In the wake of any major airline accident involving a horrendous number of fatalities the “experts” scatter across the media like so many cockroaches across the kitchen counter-tops after the lights are turned off for bed. Unfortunately the recent crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is no different. Thus it becomes important to differentiate what we do know from what we do not, and the factual from the speculative. And as I’ve admonished before in previous accidents, it’s far too early to say with any degree of certainty what may have happened.
Here’s what we know:
Malaysia 370 was a Boeing 777-200ER (Extended Range) with 227 passengers and a dozen crew members aboard. MAS370 (IATA code MH370) departed Kuala Lumpar en route to Beijing at 00:41 local time on March 8 (March 7 on the U.S. side of the International Date Line), 2014. Reports indicate that approximately 41 minutes after departure, while MAS370 was over the Gulf of Thailand in the South China Sea, Malaysia’s Subang En Route Area Control Center lost both radio and radar contact with the aircraft.
No distress call was received from MAS370, and there were no previous indications from the cockpit crew to Air Traffic Control that anything was amiss.
No signal has been received from the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) on MAS370.
Despite previous false (and probably malicious) reports floating about the Internet, MAS370 has not landed at an alternate field in Southern China nor anywhere else.
So far extensive search activities involving Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese, Filipino, Singaporean, and U.S. assets have yet to find the missing aircraft, although Vietnam reported finding two “oil” slicks consistent with what would be expected to come from jet fuel leaking from the two wings of the aircraft. These slicks were reportedly discovered 140 nautical miles (161 statute miles; 259 kilometers) south of Thổ Chu Island.
What we know based upon other accidents:
The Boeing 777 is an incredibly safe aircraft with an enviable record. Other than one ground refueling accident at Denver International Airport in 2001, the only fatal accident involving the Boeing 777 was Asiana Airlines Flight 214 during the San Francisco mishap last July. That accident was pilot error. In 2008 British Airways Flight 38 crashed 1,000 feet short of the runway while on final approach to London Heathrow Airport. The cause of that nonfatal accident was the formation of ice crystals clogging the fuel supply of that aircraft’s Rolls Royce Trent 800-series engines. All Boeing 777 aircraft using that particular engine have since been modified, and a repeat incident of that nature has not recurred. MAS370 was also equipped with Rolls Royce Trent 800-series engines, but it’s doubtful that the previously identified problem is a factor in this case.
It is highly unusual for any airliner to suffer a catastrophic loss while at cruise altitude, which is the strata at which MAS370 was operating at the time of the incident. Despite Air France Flight 447 such incidents are an anomaly. Indeed, AFR447 (IATA code AF447) was as much a result of pilot error as it was an instrumentation malfunction. The vast majority of airliner accidents occur at low altitude, most often on approach to or shortly after departure from an airport.
Other facts leading to premature speculation:
Two of the passengers on the manifest were not the people that the manifest reported them to be. These two passengers were using passports stolen in Thailand from Austrian and Italian citizens — Christian Kozel and Luigi Maraldi respectively. In the case of Mr. Kozel, the theft of his passport occurred two years ago. While some are pointing to the use of stolen passports as an indication of terrorism other less sinister explanations (drug smuggling for instance) are just as likely.
What we can speculate from the known facts:
It is highly likely that the crew did not radio distress because they did not have time to do so. That would indicate any of three possibilities that I can think of off-hand. The first is an immediate and catastrophic inflight breakup of the aircraft that incapacitated the crew or which lead to a failure of the cockpit electrical system. Another possibility is that the crew were too busy trying to save a malfunctioning aircraft to make either a radio call or to set their transponder to the international emergency code (7700). The third possibility is that the crew lost both their radios and their transponder due to an electrical malfunction prior to a more catastrophic occurrence.
It will be interesting to see if Subang Center observed the altitude from MAS370’s transponder as it descended from cruise altitude, or if the transponder failed before indicating a descent. So far I’ve yet to see any report on what Subang controllers witnessed on their radar, if indeed their radar even extends to the position where the incident occurred.
The lack of an ELT signal would seem to indicate that MAS370 did indeed go into the water. Absent an extremely high-speed impact an ELT would normally survive a crash on land, and any ELT signal should have been pinpointed long before now.
What we’re waiting to see:
Subang Center data on the flight, including both radar and voice recordings. Location of the wreckage. Recovery of the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) — the so-called “Black Box” which are actually two boxes of orange coloration.
Any speculation before the release of any or all of the above data is far too premature at this point. Don’t let the media and especially the “experts” on the Internet convince you otherwise.