MH370: The third and final round.
Welcome back. Here's the rest of the story and I'm sticking to it.
My initial theory had the captain temporarily handing over the flying duties to his F/O sometime between the level off check and the hand off point from Malaysian ATC to Viet Nam ATC. It involved the Captain leaving his seat for a few minutes under the pretext of retrieving some item from his personal luggage stored in the aft spaces of the flight deck. In the dark behind his first officer, he then reached up and pulled the ACARS* circuit breaker. This would’ve triggered a warning followed by a call for a circuit breaker reset procedure and the cancellation of the warning. The Captain, still in place, would’ve then pulled it again. The second time any re-set circuit breaker pops, it is to be left alone for fear of fire etc. So with some slight-of-hand, the Captain surreptitiously disabled the first of several communications systems before returning to his seat and assuming control of the aircraft again. This could be done easily in the B-767—I know exactly where that circuit breaker is—and assumed, incorrectly, that it would be in a similar location in the B-777. After some digging, I discovered that on the B-777 the ACARS could not be shut off from the flight deck, only from the electronics bay located below the floor with the access hatch under the carpet in the forward galley. This made the timing and required actions of the captain nearly impossible and very nearly blew my theory right out of the water.
But I have discovered (with help from AC B-777 instructor Captain Owen Stewart) that the ACARS system cannot be switched off but it can be disabled on the B-777 without leaving the flight deck. Right at the handoff point between Malaysian and Vietnam ATC, the drama begins. Here’s my possible re-creation and it is actually very simple. I recall a BA (British Airways) captain stating that if there ever was a time to steal an airplane, it would be at the international boundary ATC handoff point between two countries.
*ACARS stands for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. It is a fully automatic data linked message sent back to the airline operations control with a set of captured flight and engine performance data. The pilots are not involved in these regular automatic transmissions.
Timeline: MH370 Communications. All times local.*
1. 1:07 am: Last received ACARS transmission.
2. 1:19 am: Last verbal communication. “All right, good night” from the aircraft; believed to be the co-pilot (F/O).
3. 1:21 am: Transponder stopped transmitting (turned off or failed).
4. 1:30 am: Civilian (primary) radar lost contact.
5. 1:37 am: Expected ACARS transmission; not received.
6. 2:15 am: Last military primary radar contact.
7. 8:11 am: Last (hourly) satellite handshake.
*aviationist.com MH370 timeline
The points of interest from the timeline above are numbers 1, 2 and 5.
Points 1 and 5 indicate that the ACARS transmits once every thirty minutes. Point 2 shows the last VHF radio transmission occurring eighteen minutes before the next scheduled ACARS transmission.
The hand-off transmission to MH370 is made from Malaysian ATC, giving the crew the new Vietnam Control VHF frequency. The F/O reads it back, Malaysia confirms that it is correct, and the F/O says, “All right, good night,” to the controller. It’s only a courtesy, common on the radio in the air, nothing sinister about it, and it indicates quite clearly that all was well on the flight deck. While the F/O has his head down dialing up the assigned Vietnam control frequency on his radio, he is interrupted by his captain: “Hang on a minute. Could you do me a favour? I’ve got the radios. I’ll check in with Vietnam for you. Take a break. Go back, stretch your legs for a few minutes, flirt with that beauty in the biz class galley, grab us a couple of coffees and a copy of the Malay Times. I like their sudokus and I take my coffee black.” Or whatever chore the captain could think of! The F/O leaves his seat to complete his captain’s errand and the flight deck door closes and locks solid as he exits. The captain is now in complete and sole control of the aircraft and all her systems. From here, it’s a simple matter of either disabling the electronic emergency flight deck entrance system by pulling the appropriate circuit breaker or physically dead-bolting the door. Or both. Either way, no one can enter without a cutting torch—rather scarce gear at the time—and the captain is free to put the rest of his plan in play at his leisure.
First, he turns off the transponder (timeline point 3, just two minutes after the F/O’s transmission) and kills all the aircraft running lights, anti-collision lights, and strobes. Now he’s virtually invisible to both radar and other aircraft.
Second, he turns off all his radios—VHF, HF and SATCOM—as he had nothing further to say to anyone. This act disables the ACARS by denying it the required transmission devices. The anticipated transmission at point 5 above never occurred.
Third, he activates a stored secondary flight plan in the flight management computer (FMC) that he had previously programmed, perhaps from memory, while on the ground in KL. We used to mess with the secondary flight plan feature all the time, even while in flight. You know—important stuff like how many miles it is from Katmandu to Grandma’s house. But mostly we used it to program the route to our alternate airport to cut the workload should a diversion from our destination become necessary. As long as the primary flight plan was active, nothing would happen unless and until you selected and activated the secondary stored flight plan, at which time the autopilot would begin to follow this new flight routing. This, I believe, is when the sharp turns to headings to the west, the southwest, and the south began. I speculate that the routing had something to do with getting away from civilian ATC radar as fast as possible. But I’m guessing, of course.
Fourth, he allegedly climbs to 45,000 feet (FL450). This is debatable, as it was both unnecessary and most likely well above the maximum ceiling of the B-777 at that weight so early in the flight. Perhaps he believed that climbing to such an altitude would make it even more difficult for civilian or military ATC radar to spot him. Passenger mobile phones would also be useless and I have since learned why: cell phone towers are not aimed skyward but angled toward the ground because—wait for it—that’s where the phones are. Quite possibly, no passengers knew of any trouble at that time and had no obvious reasons to call regardless.
Fifth, he reaches up to the cabin pressure controller sub-panel just above his head and starts dumping cabin pressure, rapidly raising the cabin altitude to well above normal.
Sixth, he puts on his own flight deck oxygen mask.
As the cabin altitude climbed above 10,000 feet pressure altitude, the passenger masks would have automatically deployed. These supply just ten to fifteen minutes of oxygen to the passengers, just enough time to allow the flight crew to don their own masks, declare an emergency, and steeply descend to an altitude where it is safe to breathe without them. This descent to safety was never intended and never happened. After twenty or thirty minutes at a pressure altitude of, say, 30,000 feet, it can be assumed that the F/O, flight attendants and passengers, if not already unconscious or incapacitated, were struggling for their lives, using whatever oxygen, portable or otherwise, was available. The passenger oxygen would’ve run out by then. Regardless, the passenger cabin would’ve been chaos until the inevitable. Pleadings by the F/O to be allowed entry to the flight deck were ignored. (Author’s note: As were the dreadful recorded pleadings of the German Wings captain through the flight deck door to his own F/O as that aircraft descended to its doom in the Alps.) Most would finally just go to sleep and succumb to hypoxia even as they tried to contact the captain. He was in no hurry. He had all the oxygen he needed.
As an aside, the time of useful consciousness (TUC) for an average human at a pressure altitude of 35,000 feet is thirty to forty seconds .(The term is time of USEFUL consciousness—you’re still conscious, but you are losing your faculties VERY quickly. You are breathing but the air is NOT entering your bloodstream at that altitude. The next sentence is absolutely correct. After forty-five minutes, most, if not all, on board would be dead.
The seventh and final act: This is where the captain’s basement simulator may have been useful, even though he didn’t really need it. He only needed the B-777 performance charts and the location of the deepest, most remote part of the South Indian Ocean. We’ll never know either way.
When the captain was sure that all were dead or otherwise incapable of any interference, he sets his autopilot to do his bidding. He knew how much fuel he had on board and he knew the location where he wanted the flight to end. So he simply created a way-point using the latitude and longitude of his target, entered it into the FMC, made it the “go to” waypoint (it may have already been pre-loaded) and selected “NAV” on his glare-shield control panel. The autopilot would now take the aircraft directly toward his target. Or he could’ve used “Heading Select.” Setting an aircraft heading of 180 degrees true will point you straight at the world’s geographic South Pole, no matter where you are.
But how could he plan the impact point? This is where the performance charts come in. At a given speed, altitude, and temperature, the aircraft will burn “x” pounds of fuel per hour per engine, which increases if the aircraft is flown at a lower altitude and/or at a higher Mach number. He makes his target the “tanks run dry here” point and works backward. He calculates that, at a certain altitude and speed/power setting, the fuel he has remaining will be exhausted roughly over his target. So he simply sets the desired altitude in the altitude select window, the speed in his speed select window, the rate of descent to the selected altitude, and hands it all to the autopilot. When satisfied that the autopilot is doing as ordered, the captain removes his own mask (or perhaps takes a suicide pill of some kind), and goes to sleep. The aircraft dutifully descends to the chosen altitude (low twenties perhaps?) and flies for hours into the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean at the selected speed, burning up the remaining fuel with no one on board alive.
On the B-777, the cockpit voice recorder is a two-hour self-erasing loop. If ever found, and with recoverable data, the investigators would most likely listen to two hours of engine and flight deck air noise and nothing else. The flight data recorder would be equally useless, revealing only that the aircraft performed beautifully and exactly as programmed until fuel exhaustion and impact.
Many believed that huge pieces would be recovered. How can such a large bit of machinery disappear so completely? I asked myself the same question (similar to when we heard “The towers are gone!” in the van in Denver on 9/11), but it’s easier to imagine the disappearance when one pictures a near vertical B-777 hitting the ocean doing somewhere between 400 and 500 knots. The aircraft would very nearly vapourize from the astronomical impact forces.
Many also believe that when an airplane in level flight runs out of fuel, it will just glide down gracefully and pancake onto the surface. This might happen for airplanes not in autopilot “altitude hold” mode. For an aircraft flying in this mode though, it’s a different story. When the fuel is exhausted, the engines stop—first one, then the other (they never stop at the same time). As long as the electrical and hydraulic power lasts, the autopilot will keep doing what it has been asked to do for as long as it can do it. Even with the temporary asymmetric thrust problem, the autopilot will try to maintain the assigned altitude and track. When both engines quit, the airspeed starts rolling back. Because the autopilot is trying to maintain altitude, it begins to increase the pitch angle (raise the nose) in order to generate the lift required to maintain the selected altitude at a lower airspeed. More pitch equals more drag, causing the airspeed to roll back even faster. I’m willing to bet that, in less than thirty seconds from the second engine quitting, the aircraft had already started its death roll and plunge to the ocean. One wing always stalls before the other. The autopilot by now had thrown up its hands and disconnected—its limits exceeded. With no pilot alive on the flight deck to initiate a stall recovery, that huge machine would’ve rolled on its side as the first wing stalled, its nose falling to near vertical, and gravity would have done the rest, rapidly accelerating it to extremely high speeds, ensuring complete destruction on impact in one of the most remote stretches of ocean on earth. The flaperon found near Africa may have ripped off during the ferocious descent, tumbling and slowing down as to remain intact on impact.
So that’s it. No bloody violence and no conspiracies, on-board or otherwise. A single dead villain and an airplane full of innocent dead passengers and crew that slammed into the Indian Ocean, disintegrating and sinking to the depths. More pieces may be found on various beaches around the Indian Ocean. Investigators may connect some of the dots, but in my humble opinion, this simple but plausible scenario I’ve just presented is the most likely.
Until next time, over ‘n out.
Welcome back. Round Two.
The captain did it. There was simply no one else on board that aircraft with the authority, the opportunity, an array of possible motives, and the knowledge to carry out such a perfect and, for want of a better word, elegant crime. Experienced, competent, trusted—in other words, the perfect villain.
During the aftermath, there was much discussion, mostly by the talking heads on CNN, along the lines of the traditional solidness, accountability, and trustworthiness of pilots, the professionals tasked with the safe handling of approximately 700,000 worldwide daily passengers. If true, how could this pilot do such a thing? they wondered. Aren’t pilots screened regularly for their mental state, etc.? Should this pilot not have been caught beforehand? The short answer is no. Pilots are people, certainly, and while they may act more responsibly then some other professionals in their daily lives, there is a very big reason for this. Let’s face some facts. After all the hours of training, the enormous costs, working your way up from “the minors” to “the Bigs,” being the newbie at the bottom of the seniority list, the simulators, the interviews, the psych tests, and the medicals, when the big bucks finally start to roll in, the vast majority of pro pilots avoid behaving in any manner that would jeopardize what is still viewed as one of the most sought-after professions in the world.
We all know there are exceptions to the rule, to the norm. The captain of MH370, the perpetrator in this theory, was either mentally unstable, seriously troubled by something, or a stone-cold murderer who then took his own life. There was a report that his wife had left him shortly before the flight and unsubstantiated rumours about mistress “issues.” An additional stressor may have concerned politics. Allegedly, the captain was very upset about the conviction and incarceration of the Malaysian opposition party leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The theory involves him calling the Malaysian prime minister using the aircraft satellite (SAT) phone after seizing sole control of the aircraft and demanding Ibrahim’s release (or similar) under threat of deliberately crashing the plane. We’ll never know for sure—one, two, or a combination of the three factors above could have contributed to his motivation. The possibilities are endless.
Whatever his reasons, he also wanted to cover up the crime. My guess is that he wanted to commit suicide while sparing his family the shame and enabling them to collect his life insurance. And unless evidence is found and proven otherwise, murder/suicide must be ruled out. Therefore, any insurance policy remains valid. I posit that this was a careful crafting of a successful crime by a troubled but determined soul.
The simulator in the captain’s basement was, in my opinion, a bit weird. For a newbie pilot, a flying enthusiast, a hobbyist, or a heavy jet-pilot wannabe, I could understand. But for a pilot with his amount of experience? Why? He may have used it to plan this event. But again, we’ll never know.
The flight originated in Kuala Lumpur. In most airlines, the captain will fly the first leg of any new “pairing” or planned sequence of flights with his assigned crew. A “pairing”, at least at my old airline simply meant the “pairing” of a crew with a series of planned flight legs that could span several days. A good one (and tiring!) that I well remember was Toronto-Heathrow, Heathrow-Ottawa, Ottawa-Heathrow, Heathrow-Toronto. It spanned six days and we were whacked when it was over.
The Captain taking the first outbound leg would be especially true at night, to an airport with which his F/O was unfamiliar or with any newbie on the aircraft. Usually, flight legs are flown alternately as a courtesy to both allow the F/O to gain flying experience and to share the load, but the captain can fly every leg of the trip if he wants to. It’s his airplane, and he’s lord and master of all he surveys, consigning his F/O to pulling the gear and flaps, working the radios and keeping the flight logs. By always flying the first leg of a new pairing, the captain sets the tone on the flight deck for how the show will be run. The routine works very well.
The flight departed and climbed on course for the five or six hour flight to Beijing. After the climb to altitude and level off (thirty to forty-five minutes after takeoff depending on weight and local air temperature), the F/O would call ATC to report that they were level at their assigned altitude. The captain would then call for the level-off check, a routine scanning of all the flight deck instrument and control panels done by the PNF (pilot not flying—in this case the F/O), making sure that all was where it should be, that the many sets of altimeters, compasses, airspeed indicators, etc. were set correctly and agreed with one other. They also confirm that the autopilot is doing precisely what it has been ordered to—level flight at a set speed and altitude on a programmed flight routing. All was well, but was about to change in dramatic fashion.
Happy 150th Canada! Have a great weekend. Until next week, over 'n out.
Welcome back. After promising to do this for some time, I've finally started. Below is the first installment in a series covering my theory of the disappearance of MH370. Even though it's now rather old news, the story is still compelling. Enjoy, and feel free to poke holes in it in the comment section. You may find it a challenge!
The Disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370)
Nine-eleven isn’t much of a mystery anymore. A devastating surprise attack on the United States, much death, destruction, and aftershocks to the world in general and the airline industry in particular. It changed everything in that it was the first instance since the Kamikaze pilots in the Pacific theatre of World War II that airplanes were used as manned suicide bombs in a coordinated attack. What follows is a theory about an event that is a lessor tragedy in terms of loss of life but, unlike 9/11, remains a mystery unsolved and unresolved to this day: the disappearance and loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
It takes the form of an opinion wrapped in speculation with some dramatization thrown in. Nonetheless, my theory remains, as do all others to date, speculation only. Since initially writing this shortly after the disappearance, the German Wings Airline murder-suicide tragedy occurred adding some credence to what follows. Also, a B-777 flaperon has been found, but it has not yet been determined how it separated from the aircraft or whether it is actually from MH370.
The disappearance of this aircraft and the presumptive loss of all souls on board is, in my opinion, the most compelling, tragic, and mysterious aircraft incident in history. Even more so than the famous Emilia Earhart saga because none of our modern tracking wizardry and technology made the grade and the villain (there is one) foiled the most sophisticated search equipment on the planet. If the passengers and crew were murdered in the way I am about to posit, then the security frenzy aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks must shoulder partial blame. Why? It is because of the (obviously flawed) airline flight deck security and access protocols. Whenever there is a team of two individuals who can both do the same task with equal competence, and both have the ability to physically isolate themselves from the other, then these kinds of tragedies are not only possible but they will continue to occur. As mentioned in my book “Flight Lines”, this type of crime cannot occur at El Al (Israel) due to their highly modified aircraft that physically separates passengers and flight attendants from the pilots with no possibility of contact for the duration of the flight. This also eliminates the possibility of (or the need for) one pilot isolating himself from the other as the pilots have their own lav and galley services. There are no lockable doors in their flight “suites” simply because there is no need for them. (But they have to fetch their own coffee!)
First, who did not do it and what did not happen.
All listed passengers and crew on board (and we can provisionally assume their families and extended families) were investigated and exonerated.
All Malaysian airport personnel, Malaysian Airline pilots, flight attendants, and ground personnel who had come within a country mile of the aircraft in the prior month were also investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing.
No groups or organizations—political, religious, criminal, family, rebel, partisan, terrorist, Chinese or Malaysian government rival factions—have claimed responsibility for the incident.
No ransom demand was ever made, ending speculation that the aircraft was hijacked and hidden away at some jungle airstrip.
The first officer was engaged to be married and could afford to do so thanks to his new and more lucrative position on the B-777. Any pilot recently engaged to be married and so new on such a remarkable machine would be excited enough about just doing his job and looking forward to his wedding day and a new life with his future bride. He would not be planning the crime of the century. It was not him.
Flight MH370 did not explode; if it had exploded, large pieces would’ve been found by now.
It did not catch fire; airplanes that have major fires don’t fly on unaffected for six hours and even minor fires cause frightened crews to head for the nearest strip of concrete as fast as they can go.
But, the most telling fact of all was the complete absence of distress calls; neither by radio, nor by data link nor by transponder. This fact is crucial, and quickly narrows the field of possibilities. If there was smoke, a fire, explosion, serious malfunction of any kind, or any attempts to storm the flight deck, any flight crew innocent of wrongdoing or complicity would’ve told somebody—anybody—that they were in distress. Crews and controllers also have transponder codes and plain voice radio code words that can surreptitiously convey duress or high-jacking to their ATC controllers. They didn’t use them because none of the above happened. This was an inside job.
Until next time, over 'n out.
Welcome back. In my first post, I stated that I may comment on this or that or put forward an opinion by way of this journal. Here's one for you.
During my career, I have read some awful news reporting about most things to do with aviation from the MSM. I get that they have to sell papers, that bad/sensational/scandalous news sells, you always hear about the plane crash, never about the successful landings...that never sells papers. As Don Henley famously sang "Give us dirty laundry!" But when "things aviation" reporting gets so sensational (and so wrong) it really annoys me.
Case in point. Just shortly after my first post, there came a breathless news report about some nut bar passenger who had tried to open an aircraft entry door in flight. The report, written by someone who knows nothing about it and probably in all innocence
(or maybe I should say in all ignorance) created vivid readers' "mind's eye" visions of horror as the door would burst open and the bad guy, the struggling flight attendants trying to stop him and the first 4 rows of business class passengers are sucked from their seats to scream and plummet to their deaths into the oceans below. Wow. Pure Hollywood eh? There are enough nervous flyers to go around thank you. This BS only creates more.
Some technical background; Airplanes are pressurized using sophisticated controls so that passengers can travel at high altitudes without the need for oxygen masks. We all know this. The actual process is very simple. Oceans of clean "outside" air are pumped into the aircraft cabin using engine power. This air is conditioned, cooled or heated as required using AC units, heat exchangers etc for passenger comfort. What pressurizes the aircraft is the rate that the air is let out. In other words, cabin pressure is maintained at a certain level by outflow valves (some are as big as man hole covers, the B-747-400 had two if I remember.) that slowly open or close as required to keep the pressure to a programmed schedule for maximum passenger comfort. The point is this. Aircraft doors are called "plug type doors" They do open out on the ground, but before they can do that they must open in. And at seven to nine pounds per square inch typical of a pressurized cabin at altitude, the math works out to about 2500 to 3000 pounds of pressure keeping that door in its place. Arnold himself could not budge it. It's pretty easy to pull an old rubber stopper out of a bathtub drain with a foot of water in it. Imagine the drain is 100 feet under water. Same principle as an airline jet "plug-type" door. Unless the airplane is almost completely depressurized, that door isn't going anywhere without a fight. Relax. Until next time, over n' out.