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Pondering the preposterous

Just after midnight on March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a regularly scheduled trip to Beijing. On board were 12 Malaysian crewmembers and 227 passengers from 14 countries. About 40 minutes into what seemed to be an uneventful flight, the co-pilot said goodnight to air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur as the plane moved out of Malaysian and entered Vietnamese airspace. That would be the last ever heard from the plane.


November 5, 2014
By Ray Tomalty PhD
The search for Malaysia Airlines’ MH370 is the most expensive in the history of modern aviation. Just after midnight on March 8

The plane disappeared in good weather, there was no distress call from the pilots, and no one claimed responsibility for hijacking or sabotaging the plane. To make the event even more puzzling, it was soon revealed that all communication equipment on board the plane had been disabled at around the time the aircraft vanished. Malaysian military radar tracked the plane as it detoured west across the peninsula, changing altitude and direction several times, until it reached the Andaman Sea. A few faint signals emitted by the plane’s engines suggested it was then flown south to a remote part of the Indian Ocean. It seemed the more that was revealed about the plane’s fate, the greater was the mystery.

A massive international hunt for debris on the surface of the ocean in the area where the plane is thought to have gone down found no trace of the plane and so far the search of the ocean bottom has proved fruitless. After months of searching, some observers are despairing of ever finding the plane. If this happens, Flight MH370 will go down as the greatest unsolved crash in aviation history and one of the most perplexing human tragedies of the technological age.

Understanding the possibilities
One of the first theories to emerge to explain the plane’s mysterious disappearance was passenger hijacking. Although successful hijackings have become very rare since the security improvements after 9/11, suspicion fell on two Iranian male passengers travelling on false passports. After a thorough Interpol investigation of their backgrounds, police concluded neither had any links to terrorist groups; they were probably asylum seekers. Having looked for possible political motivations, financial trouble, and psychological problems among the other 225 passengers aboard the plane, police concluded that there was no evidence to link any of them to the flight’s disappearance. At any rate, the absence of any hijacker demand or claim of responsibility for the event makes passenger hijacking a very unlikely explanation.

Besides the tragic destruction of MH17, a B777 allegedly shot down by Ukrainian rebels in July, only three people have died as a result of a B777 crash in 20 years of operation. Despite this almost untarnished safety record, mechanical failure is another possible explanation for MH370’s disappearance. The most credible theory along these lines was proposed by Canadian pilot, Chris Goodfellow, who suggested MH370 was struck by a catastrophic fire. The pilots veered off course in an attempt to reach an emergency landing strip on an island just off the west coast of Malaysia. After having keyed this destination into the flight management system, the pilots turned to fighting the blaze, too busy to issue a distress call. Before they could land the plane, Goodfellow conjectured, the pilots were overcome with smoke and the plane continued on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed hours later in the Indian Ocean.

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Billed as a simple explanation that accounted for the known facts, the story spread in newsfeeds around the globe until it was pointed out that it just didn’t make sense. If the pilots were rendered unconscious before reaching the emergency airport, how could the plane subsequently make the changes of altitude and course noted by Malaysian military radar after it passed the airport and flew out over the Andaman Sea? With no one at the controls, how could the plane then bend its route just outside Indonesian radar range and turn itself south? If there were a fire catastrophic enough to overcome the pilots, how did the plane manage to keep flying until it ran out of fuel seven hours later? And if the plane crashed into the ocean, why didn’t the search effort find any evidence of it? Neither Goodfellow’s, nor any other theory based on mechanical failure, could answer these questions.

Contemplating the unthinkable
If passenger hijacking and mechanical catastrophe are unlikely to explain what happened to Flight MH370, we are left with an unpalatable third possibility, pilot sabotage. Pilot sabotage is compatible with what we know of the plane’s mysterious behaviour after it diverted from its path to Beijing. As the Malaysian authorities noted, only someone with significant aviation experience would have been able to disable the plane’s communications systems, reprogram the flight management system, and make the flight path changes that were picked up on military radar. A week after the plane vanished, Malaysian Prime Minister said: “These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.”

Pilot sabotage is sensitive topic that is far more common than many people assume. In the U.S. alone, there have been 24 cases of suspected or proven pilot suicide over the past 20 years, although these were mostly private pilots not licenced to carry passengers. In the world of commercial aviation, there have been at least three confirmed or assumed cases of pilot sabotage involving large jets in the last 17 years. The pilots’ motivations are usually difficult to pin down, but resentment against the employer (the airlines) is strongly suspected in two of the three cases. This was almost certainly the motivation behind the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, which plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maryland in 1999. It was revealed later that just hours before the flight, the pilot whose actions had caused the plane to nosedive into the ocean had been demoted for sexual misconduct. As EgyptAir later confirmed, the executive who had reprimanded the pilot earlier that day was on the doomed plane and died in the crash, along with everyone else onboard.

Could pilot resentment explain what happened to Flight MH370? In the days after March 8, details of Captain Zaharie Shah’s life gradually emerged that suggest he had good reason to be bitter towards his employer, Malaysia Airlines, and its primary owner, the Malaysian government. For many years, Zaharie had been a member of Malaysia’s main opposition party and a passionate supporter of its leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar had been a thorn in the side of the corrupt and secretive ruling party that has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. He was jailed in 1998 on trumped-up charges of sodomy (which is illegal in Malaysia) but in 2004 managed to get out on appeal.

In the general election of 2013, Anwar came very close to becoming Prime Minister of Malaysia, but the ruling party clung to power through gerrymandering and electoral fraud. One factor that contributed to their illicit victory was the decision of Malaysia Airlines – Zaharie’s employer – to airlift tens of thousands of overseas voters and parachute them (figuratively speaking) into key districts in Malaysia where the ruling party was teetering on defeat.

In the aftermath of the election, government prosecutors pressed on with another attempt to sideline Captain Zaharie’s hero, reviving the old sodomy charges. On the afternoon before the plane disappeared, March 7, a packed court in Kuala Lumpur heard the judge hand Anwar Ibrahim a five-year prison sentence. Captain Zaharie was in the courtroom to witness his political champion being humiliated by the trial judge, another crony of a corrupt government. A few hours later, Zaharie made his way to the airport and took his seat at the controls of MH370.

Over the months following the disappearance of Flight MH370, other incriminating revelations have come to light. In July, the Malaysian police announced that after interviewing relatives, friends and associates of all 239 people on board the plane, it was found that only one had no social or professional commitments after March 8: Captain Zaharie. If human malfeasance was involved in the disappearance of the plane, the police concluded, Captain Zaharie was the primary suspect.

The pilot suicide scenario has been dismissed by some observers because it doesn’t jive with patterns established in previous incidents involving airplane sabotage. If Captain Zaharie wanted to destroy the plane, they ask, why didn’t he just nosedive into the Gulf of Thailand? Why did he bother flying across Malaysia and then half way to the Antarctic? And why would he turn off all the communication equipment? If he was hijacking the plane for political reasons, then why didn’t he make some kind of statement?

The key to answering these questions may be right in front of us: what has riveted the world’s attention on this event is that the plane disappeared. What if Zaharie was prepared to sacrifice himself and his passengers to revenge himself against a corrupt regime and his collaborating employer but realized the furor over a suicidal pilot would quickly fade from the headlines, as it has in the case of Egypt Air Flight 990? What if he wanted to make a much bigger splash by pulling off something completely unprecedented: making a large commercial aircraft vanish without a trace? That way, he could cause an international sensation that would endure for weeks or months, crippling an already financially troubled airline and shining a light on the secretive and incompetent Malaysian government as it struggled to respond to an unending crisis. Such an outcome might be worth the sacrifice.  

Once the event is seen in this light – that the pilot had an intricate plan to make the plane disappear – the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. It explains why the pilot didn’t just crash the plane in the shallow Gulf of Thailand where it would be easily found (and then forgotten), and instead flew it to the southern Indian Ocean, where some of the deepest waters on earth would ensure the plane would be next to impossible to find. It also explains why the plane disappeared at the hand-off point between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic controllers, as this would give Zaharie the time he needed to change course and leave the area before controllers realized what had happened. It also clarifies why the plane turned sharply west instead of heading east over the South China Sea; to the west was a short dash across Malaysia before reaching the open and unmonitored Indian Ocean whereas to the east was the heavily militarized and radar drenched South China Sea. Disabling the plane’s communication devices and manoeuvring it around military radar over the Andaman Sea makes sense if the pilot was trying to fly under a cloak of invisibility.

Devising the perfect plan
But if Zaharie’s plan was to make the plane completely disappear, he faced an imposing challenge. It would be pointless to fly the plane to the remote Indian Ocean and then nosedive into the surface, as other pilot saboteurs had done, as the debris field would be easily spotted from the air and his plan would be ruined. To conceal the final resting place of MH370 and create an everlasting mystery, he would have to land the plane in one piece and let it sink.

Previous aviation incidents have shown that a controlled, water landing by a large commercial jet is difficult but not impossible for an experienced pilot. As the world discovered on January 15, 2009, a passenger aircraft could be successfully landed on a river, the Hudson, even without engine power. At least two touchdowns on ocean surfaces have occurred when pilots landed short of runways, both with minimal damage to the planes involved. Although the southern Indian Ocean is infamous for high seas and violent winds, the calm weather that prevailed on March 8 in the presumed landing area and the morning light would have boosted Captain Zaharie’s chances of success. After examining deleted files on the hard drive of Zaharie’s home-made flight simulator, the Malaysian authorities announced in July that the pilot had practiced flying to the southern Indian Ocean and landing on a very short landing strip, a manoeuvre very similar to landing on a water surface.

A controlled ocean landing would explain why not a single piece of debris from MH370 was found on the ocean surface, despite the largest search operation ever conducted in the planet’s history, and why no debris from the plane has been found on any of the beaches that ring the ocean. It would also explain why the plane’s emergency locator beacons, normally triggered in a crash, were not activated, and why the underwater acoustic sensors operated by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty organization in the southern Indian Ocean failed to pick up the sound of a violent water crash.

After putting his plane down on the ocean surface, one last challenge would have remained for Zaharie. A Boeing 777 without major structural damage can stay afloat for approximately 30 minutes. This would be long enough for passengers and cabin crew to disembark via the plane’s emergency slides and rafts. Given that the rafts are equipped with radio beacons that broadcast their location to satellites, the survivors would inevitably be found and Captain Zaharie’s grand plan would be revealed.

This might explain a final (and bizarre) detail about the plane’s behaviour after it turned sharply west over the Gulf of Thailand, noted by the Malaysian military radar operators. Although there is some question about the accuracy of the data, the available evidence suggests that shortly after being diverted from its flight path to Beijing, the aircraft climbed above its normal flight ceiling to about 45,000 feet (13,700 metres) and stayed there for 23 minutes. Gruesome as it is, this may have been Zaharie’s way of ensuring no one else was left alive on landing.

From the cockpit of a B777, the plane can be depressurized in a few seconds and the cabin heaters turned off, depriving the passengers of breathable air and plunging the temperature to nearly -60 Celsius. Under these extreme conditions, the flimsy oxygen masks that drop down in emergency conditions would have been useless; passengers and cabin crew would lose consciousness almost immediately and most would die within minutes. Meanwhile, in the cockpit, Zaharie would be breathing pressurized oxygen from a dedicated tank using a mask similar to the kind used by fighter pilots. Separately controlled cockpit space heaters would keep him safely in the survival zone during these tumultuous minutes.

Although this scenario leaves a few details to the imagination, like how Captain Zaharie might have dispatched his co-pilot prior to commandeering the plane (in the B777, the “crash axe” is within arm’s reach of the captain’s seat), it knits together the threads of a plausible story. Motivated by his desire to punish his employer and destabilize the Malaysian government, Captain Zaharie may have planned to do something that had never been accomplished before – make a sophisticated passenger plane vanish without a trace, thereby transfixing the global public, hobbling an already struggling airline and undermining the inept Malaysian government as it bungled the investigation. The captain may have meticulously planned to commandeer the plane at the exact moment that would create the most confusion in the minds of air traffic controllers, make the aircraft disappear from civilian radar and avoid military radar as much as possible, and fly out over a vast ocean with little air or maritime traffic. He may have euthanized his passengers and other members of the crew, then landed the plane in one piece and allowed it to sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking with it all the evidence of his actions that night.

Managing certain details
Although Captain Zaharie most likely planned the operation meticulously, there was one technical detail he apparently overlooked, a furtive signal from the plane’s engines that was betraying his plan. Zaharie had taken pains to put his aircraft under a cloak of invisibility by muzzling the transponder, radios, and the ACARS system, which automatically transmits data via satellite about the plane’s operation to ground crews and manufacturers. Unbeknownst to most commercial pilots, their planes are equipped with a secondary ACARS system that cannot be turned off from the cockpit (which may be why most pilots don’t know about the system). If the ground station has not heard from an aircraft’s primary ACARS system for over an hour, it will transmit an “are you there?” message in order to ascertain whether the aircraft is still logged on. When the secondary ACARS system aboard the aircraft receives this message, it returns a short message indicating that it is still connected. This process has been described as a “handshake” and takes place automatically.

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The deepest part of the Indian Ocean is the Java Trench, just south of the Indonesian archipelago. PHOTO: DREAMSTIME

Through this secondary ACARS system, MH370’s engine’s continued to handshake with the manufacturer (Rolls Royce) in England after disappearing from civilian radar over the Gulf of Thailand. In total, six complete handshakes were recorded, followed by a partial handshake at 8:19 Malaysian time on the morning of March 8, when the flight presumably ended. Although the handshakes don’t convey any information about the position of the aircraft, time delays on the signal record can be used to estimate the distance of the plane from the satellite over the Indian Ocean that was relaying the signal to England. When combined with the fuel range of the aircraft and its last known location over the Andaman Sea, this information could be used by investigators to draw an arc that shows the most likely end points of MH370s journey over the Indian Ocean – the famous “seventh arc.” Allowing for a margin of error on each side of the arc, this analysis has allowed investigators to reduce the search area from the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean the plane could have reached that night to a long but narrow strip of ocean west of Australia.

Drawing the seventh arc was a major breakthrough in the investigation, but it still leaves a search area that could take years to investigate thoroughly. If we pursue the hypothesis that the pilot was intentionally trying to make the plane disappear, we might be able to further narrow down the likely resting place of Flight MH370. We could presume the pilot would be looking for the deepest water, preferably beyond 6,000 metres, which is the operating limit of most underwater search technology. He would also want to choose a route that is outside military radar coverage of countries bordering the ocean, and far from the commercial shipping lanes that might pose a risk of being seen from the surface.

The deepest part of the Indian Ocean is the Java Trench, just south of the Indonesian archipelago. However, the ocean surface above this underwater canyon is well plied by commercial ships and the airspace above that is within radar range of the Indonesian military. It is therefore not a likely destination for our saboteur.  The next deepest part of the Indian Ocean is the Ob Trench, an 800 kilometre (500 mile) east-west gorge in the remote ocean west of Perth, Australia. Only about 25 kilometres (15 miles) wide, its slit-like mouth opens into a chasm that may plummet up to nearly 7,000 metres (23,000 feet) below the ocean surface. This is twice as deep as the Titanic’s resting place in the north Atlantic and far below the deepest successful recovery effort in the history of aviation accidents, a black box that was retrieved by a remotely operated vehicle in 4,900 metres (16,100 feet) of water off the coast of South Africa in 1988.

Although it has never been mapped in any detail, the Ob Trench is thought to be pitted with unfathomable precipices and rocky outcroppings, ideal for hindering any underwater search operation. The trench happens to intersect with the seventh arc at a point just outside the reach of Australia’s famed long-range military radar system (JORN) and far from any major commercial shipping routes, oil exploration or other surface activities that would put eyes on the sky. In short, the Ob Trench is the most remote, unmonitored and inaccessible place within flying range of Flight MH370 that night, an ideal place to stage an unprecedented disappearing act.

The search continues
But if there is such a tempting hiding place, why hasn’t the plane been found after such an extensive search? The simple reason is that the Australian authorities (who are leading the search) have been proceeding from the assumption that the plane was afflicted by some kind of mechanical problem that incapacitated the pilots then flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed violently into the ocean. In short, the entire search effort is based on the mechanical catastrophe theory, a theory for which no one has ever generated a narrative that makes any sense.

For the first two months after the plane disappeared, most of the massive resources dedicated to the search went into looking for surface debris – a promising strategy if the plane had nosedived into the ocean but pointless if the plane was set down on the ocean surface by a pilot fully in control of his aircraft. Taking into account ocean currents and the extensive drift one would expect after weeks floating on the ocean surface, the search had to cover an area of over four million square kilometres. Despite numerous false alarms, not a single shred of MH370 was ever found.

Meanwhile, under the ocean, the black box beacons were gradually exhausting their batteries advertising the true whereabouts of the plane. As the one-month mark approached and the batteries were reaching their expiration date, the search authorities desperately diverted some resources into listening underwater for the tell-tale pings. Unfortunately, they chose to put their hydrophones in one of the shallowest areas along the seventh arc, above a relatively flat underwater tableland called the Zenith Plateau. Although it presented easy search terrain, this would be the last place to look if one assumed the pilot had intentionally jammed the plane in the most inaccessible depths. Sadly, the pings that were detected in early April led to a time-consuming and immensely expensive search for wreckage on the ocean floor on the Zenith Plateau, a fruitless effort that found nothing. At the time, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott boasted he was confident the investigators had determined “the position of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometres,” but the pings were eventually dismissed as a false lead, probably coming from the search ships themselves. The mechanical catastrophe theory had led into one dead-end after another.

By the end of October, investigators had completed the large-grain bathymetric mapping of a “high priority” stretch along the seventh arc. This information is being used to guide the fine-grained search along the ocean bottom for the remains of Flight 370, an operation expected to take at least another year. The 60,000 sq. km (23,000 sq. miles) search area sweeps 650 km (400 miles) along the seventh arc with the southern terminus at the Ob Trench. It is not known whether the authorities intend to thoroughly search the trench itself, but given its immense depth and the complexity of its terrain, this seems unlikely. In fact, no technology is currently available that could probe the most profound reaches of this part of the Indian Ocean. If this happens to be where Captain Zaharie laid his plane and its passengers to rest, they may sit undisturbed on the ocean floor until new technology is available that can plumb such depths.

Meanwhile, any economic or political consequences Captain Zaharie was hoping to achieve by sacrificing his own life and those of the 238 others entrusted to his care that night will have long ago played out. So far, the disappearance of MH370 has had major repercussions within Malaysia. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, Malaysia Airlines has become a ward of the government, is being drastically downsized, and may even have its name changed, effectively making the entire company “disappear.” Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian Transport Minister who was the face of the search effort, has been removed from his position after being widely criticized for his bungling performance in handling the ongoing crisis. Although Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is still in place, his popularity has suffered in the aftermath of the crash and his party’s reputation has been damaged by the ordeal, a fact that could tip the balance in favour of the opposition party in the next federal election. Although no political objective could justify the sacrifice Captain Zaharie made, it may very well not have been in vain.