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Niedner: Missing plane only unusual in high-tech age

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: May 28, 2014 6:25AM



Fifty days have passed since Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, with 239 people on board, veered off course and disappeared while en route to Beijing.

Nations around the world have spent more than $1 million a day in a relentless search for some sign of the missing aircraft. For now, it seems the hunt will continue indefinitely.

We’re no longer accustomed to losing vessels filled with human beings, but in earlier times such tragedies were commonplace.

Earth’s ocean floors are a vast graveyard for countless ships that perished through the millennia in which people sailed the seas without radios and SOS signals. Many a warrior’s or whaler’s widow waited forever in ports around the world.

The ancestors whose name I bear left Germany on one of five ships that sailed for America in 1838. Four ships reached New Orleans. The one that carried not only passengers but the larger group’s funds and most valuable possessions never arrived. My family history might easily have ended back then, unbeknownst to me, of course.

Since mankind took up flying, many hundreds of aircraft have been lost at sea as well, some quite famously. A plane carrying band leader Glenn Miller, on his way to entertain Allied troops in newly liberated Paris, disappeared into the English Channel in December 1944 and was never found.

Even more memorably, the possibly too-brave Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished over the Pacific Ocean and entered the realms of myth and legend while attempting to fly around the globe in 1937.

“Thin air” has claimed an additional share of the disappeared, among them skyjacker D. B. Cooper in 1971 and union leader Jimmy Hoffa four years later. Cooper sightings have become less common, but the wily crook “appeared” as frequently and in the same exotic places as Elvis in the years after the latter’s death in 1977.

Few think Hoffa survived for long after his fateful parking-lot meeting with a pair of Mafiosi, but speculation about his remains would have inspired a best-selling video game had his demise come a few years later. Did he become a crocodile’s dinner, or faithfully, though silently, witness New York Giants games from a special end-zone box?

Scarcely had the frantic search for MH-370 begun when the conspiracy theory machine fired up and began to feed our imaginations. Initial speculation centered on two Iranian passengers who carried stolen passports.

Investigators quickly dismissed them as harmless, but soon word spread that the plane had landed safely on a secret Middle East airstrip and was being prepared for a 9/11-type attack on the United States.

A related theory hatched from information that 20 employees of an American company that has worked to develop “cloaking technology” were aboard the plane. Had they succeeded at making it invisible enough to land unnoticed at a U.S. airbase?

Public opinion researchers have determined that 5 percent of the population believes aliens abducted the plane, and goodness knows where such beings might have taken it and its passengers. Yet another theory explains the whole affair as an elaborate stunt that will eventually become another edition of the addictive “Lost” TV series.

If nothing else, this sort of thinking helps explain the popularity of certain television networks today. It might also be time for my people to reconsider the story of the ship that never arrived in New Orleans.

Someday, perhaps in retirement, I’ll go searching in strange countries such as Texas or Cuba for a reclusive colony of wealthy Lutherans who don’t have jobs and lounge around all day listening to Bach over beer and Kartoffelsalat.



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