The world is playing a huge game of Where’s Waldo trying to find Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370). That’s pretty hard when the search area expands to the size of Montana. Families are frustrated. Everyone wants to fill in the blanks. And, much of the filling comes from incomplete answers and goofy theories while the public’s idea is that flying airplanes is analogous to driving to the local Safeway.
If you have questions or want to join the discussion, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
I was once an aircraft mechanic on dozens of airplanes from Navy F-14s to 19-seat commuters. I logged several hundred hours on the flight deck as a flying mechanic in the Air Force and trained as an air traffic controller. I also worked as a technical writer for jet engines and aircraft systems installed on everything from transport aircraft to the Space Shuttle. I’ve held an FAA mechanic’s license for almost 40 years. In other words, I know my way around airplanes. So here are some theories and information to help you understand why nobody has a clue about what happened and why we may never know.
MH370 Was Just There a Minute Ago
What happened: MH370’s flight track appears normal for the first part of the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bejing. You can see the moment the flight track disappeared from radar at about 20 seconds in this video. Notice MH370 is just beginning a left turn, the opposite of what Malaysia’s military claims.
Flight track information comes not only from radar, but also a device called a transponder. Transponders send the airplane’s ID, speed, and altitude to air traffic control. Without it, the airplane is just an unidentified speck on the radar.
Radar signals disappear for several common reasons and aren’t unusual. For example, there are gaps in coverage over water or an aircraft is too low to see. Transponder information either disappears from electrical failure or being intentionally turned off by the pilot. Malaysian military radar may have seen the transponder information after it disappeared because commercial and military radar differ.
A total electrical failure happens when both engines shut down or a major electrical panel fails. The chances of a twin-engine or electrical failure are astronomically low, especially since B777s also have a backup ram air generator independent of the engine electrical system. Triple redundancy.
The most likely scenario is that the pilot intentionally turned off the transponder, a never happens event and extremely hard to do accidentally. There are also backup rules to follow in case the transponders or radios fail. The plane followed neither.
Probability: The pilots probably shut down the transponder under duress. That may indicate a hijacker aboard, especially since the transponder can send a special code to alert authorities of bad guys on the plane. Many people fly on bad passports so even if authorities cleared the infamous fake passport holders, it’s very possible that a hijacker could travel on a valid or very well-faked passport. Remember this is how the 9/11 hijackers got into the U.S.
What’s Up With the Search Area
What happened: A multi-national armada searched the suspected crash zone for several days while the Malaysian military sporadically claimed the plane turned in a different direction. Officials more than doubled the search area over more open and deeper water and thick jungle. The military continues to waffle on the their story, denying some details as late as today.
The military now claims it doesn’t have radar data showing the exact course or where they lost the MH370 radar contact. In other words, they are as clueless as everyone else.
Ineptitude is the only plausible explanation for why the story persists and keeps changing. Even without transponder information the radar contact alone should have strengthened as it approached shore and allegedly passed close by military installations. If the military really does know the flight path (remember the transponder shows a right turn while the military claims a left turn) the search area would be much smaller than now.
Probability: For some in explicable reason the Malaysians don’t really know about the turn or course and they have no clear reason to keep changing their minds. That is cause enough to seriously question their information. Finding a crash site over water may never yield MH370.
Maybe It Just Blew Up
What happened: Absent actually finding wreckage, this is the most unlikely scenario. Planes almost never just blow up, even in terror acts. Fires caused most of the few known catastrophic failures. Exploding engines, oddball explosions like TWA flight 800, or the top of Aloha flight 243’s fuselage cracking off are among the rarest accidents on Earth.
Catastrophic failures at cruise altitude don’t pulverize a fuselage they leave fairly large pieces of debris and generally allow enough time to send a signal, even if the pilots are busy trying to control the plane. The radio transmitter switches are literally under the pilots’ thumbs on the steering yoke. It is click and talk, that fast and simple.
This theory also dovetails with the flight track details. If officials actually knew MH370’s location they probably would have found some debris by now. Even massive explosions leave fairly large chunks over a wide area like the terrorist destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Even with wreckage, it’s extremely difficult to find crash causes. Investigators confirmed terrorist action on flight 103 from a single transistor smaller than a thumbnail from a circuit board hidden in a baggage container from a debris field scattered over an 81 mile long path. That won’t happen dredging up pieces of sunken airliner.
Probability: It is almost impossible.
Give Me a Little Air
Explosive decompression is nothing like the movies. Small holes, like a bullet or leaking pressure seal, almost never have any effect on large planes. When they do there is plenty of time for oxygen masks to drop and the crew to put theirs on. The hole is just too small to let all that air to quickly escape.
Examples of oxygen malfunction from small holes or system failures, like golfer Payne Stewart’s crash, usually happen to small aircraft without advanced oxygen warning systems and small interiors. When they do happen the pilot falls asleep and the airplane typically flies the last heading until it runs out of fuel. MH370 didn’t do that.
True explosive decompression can come from a moderate-sized hole like a broken window to something as large as Aloha’s missing roof or door failures like United flight 811s.
I’ve experienced explosive decompression and Harrison Ford doesn’t fly down the aisle and hang from the edge of a door for 30 seconds. That only happens when a huge hole opens and then the passenger falls out they’re not sucked out.
Explosive decompression, except at very high altitude, is more discombobulating than eminently dangerous. There is a pop, the cabin fills with an impenetrable mist for a few seconds, and the air quickly rushes out of your lungs and ears. You almost always have a few seconds to put on the oxygen mask. Even if that isn’t possible, passengers simply go to sleep until they airplane reaches a lower altitude where they can easily breathe.
Probability: Very unlikely at best, though it is possible.
Just Where is Waldo’s Airplane?
The “mystery” of MH370 is probably no mystery at all, though we don’t know the cause now. Barring dumb luck, searchers probably won’t find the plane in a search area this large. No plane, no way to pinpoint a cause. At this point all we know is that airplanes disappearing like this are astronomically rare and the truly probable causes are limited.
In the unlikely event searchers do find MH370 it will be extremely hard to reconstruct the problem. Water and debris fields scattering for hundreds of miles in the ocean current precludes getting enough debris to learn a lot, Pan Am 103’s transistor notwithstanding.
If an “expert” contends they have answers at this point they are lying. Without vital information everything, including my comments here, are speculation. People are frustrated and the most likely event is that will continue.
There will be few answers anytime soon. I’m pretty confident MH370 wasn’t stolen and hidden on a remote island or that aliens haven’t picked it up.
But, that is purely speculation.
- Why would it stop sending signals? (cnn.com)
- MH370’s Locating Device Went Silent Before Disappearance (rss.nytimes.com)
- MH370 ‘Phantom call’ theory dismissed by experts (CNN)
- Travellers will ‘shun’ Malaysia Airlines over disappearance of flight MH370 (Daily Mail)
- Missing Malaysia Airlines plane co-pilot ‘smoked with two blondes in cockpit’ years ago (Daily Express)
- MH 370 – An alien abduction maybe? (turcopolier.typepad.com)
- Last words heard from the crew of MH370 (theage.com.au)
- Malaysia Flight MH370 – Note I Already Said On Sunday That It Could Have Landed Somewhere Remote. Plus Transponders. (nhlife.wordpress.com)
- Malaysian Airlines flight MH370: authorities accused of ‘chaotic’ response (telegraph.co.uk)