#blog #airline #avgeek #aviation
Note: Due to the ongoing Malaysia Airlines 370 crisis, my originally scheduled blog post has been delayed.
For twelve days now, the entire world has followed the mysterious disappearance of MH 370. Nearly two weeks filled with false leads, red herrings, wild speculation and myriad theories being bandied about, ranging from the absurd to the preposterous. The 24-hour newsfeeds, armed with a scant dearth of facts—but no end of self-proclaimed “experts”—have nothing show for it. That is, besides microscopic dissections of transponders, black boxes, and—perhaps most absurd of all—the armchair, Dr. Phil-style psych profiling of the pilots themselves. As NYCA Editor Phil Derner Jr. says in his excellent article, Don’t you believe everything you hear!
While all possible angles must be investigated by authorities, as a 23-year captain for a major U.S. airline, I feel the media feeding frenzy is an insult not only to the Captain, First Officer and their loved-ones, but to the pilot profession as a whole. These men are heroes, not villains.
Perhaps its time we all step back, take a collective deep breath, come back down to earth and take a look at this mystery from the bottom up…
Since Sir William Hamilton coined the term, “Occam’s Razor” in 1852, this principle has become a pillar of scientific theory and logical thought. The principle refers to William of Ockham’s philosophical musings, in the 12th Century, on the establishment of any theory or hypothesis.
Basically, Occam’s Razor states:
The simplest explanation tends to be the most likely.
Put another way, “that which is most likely…is most likely.”
Of course, based on the paucity of facts surrounding MH370, the challenge for us is to figure out, what is the “simplest?” And what is the “most likely?”
Let’s start by making some assumptions, based on the odds:
—Airline pilots are highly trained, highly disciplined, and unlikely to hijack their own ships.
—Modern airliners are ultra-safe—but are machines. And machines break.
—Post-9/11, hijacks are extremely rare.
—Post-9/11, cockpit breaches are possible, but not likely.
—Passengers onboard MH370 have all been scrutinized, even the two traveling on false passports. From this cast of characters, foul play does not appear to be likely.
So, purely playing the odds, I’m going to go with, not hijacking, not foul play, and certainly not pilot sabotage, but plain and simple mechanical failure.
Let’s see if any of the known facts about the flight itself support the “odds”:
—”All right, good night”: the last radio transmission from MH370, at 01:19 (local departure time; the flight had departed at 12:41am.) This sounds like an absolutely standard sign off. No duress, and no sinister undertone suggesting a diabolical plot from the crew.
—Transponder lost (switched off or fails) two minutes later, at 01:21.
—ACARS fails to “check-in” at 01:37. Two possibilities: failure, or sabotage.
—Recent findings suggest that the flight may have been reprogrammed for the “air turn back,” possibly 12 minutes before the last radio transmission. Some say this strongly suggests that “nefarious activities were afoot.”
—Altitude deviations. Some data suggest that, after lost com, MH370 may have climbed from its initial altitude of 30,000’ to 45,000’ (well above its service ceiling) and then dove to as low as 23,000’.
—primary radar and Satellite “pings” suggest the aircraft was airborne for up to 7 hours past its last transmission.
—Radio and data loss: failure or sabotage? Again, playing the odds, mechanical failure is far more likely. The rapid-succession loss of transponder, ACARS and radio suggest these were secondary failures due to a larger, more catastrophic primary failure, say, an avionics bay fire or electrical buss short. It is even conceivable that an more catastrophic event caused the primary failure as well, such as a hull breach.
—As for the flight being programmed to turn back prior the last radio transmission, one possibility is that some airlines have their pilots routinely re-program and update a secondary flight plan with “escape routes,” in the event of an engine failure or other emergency. This hasn’t been discussed in mainstream media, but may offer up an explanation as opposed to a less likely “nefarious” one.
—Altitude deviation: Either false data, or—what? The only other plausible explanation I can come with is that, by this time, the pilots are unconscious or dead. The ship, off autopilot (again possibly part of the avionics failure) and trimmed for climb, may have gradually ascended until it reached “coffin corner,” where stall speed and max speed meet. The plane stalls, and plummets, perhaps as low as the mid-20’s where, due to the inherent positive stability (as all modern aircraft are designed), it recovers from the stall on its own. One suggestion thrown around is that the pilots climbed rapidly to “starve” a fire. Extremely unlikely. Fires spread fast, and diving for the nearest suitable airport is the only hope for survival.
“All right, good night,” the First Officer, as PNF (Pilot Not Flying) says, and switches off.
Unbeknownst to the crew, a fire has started in the forward cargo hold, near the avionics bay and practically under their feet. The source: a shipment of lithium batteries (now known to be onboard), which, if ignited, can reach incendiary temperatures and emit toxic fumes.
The cargo fire finally sets off alarm bells in the cockpit. The Captain, as PF (Pilot Flying) immediately activates the secondary flight plan, which he had preprogrammed to turn back to the nearest suitable airport. The First Officer calls “Mayday” on 121.5, the universal emergency frequency—but his call is only met with static. The radio has failed, as well as the transponder; the cargo fire has penetrated the avionics bay, immediately below the cockpit. The ACARS fails.
The firestorm progresses, possibly burning a hole in the skin, creating an explosive decompression. The crew, having donned their oxygen masks, may be temporarily protected; but there’s no telling how far the fire could have raged. It may have severed the O2 lines, and/or created overwhelming toxic fumes—or melted through to the cockpit itself.
In any case, the crew is lost. The cabin, now depressurized and again possibly full of toxic fumes, may have initially had survivors when the oxygen masks automatically dropped—but only for 15’ until the chemically-generated oxygen ran out.
The 777 is now a ghost ship. No live pilots, no autopilot, no conscious passengers. Flying, more or less, on her last programmed course, she overflies the originally-intended emergency destination.
MH370 may have climbed, stalled, descended and climbed again, wandered back and forth across its original heading, oscillating vertically and horizontally ad nauseum. But the inherent positive stability in her design would have kept her flying…until she ran out of fuel some seven hours later.
The flight is lost at sea, some seven hours downfield and generally along its last known track.
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For further analysis, my companion article just went live on NYCAviation.com.
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NOTICES TO AIRMEN
Congratulations to our own Blogging in Formation’s pilot-author-blogger Karlene Petitt (karlenepetitt.blogspot.com), on her fantastic debate last night on
tonight on CNN‘s Piers Morgan LIVE.
You really put it to those self-proclaimed “Experts!”
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Check out the May issue of Airways Magazine
—you’ll see some familiar faces!
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