MH370, the Malaysia Airlines flight with 227 passengers and 12 crew disappeared less than an hour into its journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
How, in this high-tech age of uber-surveillance, in which hundreds of satellites sweep the Earth and modern aircraft have multiple communications systems with triple redundancies, can a plane vanish?
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Six days after it disappeared, despite a hunt involving more than 80 vessels and aircraft, no debris has been found in the South China Sea, over which the plane disappeared, or the Strait of Malacca.
”This is quite unprecedented,” says Ann Williamson, a professor of aviation safety at the University of NSW. ”We are talking about a demonstrably safe aircraft, an airline with a good safety record, and a very experienced pilot. After this amount of time, I think it’s fair to conclude they have been looking in the wrong place.”
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Indeed, confirmation on Friday that an extra search area had been opened in the Indian Ocean, some 1000 kilometres west from where last contact was made with the plane, indicates as much. The expanded search was based on new but ”not necessarily conclusive” information, White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Inconclusive information has defined the investigation into the disappearance of MH370, but there are some facts.
With 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur’s airport at 12.41am, local time.
Note: image to the right is only for purpose of illustration of what the amount of 239 people onboard looks like – it is not exact seating of the flight MH370.
The last transmission from the plane was at 1.07am, when it was cruising at about 33,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand just as it entered Vietnamese airspace. The contact ”indicated everything was normal”, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defence minister said.
Suddenly, all communication ceased, including any from the continuous ACARS data-monitoring system, which emits data from the engine, or from the plane’s high-frequency radio. There was no mayday call and the plane’s secondary radar, which sends its location to earth-based radar stations, stopped functioning. However, even though the secondary radar was inoperable, ground or sea-based radar – known as primary radar – could still pick up the plane, just not identify it with precision.
Intriguingly, a Malaysian military radar did pick up a reading from an unidentified object flying west across the Malaysian peninsula on Saturday morning. The final blip from the radar was at 2.15am, positioning the object about 320 kilometres north-west of Penang, or about 500 kilometres from MH370’s last known position, Malaysia’s air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, said.
Malaysian authorities still believe it is possible the plane may have suddenly disintegrated or been forced into a rapid descent at the moment contact was lost. But after six days, some kind of debris should have been found, given the massive search. Moreover, no signal has been detected from the flight recording device. By contrast, remnants of the Air France jet that crashed en route to Paris from Rio in 2009 was detected within two days after a search that spanned the Atlantic Ocean.
Indications suggest MH370 continued to fly on after communications abruptly ended, probably on a different, westerly course from its planned route to China. There are two broad scenarios that could explain this.
First, MH370 was hijacked and its transponders deliberately shut down, either by the pilots or someone else on board. Malaysian authorities have said this option is being considered, with the psychological state of the pilots being scrutinised.
Then there’s the theory – described by former Qantas head of security Geoff Askew as ”extremely unlikely” – that any hijacking could have been motivated by ”something valuable in the plane”, whether in the cargo or the plane itself. US counterterrorism officials are also, reportedly, examining a possible terrorist hijacking.
Even so, while two Iranian men were on the flight with stolen passports, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble has said they ”were probably not terrorists”.
There was also a Chinese Uighur, Maimaitijiang Abula, on board. The Uighurs, an oppressed Muslim minority from western China, have launched a series of brutal but low-tech terrorist acts in China, including the gruesome train station knifing rampage by masked assailants this month that killed 29 people. But Maimaitijiang is a renowned oil painter, not an employee at a Swedish flight-simulation facility, as Malaysian media earlier reported.
As for the pilots, Malaysian authorities deny they have extremist links.
A terrorist link remains a live area of inquiry and could be behind the second possible scenario that could explain why MH370 may have travelled way off course with no communications. That theory suggests an explosion or structural failure on the plane caused a rupture in its fuselage that was significant but not enough to destroy the plane or send it into a nosedive.
Such an event would lead to decompression, depriving those on board of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Previous flights have crashed after a decompression of the cabin rendered everyone unconscious, the plane falling to earth once the fuel ran out.
”Hypoxia … can easily reduce a highly functioning individual to utterly useless in 90 seconds,” one pilot said on an internet forum this week. Enough time, perhaps, for a pilot to try to turn a plane around before falling unconscious, with the plane continuing on its new course.
An explosion in the cargo hold from a device secreted in baggage is another possibility. Cargo does not typically get the rigorous screening of passenger luggage. And a plane’s communications technology is usually located in the cargo hold.
Much has been made of a US safety regulator warning last year of corrosion and cracking around the satellite antenna of Boeing 777s like MH370, but Boeing insists MH370 did not have that type of antenna.
Analysts have also pointed to an incident on a Qantas jet in 2008, when an exploding oxygen tank in the cargo hold exploded in midair, ripping a two-metre hole in the fuselage. The pilots skilfully made an emergency descent to 10,000 feet – a breathable level – before making an emergency landing.
But if a terrorist hijacked the plane or planted an explosive device, why has no one claimed responsibility? Given the multiple communications back-ups on a modern plane, could all the communications systems be knocked out by an explosion or structural failure and the plane continue to fly?
Conspiracy Theories about the Disappearance of MH370
Wild guesses appear on social media, where riveted users are thinking about everything from black ops to black magic.
Here are some of the likely and unlikely theories about the disappearance of the Malaysian airplane.
- total electrical failure
- plane crashed due to weather anomaly (or “Bermuda Triangle” like event )
- Boeing 777 could have landed safely and its occupants are still alive
- terrorists hijacked or exploded the plane
- hijacked plane is going to be used for something bigger than 9/11, possibly nuclear
- planned assassination of important person(s) on the plane (made to look like an accident)
- theft of the mysterious cargo (gold?, weapons?) carried on the plane; plane landed in secret location – e.g. an island in the Indian Ocean
- the Malaysian (or other) military might have mistakenly shot down the passenger plane
- meteor strike
- alien/UFO abduction
- the time anomaly – along the story presented on the TV series “Lost”
- first of many upcoming disappearances described in the book “Atlas Shrugged”
- hostage taking for upcoming political demands on China
during Iran hostage crisis, fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981), after a group of Iranian students supporting the Iranian Revolution took over the US Embassy in Tehran. President Carter called the hostages “victims of terrorism and anarchy,” …
239 people onboard of flight MH370 would fill this entire conference room!
Malaysia Flight 370: The 10 big questions
Every day brings new details and new questions surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 with 239 people aboard that went missing on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Here are 10 questions surrounding what we know and what we don’t know:
- What do we know about the pilots?
- What do we know about communications to and from the plane?
- Where could the plane be? What could have happened to it?
- Couldn’t a pilot just ‘fly under the radar’?
- Could the plane have landed somewhere?
- How likely is hijacking or terrorism in this situation?
- Could mechanical failure explain it?
- What other theories and speculation have been offered?
- What about reports that passengers’ cell phones continued operating after the flight’s disappearance?
- Is this the first time a plane has vanished?
- Lives, not numbers: Snapshots of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passengers
A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet
by BY CHRIS GOODFELLOW, a Canadian Class-1 instrumented-rated pilot for multi-engine planes
There has been a lot of speculation about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Terrorism, hijacking, meteors. I cannot believe the analysis on CNN; it’s almost disturbing. I tend to look for a simpler explanation, and I find it with the 13,000-foot runway at Pulau Langkawi.
The left turn is the key here. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time. We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always. If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do–you already know what you are going to do. When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport. He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles. The captain did not turn back to Kuala Lampur because he knew he had 8,000-foot ridges to cross. He knew the terrain was friendlier toward Langkawi, which also was closer.
The pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make an immediate turn to the closest, safest airport.
When I heard this I immediately brought up Google Earth and searched for airports in proximity to the track toward the southwest.
For me, the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.
There are two types of fires. An electrical fire might not be as fast and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started slowly burning. Yes, this happens with underinflated tires. Remember: Heavy plane, hot night, sea level, long-run takeoff. There was a well known accident in Nigeria of a DC8 that had a landing gear fire on takeoff. Once going, a tire fire would produce horrific, incapacitating smoke. Yes, pilots have access to oxygen masks, but this is a no-no with fire. Most have access to a smoke hood with a filter, but this will last only a few minutes depending on the smoke level. (I used to carry one in my flight bag, and I still carry one in my briefcase when I fly.)
What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.
Ongoing speculation of a hijacking and/or murder-suicide and that there was a flight engineer on board does not sway me in favor of foul play until I am presented with evidence of foul play.
We know there was a last voice transmission that, from a pilot’s point of view, was entirely normal. “Good night” is customary on a hand-off to a new air traffic control. The “good night” also strongly indicates to me that all was OK on the flight deck. Remember, there are many ways a pilot can communicate distress. A hijack code or even transponder code off by one digit would alert ATC that something was wrong. Every good pilot knows keying an SOS over the mike always is an option. Even three short clicks would raise an alert. So I conclude that at the point of voice transmission all was perceived as well on the flight deck by the pilots.
But things could have been in the process of going wrong, unknown to the pilots.
Evidently the ACARS went inoperative some time before. Disabling the ACARS is not easy, as pointed out. This leads me to believe more in an electrical problem or an electrical fire than a manual shutdown. I suggest the pilots probably were not aware ACARS was not transmitting.
Fire in an aircraft demands one thing: Get the machine on the ground as soon as possible. There are two well-remembered experiences in my memory. The AirCanada DC9 which landed, I believe, in Columbus, Ohio in the 1980s. That pilot delayed descent and bypassed several airports. He didn’t instinctively know the closest airports. He got it on the ground eventually, but lost 30-odd souls. The 1998 crash of Swissair DC-10 off Nova Scotia was another example of heroic pilots. They were 15 minutes out of Halifax but the fire overcame them and they had to ditch in the ocean. They simply ran out of time. That fire incidentally started when the aircraft was about an hour out of Kennedy. Guess what? The transponders and communications were shut off as they pulled the busses.
Get on Google Earth and type in Pulau Langkawi and then look at it in relation to the radar track heading. Two plus two equals four. For me, that is the simple explanation why it turned and headed in that direction. Smart pilot. He just didn’t have the time.
Please leave a comment about what you think about this mystery…
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- Malaysia Airlines mystery is one of the most bizarre incidents in modern air travel
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