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Good Question: How Can A Plane Just Disappear?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
Heather Brown loves to put her innate curiosity to work to answer yo...
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MINNEAOLIS (WCCO) – It’s been almost three days since a Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 passengers vanished over Southeast Asian waters.

On Monday, at least 75 ships and planes from several countries have been searching a 115-mile area around where the Boeing 777 disappeared from radar.

Aviation experts have speculated on everything from an explosion, to a terrorist attack, to catastrophic engine failure, but, so far, no one has picked up any sign of wreckage.

With so much advanced aviation and satellite technology these days, it seems hard to imagine we can’t find any evidence of a huge jet.

So, how could a plane disappear?

“Well the plane doesn’t disappear. So, the electronic signals from the plane have disappeared,” John Goglia, an aviation safety expert and former NTSB member, said.

The last time the plane was detected on radar was 1:30 a.m. Saturday, about an hour after it took off.  Goglia said radar stations in that part of the world, especially over water, can be spotty.

Yet, even without radar, he said the airplane should have been sending automatic signals to the ground about altitude or direction.  That capability isn’t easily disabled, like a radio communication, leading some to suggest complete electrical failure or plane disintegration.

“It should have worked in this case and it didn’t. We don’t know why. We don’t have a clue,” Goglia said.

The last major jet that crashed without sending a distress signal was Air France 447, which crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009.

That flight did leave debris.

In the Malaysia Airlines case, no debris has been found, further deepening the mystery.

“Today, a million people travel with water bottles. They float when they’re empty. Where are they? Where have they gone?” Goglia said.

As for the ping from a flight data recorder, also known as a black box, Goglia said searchers might not be able to hear it.  It might not work as well underwater or could be muffled if they plane didn’t fully break up.

And, if the pilots passed out while heading towards land, the plane might have cruised for hundreds of miles, but Goglia said radar would eventually have picked it up.

“As you go through these scenarios, you run into these obstacles,” he said.

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