The missing Malaysian airliner

The news media and the internet in general is abuzz about the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian airliner on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and we are at the stage where theories as to what happened are getting increasingly exotic. I have not been following the story closely because it seems likely that despite the fervent hopes of people who had loved ones on it that the plane might have landed somewhere, the sad truth is that it did crash into the ocean and that everyone perished and that eventually the wreckage will be discovered and the cause determined.

Jim Wright, a retired US Navy officer with an extensive background in military intelligence and who has experience in searching for people lost at sea, gives all the reasons why not being able to find debris or oil slicks so far is unsurprising. It basically boils down to the fact that the ocean is a really, really big place and there is no better substitute to human beings visually scanning the surface and that can take a long, long time. For example, light jet fuel from a plane like this is not like heavy crude oil. It would last for just a sort while before being broken up and evaporating and while it lasts would occupy about one square mile, while a “standard search area, a rectangle 50 miles wide by 200 miles say, along the airplane’s flight path might encompass TEN THOUSAND square miles”, all of which has to be searched by human eyes.

He examines the various theories being put forward and why they are unlikely to be true. He says that the best thing to do is simply wait until the authorities and experts figure out what happened and not pay attention to all the wide-eyed pundits in the media who are filling in airtime with wild theories. These can only add to the excruciating pain of those waiting anxiously for news, hoping against hope that their loved ones somehow survived.

Even if, against all odds, one of the outlandish theories happen to be true, surely it is better to have a happy surprise when one is resigned to the worst than to have one’s hopes repeatedly raised only to have them dashed.

Comments

  1. colnago80 says

    The latest reports seem to indicate that the plane was still flying, possibly as long as 4 hours after it stopped transmitting and dropped off the radar screens. If true, and I say it’s a big if, the plane may have been hijacked and landed someplace on land. It is to be noted that all the searches seem to be over water which would also be why it hasn’t been spotted yet.

    http://goo.gl/SuoLro

  2. kyoseki says

    I still find it really odd that you can turn off a commercial airliners transponder in flight, I mean, this is akin to being able to hide your license plates isn’t it?

    What would be a legitimate reason for being able to do this?

  3. jamessweet says

    colnago seems to be attempting to poke holes in your “monomania” theory, Mano: He’s completely full of shit about this, too, and it has nothing at all to do with Israel!

  4. Wylann says

    kyoseki, there is pretty much a circuit breaker for almost everything on the flight deck. I’m fairly sure there’s no off switch for the transponder, one could probably pop the circuit breaker.

    I’d have to dig into the technical details, but many things, like transponders (I think) and the FDRs have backup batteries in case the plane loses power or a circuit breaker gets flipped, but I am unfamiliar with the details (I’m a structures guy, not avionics).

  5. colnago80 says

    Re jamessweet @ #3

    it has nothing at all to do with Israel

    How do you know, maybe the IAF shot the plane down!

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    The plane was Raptured. The rest of us sinner have been Left Behind, so we’d better get used to it!

  7. kyoseki says

    Ah, of course, yes, that makes sense.

    Still, you’d need to know what you were doing to disable it, surely?

  8. BMcHell says

    As I understand it, that the transponder can be deactivated is a safety feature designed to be used in the case of a malfunction or an electrical fire. The average passenger would have no idea how to do this, but I’m sure detailed instructions can be found online without too much trouble.

  9. lorn says

    Based on no firm facts, just a feeling and connecting dots with the Egyptian airliner where the copilot crashed the plane, I get a feeling that the pilot or copilot simply turned off the pinger/s, evidently forgetting the engine reporting system, dropped altitude to make them harder to track, pointed the plane at Mecca and flew until it wouldn’t fly any more. Given the cruise speed of the 777, 560mph, the airliner might have been over the Arabian Sea after crossing southern India.

    My estimation is that if they were looking in the general vicinity of where the airliner went down on water there would be a whole lot of physical evidence on the surface. Even gentle landings on water tend to be messy. These planes were never designed to land on water in one piece. The one that landed on the Hudson was a smaller airplane and seen, within the aviation community, as something of a fluke/miracle.

    Not on water in the general search area and implies that either the plane went down on land or they are not looking in the right areas. There are deep jungles in SE Asia which could eat an airliner without leaving a trace visible from air. Elsewhere there is steep terrain in which a crash could disappear into but people are widely dispersed in most of the area so odds are someone would see something.

    Then again it is hard to figure a scenario in which the airliner would 1) Hit the water without leaving a huge footprint. 2) fly out of the general search area without giving the pilots a chance to report if the pilots were not still in control.

    A murder/suicide by one or both pilots flying an intact airplane well away from the search area would account for many of the issues. The idea that they would fly to Mecca is simply a WAG rooted in the information that one or both pilots were Muslims.

    There is, of course, the matter of fuel. The as the crow flies distance from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Bejing is 2742mi. Figure a 10% reserve and you get 3015mi. Figure the flight along the original planned flight path at 400mi and you end up with 2615mi in fuel remaining. If He/they pointed the nose toward Mecca they run out of fuel very roughly 500mi short of Oman. These figures are very rough, I’m scaling off the old Rand/McNally and make a lot of iffy assumptions.

    As doubtful all of this is, it is my currently favored WAG.

  10. colnago80 says

    Re Lorn @ #9

    According to today’s Washington Post, if the plane flew for an additional 4 hours, it could have ended up in Northern Australia or India or somewhere in the Indian ocean. In fact, it could have made Diego Garcia, home of a US navel base. If in flew until it ran out of fuel, it could have landed somewhere in Siberia, almost anywhere in Australia, or in most of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia or Iran or almost anywhere in the Indian Ocean or in much of the Eastern Pacific. If, indeed, it flew until it ran out of fuel, the area within which it could have landed encompasses several million square miles. Unless there is some hard information on its location after the transponder and other equipment in the plane was turned off and it fell of the radar screen, it might never be found, especially if it landed somewhere in the water. Unlike #3, I don’t think a hijacking is off the wall.

    http://goo.gl/zNmDIV

  11. Anthony Burber says

    lorn:

    The idea that they would fly to Mecca is simply a WAG rooted in the information that one or both pilots were Muslims.

    That… as a really bigoted assumption. Religious belief makes people do some weird things, but not the sort of sustained insanity that you describe. The earlier case you cite, EgyptAir Flight 990 seems to owe more to workplace abuse than to “Muslims”.

    My estimation is that if they were looking in the general vicinity of where the airliner went down on water there would be a whole lot of physical evidence on the surface.

    The linked article has a lot to say about our “estimation” when it comes to small aircraft in a big ocean. It’s too big to quote here, but find the section starting “Yeah, okay, but why can’t they find the wreckage?” There’s no need to invent complex scenarios involving a deranged flight crew or hijacking, and Occam’s Razor says we shouldn’t invent complexity until we need it.

    Yes, I’ve seen the news articles saying that the engines continued to report status by satellite. Are there any that don’t get all their “facts” from “anonymous sources”?

  12. says

    Anyone who is a regular viewer of “Mayday” (aka “Air Crash Investigation”) could make a more enlightened guess than some of the speculations (read: ridiculous assertions) that the talking heads are spewing. This is what happens when people get “journalism degrees” instead of a proper education. They know everything about presentation and nothing about investigation.

    Odds are, the reasons for the crash are going to be mundane, the sort of things that cause nearly all crashes – poor maintenance, pilot error, parts failure, flawed plane design, etc. Terrorism is the least likely explanation. The Ethiopian Airlines pilot-slash-hijacker could be labelled a “terrorist”, and he landed that plane safely.

  13. Reginald Selkirk says

    Wacky conspiracy theories is what the web is really good at: Jezebel

    Edward Snowden Did It

    Something Something Aliens

  14. kyoseki says

    left0ver1under

    Odds are, the reasons for the crash are going to be mundane, the sort of things that cause nearly all crashes

    Exactly, let’s not forget that this was a 777, an aircraft that seems to have had some significant problems with it’s batteries catching fire.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    The development with the continued pinging for hours makes me think of two things:

    1) 1999 South Dakota Learjet crash
    In which a private jet is believed to have depressurized, rendering the pilots and passengers unconscious or dead. The craft continued flying for hours on auto-pilot.

    2) Time zones. Are the people claiming that the jet or its engines contacted satellites for hours compensating for time zone settings in the satellites? I presume the satellites are on UTC.

  16. Mike Cotter says

    kyoseki, you’ve got the wrong airplane. The 787 has had battery problems, not the 777.

  17. Mike Cotter says

    I think the reason a transponder can be switched off is that you don’t want all the aircraft on the ground at airports squawking their ident and cluttering up radar screens.

  18. kyoseki says

    Mike Cotter

    kyoseki, you’ve got the wrong airplane. The 787 has had battery problems, not the 777.

    You are absolutely right, it’s the Dreamliner with the exploding batteries isn’t it? My mistake.

  19. Anthony Burber says

    @Reginald Selkirk #16:
    A closer example is Helios Airways Flight 522, as linked from the article you cite. Executive jets get very little warning of depressurization, but a larger plane like the Helios 737 gets a bit of time… which the crew then wasted by checking circuit breakers. That’s the insidious thing about oxygen deprivation; you’ll feel positively euphoric just before you pass out.

    Then there’s Chuck Yeager’s story about Flying Chase for Pilot with Hypoxia, which also appears in his autobiography.

    Here’s the Wikipedia list of notable decompression accidents and incidents. Not surprisingly, decompression not involving external sources (like mid-air collisions or missiles) has generally happened during the initial climb to cruising altitude.

  20. lorn says

    As I understand it there is no switch, as such, controlling the transponder. To turn it off you need to turn off the circuit breaker. This, and which circuit breaker to turn off is, while evidently not a secret as such, not generally discussed or widely known to pilots, according to several interviews with airline pilots. One common comment is that there is simply no reason for a pilot to ever need to turn the transponder off.

    For those still seeking … “the sort of things that cause nearly all crashes – poor maintenance, pilot error, parts failure, flawed plane design” … I’m having a hard time figuring out any one, or combination of, failures, human of mechanical, that would disable the transponder, allow the airliner to keep flying for better than four hours, fail to leave witnesses or debris in areas commonly traveled, routinely observed, recently searched.

    My estimation of total available flight time are a bit shorter than the WP link claims. They estimate a possible range of just under 4000mi. As I read it that estimate is based on the airliner flying at a normal altitude of 35,000 feet. I’m guessing that they went lower fuel efficiency was significantly lower.

    It also seems unlikely that the flight crossed the southern borders of China or Russian borders without someone noticing unless it was flown as barnstorming altitudes. Similarly Thailand, Taiwan, and particularly Diego Garcia, Philippines and Australia all have modern radar systems.

    Based upon rumor of sloppiness there may be some chance that crossing into Indian airspace might be possible. India keeps a tight watch on airspace bordering Pakistan and China but not so much on southern India.

    Subtract the areas it is unlikely they entered and you are left with the Bay of Bengal east of the tip of India, Arabian Sea west of India if you think they could have crossed the tip of India, and the Indian Ocean outside an area within a few hundred miles of Diego Garcia. If the landed in Diego Garcia a whole lot of people would know.

    I guess they could crash/land in the less populated areas of the Maldives without leaving a lot of debris but why. The Maldives seem to be a very obscure location to fly toward. In theory, if you buy the 4000mi range limit for fuel Saudi Arabia and Somalia are in range but if you fly lower you can’t get there on available fuel.

    The one thing that seems clear is that if they landed in the ocean in anything less graceful than a miraculous landing worthy of “Sully” Sullenberger the pieces will eventually show up on beaches. It seems likely to me that the search was looking a thousand miles or more too far east. I seem far too willful for mechanical failure.

    The guess that one or both pilots conspired to fly toward Mecca is just a WAG. Perhaps it is racist. But it clearly can’t be ruled out. It offers a possible motivation to fly west and keep flying west. I have a hard time imagining other explanations. Loss of cabin pressure wouldn’t account for this. The 777 is a much larger aircraft and no small leak would cause this sort of behavior.

    It remains a mystery as to what happened and why. With the numbers looking at this I think answers will be found but it may take weeks or months to get a firm handle on it and years before the loose ends are nailed down.

  21. Isabel says

    @21 I have heard it suggested, I think by an Australian pilot who was suggesting pilot suicide, that the plane might have headed for the Indian ocean because it’s much deeper than the South China Sea and there’s a better chance that the wreckage wouldn’t recovered. That would seem more consistent with the suggestion of the flight path turning south into the Indian Ocean that currently seems to be favoured by US investigators.

    An article by CNN at http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/12/world/asia/malaysia-airlines-transponder-explainer/ explains why transponders may be turned off during a normal flight.

  22. Vicki says

    The crew being Muslim is if anything an argument against the “pointing the plane at Mecca” theory. Think about it: hijacked plane, not responding to radio calls, heading for a major city, post 9/11: the Saudi air force is going to shoot it down before it gets close. If it started responding, maybe they’d risk offering it escort to a military base away from Mecca. A hypothetical anti-Muslim terrorist might think it was worth expending his life, and that of the passengers, to attempt to crash a plane into a religiously important site; a Muslim one wouldn’t.

  23. colnago80 says

    At comment #1, I suggested that, based on some evidence that the plane continued to fly for at least 4 hours after contact was lost that it might have been hijacked. At comment #3, James Sweet suggested that I was “full of shit”. Well, today, it appears that the Malaysian government now is suggesting that, indeed, the plane was hijacked. Further evidence from a NASA satellite suggests that not only was the plane airborne for at least 4 hours after contact was lost but that it was off course. So Mr. Sweet, who was “full of shit”, you or me?

    http://goo.gl/cSpPaE

    By the way, another possibility that I haven’t seen mentioned is that some sort of incident occurred that caused the pilots and the passengers to lose consciousness and the plane continued to fly by automatic pilot until it ran out of fuel. That’s what happened to the private aircraft carrying the late golfer Payne Stewart.

    h**p://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Payne_Stewart

  24. lorn says

    I’m not hearing anything from the news that would contradict the main thrust of my WAG, a flight on purpose and under control with a comparatively intact aircraft into oblivion. Possibly justified in some way through religion. Mecca as destination was more notional in my thinking than real suggested by the religious affiliation of a pilot and the presence of Mecca on a map in the general direction of assumed flight.. I suspect that the pilot. official or not, understood they wouldn’t actually get there. Perhaps, as suggested, the co-pilot was suicidal and he pictured flying off into the sunset. The west, sunset, Indian Ocean, and Mecca all being, very roughly, in the same direction.

    Last night I got to thinking about motivation and it dawned on me that there are small, and heavily repressed, but quite dedicated movements protesting Chinese repression of minorities. Hijacking a flight with a majority of Chinese on board would be something they might do.

    Assuming neither pilots were sympathetic you would need someone who, based on the disabling of the transponder, technical knowledge and understanding of flight operations. They would also have to have some way of getting into the cockpit. Perhaps a fellow pilot effusive over the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the flight deck might talk their way in. Then it is simply a matter of a deft and energetic deployment of a sock full of nickels. Followed by figuring out if two weeks of PC flight simulator is enough to get-er done.

    The thing I can’t figure out is how the accepted facts line up with the lack off communication or landing the airliner. If it was an act of public retribution, I kill your citizens in protest, you would really want to advertise what you are doing and ransom demand some sort of communication.

  25. Anthony Burber says

    colnago80 #25:

    By the way, another possibility that I haven’t seen mentioned is that some sort of incident occurred that caused the pilots and the passengers to lose consciousness and the plane continued to fly by automatic pilot until it ran out of fuel. That’s what happened to the private aircraft carrying the late golfer Payne Stewart.

    Reginald Selkirk #16 mentions that exact incident.

    lorn #26:

    I’m not hearing anything from the news that would contradict the main thrust of my WAG, a flight on purpose and under control with a comparatively intact aircraft into oblivion. Possibly justified in some way through religion. Mecca as destination was more notional in my thinking than real suggested by the religious affiliation of a pilot and the presence of Mecca on a map in the general direction of assumed flight.

    If the Mecca part was “notional”, maybe you shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first sentence of your comment #9. Even without it, still bigoted. While religion can unify an otherwise disorganized population (often against another group whose only common feature is a different religion), the motivation to violence usually starts closer to home. The current investigation seems much more interested in the captain’s political affiliations than his church.

  26. Drew says

    @16 and 25 unlikely, The course of the aircraft was drastically changed from its original course. If this hypothesis were correct, prior to everyone losing consciousness someone would have had to alter the course heading on the autopilot.

    I think that the terrorism angle on this one is a red-herring. Maybe my brain is full of crazy conspiracies but I think (and have thought since I first heard of this flight going missing over a week ago now) that this would all end up boiling down to some sort of industrial espionage type thing. Basically it was a plot to kidnap the employees of that semiconductor business.

    I’ll even ratchet it up to eleven on this one: I think that one or more of the higher ups in the Malaysian government (in this case I’m lumping in the people who manage the airspace control with the government) were involved. My reasoning has to do with the overly vehement denials early on about the engine data transmitting for hours after the transponder signal was lost. Rather than saying something like “We think this is unlikely but we can’t rule anything out at this point” it was “This is not possible.” To paraphrase the bard: The Secretary (or the president I can’t remember who exactly the official saying it was anymore) doth protest too much, methinks.

  27. Drew says

    I also think that at least one of the people in the cockpit would have had to be involved. Otherwise, one of them would have been able to get off some sort of radio call indicating that the plane was being hijacked prior to them being taken over.

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