MH370 – six years on it is still a mystery
Media frenzy over the disappearance of the Boeing 777 is reaching a peak again, as it does annually.
SKY News Australia has just released a two-part documentary seeking to explain their viewpoint to the public. Using a number of ‘experts’ including Tony Abbott (who was Prime Minister of Australia at the time of the incident), the network unwaveringly accuses the Captain, Zahari Ahmed Shah, of planning and executing the disappearance of the aircraft.
Also weighing in on the controversy is a former colleague of this writer, Byron Bailey. Captain Bailey who now flies executive jets and has a column in The Australian newspaper (also part of the SKY media empire) has long been accusing Capt. Shah of mass murder.
A review of what we know
The facts are well known, as it was the subject of a FT column in September 2019 and can be reviewed on my blog.
The aircraft, while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, made an unannounced turn when crossing into Vietnamese airspace. It made a second turn over the Straits of Malacca and then disappeared from radar coverage.
The radar transponder ceased transmitting as the first turn took place. No radio calls were made to advise Air Traffic Control of a diversion, emergency or any other abnormality.
The aircraft proceeded to fly for some time, while automatic reports on engine performance were sent via satellite to the manufacturer for many hours. The existence of this automated communication system was not well known, and the pilots cannot control it.
However, no radio calls or other position reports were made for the remainder of the purported flight – which has been calculated to the point of fuel exhaustion, in the absence of any other parameter.
There are an infinite number of possible reasons, but experienced investigators have identified three that are most probable:
- A hijack by unknown persons – unlikely, as no one has claimed responsibility
- A fire on board that incapacitated the entire crew but did not destroy the aircraft immediately
- A deliberate intervention by one of both pilots
The Fox News hypothesis
Sections of the media appear to have wholly accepted the third scenario. Accusing the captain has now become routine. Former PM Abbott is quoted in the Fox News documentary as stating that “very high levels of the Malaysian government” also subscribed to this theory.
The speculation is that one of the pilots (suspicion has concentrated on the captain as he made th e last radio call ever received) locked the other out of the cockpit and proceeded to depressurize the aircraft. Pilots have sufficient oxygen for many hours of flight, but the emergency oxygen supply for passengers is sufficient for only 22 minutes.
While this is a plausible explanation, it would still mean that the cabin crew, one of the pilots, and approximately 200 passengers, would have been conscious for at least 22 minutes while the cockpit was inaccessible, and the remaining pilot on the flightdeck was incommunicado.
To imagine that no one tried to make a call or send a text message by mobile phone during this period when it would have been obvious that something very strange was going on, is hard to imagine.
Depressurizing the cabin would have also caused the cabin temperature to drop to a very cold level (outside temperatures at that altitude would have been around minus 50°C) and there is no evidence that either one of the pilots was carrying the warm clothing required to function in that sort of environment.
An alternative theory
Another of this writer’s ex-colleagues, Captain James Nixon, has published a book titled The Crash of MH370, which lays out an alternative scenario.
Nixon suggests that a catastrophic and violent fire with toxic smoke was the cause. He speculates that a ferocious fire would have suddenly broken out in the cockpit. This would have caused the sharp turn as the pilots tried to land at the nearest suitable airport. The fire would then have overcome both the pilots before they could put on his oxygen mask, and also caused much of the communications equipment to fail.
With the pilots incapacitated in the cockpit and toxic smoke in the cabin causing passengers to be rendered unconscious too, the aircraft flew on into the night.
Is this plausible?
A modern passenger jet is inherently stable. It is entirely possible that the Boeing 777, even with much of its control systems destroyed, would continue to fly. As long as the engines produce thrust, the wings would keep generating lift and the aircraft would remain airborne. A scenario where a modern airliner is airborne, with no one at the controls and the autopilot system rendered useless, cannot be replicated. But there is no reason it cannot happen.
There is some evidence (as yet unproven) that there were large changes in altitude at later stages of the flight, which could be the result of updrafts. The mysterious turns could also be the effect of thunderstorms – there were plenty in the vicinity.
The wreckage must be found
Speculation does not achieve very much. It is imperative that yet another search be carried out in order to find the location of the wreckage on MH370.
Merely locating the crash site alone would help a great deal. Once this is known, many possibilities can be ruled out. The Foxtel hypothesis is based on a small ‘debris field’ which would indicate a semi-controlled impact with the ocean, which would mean that someone was at the controls. An uncontrolled crash would mean that the aircraft would impact the surface of the sea at high speed and disintegrate – with a widely dispersed debris field. Locating the wreckage on the ocean floor, even if it cannot be recovered, would explain a lot. Discovery of the flight recorders (the so called ‘black boxes’) would of course deliver a definitive answer, but locating them in deep water is likely to be challenging.
The Boeing 777 is Boeing’s most popular large airliner. over 1,600 have been built since 1993. This easily the surpasses the legendary B747, of which 1,200 have been built in over 50 years of production. If there is a yet undiscovered fault in the aircraft’s electrical system this must be investigated – the resulting cost to the manufacturer would exceed the furor of the MAX flight control system. And an innocent man could have been accused of mass murder.
The southern Indian Ocean, where MH370 probably lies, is an enormous area. Searching it with only a vague idea of the location of the doomed airliner is a daunting task, but it must be done.