It has been 11 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, and investigators still appear to be mystified about what happened.
The prevailing hypothesis is that the plane was stolen or hijacked and then flown for seven hours on either a bizarre suicide mission or to a secret destination somewhere, perhaps to be used on a future mission.
But given the level of planning and execution required to carry out such a plan, as well as the lack of any obvious motives, other theories also have to be considered.
Yesterday, we described one such theory — a fire on the plane that overwhelmed and incapacitated the pilots. This theory fits many of the facts, and it is a much simpler explanation than the “intentional commandeering” hypothesis. But this theory, too, doesn’t fit all the facts, especially now that it is being reported that the plane’s course changed before the co-pilot said “Good night” to Malaysia air traffic control, a routine call that made it sound as though everything was fine.
The smoke-in-the-cockpit theory also isn’t sitting well with some pilots we have talked to, including one who has flown the same type of plane as the one that disappeared, the 777-200ER.
These pilots point out that smoke in the cockpit is one of the most common emergencies that pilots train for and that 777s are equipped with full-face oxygen masks that the pilots would have put on before they did anything else. They also say that, unless the pilots ignored their training, they would then have run through a checklist of tasks that would have included descending rapidly and making an emergency radio call.
We wrote about the impressions of these pilots here.
And here’s another, more detailed reaction that we received from a pilot who has flown the 777 (the pilot asked us to keep his employer and his name anonymous):
As a former B777 pilot, I find the “plausible” theory you published is not in line with the facts as they have been reported. I am a professional pilot with type ratings in the DC-9 (MD88, MD90), B757, 767 and 777 and I served as a Captain at a major US international airline. I feel I have some insight to add to the discussion about MH370.
First off, the idea that a wheel-well fire could have burned unnoticed for over an hour after takeoff is not plausible. The B777 has wheel-well overheat/fire-detection systems that would have sounded an alarm for the cockpit crew soon after takeoff, were that an issue. Additionally, the cockpit is equipped with full-face O2 masks that provide a safe breathing atmosphere to every pilot. At the first sign of ANY smoke, the pilots are trained to drop everything and immediately, without hesitation, don those rapid-don masks that are designed to be easily donned with one hand and immedately secure themselves to the face. After that, the Captain will delegate duties … one pilot flies the plane and handles communications, while the other works the problem, using checklists designed to narrow the issue down and address it.
While the pilot working the problem is busy, the pilot flying will turn the aircraft toward the nearest appropriate airport, begin a descent, and communicate with ATC and/or any aeroplanes in the area. While it is true that the checklists may, in the event of an electrical fire, have the pilots de-power certain systems or circuits, these steps are down the list; the pilots would have already declared the emergency and turned toward the nearest appropriate airport.
I can think of no plausible reason why the crew never made any attempt to contact ATC during the event, except that whoever was in control of the cockpit did not wish to communicate.
In the case of MH370, a turn was made, but no descent was initiated at that time, nor was any communication with ATC made.
Additionally, the aircraft has been reported to have climbed to FL450, and descended to FL250 later in the flight. If the flight crew had been incapacitated, this could not have occurred.
Finally, a fire that incapacitated everyone onboard would have, in every scenario I can logically come up with, destroyed the aircraft soon thereafter. I reference the Swissair Flight 111, an MD11 that crashed off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sept. 2, 1998. From the time of initial cockpit indication of smoke until the crew was completely incapacitated was 14 minutes; the aircraft crashed soon thereafter. In this incident, the crew had ample time to communicate with ATC, and was running checklists until the very end. Indeed, the crew elected to stay airborne and continue running checklists while dumping fuel, instead of landing immediately; this decision has been credited with the loss of all passengers and crew, and is exactly why landing immediately is the primary goal in an airborne fire.
For a fire to have been burning from the wheel well for over an hour before detection is not within the realm of realistic possibilities, in my opinion.
While I agree that finding accurate information has been difficult with the Malaysian government’s recalcitrance and affection for misinformation, everything I’ve read points to a takeover event that was planned and executed by persons unknown. And while some of the facts can point toward the [smoke in the cockpit scenario], to believe that this scenario is correct in the face of all the information would indicate a gross negligence on the part of the cockpit crew, and a refusal to follow basic emergency procedures.
While we all have our own biases and hopes concerning this tragic event, as a pilot who flies in this theatre of the world often, I am truly concerned at the Malaysian government’s reluctance to disseminate information, include other governments, or address their lax security procedures. Why were two passengers allowed to board the aircraft using stolen passports? Why did the first officer have a history of allowing passengers to ride in the cockpit of his aircraft while in flight? Where is the journalistic outcry for these obvious and dangerous breaches in security, and why aren’t you, as a journalist, using your voice to call attention to it? Regardless of what is finally determined to be the proximate cause of this tragedy (which I readily admit could still be an accident) the big story should be that the Malaysian government is putting the lives of its passengers in extreme danger by not enforcing universal rules for security and flight safety.
In a second email, this pilot expanded on how he is thinking about what might have happened:
I don’t know what happened to MH370 any more than anyone else who wasn’t aboard. But here’s how my head works with this. I try to find the simplest, least complex explanation that works with ALL THE AVAILABLE FACTS/INFORMATION, and that doesn’t need “added” leaps or assertions or events to have happened that we do not have any info about.
For instance, several things point to an “event,” not an “accident.” The lack of communication, the programmed turn, the climb to FL450 and descent to FL250, and the continuation of the aircraft’s existence as a whole object, powered and uncrashed, for about seven-plus hours after the disappearance.
The planes’ ACARS and Transponder were physically shut off, by some accounts before the last radio communication from the crew. We know that the aircraft remained powered and in controlled flight for many hours after this point. The aircraft’s route of flight in the FMS was changed by someone in the cockpit, as was it’s altitude, both up and down. There was no Mayday issued, and the aircraft did not answer repeated radio calls from ATC.
Let’s look at a smoke or fire “accident.” I do not believe, based on what we know now, that there was smoke or a fire. Why? Because there is no indication of fire, or smoke in the cockpit, during the time the aircraft was still in contact, and there is no indication of “fire” behaviour in the aircraft’s flight path. Additionally, normal emergency protocols train the crew to immediately don and wear full-face O2 masks (the B777 is equipped with them), and designate one pilot to fly and talk to everyone (aviate and communicate) while the other pilot runs the checklist and fights the problem. The plane made a sharp left turn, toward land, soon after ATC communication was lost. This was shown to have been pre-programmed into the FMS by the pilots.
The “flying pilot’s” job in an emergency such as this would be to point the aeroplane at the closest acceptable runway, announce to the world the nature of the emergency (ATC) and request help, and begin a descent so that at some point during the process, an attempt to vent the smoke from the cabin could be done.
Basically, none of this was done. This leads me to believe that there was no emergency of this type. For this type of emergency to be in play, it indicates that the cockpit crew would have had to wilfully refused to follow their training and checklists to combat the emergency.
Airborne smoke and fire emergencies are extremely serious, and are trained for by every airline crew in the world. In the wake of SwissAir 111, which crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, we know that a flight crew has a very limited period of time in which they must land the plane before disaster… only 14 minutes in the SwissAir tragedy… yet MH370 continued to fly for more than 7 hours after contact was lost. This is yet another clue that points away from an in flight physical, mechanical or other type of emergency.
There is evidence that Malaysia Air crews often allowed passengers onto the flight deck during flight, which is an indication both of lax safety and security procedures to my western way of thinking, but may be totally permissible at Malaysia Air. The FO had allowed some pretty girls to sit in the cockpit during a flight last year. His Captain did not protest. This anecdotal info could lend credence to the idea of hijackers gaining access to the flight deck after takeoff.
To my eye, a fire/smoke emergency does not fit what we currently know.
Neither does a missile, engine failure, structural failure, loss of pressurization or any other kind of “accidental” failure. This looks and sounds like a “planned event,” not an “unforeseen emergency.” Mistakes can occur, and the sad truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know… but until something comes to light that supports an “emergency” situation, the simplest and most logical explanation is that someone took control of that aeroplane and diverted it from it’s planned course and destination.
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