NEW YORK — The most dangerous parts of a flight are takeoff and landing. Rarely do incidents happen when a plane is cruising seven miles above the earth.
So the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 well into its flight yesterday (March 8) morning over the South China Sea has led aviation experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to place a distress call.
It could take investigators months, if not years, to determine what happened to the Boeing 777 flying from Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
[15 Mar update at the end of this.]
“At this early stage, we’re focusing on the facts that we don’t know,” said Mr Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on its 777 jumbo jets and is now director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.
If there was a minor mechanical failure — or even something more serious like the shutdown of both of the plane’s engines — the pilots likely would have had time to radio for help. The lack of a call “suggests something very sudden and very violent happened,” said Mr William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
It initially appears that there was either an abrupt breakup of the plane or something that led it into a quick, steep dive. Some experts even suggested an act of terrorism or a pilot purposely crashing the jet.
“Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the airplane apart, or you had a criminal act,” said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham. “It was so quick and they didn’t radio.”
No matter how unlikely a scenario, it’s too early to rule out any possibilities, experts warn. The best clues will come with the recovery of the flight data and voice recorders and an examination of the wreckage.
Airplane crashes typically occur during takeoff and the climb away from an airport, or while coming in for a landing, as in last year’s fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco. Just 9 per cent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet airplane accidents done by Boeing.
Capt John Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said that whatever happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough, he said, to stop the plane’s transponder from broadcasting its location, although the transponder can be purposely shut off from the cockpit.
One of the first indicators of what happened will be the size of the debris field. If it is large and spread out over tens of miles, then the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation. That could signal a bomb or a massive airframe failure. If it is a smaller field, the plane probably fell from 35,000 feet intact, breaking up upon contact with the water.
[Oil slick of 10 to 20 km seems to suggest a high-altitude break up. The oil slick was spotted within 24 hrs. But the oil slick could have been disperse by wind and wave, so it is not definitive proof that the plane broke up at high altitude.]
“We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don’t know a whole lot,” Capt Cox said.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records in aviation history. It first carried passengers in June 1995 and went 18 years without a fatal accident. That streak came to an end with the July 2013 Asiana crash. Three of the 307 people aboard that flight died. Yesterday’s Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 passengers and crew would only be the second fatal incident for the aircraft type.
“It’s one of the most reliable airplanes ever built,” said Mr John Goglia, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board.
Some of the possible causes for the plane disappearing include:
— A catastrophic structural failure of the airframe or its Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines. Most aircraft are made of aluminium which is susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in areas of high humidity. But given the plane’s long history and impressive safety record, experts suggest this is unlikely.
More of a threat to the plane’s integrity is the constant pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin for takeoff and landing. In April 2011, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff from Phoenix after the plane’s fuselage ruptured, causing a 5-foot tear. The plane, with 118 people on board, landed safely. But such a rupture is less likely in this case. Airlines fly the 777 on longer distances, with many fewer takeoffs and landings, putting less stress on the airframe.
“It’s not like this was Southwest Airlines doing 10 flights a day,” Hamilton said. “There’s nothing to suggest there would be any fatigue issues.”
[The plane is almost 12 years old. But this is just one data point. May not be relevant. Update: if the plane violently disintegrated at high altitude, there should be a wide debris field with scattered flotsam along the flight path.]
— Bad weather. Planes are designed to fly through most severe storms. However, in June 2009, an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed during a bad storm over the Atlantic Ocean. Ice built up on the Airbus A330’s airspeed indicators, giving false readings. That, and bad decisions by the pilots, led the plane into a stall causing it to plummet into the sea. All 228 passengers and crew aboard died. The pilots never radioed for help.
In the case of yesterday’s Malaysia Airlines flight, all indications show that there were clear skies.
— Pilot disorientation. Mr Curtis said that the pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow went off course and didn’t realise it until it was too late. The plane could have flown for another five or six hours from its point of last contact, putting it up to 3,000 miles away. This is unlikely given that the plane probably would have been picked up by radar somewhere. But it’s too early to eliminate it as a possibility.
[But apparently, this is a variant of the theory the investigators (or some of them anyway) are now working on. Deliberate pilot action.]
— Failure of both engines. In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 1,000 feet short of the runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. As the plane was coming in to land, the engines lost thrust because of ice buildup in the fuel system. There were no fatalities.
Loss of both engines is possible in this case, but Hamilton said the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call. When a US Airways A320 lost both of its engines in January 2009 after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York it was at a much lower elevation. But Capt. Chesley B “Sully” Sullenberger still had plenty of communications with air traffic controllers before ending the six-minute flight in the Hudson River.
[From another report later:]
It emerged on Sunday that the plane had made an unusual U-turn attempt in the final moments before radar contact was broken off, triggering speculation that it could have turned back because of mechanical fault.[If the plane did indeed turn around as the Malaysian Military says (and considering it was said at a much later time, I am assuming that they would have checked and rechecked their data before making such a statement), then the question is why the crew did not contact ATC to inform them of their U-turn, and the reason for it. Unless, the reason for the U-turn is a total communications failure. BUT then then plane subsequently disintegrated in mid-air? Still a mystery.]
Experts said an "air turn back" or ATB means the aircraft has to return to the airport of origin as a result of a malfunction or suspected malfunction of any item on the aircraft. But they noted that the pilot would have made a distress call or signal about the turn back.
— A bomb. Several planes have been brought down including Pan Am Flight 103 between London and New York in December 1988. There was also an Air India flight in June 1985 between Montreal and London and a plane in September 1989 flown by French airline Union des Transports Ariens which blew up over the Sahara.
[If this were a terrorist act, the terrorist would have claimed credit for the terrorism. If not, how are we to know who to be terrified of?
One suggestion: Uighurs. And the target is China. This is soon after the mass knife attack at Kunming. This seems far-fetched to me. A mass knife attack is remarkably low-tech, while a bomb attack on a plane thousands of miles from Xinjiang is a whole different technological and logistical ballgame.
Another factor: two of the passengers were travelling with stolen passports. This in and of itself DOES NOT prove terrorism.
Edit: Again, if it had been a bomb, there should have been debris field floating on the sea.]
— Hijacking. A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane’s captors typically land at an airport and have some type of demand. But a 9/11-like hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.
[Again, why haven't the terrorists claim credit for it? A 9/11 hijacking would mean turning the plane into a flying bomb. Yes, the hijackers would turn off the transponder and kept radio silence, as they fly the plane towards their target. Plunging the plane into the ocean is half-assed.
If the plan was to replicate 9/11 (and fly the plane into Petronas Tower?), it a) seem to have failed, and b) no one seem to have claim credit.
See below for update.]
— Pilot suicide. There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s — a SilkAir flight and an EgyptAir flight— that are believed to have been caused by pilots deliberately crashing the planes. Government crash investigators never formally declared the crashes suicides but both are widely acknowledged by crash experts to have been caused by deliberate pilot actions.
[No suicide note? To provide insurance for loved ones? Evidence of increase insurance purchase would be supporting evidence. Was there such evidence? This is cruel speculation at best.]
— Accidental shoot-down by some country’s military. In July 1988, the United States Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidently shot down an Iran Air flight, killing all 290 passengers and crew. In September 1983, a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down by a Russian fighter jet. AP
[Possible "shooters": 1) Vietnam, by proximity. BUT, Vietnam is not currently in any tense situation that would lead to such an "accident". 2) US, has a fleet or two in the area. BUT, if US had shot down plane accidentally, likely they will own up quickly. While they are involved in some tension, it has not escalated to a trigger-happy situation. 3) China. As China has expressed or unilaterally "annexed" sea territories, their intention and action to secure more territories has been rather aggressive. BUT, unless they have a fleet in the area, they are unlikely to be in a position to shoot down the plane. And I think the plane is too far from China's controversial ADIZ for them to be shot down in violation of China's ADIZ protocols.
What happened must have taken out the transponder and the radio almost instantly so that there is no way to call for help. A bomb, a well-executed hi-jacking, a missile, or catastrophic failure of the aircraft are all possible, but all have their difficulties or counter-indications (e.g. if it is terrorism, the terrorists have not claimed credit for it, and there seems to be no clear target for the terrorism.)
It is indeed a mystery, exacerbated by the many speculation on the net.]
Graphic from TODAY
Some reports had mistakenly stated that SG was also sending a submarine to search for the missing plane. The MV Swift Rescue is a Submarine Support and Rescue Vessel. NOT a SUBMARINE. It does have a remotely operated submersible rescue vehicle (for submarine rescue of up to 40 persons).
Since everyone is speculating and conjuring up conspiracy theories, I want to join in the intellectual exercise as well.
First, something must have happened to affect the transponder and the radio. Say a system-wide electrical or some other fault. So the plane is in the air. Electrical systems are down, and pilots have no way of communicating. Another pilot in the plane in front of MH370 claimed to have been asked to and was able to contact MH370 but the voice/words was garbled or mumbled.
So the plane is structurally fine, but "mute" in terms of communication. The pilot decides to do a u-turn (Air Turn Back, or ATB), or started to fly a distress pattern (see below). However, the plane's navigation is also affected... and the plane drifts off course... into China's ADIZ.
Data supporting this:
Based on what he’s heard, Capt Cox believes it’s increasingly clear that the plane somehow veered from its normal flight path. He said that after the plane disappeared from radar, it must have been “intact and flew for some period of time. Beyond that, it’s all speculation”.
If it had exploded midair along its normal flight path, “we would have found it by now”, he added.
[From news report of 11 Mar. But this is speculation on his part. Searching along the flight path would be reasonable, and not finding the plane along the intended flight path could simply mean that the pilot headed for where he thought could have improve their chances of surviving.]
On drifting into China's ADIZ, the plane is challenged by the Chinese. No response. The transponder is not working, so it shows up on radar as an unidentified plane. China has no way of knowing it is a commercial plane. And after many warnings and threats (which to the Chinese perspective is ignored), the Chinese shoots down the plane. This is hours after contact was lost, and thousands of miles from the intended flight path. And hours before MAS publicly announced that contact with the flight was lost. At which point the Chinese went, "oops!" Then China got involved in the search, and made sure their search area included the site where the plane was shot down, and got rid of the evidence.
Again, the above is SPECULATION, done simply as an intellectual exercise. And there is no PROOF that it is correct, and some negative proof:
Firstly, even if the transponder fails, the military radar should be able to track it as an unidentified craft, and Malaysian military radar would have seen it drifting away. This would provide at least some clue as to it's "drift" path. The Malaysia Military's radar data seem to suggest that the plane made an ATB and was heading back to KL. The fact that there is now a search going on in the Andaman Sea (Straits of Malacca and north of it), would seem to suggest that there were some indications that the plane "drifted" that way. Not North towards China's ADIZ.
Secondly, if the Chinese fired a missile, or scrambled their fighters, the US, and possibly Japan would know about it. They are monitoring each other very closely.
The United States extensively reviewed imagery taken by spy satellites for evidence of a mid-air explosion, but saw none, a U.S. government source said. - Reuters
[Not conclusive, but does not support theory of mid-air bomb, or missile attack.]
Thirdly, if in distress and without communications, the plane can still signal that they are in distress (by flying in a triangular pattern). Perhaps the ATB was part of this attempt.
[Update 15 Mar:
After 1 week, the plane is still not found, and speculation is rife. And the search has veered off into the Indian Ocean/Andaman Sea.
The reason for this is that the plane seemed to have been sending automated "pings" to the satellites up to 5 hours after radio contact was lost, and the experts believe the signs point to the plane heading towards India.
Here are some reasonable assumptions.
If the plane broke up at high altitude, there would be a vast if disperse debris field. A lot of the fittings are intended to float. While the Gulf of Thailand is huge, there should be sufficient debris to make finding them quite reasonable within a few days.
If the plane plunged into the water relatively intact, it should be easy to locate in the relatively shallow continental shelf the gulf is over. Depth is about 100 m. Compared to the thousands of metres in the Straits of Malacca.
So, I think we can reasonably assume, that if the searchers were diligent and meticulous (and they have had a week to do so), that the plane did not blow up or crash along their intended flight path in the gulf of Thailand.
The theory the US seems to be working on is that the plane was deliberately flown off - or "stolen", presumably for some nefarious purpose. Perhaps to crash the plane in an unexpected site so that it would never be found, or perhaps not found for a long time. Sufficient for Insurance to be paid out? Or it would be used for some terrorism plan in the future.
Reasonably, I have my doubts about the steal a plane for later terrorism hypothesis. There are endless problems. First you need to deal with the hostages. Then you need a place to land the plane, store the plane, service the plane, refuel the plane, then take off again, and fly to wherever your target is.
India? Pakistan terrorists? Tamils in Sri Lanka? Would it not be easier to hijack a plane from India (or thereabouts), and fly it straight towards the target - Like 9/11?
Which leaves the pilot-suicide theory. It is like the default or theory of last resort.
We don't know how he died, who killed him, and why. Maybe it's suicide. Who knows why he might want to kill himself. Maybe when his goldfish died, it affected him more than we thought.
Maybe the plane was shot down and the country that shot it down is part of the search team and they have been covering up? ]