Most of us, having flown numerous times in our lives, quite likely even on Malaysia Airlines, find ourselves drawn to the current story about the disappearance of flight MH370. Resting, digesting, slowly falling asleep on an aircraft while cruising smoothly, is an experience we can identify with. To hear of a situation where this is fatally interrupted jolts us — though nothing as badly as it jolted the real passengers on that flight.
The Boeing 777-200 airliner vanished off radar mid-flight at 01:30h Singapore/Malaysian time Saturday 8 March 2014 (17:30h GMT, Friday 7 March 2014) while over the South China Sea somewhere between peninsular Malaysia and the southern tip of Vietnam. MH370 was a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and had been at cruising altitude of about 11,000 metres when the blip disappeared. Two and a half days later, despite an intensive search involving 34 aircraft and 40 ships (according to this) from several countries, no debris has been found, except for a suspected piece which the Vietnamese are going to take a closer look at sometime on Monday 10 March [update 11 March 2014: found to be unconnected with the aircraft]. This suspected piece was spotted Sunday night about 90 km south of Tho Chu Island.
Two and a half days is quite a long time to go with hardly a trace. This must be excruciating for the families of passengers.
There were oil slicks that could have come from the plane, news reports said Sunday, [update 11 March 2014: not connected with the aircraft]. I am surprised that nothing more definitive can be said about that. Is it not possible to send a boat to those oil slicks, scoop up a cup or two of them and get a lab to ascertain whether the samples are aviation or hydraulic fuel? [They apparently did].
All modern airliners carry ‘black boxes’ — strictly speaking, they aren’t black but orange, and comprise the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder — which can withstand a fire. Black boxes come with an underwater locator beacon which is activated as soon as it comes into contact with water. It can transmit from a depth as deep as 4,500 metres and the signal lasts for about a month. The sea below where the plane disappeared is shallow, not more than 100 metres deep. Yet nothing has being said about the beacon being detected, more than 48 hours on.
There is an opinion piece in the Guardian pointing out how archaic the technology of blackboxes are.
The initial reaction to the radar disappearance may bear examination. From press reports, it looks as if the Malaysian and Vietnamese reaction was very slow. The flight path required the cockpit to report entry into Vietnam air traffic control about half an hour into its flight, and then into Chinese air control another two hours later. It did not even make the first handover, and alarms should have sounded. But it seems to me that nothing much happened till dawn when the plane was scheduled to arrive in Beijing but didn’t.
In fact, early reports from the Malaysian side added to the confusion. It said the last contact was 2:40am, when in fact it was 1:30am. Then a day later, reports coming out of Kuala Lumpur said Malaysian military radar detected that the plan had made an “air turn back”, and could have been headed west. A search and rescue operation in the seas around Penang was apparently activated. It struck me that such a move was unwarranted, and might thin out available resources. Even if radar had picked up a “turn back”, it didn’t pick up any further path that far west. Also, a radar signal that suggests turning may not be an aircraft under control, but hurtling chunks of a disintegrated airframe.
Quite curious were two things that a captain on another Boeing 777 flight said to media. This flight was on its way to Narita, Japan, and was about 30 minutes ahead of MH370. Vietnamese air control asked him to make contact on his plane’s emergency frequency with MH370, after Vietnamese air control couldn’t reach the Malaysian aircraft. The story was carried in several media, but this is from The Blaze.
The captain, who declined to give his name, said his Narita, Japan-bound plane was well into into Vietnamese airspace when controllers — who could make contact — requested that he relay with his plane’s emergency frequency a message to MH370 so that it would establish its position.
The captain chose to remain anonymous. The airline was not named. Why not? Why be so secret about it? Surely anyone with archived radar information will be able to figure out which Narita-bound aircraft it was.
“We managed to establish contact with MH370 just after 1:30 a.m. and asked them if they have transferred into Vietnamese airspace,” the pilot reportedly told New Straits Times. “The voice on the other side could have been either Captain Zaharie (Ahmad Shah, 53,) or Fariq (Abdul Hamid, 27), but I was sure it was the co-pilot.
“There were a lot of interference… static… but I heard mumbling from the other end.
“That was the last time we heard from them, as we lost the connection,” the pilot said, adding that he thought nothing of the lost contact since it happens frequently — until he learned of MH370 never landing.
This is worrying. Losing contact is a frequent occurrence?
* * * * *
I don’t have an encyclopaedic memory of previous air crashes, but three incidents come to mind. One is the disappearance of Air France AF447 in May 2009, another being Air India in 1985, and the third, TWA800 in 1996. Yet, despite all three occurring over oceans, wreckage and bodies were discovered quite soon — very different from what is happening with MH370 which occurred over a shallow sea criss-crossed by fishing boats.
Air France AF447 (an Airbus A330) disappeared at about 02:00h on 1 June 2009 in the middle of the night like MH370. However, it happened in the midst of a severe tropical thunderstorm as it crossed the equator in the mid-Atlantic. The flight originated from Rio de Janeiro and was headed for Paris.
It was later determined that as it hit the storm, it suffered from frozen pitot tubes. These are small tubes mounted at the front of the fuselage that give the cockpit an air-speed reading. As the plan flew into turbulence ice crystals clogged up the pitot tubes. With no air-speed reading available to them, the pilots had no idea whether they were going too fast or too slow. This resulted in a series of fateful decisions. They tried to ascend in an attempt to get above the storm clouds, when the correct procedure would be to descend to a lower altitude to unfreeze the pitot tubes (except that the crew didn’t even know that frozen pitot tubes were the problem). The nose orientation was so steep the plane stalled, and started to fall from the sky. As the plane lost altitude, the pilots tried harder to point the nose up — 40 degrees at one point — when the correct procedure was to point it down slightly to regain aerodynamic lift. The plunge lasted three and a half minutes before the plane hit the water. All 228 people on board died.
While all this was happening, the plane’s computers sent a series of performance and fault reports to Air France headquarters in Paris. HQ had real-time information, but still struggled to make sense of them. It took a day and a half to spot the first pieces of debris: an aircraft seat and an orange buoy floating on the ocean. It took about five days to find the first two bodies.
The investigation was hampered by difficulty in recovering pieces of the aircraft. It fell into very deep ocean, and it was only two years later that the black boxes were recovered by a deepwater submersible. Most of the wreckage lay 3,800 to 4,000 metres deep. The final crash investigation report came out three years after the event.
Air India flight AI182, a Boeing 747, was flying from Montreal to London (final destination New Delhi) in June 1985 when it was blown up by a bomb about 200 km west of Ireland. 329 people lost their lives, with the aircraft disintegrating in mid-air as the bomb exploded. The condition of several of the bodies indicated that they had been thrown out into the sky at high altitude — many had been stripped of clothing, others showed signs of explosive decompression or asphyxia — pointing to a mid-air explosion. Wreckage and the black boxes, recovered about ten days later, indicated the same.
Investigations later showed that a bomb had been planted on the aircraft by a Sikh group angry at the New Delhi government.
Trans World Airways Flight 800 (TWA800) in July 1996 at first resembled the loss of AI182 in that the debris pattern and condition of the bodies pointed to a high-altitude explosion. It crashed into the Atlantic about 12 minutes after take-off from John F Kennedy Airport, New York, around 20:31h. Although early speculation revolved around a bomb, it was later concluded that the probable cause of the accident was an explosion of flammable fuel and air vapor in a fuel tank, and likely triggered by a short circuit.
The debris was clustered in three distinct portions of its flight path. Wreckage from the rear two-thirds of the plane was noticeably further forward from the other parts of the plane. This indicated an explosion forward of the wings. The rear two-thirds of the plane continued to fly for some distance before plunging down.
All 230 bodies were recovered, some floating on the water, some sunk. They were carefully autopsied, matched to their assigned seats, and the pattern of injuries correlated with the explosion explanation.
There is an interesting first-hand account from a officer on board a US Coast Guard vessel ordered to help in search and rescue minutes after the crash, at this site.
* * * * *
We will eventually start to recover evidence from MH370. It may take a long time like the case of Air France AF447. We will hear all sorts of conspiracy theories in the meantime like in the case of TWA800 when the terrorism theory took centre-stage in the aftermath.
As it is, there is much focus on two passengers on MH370 with stolen passports. They carried the names of an Italian and an Austrian, both of whom (separately) had reported their passports stolen while in Thailand last year. Malaysian closed-circuit TV showed two men with Asian faces boarding the aircraft with tickets purchased using those passports, said Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. [Update 11 March 2014: Malaysian Civil Aviation Department chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman reversed previous statement saying "they are not Asian-looking men'' -- underscoring the conflicting statements coming out of Malaysia]
However, the men bought tickets from China Southern (which code-shares with MH370) connecting from Beijing to Amsterdam, then onwards to Cologne (other reports say Frankfurt) for one man and Copenhagen for the other. It seems to me more like drug-smuggling than terrorism. Why would terrorists want to purchase onward flights if they’re about to blow up a plane?
* * * * *
However much we are gripped by this news story, we will have to wait. It takes a while to unravel what happens in a loss of an aircraft. No two incidents are the same. But it already looks as if MH370, with 239 people on board, is already producing its first great mystery, for at this two-and-a-half-day point, the three other cases had more information and material evidence than in this case of the Malaysian airliner — no distress signal, no radio contact, neither bodies nor debris for more than 48 hours, no ping from the blackboxes, in calm weather over a shallow sea . . .