of the flight path?  


Objects SpottedNew York Times source Australian Maritime Safety Authority


It’s hard to follow the logic of those who are organizing the Australian search teams, even thought the New York Times does its best to keep us in touch with the latest, but the recent relocation of the search by some 700 miles to the northeast suggest the hunt is a grab-bag of guesswork, and reveals the intense feelings of desperation at the narrative spinning out of control.


Relocation of Air SearchNew York Times; source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority


But to generate more information about the “unfolding story” of what CNN has continued to call the “airline mystery,” given the fact that no resolution of this mystery is in sight, and no indications that the plane crashed have emerged, nothing does the trick like a map to link the event to a number of alternate narratives and abstractions.

And as it has emerged after almost three months that the unending search is the most costliest episode of recovery of a jet in human history, the devotion of such emergency apparatuses to locating a lost jet must be assessed:  at the cost of millions of dollars per day, and over three and a half million dollars just to deploy an underwater detector of potential pings over the past weekend, it might be time to return attention to what is the end of the search, save seeking closure on a traumatic disruption of any illusion of totalsurveillance of airways such as that which the United States government wants desperately to be able to sustain?

What else occasioned the repeated search for the ruins of the jet without any sense of limits of cost, and indeed the devotion of a recently developed technology of surveillance to the detection of potential signs of the lost plane and its passengers?  At the same time, the rescue mission seems a sort of dress-rehearsal for surveillance of submarines on the high seas, the narrative of locating fragments of wreckage of the plane’s fuselage or wings fits into a sense we need to find closure in a sense that something happened while we all thought we were being watched:  this notion that the incident of Malaysia Airlines 370 suddenly disrupted and shattered that sense of an achieved limited peace, even in a time of ongoing contained military engagement in several theaters of the world.  It is hard to get used to the fact that we are not, and cannot be, safe in air travel.  (But at least, perhaps, we have generated these detailed maps, which seem to be reassuring of a sense of monitoring an unfolding story, even if it is one that seems to have not gone very far after all.)

The sense that we’re somehow being less well-watched than we once were seems to have driven the constant stream of news stories—unconscionably, never edited or diminished on airline flights, but almost increased in an attempt to keep passengers more relaxed and on their toes, the jet has increased critical thinking to the extent that it has provoked calls for the re-introduction of “reliable psychics” (in a return to the Nancy Reagan White House).  Where the plane went is less the concern of these maps, it seems, than the fact that draw as many maps as we want, not much turns up on them. The courses of potential flight paths after the pilots lost contact with the airport in Malaysia from which they first took off on that tragic day seems less directed to the protection of our own frontiers—or even airlines—than the notion that we cannot map a map of that path, even with all our satellite coverage and technologies that we’ve devoted, in the wake of 9/11, to monitoring maps of all movements along flight paths across the inhabited world. One problem may be that 9/11 opened a narrative, or saw one forced on us, so haunting that we don’t know how to bring to an end, or cannot see an end of, so deeply unsettling is it all.

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Filed under CNN newsmaps, flight-tracking maps, infographics, mapping flight paths, radar maps, satellite surveillance, surveillance mapping