Could an airplane disappear over Chicago?

  • Rescue members on Wednesday use binoculars to look for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared from radar screens Saturday in the Straits of Malacca.
Rescue members on Wednesday use binoculars to look for missing Malaysia… (STRINGER/INDONESIA / REUTERS )
March 12, 2014|By Rachel Cromidas, @rachelcromidas | RedEye

Lake Michigan could swallow a plane whole if it left a Chicago airport, but authorities likely would find it more quickly than the still-missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Flight 370 disappeared over Southeast Asia and investigators have been unable to locate a trace of it for more than four days.

Could something similar happen to a plane flying out of Chicago?


The answer is not a straightforward “no,” according to Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University and the director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development who has worked as an analyst for United Airlines.


“In our region, for a big plane, it’s unlikely it could disappear without a trace, but it’s still within the realm of possibility,” he said. “Of course, the plane would be a lot easier to find, it’s not going to be a mile and a half under water,” as would be the case for the Malaysian plane, if it sunk into the ocean.


For a plane to disappear anywhere, he said, three things need to happen: “First, the plane must experience complete electrical failure, which usually can only occur if there’s something catastrophic like a bomb or a collision,” he said. “Second, [if the plane is over a large body of water,] the plane has to hit the water and go into the water without disintegrating into a thousand pieces, because they you’d have a ton of stuff floating around, seats, etc. And third, you’d have to have a point in the flight where nobody is watching it on radar.”


For a large commercial plane to disappear after leaving one of Chicago’s airports, he said, it would have to crash into a mountain in another state or land in Lake Michigan without shattering and scattering its debris around the lake’s surface. If a plane hit a mountain or sunk in Lake Michigan it would be harder to find than if it crash-landed on the ground, but he said it would likely be located by now.


“When you’re flying into the lake or into the woods somewhere, debris is likely to be found, and there’s people around to see it if it’s on land,” he said. “A plane going over Lake Michigan would typically leave debris. When a plane hits the water, there’s enormous dispersion of equipment and materials.”


It’s more likely for a small, private plane to go missing, Schwieterman said, and in many of those cases investigators must find the wreckage to determine what exactly happened to the plane.


In the wake of the Malaysian plane’s disappearance and reports that two passengers were travelling with stolen passports, Schwieterman said he expects to see heightened attention on international security policies, in U.S. international airports and abroad.


“U.S. travelers abroad assume that major flight carriers have similar security protocols everywhere, and it’s a real wake-up call when we hear that’s not the case,” I also think that instantaneous tracking of passports using barcode technology is essential, and it’s not that complicated for systems to be internationally linked.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Aviation declined to comment on the mechanics of a plane’s disappearance.

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