A lot of people who watched the Netflix documentary “MH370: The Plane That Disappeared” have written me with questions. I asked my friend Sarah Wynter, star of the hit show “24,” to discuss some of the ones that have gotten asked the most. This is a new format for me; in the past I’ve mostly explained my ideas through writing, but I thought that people who came to my work via video might prefer that medium. I’m grateful to Sarah for helping me out with her considerably more advanced televisual chops.
New York: MH370 Is a Cold Case. But It Can Still Be Solved.
Nine years ago, MH370 took off into a clear, moonlit night and flew into the unknown. Somewhere over the South China Sea, 40 minutes into the red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, it disappeared from radar screens. None of the 239 passengers and crew were ever seen again. The conventional thinking is that the pilot had decided to commit mass murder-suicide by crashing into a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean. But significant aspects of the case remained unexplained, including the plane’s ultimate resting place, and search officials have long since given up trying to determine what happened. Officially, MH370 is a cold case.
The urgency of solving the mystery remains, though. It’s disturbing enough that a state-of-the-art airliner can disappear so completely off the face of the earth; it’s even more troubling that the authorities, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars to conduct a search and self-proclaimed near certainty about where it must have gone, could fail to locate the 200-foot-long aircraft.
I’ve been following the case obsessively from the beginning, appearing on CNN to talk about it and writing about it in this magazine. I dove deep into the evidence for a 2019 book, and then spent several years working with the producers of a three-part Netflix documentary series, which debuts this week. My hope is that, while the passage of time has lessened the public’s interest in the case, it has also dispelled the fog of wild claims, giving us space to consider the evidence with greater clarity. Far from being a dead end, MH370 still offers multiple leads worth investigating. It’s important that we follow them. Continue reading New York: MH370 Is a Cold Case. But It Can Still Be Solved.
Tudum: Nearly a Decade Later, Why Looking for MH370 Still Matters
Nine years ago, a Malaysian airliner carrying 239 passengers and crew vanished from air traffic control screens over the South China Sea. Search officials were never able to locate the plane or those aboard. For the family members of the disappeared, it was a tragedy all the more painful for remaining unexplained; for investigators, it was a riddle unlike any they had ever encountered.
But the disappearance of MH370 is just the start of the story. Because in the years that have followed, another dimension of the mystery has opened up. It’s become evident that the scant clues available in the case have somehow led investigators astray. It isn’t just that we don’t know where the plane is. We don’t know why we don’t know. Continue reading Tudum: Nearly a Decade Later, Why Looking for MH370 Still Matters
Businessweek: Spy Balloons Are the Slow and Silent Future of Surveillance
When Russ Van Der Werff heard about the Chinese surveillance balloon detected drifting over the US, potentially spying on sensitive installations, he was concerned, naturally. But as vice president for stratospheric solutions at Aerostar, a company that makes high-altitude balloons, he was also kind of psyched. For years Van Der Werff has been working to convince government and commercial customers that Aerostar’s products offer serious advantages as surveillance platforms. It isn’t always easy. “There’s always someone saying, ‘Oh, now the balloon kooks are here,’” he says. “Well, now it looks like other people think it’s a good idea, too.”
For all the furor caused by China’s ill-fated balloon, its turn in the spotlight has been something of a coming-out party for a technology that’s spent the past decade quietly polishing its abilities. “We don’t believe a stratospheric balloon is the be-all and end-all,” Van Der Werff says, “but there are times when it’s a better fit.”
Balloons have been used for military surveillance since 1794, when France deployed one during its war with Austria. Both sides used them during the American Civil War, and the US Navy used blimps to hunt Nazi submarines during World War II. But the development of airplanes and high-altitude spy planes made lighter-than-air craft seem quaint, and the US Navy retired its last airship in 1962.
In time new technology would bring balloons back around. Continue reading Businessweek: Spy Balloons Are the Slow and Silent Future of Surveillance
Netflix releases trailer for “MH370: The Plane That Disappeared”
On February 15, 2023 Netflix released the trailer for its three-part documentary series about the as-yet unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which will debut on March 8, 2023. I participated quite extensively in the years-long development project, and I think it’s the most detailed and thoughtful documentary on the topic to date.
You can read more about the production at Tudum, Netflix’s companion website.
The Brian Lehrer Show: Mystery Objects in the Sky
On February 13, 2023 I went on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” to talk with Brian about my New York magazine article “Understanding the UFO War” and a few other things. It was my sixth time visiting the program.
New York: Understanding the UFO War
On Sunday at 7.43 p.m. EST, as 100 million Americans were watching the Philadelphia Eagles pull ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs in the second quarter of Super Bowl LVII, Air Force general Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command and Northern Command, told reporters on a briefing call that he could not rule out the possibility that the object U.S. fighters had just shot down — the third in three days — had come from outer space. When asked “Have you ruled out aliens or extraterrestrials?,” VanHerck replied, “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”
To a public long habituated to the idea that the military has for decades hidden and lied about its knowledge of alien visitors, the statement sounded close to an outright acknowledgement that the big ET cover-up is real and finally coming undone. But as much as we want to believe “the truth is out there,” what’s actually going on behind the military’s new campaign against unidentified flying objects is something quite different, though mysterious and scary in its own way. Continue reading New York: Understanding the UFO War
Businessweek: Puddle Jumpers Point the Way to Greener Aviation
Cape Air Flight 1965 from Boston to Provincetown is a quintessential puddle jumper. Several times a day, the seven-passenger Cessna 402 takes off from Boston Logan International and climbs to its maximum altitude of 800 feet. Twin propellers thrumming, it heads toward the sandy spiral tip of Cape Cod. Fourteen minutes later, the 402’s wheels screech onto the runway at Provincetown. Total distance traveled: 45 miles, versus the 120-mile road-and-bridge route, a slog that can stretch to six hours on Friday afternoons in August.
This isn’t cutting-edge aviation. Cape Air Corp.’s Cessnas are up to 40 years old and lack most comforts—including bathrooms—that even folks in steerage class demand. But Cape Air, focused entirely on short-range flights, aims to open a doorway to the future. As civil aviation works to become carbon-neutral worldwide by 2050, the first electric planes to replace fossil-fuel models will almost certainly ply short hops such as Boston-Provincetown.
Cape Air, which has about 100 aircraft flying 40 routes, all under 250 miles, is ready for the change. “If an electric airplane were built today, we would start implementing that,” says Senior Vice President Jim Goddard. The company is the first customer for the Alice, a nine-passenger, twin-engine plane being developed by Eviation Aircraft Ltd., a startup based just north of Seattle. Cape Air has signaled it’s ready to buy as many as 75 of the planes, which will have a range of 280 miles at a cruising speed of 185 mph. Eviation hopes to have the Alice in service by 2027.
Carbon-free aviation is starting with such modest goals because it’s far more difficult to electrify a plane than a car. Pound for pound, today’s best batteries store about one-sixth as much energy as jet fuel. Since flying machines must expend energy keeping every pound of their own weight aloft, an electric aircraft can’t go as far, as fast or as high.
Continue reading Businessweek: Puddle Jumpers Point the Way to Greener Aviation
New York: Why Air Travel Melted Down…Again
The U.S. awoke Wednesday morning to a massive and as-yet unexplained disruption in the national air travel system triggered by the failure of an obscure but crucial FAA service called Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAM. The shutdown began at 3:30 a.m. and by 7 a.m. had resulted in the delay of over a thousand flights, as the FAA halted the departure of all domestic flights. Planes already in the air were allowed to fly as planned. By 9 a.m. the FAA had managed to restore the system and reported that normal air operations were “resuming gradually across the U.S.” but significant delays remained widespread.
The disruption came on the heels of a big holiday meltdown that caused Southwest Airlines to cancel more than 15,000 flights amid bad weather and a failure of its scheduling system, and will no doubt put further heat on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who critics say has failed to use his regulatory powers to protect the integrity of the nation’s air travel system.
NOTAMs, originally called “notice to airmen” and still referred to as such in international aviation, is a system by which pilots are alerted to potential hazards or obstructions they might encounter en route, such as runway changes at the destination airport, problems with navigational beacons, or the closure of airspace surrounding a sports game or a presidential visit. Pilots receive NOTAMs as part of their standard pre-flight preparations, along with weather and other information which might affect the flight. They can also receive them en route from air traffic controllers or via automated weather information broadcasts. NOTAMS rarely concern matters of urgent safety, and it’s entirely possible that domestic air travel could operate safely without it for a day or two, but as a legal matter pilots cannot fly without them.
At 7 a.m. the FAA tweeted that it was working to reboot the system and that “some functions are beginning to come online.” An hour later, it reportedthat departures had resumed at Newark and Atlanta airports and that departures would begin again elsewhere at 9 a.m. The resumption of NOTAM service did not mean an immediate return to normal flight operations, however, as dispatchers and air traffic controllers were left to untangle the backlog that had developed over the preceding hours. At 9:30 a.m. FlightAware listed 4,592 flights delayed within, into, or out of the United States and 825 flights canceled—though it was impossible to say how many were directly due to the NOTAM system failure.
It’s as yet unclear what might have caused the shutdown. At fault could be an inadequately maintained computer system of the kind that contributed to last month’s Southwest debacle or some kind of malicious attack. Wednesday morning President Biden told reporters “I just spoke with Buttigieg… they don’t know what the cause is.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted that “There is no evidence of a cyberattack at this point, but the President directed the DOT to conduct a full investigation into the causes.”
New York: America’s Population Could Use a Boom
Hannah Puckett loves McDowell County. The 21-year-old college student has lived here in southern West Virginia her whole life, and if she has her way, she’ll spend the rest of it here, too. But during her lifetime, the county has lost a third of its population. Stroll through the center of Welch, the county seat, and you’ll see one boarded-up storefront after another. “People will start up businesses, and they’ll struggle to last a year,” she says. One by one, her childhood friends have been leaving, she says: “Everyone my age says that this county is dying.”
In a way, McDowell County is slipping backward in time. It’s the fastest-shrinking county in the fastest-shrinking state in the union with a population that’s now the same size it was when William McKinley was president. But in another sense it might be ahead of the curve — as a harbinger of America’s demographic future. New Census Bureau datareleased at the end of December shows that the population of the U.S. grew just 0.4 percent in 2022, which is better than in 2021 but worse than every other year of the past hundred years. If current trends continue, the nation could follow West Virginia into demographic shrinkage.
There are three major factors at work. Life expectancy is falling, birth rates are dropping, and immigration has been low. Government policies that could improve the situation have been inconsistent. And if we can’t grapple effectively with the underlying causes of a shrinking population, we could wind up with a country that is economically fragile.
Here, what’s behind the trends — and what we might be able to do to change course. Continue reading New York: America’s Population Could Use a Boom