Tragedy of #MH470

Like many people I’ve followed the events of MH370 with interest and sorrow.

Sorrow for the family and friends of those on the plane, who still have no idea of what happened and who are living with the enormous strain of this.

Interest, because I’ve been fascinated in aircraft since I was a child; when I was a teenager I wanted to be a pilot.

So what do we know?

There are very few hard facts.

  • The aircraft departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41am on 8th March, climbing up to 35,000 as it tracked northward towards Bejing.
  • At 1:19 the aircraft made its last routine radio communication as it switched frequencies to Vietnamese air traffic control.
  • At about 1:21 the aircraft’s transponder, which sends out signals to enable the flight’s data to appear on civilian air traffic control radar stopped sending signals.
  • There were no more engineering messages sent by the aircraft computers (ACARS) after 1:07, the message expected at 1:37 wasn’t received.

There are however some soft facts: by which I mean things that are known but which are harder to use with certainty.

  1. It appears that the aircraft appeared on military radar and was last spotted at 2:15am. However, it is not possible to be absolutely certain what objects the radar has picked up particularly since the trajectory from the flights position at 1.21either isn’t known or hasn’t been released.
  2. It then appears that the satellite system continued to send out handshake messages, the last being at 8:11. Again, without knowing what data pings were picked up in the previous hours it is hard to know how much weight to put on this; however the radius of the last ping gives rise to the maps used in the media.
  3. The aircraft deviated from its planned route and did not (appear to) immediately crash into the sea below, so some sort of action was taken by people on the flight deck.

If the aircraft crashed into the Gulf of Thailand or the straits of Malacca debris or evidence of the crash should become apparent. The water is not very deep, there is lots of marine traffic and the areas were searched from the start. I understand that it is not physically possible for the plane to dive into the sea in such a way that it buries itself intact into the mud 45m below without leaving debris.

If there was a mechanical problem it developed quickly; had there been a problem the crew would not have signed off to the next controller without comment.

Which leaves us with theories.

The aircraft deviation was either the action of the flight crew or a hijacker. If the flight crew it was either in response to a developing emergency, a suicide mission or some form of deliberate sabotage. Bits of the evidence could be used in support of all these things.

  • Suicide mission or sabotage by a crew member. There have been instances before of pilots crashing aircraft in an apparent suicide attempt. (Most recently LAM flight 470 in November 2013) This attempt would be different in that a pilot didn’t then just crash the plane but disabled equipment and then flew the aircraft to a location where it would be hard to locate it. This probably also required then to subdue the passengers and other crew. In my view the probability of this is low.
  • Hijack by one pilot or other unknown person. It is possible, particularly if we assume that this was a hijack that went wrong, thus ensuring that the people behind it did not want to claim responsibility. It is conceivable that someone hijacked the plane, flew it out into the Indian Ocean to keep away from radar with the intention of flying it into a target at daylight, but the number of things needed to pull this off make this unlikely. It is of course possible there was an attempt, which resulted in a struggle and which led to the aircraft crashing somewhere over water. Clearly hijacking is a worry because it is possible that the perpetrators will try again. However, it is also fair to point out that 7 attempted hijacks in the last 5 years haven’t resulted in any crashes or loss of life and a similar attempt by a lone hijacker is entirely possible, except this time the crew were unable to overcome the hijacker or save the plane.
  •  Developing emergency. There have been a few instances of fire on aircraft and of smoke; likewise there are instances of decompression. In February 2007 a Boeing 777 suffered an electrical fire on the ground at Heathrow which resulted in arcing and short  circuits. Overall though, in recent years there have been very few crashes due to  equipment failure and these have usually been the result of a cascade of problems resulting in the pilots being unable to control the aircraft or making critical mistakes. Some of the evidence fits this theory, eg: the aircraft making a left turn away from the airway is an obvious manoeuvre for an aircraft which has an emergency, which results in loss of communication and which may require an emergency landing. If it was a developing emergency, it probably it either took out electrical systems that made it impossible to communicate / control the aircraft (but not enough to cause it to crash immediately) and / or incapacitated the crew. If it was a developing emergency the sheer number of hours flown by Boeing 777 aircraft means it was an astonishingly rare combination of events. The first B777 loss was British Airways flight 38 in 2008 and it took months for investigators to work out the precise sequence of events that caused the fuel flow to stop. In addition the events may need to be compounded by poor crew decisions (as was the case with the Air France 447) as they responded to a surprising and rapidly changing situation. If the crew were incapacitated the aircraft would continue to fly, following the last commands it was given until it ran out of fuel (as with Helios flight 522 in August 2005), incapacitation is rare but there are numerous instances of people feeling unwell (in March 2013 two flight attendants passed out due to fumes on Condor flight DE5944). 

Sadly it may take months to locate the wreckage, with the result that we may never know the exact sequence of events. Especially, as I suspect is the case as a result of pilot incapacitation,  if has come down in the southern Indian Ocean. When South African Airways Boeing 747 flight 295 crashed into the Indian Ocean in November 1987 it took two years to find the voice recorder, the flight data recorder was never found even though an approximate position for the crash was known.

2 thoughts on “Tragedy of #MH470

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  1. Interesting to see how the media has been making much more of possible mechanical causes; fire within the cargo bay (less likely in my view), within the cockpit or avionics which produced smoke or toxic fumes which overcame the crew. One key issue in determining the likely hood of mechanical failure is the exact timeline of the events between 1:07 and 1:30am; in particular where the last contact with air traffic comes in the sequence, either before or after the transponder stopped and the start of the aircraft’s turn.

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