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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Delayed Informative Speculamatation: MH370 is a Precedented, Prosaic Tragedy

Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared two days before I left on a trip that left me no time for blogging, so at the time I was scarcely able to delve into that stygian space between speculation and cogitation on the whats and whys. (Much of what follows comes from an email I dashed off to a friend of mine on March 11th, just before heading for the airport. This, too, is a bit dashed.)

At first I didn't pay it much mind, since I automatically assumed that some group had managed to get a bomb on board and blow the thing up. However, after a day without finding any debris, as improbable as it might be, the lack of debris from a 600,000 pound airplane along the route of flight could only mean one thing: it wasn't there.

Then I saw this graphic showing the last ATC radar contact with MH370.

Hmmm. The moment I saw it, I had that very ugly feeling that comes along with being among the first (excluding airline pilots) to know how a terrible tragedy transpired.

This is a screen shot from my iPad showing the first part of the route to Beijing. The coordinates I marked are essentially in the same place as shown in that graphic.


I have flown out of Penang (WMKP, about 180NM northwest of Kuala Lumpur, WMKK). At a glance, it was obvious that the last radar hit was at the boundary between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace.

Someone specifically picked that point to turn off the transponder, because at that point MH370 was no longer Malaysian ATC's responsibility, and it would be awhile until Vietnam realized MH370 didn't check in because of a botched handoff, but rather due to something far worse. Because airliners (almost) never willfully deviate from assigned routing, everyone immediately assumed crash.

Meanwhile, as it turns out, the plane was flying southwesterly along the Flight Information Region boundary between Malaysia and Thailand.

(Air Traffic Control radars do not display primary (i.e., reflections from the aircraft itself) radar returns. Rather, they show transponder information (Callsign, altitude, airspeed) at the primary return location. However, military radars, since they are looking for things not announcing themselves, would see primary returns. That accounts for the discrepancy between ATC and mil radars about what they saw. What remains unexplained is that if the plane went southwest to west, it would have gone through an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) without air defense trying to identify it. (I have no idea what Jakarta's or Malaysia's air defense capabilities are.) UPDATE: The Malaysian has plenty of capability, and even more complacency.

Therefore, someone intentionally diverted MH370, and knew precisely where to do it in order provide the maximum time until someone noticed. In and of itself, that is not particularly arcane knowledge. Nor is the primary automation (heading and altitude controls on the glare shield control panel). Plenty of people have enough "hands-on" experience with the B777 via personal computer based simulation to have understood what needed doing (Here is an example of how detailed these things are.)

So, in theory, at this point it is well within the realm of reason that a great many people, sufficiently motivated, could have pirated the airplane.

However, there are other facts demanding attention.

The first, and most important, is the Intrusion Resistant Cockpit Door (IRCD) installed on all airliners since 9/11. The odds of someone getting onto the flight deck without cooperation from the other side of the door are extremely small; not quite zero, but so close as to render any piracy by that avenue so unlikely as to deter the attempt.

Second, and nearly as fundamental, once commandeered, then what? Per the 9/11 plot, the airplane should have been used as a missile.

Except it wasn't.

That still leaves the possibility that the plan was to disappear the airplane for some future horror show, perhaps, or especially, including 249 human shields.

Yet this raises further obstacles. To bring some such atrocity to fruition would first require bringing the airplane back to earth in a reusable condition. In order to attain that end, at least 5,000 feet of runway is essential. At night, that runway would have to be lit (for a manual landing) or have an Instrument Landing System. GPS will get an airplane in the close vicinity of a runway, but isn't suitable for an automated landing. An ILS is extremely precise, but the citing and operational requirements are extremely demanding. So in the former case, a very skilled pilot is required; in the latter, the facility requirements are so demanding that there is no possibility of a 777 showing up unnoticed. Yet given the extreme improbability of breaching the IRCD, the only source of a skilled pilot (Asiana not withstanding) is the flight deck. And there are hardly any runways that meet the most minimal requirements and could hide an unnoticed B777.

In the words of Sir Conan Doyle, via Sherlock Holmes, having eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, is the explanation.

MH370 is both precedented and prosaic.

The only non-impossible explanation is that one of the pilots commandeered the airplane. It has happened. Someone I met flew an A10 into a mountain west of Denver. An Egypt Air pilot committed suicide, and took 217 people with him. A FedEx pilot attempted to kill the crew with the goal of crashing the plane into the Memphis hub. A Singaporean Captain likely crashed a B737.

So this the least unlikely sequence of events. On some pretext, one of the pilots got up out of the seat approaching the handoff point, grabbed the crash axe and killed the other pilot. That pilot then turned off the transponder, flew along a course most likely to exploit military radar complacency, and used cockpit circuit breakers to remove power from almost all the aircraft reporting systems. (All of this was glaringly apparent by March 11th.)

Then he flew the airplane to one of the most remote parts of the planet and committed suicide.

10 comments:

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

Thanks a lot for that analysis.

What really gets me is this part:

---
Then he flew the airplane to one of the most remote parts of the planet and committed suicide.
---
But why? If he just wanted to crash the thing, why didn't he just do it right after axing the other pilot? It makes no sense to keep flying only to do it later.

Hey Skipper said...

None of it makes sense.

Why, if he was going to commit suicide, did he have to involve 239 other people?

Why did Adam Lanza have to shoot a bunch of kids and some teachers?

Why did Craig Button fly an A-10 for another two and a half hours?

The initial act is so irrational that any subsequent appeal to "sense" is a question without an answer.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

Thanks for the post.

What did you think of this analysis?

erp said...

Sounds plausible, especially if the reports that his wife left with kids the day before the flight are true.

If the plane went into the sea, wouldn't the impact cause the plane to break up and leave some debris and if he crashed on land, it seems almost impossible that the crash or the ensuing conflagration wouldn't have been seen or heard unless there are still some corners of the earth remote enough to be completely out of human or the eye-in-the-sky's range.

Hey Skipper said...

Bret, I think the analysis is cr*p.

Here is the giveaway, nearly out of the gate: About an hour out across the gulf towards Vietnam the plane goes dark …

How? I am not going to build an electrical system here, but the 777 has two engine driven generators that power two completely independent electrical systems, plus a battery backup for critical systems, plus a ram air turbine.

So an airplane doesn't just "go dark". Since there are no common modes across all those electrical systems, then "going dark" requires an event that could instantaneously cripple all the electrical systems, yet leave some of them operating — MH370 wasn't pinging Immarsat by magic.

For me the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense if a fire. There was most likely a fire or electrical fire. In the case of fire the first response if to pull all the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one.

No. No. No.

No.

For Pete's sake, no.

The process is to sequentially de-power and re-power buses (while shutting off and restoring bleed air sources) in a process of elimination to determine the source of the smoke. There is even a special switch on the electrical control panel for just this purpose.

Oh, by the way it is "buses".

Yes, pilots have access to oxygen masks but this is a no no with fire.

This is epically, stupendously, gallopingly ignorant. Step 1 in the event of smoke or fire, and it is a memory item, is to put on the oxygen mask and select 100% O2.

So, exactly the opposite of "no no".

Also, Mr. Veteran Pilot appears not to know that the life expectancy of an airliner on fire is 18 +/- 3 minutes. So even if there was a fire so sudden and severe as to instantly incapacitate the aircrew, then that airplane will stop flying within 120 miles.

Yet the airplane isn't within 120 miles.

And if the airplane really had a fire, the nearest piece of pavement is the best piece of pavement, and the nearest airports were behind the airplane by 60 miles, not 120.

Mr. Veteran Pilot inflicts a great deal more idiocy than what I have mentioned, but my eyes are burning from all the stupid.

Hey Skipper said...

erp:

MH370 can't be along the northern arc of possible locations, because waaaaayyy too many radars would have to miss it.

That leaves the southern arc. Yes, the airplane would have broken up on impact, and there would be some floating debris, but by the time people figured out to start looking there, winds would have greatly dispersed the lighter stuff, by perhaps a couple hundred miles.

And it is obvious the plane hit the water hard enough to break up, because if it didn't people would have gotten out of the plane, and the life rafts have radio beacons.

Yet we have heard none.

Hey Skipper said...
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Hey Skipper said...
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Hey Skipper said...

This is, or has long since, gotten out of control.

Here is the transcript from MH370's flight.

Except that all the terminology is completely wrong. Every word, not just some words, but EVERY word, is completely unacceptable.

Yet supposed journalists are swallowing it whole.

Idiots.

erp said...

Score another one for our Skipper.