Malaysia Airlines riddle -- mysterious aviation disasters are nothing new

Air disasters stir up such primal human emotion. All those people. All at once. Did they know? What if it were me?

Then, in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, you add the element of, Where did they go? Suddenly you have a mystery in addition to a disaster.

Amelia Earhart vanished in the Pacific without a trace in 1937.


Five torpedo bombers disappeared without a trace off the coast of Florida in 1945 in what became known as the Bermuda Triangle. Then the big U.S. Navy aircraft sent to investigate vanished as well. These are just two cases of planes that flew into oblivion--like Flight MH370.

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Sometimes air disasters are never solved, even when all the evidence sits before investigators in one confined area. That’s the case with TWA Flight 3, which crashed in January 1942 in mountains west of Las Vegas.

Conditions were what aviators called CAVU—ceiling and visibility unlimited—and a nine-month-old, state-of-the-art DC-3 passenger liner, one of the most reliable planes ever built, had just lifted off from Vegas heading west for Burbank, California. Fifteen minutes after wheels up, it power-climbed straight into a mountain that should have been visible to TWA’s most experienced pilot.

Rescue parties climbed rugged Mt. Potosi and reached the scene 14 hours after the crash to find all 22 passengers and crew dead, including motion picture actress Carole Lombard, her mother, and the MGM press representative of Lombard’s husband, Clark Gable, dead.

Or rather, more than dead after riding a 26,000-pound airplane into a vertical cliff at 190 miles per hour; an airplane that had just been loaded with 350 gallons of fuel.

Sifting through federal records of this crash while writing "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3," I could feel the frustration of the CAB investigators to understand how this crash happened.

On a night full of stars with the latest navigation equipment, a veteran pilot had steered his ship in a horribly wrong direction. Was he drunk? Was he committing suicide? Given that America had just declared war on Nazi Germany, was this an act of terrorism?

Even with all the pieces of the airplane in front of them, and eyewitness testimony from the ground in Las Vegas, investigators could never find an official cause for the crash of Flight 3. No reason could be affixed to the crash other than to file it under “pilot error.”

The same questions are being asked today as the desperate search for Flight MH370 continues.

Was this an act of terror?

Was the pilot committing suicide?

I am following this drama along with the rest of the world, wishing for miracles while knowing that the unthinkable did indeed happen on Saturday just like it did in 1942.

With all our modern search techniques and modern forensics, I hope the investigation is more successful today than it was back then so that similar disasters can be prevented next time.