THE LOSS OF FLIGHT MH370
While the facts and premises discussed earlier do not absolutely rule out any of the alternate scenarios, I believe they render them unlikely. Based on my experience, the most likely scenario for the disappearance of MH370 is a fire inside the aircraft.
The fuselage of an airliner like the Boeing 777 is a pressure-vessel. Think of a submarine, except that a submarine pushes out against heavy water pressure, and the airliner pressurizes itself to create a breathable atmosphere for the occupants. Both vehicles share a similar risk: Because they pressurize their atmospheres and contain oxygen in many different forms, they are extremely vulnerable to fire.
A fire in a submarine is usually immediately apparent because there are few (or no) hidden or unoccupied areas inside the pressure-vessel. An aircraft is entirely different. A fire on board frequently occurs dozens of feet to over 200 feet away from the pilots, in locations such as cargo holds, luggage compartments and electrical bays.
Most often, in fact, non-engine fires aboard aircraft—even small aircraft—initially manifest themselves by loss of systems or failure of components long before smoke is smelled or visible fire observed. A pilot will be presented with the unexplained failure of components in rapid succession without obvious cause as the fire burns through wiring and system components. This is referred to a ‘cascading’ loss of systems.
This was the situation I experienced in 1989 when the FBI aircraft I was flying caught fire, a fire which nearly caused the loss of the aircraft.
My first indication that there was a fire on board the aircraft was a high-pitched, piercing squeal in my headset. I neither smelled nor saw smoke at that moment. The second indication was a gauge indicating a dangerous electrical overcharge, which required immediate deactivation of the entire electrical system to avoid a potential explosion.
Closing two switches completely accomplished this deactivation, which resulted in (among other things) the total loss of radio communication and the deactivation of my transponder. (Closing down the electrical systems on a Boeing 777 would be exponentially more complicated, but easily accomplished by the two-pilot crew.) In my situation, engine function was not affected. At the time of my emergency, I was flying in loose formation with another FBI aircraft and had had only enough time to transmit, “I’m going off frequency,” before I shut the system down. One moment, my aircraft was fully operational and the next, it was silent. For several seconds, I attempted to diagnose and address the anomaly. I was unsuccessful, however, and fire visibly ignited behind my instrument panel and the cockpit began to fill with black smoke. My first instinct was to descend and turn toward the nearest airport.
This is very similar to the scenario presented by MH370. They went “silent” and all power to some aircraft systems, the ACARS system, ceased at 1:07 a.m. (Aircraft such as the 777 have multiple electric “busses” which means that large portions of the electrical system can be turned off without affecting other systems.) However, after the loss of electrical power, the aircraft continued to fly straight and level. That is consistent with the crew shutting off electrical systems as a result of an immediate onboard emergency, the nature of which was not clear to the crew initially. Uncommanded depressurization would not require a shutdown of the electrical system.
Significantly, the deviation from MH370’s intended course does not appear to be a random turn, it appears to be a turn toward the nearest suitable airport.
MH370 performed a maneuver very similar to a “procedure turn,” a course-reversal used to re-intercept and track an “airway” or approach course. “Airways” are just what they sound like; specific lanes in the sky that aircraft on instrument flight plans are required to use. All airline flights are instrument flights. When MH370 deviated from course, it executed what appeared to be a procedure turn and established itself on a course in the opposite direction on Airway B219. With electrical components shut down, this maneuver might have been flown by hand by either the pilot or first-officer.
That it was on that particular airway is not an insignificant finding. Following B219 would take MH370 directly over (or to) the nearest airport to the aircraft which would accommodate a fully-loaded Boeing 777—Penang, Malaysia. Penang is the third largest Malaysian airport by passenger volume, and boasts a runway over two miles long—more than enough for a 777.
Penang, a major Malaysian Airlines destination, would also be well known to the pilot of MH370, as he regularly flew in and out of Penang earlier in his Malaysian Airlines career.
AIRLINER INFLIGHT FIRES ARE NOT RARE
Fire in airliners, surprisingly, is not rare, but it is deadly.
Another haunting incident is the 1980 loss of Saudia Airlines flight 163, a fairly new Lockheed 1011 Jumbo Jet. This fire was apparently caused by a passenger cooking on a butane stove soon after takeoff. The crew attempted to return to the airport, but had less and less control of aircraft systems as the fire burned through components. They were able to land the aircraft safely, but fire had eliminated the crews’ ability to depressurize the aircraft, and though safely on the runway and rolling-out on the centerline, all passengers and crew died when they could not open the doors.
In the case of MH370, a fire onboard would have been fed by the pressurization. If the crew did not depressurize the aircraft, it would only be a matter of time before the smoke incapacitated all occupants of the aircraft or burned through control cables/wiring/structures. Cabin oxygen masks would not automatically descend, because pressurization was still intact. The deployment of the oxygen masks would be hazardous in and of itself because they provide pure (highly flammable) oxygen (not ‘air’) into the cabin.
If and when the fire burned through the wall of the pressure vessel, the aircraft would then depressurize, and the lack of oxygen at 35,000 feet would put out the fire.
The crew of MH370, when presented with evidence of a fire on board, would have
· Shut down the electrical system, fully or partially
· Turned toward the nearest safe airport
· Communicated (if and when able)
The crew completed the first two imperatives, and I believe that it is very likely by the time they were able to restore some electrical power, they were unable to communicate due to fire damage or incapacitation.
The fact that they were apparently monitoring an emergency frequency; 121.5, and answered (albeit with mumbling) the call of a nearby aircraft, indicates that they had re-established some electrical function and were attempting to communicate, but were becoming incapacitated by some circumstance. Had that circumstance been depressurization, oxygen and fire/smoke masks were available to the crew, but again, they feed pure oxygen into the cabin. The pilots may have been reluctant to do so.
At 35,000 feet, without pressurization or oxygen, useful consciousness lasts only 30 seconds to 1 minute. If the aircraft had depressurized due to fire, it is possible that the crew were unable to cope with multiple “cascading” emergencies posed by a fire and depressurization.
That the aircraft flew nearly level for another 8 hours after it began tracking airway B219, could indicate a fire-compromised autopilot, able to keep an aircraft in relatively level flight but with limited control of altitude or course. It might also indicate that the autopilot had been told to proceed to a point, and that after reaching that point continued flying, awaiting further instructions.
The Boeing 777’s autopilot can hold a specific altitude, and it’s “auto-throttles” will maintain a specific power setting, and therefore speed. Various auto-throttles can be linked to airspeed, Mach number, or engine speed. Mach number is the aircraft’s speed in relation to the speed of sound, and that number can differ wildly from airspeed.
Airspeed is determined by air pressure within a forward-facing sensor called a “pitot tube.” The airspeed indicator extrapolates that pressure to a speed value. As the aircraft climbs, however, the atmosphere becomes thinner, and at a certain point airspeed no longer accurately reflects the speed of the aircraft over the ground.
For instance, I was once able to log some second-in-command time on an FBI Gulfstream V. At 43,000 feet, we were cruising at ‘Mach .87,’ that is, 87% of the speed of sound. The airspeed indicator, however, due to the absence of 90% of the earth’s atmosphere at 43,000 feet, read somewhere between 200 and 250 knots (230 – 280 miles per hour), when our groundspeed, corrected for wind, was approximately 500 miles per hour. Above a certain altitude, Mach number is the important number when managing speed.
Assume now that the aircraft was cruising at 35,000 feet at Mach .80, an economical cruise setting. The airspeed would be approximately 270 knots or 310 miles per hour. Even if the autopilot altitude hold was inoperative, the aircraft would be trimmed to maintain 310 mph. The wings don’t know how high off the ground they are. 310 miles per hour at sea level feels the same to the wings as Mach .80 at 30,000 feet. The trim settings would be almost the same, all other factors remaining the same.
It is a fact that a trimmed aircraft seeks to maintain its trimmed airspeed. All by itself. So if the power remained the same, it is possible that the aircraft would have continued to hold altitude at least to a point. As the aircraft flew into warmer air, the atmosphere would become less dense and the aircraft would tend to descend very gradually. Descending would cause the speed to increase, which would cause the aircraft to pitch up, based on its trim speed.
Similarly, if the aircraft encountered colder or denser air, the opposite would happen. It would tend to climb. Climbing would decrease airspeed and the aircraft would correct by nosing down. This grand, gentle roller-coaster action could explain its alleged altitude variations from 45,000 feet down to 23,000 feet.
[Reader Jim Howard correctly pointed out that the ACARS system on MH370 was not transmitting aircraft welfare information during this flight. It was, however, still in communication with the Inmarsat satellite throughout the flight, with the exception of at least two transient power interruptions.]
I believe the following is the most likely scenario for the disappearance of MH370:
· An inflight fire ignited below the passenger deck shortly after takeoff. This fire spread (unknown to the crew) as the aircraft climbed and pressurized.
· At approximately 1:07 a.m., the pilots became aware of a problem on the aircraft, either by cockpit indication or by system failure (buss failure). If not an outright failure, the crew might have been forced to isolate the offending electrical system, which likely included the communications and transponder buss. The crew would have to have recognized the problem as an imminent threat to the aircraft if they did not check-in with the next sector. I do not believe that their first indication of the fire was a report from the cabin; that would not have prevented a frequency check-in with the next sector—it would make it even more important to communicate.
· The crew, unable to communicate their plight, deviated from their approved flight plan, which indicates that the onboard incident was an imminent threat to the aircraft. They reversed course and established themselves on B219 which would bring them over Penang. They maintained their altitude, which would put them on a conflicting altitude (flights on easterly headings use odd-altitudes). But they may have believed that it was a clear altitude.
· Between that exact location and Penang, the crew was likely overcome by smoke and/or fire within the aircraft, which could have compromised the onboard emergency oxygen system.
· In fact, the onboard emergency oxygen system could theoretically be the cause of the fire. Emergency oxygen generation canisters in the cargo hold were the cause of the ValueJet crash. Lack of emergency oxygen would make it impossible for the crew to survive the smoke from an intense fire or depressurize the aircraft at 35,000. They may have been reluctant to descend without authorization through altitudes populated with other airliners, when they believed that they would be able to restore communications within a few seconds.
· The aircraft continued on course toward and past Penang.
· The theoretic fire would eventually cause a compromise of the pressure vessel, which would result in depressurization of the aircraft, and the end of the fire due to reduced oxygen.
· With compromised systems and no input from an incapacitated crew, the aircraft would have continued on random courses and altitudes until the fuel was exhausted. The ACARS system’s attempt to re-connect with the satellite after 7 ½ hours (indicating a momentary loss of power) was indicative of a power loss at the approximate time fuel would have been expected to run out.
· Once the engines ran out of fuel, a ram air turbine (rat), would deploy into the slipstream and provide emergency power to the aircraft. This would explain the reawakening of the ACARS system.
· Trimmed to approximately 310 mph, the aircraft then would have descended at or near that speed, which would have initially resulted in a shallow descent. However, the rate of descent would have increased as the air density increased. The 777 would likely begin an increasing phugoid (porpoising) motion as the aircraft began more aggressively seeking its trimmed airspeed.
· It would be in this configuration that the aircraft would have impacted the ocean.
I do not claim to have all of the information necessary to come up with a conclusion which can withstand all criticism. But there's always room for discussion on these type of mysteries. Especially when information from officials is so closely held.
I watched with amusement as the French authorities refused to confirm that the flaperon found on Ascension Island belonged to MH370. As if Boeing 777 flaperons are floating all over the ocean. After three months, the French finally confirmed that the control surface was from MH370. They boasted that they confirmed this fact 'scientifically.' They said, and I'm not making this up, that they "scientifically" matched a serial number on the part to the serial number of the MH370 flaperon. That's impressive science. Wonder why it took 3 months to read the serial number? Translation problems?
I present this theory as (at best) an educated guess. I do not have in my possession all the information and data in the possession of the actual investigators. I have never flown an airliner. Even if I am correct, know that I am not the only one or the first one with this theory. I can tell you honestly, though, that the theory is original and based on publicly-available information.
Only the discovery and recovery of the wreckage will end the mystery. Maybe.