What may have happened to Malaysian flight MH370

As the days go by without any news of what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, theories about what may happened have grown increasingly wilder, with even suggestions of aliens and supernatural agents thrown into the mix. (See here for more wild theories.)

Reader Reese sent me a link to a widely circulated article where a pilot offers what he thinks is the most likely scenario and it does sound plausible. Another article examines ten possible not-entirely-crazy theories and the problems with each of them, including the one in Reese’s link. At the Atlantic magazine, James Fallows, who is a pilot himself, explainshow transponders and other navigation guides work and why some of the suggestions about them are not desirable.

As someone with no knowledge of aircraft piloting or technology, I have little means of gauging the merits of the theories and so tend to defer to the opinions of pilots and other aviation experts. One thing that I have read repeatedly is that in an emergency, pilots tend to not immediately report what is happening to ground control. They use the mantra of ‘aviate, navigate, communicate’ to determine in what sequence they should do things. In an emergency, they focus on regaining control of the plane and so the lack of immediate communication with ground control, which has led to much speculation as to possible nefarious motives on their part, may not be as significant as us lay people think.

It kind of makes sense. If you have ever been the driver of a car where you had to take sudden action in an emergency, you become intensely focused on controlling the car and any passenger who yells out asking what is happening is seen as a distraction and ignored until the crisis is over.


  1. astrosmashley says

    Whatever the eventual story, tragic as it is, will very likely be profoundly banal

  2. kyoseki says

    I do love how it took, what? 10 days? For the plausible explanation to end up as “breaking news” in the media.

    There’s so much questionable “information” coming out about this flight, I don’t understand what’s to be gained by endless speculation.

    … other than ratings, obviously.

  3. colnago80 says

    There seems to be strong evidence that the plane was still flying some 6 hours after communication was lost. In addition, it also appears that the plane changed course.
    This would suggestr that either there was a hijacking or a Payne Stewart scenario, which is what the pilot seems to be suggesting.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: possible MH370 sighting as Maldives residents report ‘low-flying jumbo’

    As an Australian-led search for a missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet swings into action in the southern Indian Ocean, reports have emerged of a possible sighting of MH370 thousands of kilometres away in the Maldives.

    Residents on the island nation, in the Indian Ocean about 700 kilometres south-west of Sri Lanka, have reported seeing a ‘‘low-flying jumbo jet’’ on the morning that the missing plane with 239 people on board vanished from civilian radar and lost contact with ground controllers.

    How much fuel was onboard? Did they have enough to make it to Somalia?

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    This would suggest that either there was a hijacking or a Payne Stewart scenario, which is what the pilot seems to be suggesting.

    The “Payne Stewart” scenario; cabin depressurisation resulting in incapacitation of the crew, would not explain either the shutdown of transponders or the change of course.

  6. kyoseki says

    Reginald Selkirk

    How much fuel was onboard? Did they have enough to make it to Somalia?

    Pretty sure it didn’t if it was flying low enough to be spotted by people on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

    The higher the altitude, the less fuel you burn, I think I remember reading somewhere that at low altitude, the range is reduced by a factor of 3-4 or something.

  7. Drew says

    One thing that I have read repeatedly is that in an emergency, pilots tend to not immediately report what is happening to ground control. They use the mantra of ‘aviate, navigate, communicate’ to determine in what sequence they should do things. In an emergency, they focus on regaining control of the plane and so the lack of immediate communication with ground control, which has led to much speculation as to possible nefarious motives on their part, may not be as significant as us lay people think.

    Absolutely but this would only seem to be relevant if the emergency is related to the proper working of the aircraft. If there were a terrorist threat as some have hypothesized, for example, I would think it abnormal if it were not immediately reported. Pilots are relatively insulated in their cockpits from intruders on most airlines now, they would not have some sort of immediate mechanical emergency to deal with.

    Additionally problematic is that it now looks like the course deviation was programed into the auto-pilot several minutes (I believe 12 was what I read) prior to the radio signoff. If the course deviation was to reach a closer airfield due to in flight emergency they 1 would not have programed it into the autopilot, and 2 would not have given a calm signoff message 12 minutes after the emergency precipitating said course deviation.

    Of course in this case, as I mentioned at the end of the comment thread on the other flight post from Mano, I’ve turned it up to 11 on the conspiracy scale. Though I don’t strongly believe that I’m right I just kinda think I might be.

  8. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Fair warning for mostly speculation, but…

    As much as my father and I disagree vehemently on religion, he has lived in Kuala Lumpur for nearly a decade now and he does love to follow local politics. He maintains that the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, deliberately “hijacked” his own plane. Shah is a fierce supporter of the Malaysian Opposition party, in particular its leader Anwar Ibrahim, to the point that Shah attended Ibrahim’s trial. Ibrahim’s support has grown significantly, to the point of seriously challenging the ruling party, and he was recently tried and sentenced to “five years on trumped up charges that no one in the country believes are true”.

    Why? I’ll let my father answer that…

    “What will be the outcome of what is now being called a “pilot hijacking?” What was the purpose? The purpose is being played out each night on the television sets of this nation, as Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah knew it would. A whole succession of Malaysian bigwigs, including the prime minister himself, has been parading in front of the international media making absolute fools of themselves contradicting whatever the last guy said and falling all over themselves in their incompetence which has roused the just wrath of China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and everyone else who has had the misfortune to have to deal with them. The Malaysian military knew within minutes that the plane had changed course. Rather than admit this, the Malaysia government had surrounding nations spend millions looking for where the plane was not. The Malaysian police knew within hours that the pilot – who had moved his entire family out of his house the day before the flight to protect them from arrest and media scrutiny – was the one responsible, yet they waited a week for others to point out the obvious.”

    Repeating for emphasis that it’s all speculation of course, but it holds together rather well.

  9. BMcHell says

    It’s all pure speculation of course, but based on what is known at this time it seems almost certain that whatever happened was the direct result of deliberate action by the pilot and co-pilot acting together, or one of them acting on his own. In particular, the transponder and the ACARS systems were deactivated at different times, and the plane had already diverted course prior to the final radio communication and continued for some hours afterwards. If those facts are true and accurate I don’t see how it could be anything else.

    An accident or catastrophic failure mid-flight would not explain those facts.

  10. AnotherAnonymouse says

    And here I was betting on Sharkzilla, the lovechild of Godzilla (the new, scary one) and Sharknado.

  11. says

    whatever happened was the direct result of deliberate action by the pilot and co-pilot acting together

    The cabin fire scenario is fairly plausible. When you have an electrical fire, you yank the buses and that would drop power to all kinds of things including transponders. It’s also possible that the pilot took the aircraft up to try to snuff a fire by reducing the amount of oxygen it had to burn. And, as the pilot’s scenario points out, the course change amounted to making a beeline for the nearest airport with a strip long enough for the plane.

  12. BMcHell says

    I’m clearly no expert on this, but I don’t see how a fire scenario would fit the known facts. The ACARS system was shut off at a different time than the transponder, and the plane had already diverted course prior to the final radio communication.

    If there was a fire, why was the plane already diverted from the planned flight path, and why the delay between deactivation of the ACARS system and transponder? Doesn’t seem to add up, unless I’m missing something.

  13. Reginald Selkirk says

    BBC says ix-nay on the cabin fire scenario

    “While it’s true that MH370 did turn toward Langkawi and wound up overflying it, whoever was at the controls continued to maneuver after that point as well, turning sharply right at VAMPI waypoint, then left again at GIVAL,” he says. “Such vigorous navigating would have been impossible for unconscious men.”
    There still should have been a distress call, Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board crash investigator, told NBC News.

    “Typically, with an electrical fire, you’ll have smoke before you have fire,” he said. “You can do some troubleshooting. And if the systems are still up and running, you can get off a mayday call” and pilots can put on an oxygen mask, Feith said.

  14. colnago80 says

    Re Reginald Selkirk @#5

    The “Payne Stewart” scenario; cabin depressurisation resulting in incapacitation of the crew, would not explain either the shutdown of transponders or the change of course.

    The scenario would be that there was some sort of emergency that occurred that shut down the communications from the plane. The pilot then changed course to fly to the nearest airport as speculated by the pilot in the article linked to by Singham. This was followed by a sudden decompression that wiped out the crew and the passengers. The main problem with this scenario is to explain why the pilot having disengaged the autopilot to change course then reengaged it afterwards, where the plane then flew for 6 hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed, instead of flying the plane himself.

  15. BMcHell says

    colnago80 @16

    If the latest reports are accurate, the plane had diverted from it’s intended flight path prior to the last received radio communication, and so the idea that an emergency caused both seems unlikely.

    Unless that report turns out to be incorrect, I don’t see how there can be any explanation that doesn’t involve deliberate action by the pilot and/or co-pilot, aside from perhaps pilot error which seems very unlikely given all other circumstances. Had there been some emergency prior the last radio communication, such would have been reported; on the other hand, if an emergency occurred after the last radio communication, then why had the ACARS system and transponder been shut off (at separate times) and why had the plane already diverted course prior to the occurrence of the emergency?

  16. kyoseki says

    An electrical fire or other avionics related problem could explain the lack of communication and lot of the confusing telemetry that seems to have occured, though, no?

    Similarly a severe lack of oxygen to the brain can explain a great many confusing errors or actions as well.

    Lastly, we’re collating information from a lot of sources, so the chances of human error interpreting some of the data is also pretty high, it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of the “facts” turn out to be flawed in some way.

  17. kyoseki says

    I have my suspicions about the accuracy of the reported time on the final transmission.

    If the plane diverted prior to the last radio communication, why did nobody think to ask the pilots what was going on during that conversation?

    The transponder must have still been going at this point (so that such a deviation would have been noticed) or someone would surely have asked about that too?

  18. colnago80 says

    Re #17

    I agree that the Payne Stewart scenario is less likely then a hijacking, either by the pilot, the co-pilot, or a passenger. However, if, indeed, the plane flew for 6 hours after communication was lost, it would seem that either of the two scenarios I cited must have taken place. However, I don’t think that the Payne Stewart scenario, even if unlikely, can be absolutely ruled out entirely.

  19. kyoseki says

    Ok, yes, the time of the deviation would also be in dispute – my point is that if they were already miles off course prior to the transmission, why did nobody think to mention it?

    The timeline seems to suggest that the transmission (1:19 am) happened 2 minutes prior to the transponder being turned off (1:21am).

  20. kyoseki says

    Apparently, the ACARS system sent a transmission at 1:07am just after take off, but wasn’t due to send another transmission until 1:37am, so all we really know there is that it was disabled some time between 1:07am and 1:37am.

    My money’s still on an electrical fault or other critical failure resulting in the pilots attempting to return to the point of origin.

  21. dean says

    I have no idea what happened, but I am thoroughly pissed off at the parade of “experts” the news shows have been parading through spouting their ideas. It has gotten so bad that I have been expecting one to promote the idea that a “Mega Shark” leaped from the ocean and took it down.

    So far Bill Hemmer on Fox “News” has come closest to that.

    “So, what, it took us 100 years to find the Titanic?” Hemmer noted. “It took us 2,000 years to find Noah’s Ark. Do we ever find flight 370?”


  22. kyoseki says

    Oh man, this is just doubly fucking stupid, even if the Ark were real, which it isn’t, and even if we found it, which we haven’t, the flood, even if it happened, which it didn’t, occurred something like 4,500 years ago according to those AiG nitwits.

    I believe this most definitely qualifies as “not even wrong”.

    Back to the original matter, the ACARS system pings every hour, so we should have multiple pings from the aircraft, but it appears we either only have one or all the pings returned the same value, which to me sounds like another mistake.

  23. kyoseki says

    Yep, as usual, it’s another “we might have found something important, but we don’t know yet” news conference.

    These things must be hell on the families, I can kind of understand CNN or somebody filling airtime with this nonsense, but why bother announcing something that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the aircraft?

  24. colnago80 says

    Re StevoR @ #26

    The debris was found south of Australia. If it is confirmed, this would indicate that the plane flew over Australia without being detected. Seems unlikely to me.


  25. Drew says

    Apparently size and shape are also consistent with shipping containers ,which are known to occasionally fall off ships.

    @27 not necessarily, the debris was spotted in sat images from 4 days ago, which is still over a week from when the flight disappeared. If it were debris from the plane, currents could have carried it to the location from another place in the Indian ocean in the 7 or so days in between.

    Let’s take a second to review a timeline of the flight.

    According to CNN:

    12:41 Take Off
    1:07 Route change programmed into auto-pilot and ACARS transmission
    1:19 Pilot checks in signs off
    1:21 Transponder off
    1:22 Disappears from Thai military RADAR
    1:28 Unknown aircraft picked up on Thai RADAR
    1:30 Civilian RADAR loses contact
    1:37 Expected ACARS transmission doesn’t come
    2:15 Malaysian Air Force RADAR detects plane hundreds of miles off course passing over Pulau Perak
    2:40 They realize the plane is missing
    6:30 Expected arrival time in Beijing
    7:24 Disappearance is announced
    8:11 Satellite tracks the plane and attempts a ‘handshake’ no response because com system is disabled.

  26. kyoseki says

    I believe that the debris was found about 2500km off the WEST coast of Australia, not the south, so the plane never needed to fly over the country to reach the crash site.

    It would, probably, have had to fly over Indonesia though.

  27. Nalliah Thayabharan says

    Whatever happened to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough. There could have possibly been a cockpit fire that cut off radar and all other communications. The Boeing 777, registration 9M-MRO, was delivered new to Malaysia Airlines on May 31, 2002. The tip of the wing of this aircraft broke off Aug. 9, 2012, as it was taxiing at Pudong International Airport outside Shanghai. The wingtip collided with the tail of a China Eastern Airlines A340 plane. The aircraft was powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 892 engines.had accumulated over 20,000 hours and 3,000 cycles in service. The stolen passports are not necessarily related to the disappearance of the plane since passengers use false identities for illegal immigration.
    The disaster is most similar to the mysterious disappearance of Air France Flight 447, which killed all 228 people on board. Investigations were unable to conclusively come up with a reason for the crash of the Airbus A330 until the plane’s black boxes – its flight and voice data recorders – were recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean 2 yrs later.
    Air France Flight 447 provided a cautionary tale against premature speculation. The accident was initially blamed by the airline on a thunderstorm. Later, investigators pinpointed ice that caused faulty speed sensor readings on the plane. But data recovered after a 2-year search led authorities to conclude that pilot error had also played a part – the crew’s handling of the plane after the auto-pilot was disengaged put it into a stall from which it could not recover.
    Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370′s disappearance marks the fourth hull loss of a Boeing 777 – the previous being Asiana Airlines Flight 214 with three fatalities. In 2005, during a flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur the crew received a “stall warning” forcing the pilot to turn back. On Jul 29, 2011 an Egyptair flight MS-667 – Boeing 777-200, registration SU-GBP was preparing for departure from Cairo (Egypt) to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) at gate F7 with 291 passengers already boarded waiting for a delayed last passenger until doors could be closed .when a fire erupted in the cockpit causing smoke to also enter the cabin. Emergency exits were not opened, all passengers vacated the aircraft through the smoke and the main doors.What a lucky set of crew and passengers. Imagine the horror had they been airborne.The aircraft was subsequently written off as beyond economical repair.
    The more worrying part of the report on the Egypt Air fire was that the investigation discovered the suspect wiring and it’s brackets did not comply with the Boeing blueprints and a very large batch of 777s had been delivered with the same fault.
    If such a fire occurred at FL 350 (35,000 ft), on an aircraft flying 850 km/h (475 knots), it is plausible to assume it would be catastrophic. If such a quick and devastating cockpit fire occurred aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, it could be consistent with some of the known facts:
    * communications being cut abruptly (pilots struggling to extinguish it, speed of fire, electronics destroyed)
    * no mayday signals sent (no time before cockpit uninhabitable due to smoke and fire, and/or instruments destroyed),
    * the transponder going down,
    * no calls from passengers (too high for cell-phone contact, no time, panic)
    * perhaps the “mumbling” when another pilot from Flight MH 83 to Narita radioed (e.g. if static or 850 km/h wind sounded like mumbling)
    * perhaps a change of course and/or altitude (if the plane continued to fly for some time, even with the cockpit electronics destroyed due to a growing fire),
    Evidently the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System – ACARS went inoperative few minutes before the last communications with the pilot. Disabling the ACARS is not easy,. Most probably an electrical problem or an electrical fire cause the shutdown of the ACARS than a manual shutdown and the pilots probably were not even aware ACARS was not transmitting. Things could have been in the process of going wrong, unknown to the pilots. The loss of transponders and communications were most probably caused by an electrical fire. In the case of an electrical fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until the bad one is isolated. If pilots pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It was probably a very serious fire and the pilots were occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the cockpit fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the only way in such situations. Probably the pilot was turning towards the closest airport – Langkawi with an approach over water and no obstacles. The pilot did not turn towards Kuala Lampur most probably due to the fact that he had 8,000-ft ridges to cross. The pilot obviously knew the terrain was friendlier towards Langkawi, which also was closest airport.
    An electrical fire might not be as fast and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started slowly burning due to under inflated tires, especially with heavy plane and long-run takeoff. A front landing gear tire fire would produce horrific, incapacitating smoke. On departing Kuala Lumpur, Flight 370 would have had fuel for 8 hrs of flying. The flight burned almost 25% in the first hour with takeoff and the climb to cruise. So when the turn was made the flight would have had more than 6 hrs worth of fuel. The pilots were overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel and it crashed. This correlates with the Inmarsat Satellite data pings being received until fuel exhaustion. The flight continued until time to fuel exhaustion confirms that the pilots were incapacitated and the flight continued on.
    The aircraft was expected to contact air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh City as it passed into Vietnamese airspace just north of the point where contact was lost. The captain of another flight MH 83 – Boeing 777 – flying 30 minutes ahead of the MH370 had attempted to reach the pilots of MH370 “just after 1:30 a.m.” to relay Vietnamese Air Traffic Control’s request for MH370 to contact it; the captain said he was able to establish contact, but just heard the voice at the other end, believed to be that of co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, was just a mumble and there was a lot of static interference. The ‘mumble’ could be the vital clue – for hypoxia starves the brain of its cognitive faculties and the victim becomes like someone heavily intoxicated, unable to think or speak properly, before passing out. Three crashes in the past 15 years have been attributed to the pilots passing out from hypoxia – lack of oxygen – resulting in their aircraft flying on for hours until they ran out of fuel and crashed. The timing of the mumbled contact from MH370 fits in with the final coherent words spoken by co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid– ‘All right – Good night’ – at 1.19am on March 3 as MH370 passed over Malaysia’s north east coast and headed out over the Gulf of Thailand. May be one of the pilots had desperately tried to turn the aircraft back to the nearest airport Langkawi resulting in the sharp turn but had passed out after making that manoeuvre and the plane had continued on westwards either on autopilot or with that system switched off. Stupified fumbling with the controls might have resulted in systems being shut down.
    In Oct 1999 top-ranked golfer Payne Stewart, 3 other passengers and the pilots of a chartered Learjet 35, were killed when all on board were incapacitated due to lack of oxygen as it flew across the United States. The jet flew on over the southern and mid-west USA for almost 4 hrs and 2,500 km before it ran out of fuel and crashed in a field in South Dakota.
    In Sep 2000 a chartered Beechcraft 200 Super King Air plane set out from Perth, Western Australia, for a mining town in the same State, but later air traffic control was unable to make any sense of the pilot’s words and he seemed unable to respond to instructions. 3 other aircraft failed to make radio contact with the pilot and the Beechcraft flew on for 5 hrs before running out of fuel and crashing in the desert, resulting in Australian media referring to it as the Ghost Flight. In 2005 a Greek airliner – a Helios Airways Boeing 737 – crashed into a mountain near Athens, killing all 121 on board after investigators concluded that the jet had lost cabin pressure and it became too late for the pilots to reach for their oxygen masks before they became unconscious. In that case, it was found that one of the cabin attendants had come around enough to try to save the aircraft and had struggled with the controls – in vain. Could such a scenario have occurred on flight MH370? It is a question which might take years to answer, if at all. Much of the wreckage may be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. The size of the debris field will be one of the first indicators of what happened. A smaller field would indicate the plane probably fell intact, breaking up upon impact with the water. Discovering the debris can take days. . If it is due to a deadly mechanical breakdown then Malaysia Airlines should take the blame

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