The Disappearance of MH370
The Perils of Premature Conclusions
I have been asked by CNN and friends to add my voice to the discussions of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370). I feel well qualified to do so: I supervised Al Qaeda investigations for the Los Angeles FBI after 9/11, and these investigations obviously involved plots to down and/or hijack airliners. I have also been an active pilot (and for several years a professional pilot) since age 16. I have been involved in the investigation of two airline crashes suspected of being the result of terrorist acts (PSA 1771, December 1987) and TWA 800 (July, 1996). On FBI SWAT, I was extensively trained in retaking airliners from hijackers. Even growing up, I was steeped in airlines and airline security. My father (also a pilot and former FBI agent) was Manager of Security for United Airlines, authored two textbooks on aircraft and airline security, and sat on several FAA security committees.
One thing I have learned in the investigation of terrorism, violent crime and airplane crashes is that there is almost never a scenario which will answer all outstanding questions about a particular incident, nor will the correct scenario explain every circumstance you know to be true. There will always be mystery. That is why people still debate the Kennedy assassination, and why some still refuse to believe the obvious truth of the attacks against the U.S. on 9/11 by al Qaeda. Even if we had the flight recorder results in front of us, they would not answer all of our questions regarding MH370. This is because regardless of what happened on the ill-fated plane, people were afraid, people were confused, and people did not act logically at all times—and logical actions are the stuff on which we base all of our assumptions. So regardless of whether this was a hijacking, an airplane crash or anything in between, no scenario will explain every eventuality. But we are in no danger of running out of scenarios; some of them ludicrous.
One particularly silly assertion is that persons unknown flew the aircraft above its certified ceiling of 43,000 feet to the height of 45,000 feet in order to incapacitate the passengers due to lack of oxygen.
If I walk into a dark room in my house and the lights are off, there are dozens of different possibilities which would explain the lack of light from the bulb. These range from the light simply being switched off at the wall, to a bad bulb, to an overdue electric bill. All I can say with certainty (without further investigation) is that the bulb is not illuminated. If I flip the wall switch ‘on’ and the bulb doesn't go on, I have only eliminated one or two possibilities. If I state conclusively at that moment that the bulb is burned out, I am, in actuality, only guessing.
The Malaysian authorities are taking observations and making conclusory statements which are not supported by known fact. Instead of stating that “…at some point the transponder signal was no longer received by air traffic control,” they make the jump to say that “..one or the other of the pilots manually turned the transponder off,” and then provide no evidence to support that claim. There could be a dozen different reasons why the transponder signal was no longer received by air traffic control. Even if a transponder lost part of its function, such as altitude reporting, (something a pilot could switch off in the cockpit), it does not indicate that the pilot did so. Just because a pilot could do something does not mean he actually did. It could mean that the altitude-indicating functions of the transponder were interrupted—by electrical problems, for instance.
As an aside, I have spent many weeks in Indonesia and that part of Asia investigating terrorism and terrorist attacks. What I found was a reluctance on the part of host nations to cooperate fully in investigative tasks and a strong fear, bordering on paranoia about sharing investigative results. Our investigations were hampered, and the number of FBI agents allowed in-country to investigate attacks against Americans or American assets were greatly limited. This does not bode well for the investigation of MH370.
Fire inside airliners not as unusual as people would like to believe. In August, 1980, a Saudia Airline Lockheed 1011 suffered a cabin fire soon after takeoff, which many people still attribute to a passenger attempting to cook on an open fire; (not unheard of among religious pilgrims which made up the bulk of the flight’s passengers). When notified of the fire, the pilots donned their smoke masks and attempted to make it back to Riyadh Airport. They touched down safely and were even able to turn off the runway before being overcome by smoke. Tragically, and possibly because of the fire, they did not—or could not— depressurize the aircraft and firemen were not able to enter the aircraft. There were no survivors among the 287 passengers on board even though the aircraft landed safely.
MY OWN EXPERIENCE
As a pilot, I have experienced an inflight fire in the cockpit. Ironically, this occurred 25 years ago this month, but the memories will never leave me. In March of 1989, I was the pilot of an FBI aircraft operating as “Ross 75,” in the process of a rendezvous with another FBI aircraft, “Ross 32” over the coast of Southern California. As I was communicating with Ross 32 and sliding into position well below him, a high-pitched, painfully-loud squeal erupted in my earphones and the earphones of my copilot. I instinctively looked at my gauges, and noticed that the electrical charge in the aircraft was pegged on the high side, well into the red zone. This was a very serious problem. It indicated that the alternator was putting out power wildly in excess of the aircraft’s needs, and I knew that the excess power would be routed directly into the battery, which would heat up, and had a high likelihood of exploding. I didn’t know how long I had to remedy the situation.
I keyed the microphone button and transmitted to the other aircraft, “Ross 32, ‘75’ is going to be off the air for just a second or two.”
I remember my first two steps—turn toward the nearest airport and lose altitude! Fires will burn into your fuel lines, into you, and sever control lines or cause major structural failure. We were fortunate. We were able to extinguish the fire by the time we reached 500 feet. But then, we had to deal with the fact that we had no electrical power, no communications, no transponder, flaps or landing gear, and were unable to even call for help. But we were fortunate. Had the battery exploded, no clue to our demise would have existed except my brief radio call “I’ll be off the air for a second.”
The investigation of crimes and crashes share a truism: The most logical, simple scenario is usually the actual scenario. The facts we have regarding MH370 are consistent with a cascading loss or deactivation of electrical and electronic componentry in the aircraft. That is generally not consistent with the takeover of an aircraft where the hijackers don't want to be seen by radar. If a hijacker has trained well enough to take over an aircraft and hijack it, he knows to turn off all the instruments all at once. He doesn’t have any reason to turn off one instrument right away, and then turn off another 15 minutes later. That makes no sense. However, a cascading failure of electronics is not only consistent with a fire or other malfunction in an aircraft, it is a leading indicator of that scenario.
I believe that it is entirely possible, and consistent with the vast majority of known facts, that a fire of unknown origin aboard MH370 disabled its ability to communicate and eventually caused the incapacitation of the crew. The aircraft was likely “trimmed” for controlled flight, which would cause it to tend to remain in stable flight. If the crew and passengers were subsequently overcome by smoke, I believe all further flight occurred autonomously by the aircraft much as Payne Stewart's plane flew from Florida to South Dakota after its occupants were incapacitated. In that incident, the plane, destined for Dallas, flew north and continued for four hours before running out of fuel.
I believe that it is unlikely that we will ever find the crash site of MH370. But any search should likely begin at a location where the aircraft would have run out of fuel (considering the different fuel burns at the same power settings at lower altitudes.) If the aircraft was below its cruising altitude, it would use an immensely higher amount of fuel per hour.
There is abundant reasonable and mostly responsible speculation that the aircraft might be on the ground somewhere and that the passengers were kidnapped and may be alive. As a terrorism investigator, I do not find the logic of that scenario compelling. First, no ransom demand nor claim of responsibility has been made by anybody credible. Secondarily, the logistics required for such an undertaking are immense. The aircraft would have been on the ground now for well more than 10 days, and food and water for 239 passengers would be required (as well as dozens of guards to keep them in custody—remember, you have to have guards 24 hours a day, so assuming 8 hour shifts, triple the number of guards it would take to control the passengers at any given time.) The other logical leap required is that nobody has noticed or reported a Boeing 777 in a place one has never been seen before.
Also, it takes at least five or six thugs to keep the passengers on an entire airliner passive in flight. And as the terrorists learned with United 93, sometimes even that isn’t enough. So they would likely need 10 or more thugs to control the passengers on a 777; and not one single individual meeting that definition has come to the surface.
Do I think that a hijacking scenario is impossible? No. Do I think it's likely? Not at all.
Also, “stealing” the aircraft to use as a weapon later makes little sense. To use it, one would have to fill it up with jet fuel (approximately 45,000 gallons), then, take off towards a target city thousands of miles and many hours of flight time away—all without a flight plan. It would be incredibly easy to identify, intercept and interdict an aircraft with a radar signature the size of the moon. As soon as it got within 1,000 miles of a major city, it would simply glow. As we saw with 9/11, the reason that terrorists must use the aircraft immediately after acquisition is to take advantage of the temporary passivity of the passengers, the confusion of air traffic controllers, and the authorities’ reluctance to down an airliner full of innocent hostages. Once an airplane like MH370 is on the ground, there is no reason to believe that these hostages are onboard the aircraft anymore, so no reason to keep from shooting it down.
It is too early at this point to establish a proximate cause of the disappearance of MH370. But at this moment, I believe that Mr. Goodfellow’s scenario of a cabin fire (regardless of its source) is likeliest scenario.