Certainly the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 can be classified as the greatest mystery since Amelia Earhart. But after numerous conversations with airline colleagues, aviation friends, neighbors, workout buddies and bartenders, I’ve uncovered another mystery.
Despite scientific evidence that proves otherwise, many of these educated people are emphatic in their belief that a 650,000-pound airplane is hidden in the desert of a terrorist-harboring nation with a ‘stan at the end of its name. The airplane will be flown out fully loaded with weapons of mass destruction in true 911 style. I may fall on my sword, but it’s time for this airline pilot to weigh in on the speculation fascination. I’ll accept the ridicule if proven wrong as long as the families of the 239 passengers eventually have answers.
The search area is being defined by the extensive and complex data analysis of satellite company, Inmarsat. The calculations for this analysis exceed my pilot math comprehension, but suffice it to say that the clever use of geometry, the Doppler effect, satellite and ground station relationships, airplane performance assumptions and 777 simulator scenarios have all been part of the equation. The analysis is still in the refinement process. Bottom line?
The airplane is in the Indian Ocean. Three vessels equipped with towed, side-sonar equipment are scanning the ocean floor. As of this writing, the preparatory mapping process is complete. Oceanographers had limited knowledge of the area. Mapping was necessary in order to prevent equipment from colliding with underwater topography, an unknown volcano being a recent discovery.
None of this number crunching is occurring in a vacuum. As a matter of fact, the ICAO protocol for accident investigation is being followed just as it would be in the U.S. At the request of the Malaysian government, the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau has been leading the investigation and the search. As parties to the investigation, the ATSB has included Boeing, the NTSB, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the U.K., the Defence Science & Technology Organisation of Australia, the Malaysian Department of Civilian Aviation, Inmarsat, and the U.K. division of the Thales Corporation. More parties may be included once the 777 is located.
The investigation participants comprise a diverse group of intelligent people with only one agenda: Locate MH 370 and determine a probable cause. Period. Despite the understandable emotional outcries of cover-ups, it would seem a difficult task to accomplish such a conspiracy while the entire world observes. Why would some credible organizations and governments invest their efforts and extensive finances in a wild goose chase?
Yes, the Malaysian government was initially tight-lipped with public information. But it was their airplane and their investigation. An airline accident is an overwhelming event. From the perspective of Malaysian authorities, it may have seemed better to restrict the disclosure of details than to risk the event being investigated by the entire world … which occurred anyhow.
So what happened? First, I’d like to approach the question from the perspective of what didn’t happen, in my opinion. For me, a nefarious act seems unlikely. Why? If a terrorist threat originated from the cabin, in today’s current climate of passenger alertness, it would require a multitude of people to commandeer an airplane the size of a 777. At least two terrorists would have to be located in the first class cabin to observe the opening of the cockpit door in order to rush in and take control.
With the assumption that the flight was proceeding normally up until the last, and now infamous, “Good night, Malaysian Three-Seven-Zero,” as it transitioned into Viet Nam’s Ho Chi Minh Center, why would one of the pilots choose that moment to open the cockpit door anyhow? Apparently, all passengers were investigated and none found with connections to terrorism. Only two passengers were suspicious, having utilized stolen passports with the intent of traveling elsewhere.
Could one crazed lunatic have barged through the door? Sure. But I’m certain between passengers and crew, that individual could have been subdued before wreaking havoc on the airplane.
How about a nefarious act of collusion from both pilots? An investigation has determined that the pilot had no relationship with each other outside of the workplace, nor did they make a deliberate attempt to fly the trip together.
Consider the copilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. He was at the top of his game. At 27 years old, he was flying one of the biggest and most sophisticated airliners in the world. It was reported that he had been contemplating marriage. Hijack his own flight? Doesn’t seem likely. Suicide? Hamid just doesn’t quite fit that profile.
And Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah? Rumors abound regarding his support of Malaysia’s opposition party leader, sentenced to five years in prison for sodomy just prior to the flight, an assertion that it may have prompted Shah to jump off the deep end. The purpose of his in-home flight simulator has been subject to scrutiny. And Captain Shah’s family relationships have been probed, but to my knowledge, nothing substantial has been discovered. He had been a loyal 33-year veteran of Malaysian Airlines with approximately 18,000 hours of flight time.
So if the captain had become suicidal or terrorist minded, why fly the airplane for seven hours until fuel exhaustion into the middle of the Indian Ocean? I could think of more spectacular ways to make a statement than an airplane disappearance. Why not fly the 777 into Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, one of the tallest building structures in the world? Or perhaps wait until the approach into Beijing to make a statement. The actual end result just doesn’t make sense. What makes sense to my 777 airline pilot brain is a mechanical cause.
In July of 2011, EgyptAir Flight 667, a B-777-200, parked at the gate in Cairo, suffered substantial damage from a fire determined to have originated as a result of a non-Boeing designed electrical wiring in contact with the copilot’s oxygen mask hose that was connected to the entire pilots’ emergency system. The extreme heat of the fire from below in the electronics bay created a hole in the side of the fuselage about the size of an auto trunk lid just below the copilot’s sliding window.
If a similar event occurred on board MH 370, an explosive depressurization would have resulted. With the emergency oxygen system destroyed, the pilots would have developed hypoxia in a short period of time. The lack of oxygen and the slipstream would most likely have extinguished the fire, but not before damage was inflicted to some portion of the electronic flight control system. Prior to the crew becoming incapacitated, perhaps a diversionary airport was entered into the FMC (Flight Management Computer), explaining the initial westbound turn.
With the autopilot still maintaining a relatively stable flight regime, degradation of the flight control system, or possibly the effects of the winds aloft, could explain the bizarre turn northbound over Malaysia and then the final turn southbound over the Malacca Strait toward the Indian Ocean. Or a flight attendant carrying a walk-around O2 bottle could have managed to enter the cockpit and attempted to steer the airplane by use of the heading select knob, (assuming the autopilot was still connected), until he or she succumbed to hypoxia when the oxygen supply was depleted from the bottle.
My other scenario involves a fire in the forward cargo compartment, which is immediately adjacent to the electronics bay. The source of the fire could have originated from the 5400 pounds of lithium batteries shipped on board as cargo. At one time, my airline only allowed 50 pounds of lithium batteries to be shipped. Just recently the policy was changed to absolutely none.
The batteries were transported earlier in the day via a Malaysian Airlines 737 from the resort island of Penang and then loaded onto MH 370. Could the packaging have been damaged, allowing high outside temperatures and even hotter baggage compartment temperatures to cause a thermal discharge?
The FAA has re-visited the dangers of lithium battery carriage just recently. Tests have been performed within the confines of a standard cargo container that is typically loaded on an airliner. The results have been frightening. The container was shown to have assisted in creating a devastating internal explosion when a thermal runaway is induced to the lithium batteries.
If the crew utilized the cargo compartment fire checklist, the extinguishing process would have been initiated. Recirculating fans and supply valves providing air to the compartment are shut down as part of the process. Two of five Halon bottles would have discharged.
The behavior of lithium battery fires is such that they can re-ignite after appearing to be extinguished. If the fire was re-energized after the crew was rendered unconscious, the three remaining Halon bottles would have eventually discharged as part of a timed automatic cycle. This would explain how the airplane stayed airborne for almost an additional seven hours.
Are there holes in my theories? Absolutely. When the wreckage is located and the cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder are recovered, the world will have definitive answers. For now, patience is required. That being said, the one aspect I am confident is that we shouldn’t be concerned with the airplane finding us but rather us finding the airplane.
Les Abend is an aviation writer and 777 Captain for a major airline.