By Allen Penticoff
While my normal column is regarding transportation and the environment, this time I would like to use my space to expound upon my own theories as to the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 Boeing 777 with 239 passengers plus crew (MH370).
First, I’ll give you a bit of my résumé. I have been a licensed airplane pilot since age 17 (now 60) and flown 5,300 hours. A nut about airplanes since age 6, I’ve been a helicopter crew chief in the U.S. Army and an FAA licensed aircraft mechanic. More importantly to the topic, I was an aircraft insurance adjuster for 19 years. From this, I have some definite thoughts and experiences.
I, like many of you, have been following the mysterious disappearance of a most modern airliner. Some of you may have even made parts for this airplane, as Rockford has many aerospace connections with Boeing. But I think more than a month after its disappearance, we can rule out some things and look at others.
Rule out No. 1: Terrorists. If hijacked, there would be a demand or statement by now. There is no point in waiting a month to state your grievance. Terrorists would have destroyed the aircraft shortly after taking over — which is MUCH more difficult to do in the wake of the Sept. 11 airplane commandeerings.
Rule out No. 2: Crazy pilot. Like the terrorist, what’s the point of waiting? Technical data transmitted by the aircraft to maintenance computers via satellite says the airplane flew for about seven hours — until fuel exhaustion.
Rule out No. 3: Loss of cabin pressure. While certainly capable of incapacitating the crew, it is hardly an unnoticeable occurrence. There are plenty of warnings to the pilots, and the cure is an immediate descent to below 10,000 feet, where there is plenty of oxygen. Even below 15,000 feet above sea level is plenty for the crew to function essentially normally. Such a deviation would have been reported by the pilots using their mandatory oxygen masks (more on this forthcoming).
Most likely cause: pilot incapacitation. The fly in the ointment of the (online) theory that the nose wheel tire caught fire on takeoff and the fumes overcame the pilots has two problems. One, it was quite some time after takeoff that the “turn” happened. Two, neither pilot radioed a problem and that they were diverting (a tire burning has a rather distinctive pungent smell and would be an immediate cause for concern — but alas, may not reach the pilots’ noses for some time). Both pilots have quick-donning oxygen masks — and all checklists say, “when fumes are detected, don oxygen mask first.” I’m paraphrasing, but literally, the first thing a pilot would do is put on their oxygen mask if they smell anything funny. It is a U.S. regulation that requires a pilot or co-pilot to don their oxygen mask in flight if the other pilot leaves their seat for any reason. That’s how serious this oxygen mask theory is. There are microphones built into the mask, so sending messages is not a problem. Was there a simple problem with the pilots’ emergency oxygen system? We will likely never know.
But, there is a gas that can incapacitate the pilots and everyone else aboard the aircraft without anyone being aware of it: carbon monoxide (CO). While I’m not able to tell you exactly how this could happen, or why the source of the CO would also not generate some detectable smell, it is not impossible. Airliner cabins are pressurized with “bleed air” from the engines. Normally, this has nothing to do with the exhaust of the jet engines, since the air being compressed (so you have nearly normal pressure to breathe — rather than the very thin air well above Mt. Everest) is from well ahead of where combustion of kerosene takes place in the engine. But, in some way, perhaps as a result of faulty maintenance (or malice), odorless carbon monoxide is introduced into the cabin air. The pilots notice there is some problem. Not sure of what it is, they turn for a nearby suitable airport (the turn), but are growing steadily weaker and incoherent. The pilots — oxygen deprived, thus radios (the transponder) are turned off instead of to the emergency code (7700) — and other strange statements and happenings occur. Normally, an airline pilot would report to air traffic control any turn or deviation, so why such a sharp turn and no report is truly a mystery.
Modern airliners such as the 777 are not intended to be flown by hand. They are flown by electronics and the autopilot. There are five electrical systems on the 777. As long as the engines are running and power being generated (which appears to be the case), they fly just fine without any human input. Airplanes in general fly just fine without any human input. They are designed to be stable. Flying is a matter of making small corrections to that stability, unless one is flying in combat or doing aerial stunts.
If the pilots had set a new compass heading into the autopilot (a likely case, if they were diverting and did not yet have the destination airport programmed into the flight computer) and they passed out shortly after, the airplane would continue on its heading and altitude as told until it ran out of fuel. Most airliners are sent out on a trip with enough fuel to complete the flight and have a more than adequate reserve to complete the trip — but they do not carry all they can (full tanks), as keeping all that extra fuel in the air is a waste of speed, power, lifting capacity and cost. It takes more power to lift it and carry it — that equals expense. But Flight MH370 seems to have had more than enough to complete the intended flight. All indications and pre-flight records say it could stay in the air for seven hours, and it did.
The “transponder” is an electronic device that makes the airplane appear as a bright spot on air traffic control radar. It also can transmit other information, in particular, the aircraft’s actual altitude. The ground-based radar system calculates the aircraft’s speed over the ground and displays it on the radar operator’s screen. The radar operators don’t have a lot of information, but what it takes to keep aircraft apart. That’s their job. When outside of the continental United States and Europe, there is not much radar coverage. A trip to Hawaii is well out of radar range. Pilots make radio position reports to let controllers know where they are until they reappear on someone else’s radar screen. There is unlikely to be much coverage by radar where Flight MH370 turned and anywhere else it went after that. Radar coverage is expensive — most governments can’t afford our excellent system, or simply don’t have enough territory for it to be effective beyond their borders. So, once the transponder is turned off, you all but disappear from radar, even in areas where there is good coverage.
Modern airliners transmit performance data to computers at maintenance support locations. This raw data helps airlines with many maintenance issues. This is the system that detected Flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean — a job it was not designed for. Using signal times, and satellite location, they developed an arc across the (mostly uncharted bottom) Indian Ocean to where the signal from the ill-fated plane could have been. If, as mentioned earlier, it was on a set heading for the autopilot, the airliner would have tried to fly a straight line — but easily been blown in many directions by the very strong winds at high altitudes over the course of seven hours. It was, unfortunately, a very long arc over a very deep ocean.
The aircraft would have an “emergency locator transmitter” (ELT). These radios are set off on impact and will radio an aircraft location to satellites. But this part of the world does not have many of these satellites, and the aircraft may have gone down before such a satellite passed over. Or, there was not enough “impact” to set it off.
I have personally investigated aircraft accidents (airplanes and helicopters) where the aircraft was flown into the water at fairly high speed, did not break up, and sank intact. This is actually more common than not. The oceans and our Great Lakes are littered with aircraft that were landed on the water and sank — intact — without releasing any debris. Even a large aircraft such as the Boeing 777 will land on water with minimal impact, and sink. Remember, the “miracle on the Hudson” was so because it happened in the middle of a metropolis, on flat water, surrounded by people with boats. The airplane sank, intact, rather quickly. It is even possible the same scenario played out in the Indian Ocean — with no rescue boats nearby. But not likely, since no floating debris has yet been found (i.e., bodies or life jackets/life rafts).
Here is my theory of what happened. On autopilot, having only recently run out of engine electrical generation and now operating on powerful batteries for a short time — the airplane, stable on the “assigned heading” — descends from the altitude where it ran out of fuel in a gentle glide with all aboard already asleep/dead as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. In a flat glide (the autopilot would be trying to maintain altitude, but can’t because of a lack of power, but won’t “stall” or lose lift (because it is programmed to avoid too low an airspeed), so it slowly impacts the ocean — and floats for a bit, then sinks, intact. Since it descends to the depths rather rapidly, it is not affected much by the ocean’s currents or wind/wave on the surface.
There is no debris to find because the aircraft did not break up. This is typical. With only a very broad area of very deep ocean to search, nobody can find anything, and what little they do find is other debris that circles the planet in the oceans’ currents. One has to wonder why we are seeing satellite photos of such poor resolution, when we can see the smallest details on Google Maps.
The southern Indian Ocean is one of the most inhospitable and remote places on Earth. The water is 3 miles deep. The pinger on the “black box” is not designed to travel through this much water. It is designed to help find the box in an already “identified” location. Even sophisticated military sonar cannot pick up such signals through the dense waters (and “inversions”) from so deep. At one time, I thought some of the U.S.A.’s fast attack submarines could find this “ping” — but apparently not so — and the U.S. Navy would not rightly tell you one way or another if they did or not. Although it does seem rather odd that we cannot find something trying to tell us where it is when our Navy is perfectly capable of finding submarines trying to hide from us.
With this and similar recent incidents (Air France), one must wonder why the ELT has not been mandated to float free of a sinking aircraft (as some yachts are) to mark its — or survivors’ — locations. If your yacht sinks, you take your marine ELT (called an EPIRB) with you to help search satellites and aircraft find you quickly.
Even if the ping was located (as of April 14, it had not been located), and perhaps it will be with super sensitive sonar, there is no guarantee they will ever see this airplane. Only a handful of vessels can go this deep into the dark (as in no light at all) ocean. And even if they could find it among the crags of uncharted undersea plateaus and mountains, it may prove impossible to wrest the elusive “cockpit voice recorder” from the downed aircraft in a hostile deep ocean. Even if they could, the recording is on a loop, and starts over long before this flight ended. So, essentially, they’d have an orange (its actual color) box with no answers to what happened in the cockpit.
I believe it will go down in history as one great “unsolved mystery.” News reports will vanish shortly with the next new crisis and happening. I just hope the expense of searching for MH370 is soon reduced and those funds spent on more earthly problems that can be solved.
From the April 16-22, 2014, issue