Mar 132014
 
The mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines 777 continues unabated, almost a week after its disappearance.

The mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines 777 continues unabated, almost a week after its disappearance.

So, what do we know about the missing Malaysia Airlines 777?  Not a great deal.

The basic facts are as follows :

A Boeing 777-200ER airplane departed Kuala Lumpur on 8 March at 12.41am local time (ie 8.41am Pacific Standard time on Friday 7 March).  It was scheduled to fly to Beijing’s main Capital airport, taking just under six hours flying time to get there, and had 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.  The weather was good, and the pilot was highly experienced, and indeed, such an aviation enthusiast he had his own flight simulator at home.

An uneventful departure and climb saw the plane settle in to its cruise at 35,000 ft.  The last voice contact was with the plane when it was passing out of Malaysian controlled airspace, and being ‘handed over’ to Vietnam to fly through Vietnamese controlled airspace.  The pilot acknowledged their departure from Malaysian airspace but never then radioed in to Vietnam.

This final voice communication was at 1.22am local time.  At 1.30am another plane attempted to contact the plane to pass on a request from the Vietnamese air traffic controllers, and said that they managed to establish contact on an emergency frequency, but just heard mumbling and static.  The other plane’s pilot did not consider this significant, just putting it down to poor radio reception, something that often happens when planes are at the maximum radio range from each other.

At about the same time (ie 1.22am plus or minus a few minutes) the plane’s transponder was turned off.  The transponder is a bit like a beacon – when it receives a radar request signal, it transmits back information about the plane’s ID, location, course, height and speed.  Without the transponder, the plane becomes a less clearly defined blob on a radar screen and is harder to detect.

At the point of last communication, the plane was on course and behaving normally.  Then, when communication ceased, it, well – it sort of did exactly that.  It stopped, and nothing further was heard from the plane.

Or, was it?  There are a lot of ambiguities about what happened next, and some of these ambiguities are probably the result of reporters rushing to get stories out there before checking the information they think they’ve received, and with various confusions inevitably happening through what is sometimes a lengthy chain of information flow.

What Happened Next?

It seems possible – perhaps even probable – that rather than immediately exploding or falling out of the sky for any other reason, the plane continued to fly for an extended time after it went silent.  It also seems possible – perhaps even probable – that it changed course.

There are fourth reasons for believing this.

The first reason is brutal.  There are no signs of a crashed plane anywhere near where it was when it last communicated with the ground.  If it crashed over the water, there would likely have been some floating wreckage visible on the surface, and with the water itself being shallow rather than deep, it would have been relatively easy to detect the submerged plane wreckage and, in particular, its two black boxes.

The second reason is interesting.  Various governments have monitoring capabilities that may possibly detect a mid-air explosion.  None of these monitoring services have reported any such explosion.  Of course, a mid-air explosion isn’t the only thing that might have happened, but the fact there wasn’t one shifts the odds slightly in favor of other explanations and outcomes.

The third are contradictory stories that maybe/maybe not Malaysian military radars watched the plane change course and continue to fly, but in a very different direction (from originally more or less north north east to a more directly westerly direction), and possibly picking up the plane on radar, 70 minute later, far to the west of where it was last officially reported.  Dismayingly (and surprisingly), the Malaysian military authorities said they saw nothing suspicious or worth responding to when picking up the track of an unidentified jet aircraft flying through their air space, and it seems they are alternatively confirming or denying any such radar tracking.

Note also that these radar tracks – if they occurred at all – are not guaranteed to be of the missing plane.  It could have been some other plane, so while this is interesting, it is not conclusive.

It is tantalizingly thought that other nations may also have radar tracks on the flight as well, but are not releasing that data because they don’t want to reveal the capabilities of their air defenses.

The fourth reason is another contradictory story.  In addition to the transponder and regular voice radio services, the plane may have also had an automatic data link whereby its two Rolls-Royce engines ‘phone home’ every 30 minutes to report on their operational status.

Apparently the engines continued to phone home for another four hours (or, in updated clarifications, to attempt to phone home or to at least indicate they were still online and operational, even if they had no information to send).  They didn’t transmit any meaningful data (apparently because the airline hadn’t paid extra for that option package), and in particular, no position information.

More recent reports are suggesting the engines kept in contact for five hours, although possibly what they mean is five hours in total (which is much the same as four hours after the end of official communication – and this is a great example of how confusingly worded information gets misunderstood).

It is a bit dismaying that this information only came to light about five days after the plane went missing, and furthermore, is still being denied by the Malaysian authorities.

After four more hours flying time, the flight would normally have still had about 3.5 hours worth of fuel on board, depending on its speed and altitude, and the disclosed military radar information suggests it was flying at a lower than normal altitude (where a plane burns fuel more quickly).  But even so, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that the end of engine data signals was due to the plane then running out of fuel and crashing at that time.

The Mystery Extends

Since the flight’s disappearance, there have been several possible sightings of wreckage, but none have proven to be related to the plane.  There have been a couple of other reports of people seeing burning planes falling out of the sky, or planes flying overhead where they normally would not, but these have also not yet resulted in finding any remains of the plane.

Although, as I write this, it is only about twelve hours less than a week since the plane disappeared, it is not yet an extraordinarily long time for a plane to be lost and not found.  This article lists various other plane disappearances.

In the first day or two after the plane’s mysterious disappearance, two interesting stories were spreading around the internet.  The first was that people were calling the cell phones of passengers on the plane, and rather than being switched directly to voicemail, they were hearing a ring tone with no answer.  This, it was suggested, suggested the passengers – or at least their phones – were somewhere safe.

But after more rational analysis, it was explained that for international calling, when you hear a ring tone in your phone, that doesn’t mean that the phone at the other end is ringing.  It merely means that your call is being handled and is progressing through various networks and switching devices.  So an apparent phone ringing scenario doesn’t mean the phones were actually on and connected to a phone network somewhere.

The other story that excited some people was learning that two, or possibly more (maybe four) people were traveling on fake/stolen passports on the flight.  Did that mean these people were terrorists who then successfully hijacked the plane?  Although it seemed like an obvious possibility, it turned out that people traveling on fake passports is surprisingly common, particularly in that part of the world.  So while this remains an interesting point, it is far from conclusive ‘proof’ that terrorism was involved.

A related story was that four or five passengers checked in, but did not board the flight, and their luggage was not removed.  However, that story was subsequently retracted and the revised story was that some people who had made reservations simply never arrived to the airport and so their reservations were cancelled, with standby passengers boarding in their place.

Most of all, however, the big question remains totally unanswered.  What happened to the plane and where?  At which point, your guess is as good as anyone else’s (including mine).

Some Possibilities

First, much has been made of the fact that there were no further communications from the pilots or the plane in general.  ‘Surely the pilots would have radioed a Mayday message or something if their plane was plunging out of the sky?’ has been a comment made by many people.  Others have pointed out that Capt Sullenberger was able to communicate with the air traffic control people when he made the amazing emergency landing in the Hudson River as ‘proof’ that of course the pilots could have and should have communicated any emergencies to the authorities.

But that’s not actually as certain as it might seem.  For every example cited of a flight in severe difficulties where the pilots communicated their problem, there’s another example of a flight where the pilots did not communicate at all – and perhaps the most notable and recent example of that is the Air France flight that plunged to its doom over the Atlantic.

So we don’t necessarily believe that the pilots’ silence absolutely means that they were silent because they had no choice (due to terrorists taking over the cockpit).  One can make as credible a case for suggesting, if terrorists were storming the cockpit, surely one of the pilots would have had time to transmit even the briefest of emergency messages.

Second, one of the more intriguing ‘what if’ scenarios is ‘what if there was a fire in the cargo hold’.  Sure, we agree that the plane itself has been very reliable, but what about its cargo?  Quite a lot of electronics are manufactured in Malaysia for export – is it possible there was a fire initiated by a Lithium-ion battery that quickly got out of control, burned through wiring and flight control circuitry, and caused the plane to go silent and crash?

Yes, that is very possible indeed, but hard to reconcile with the possibility that the plane was still flying, four or five hours later, in a different direction.

Other theories have included reference to an airworthiness directive issued late last year about a potential for 777 fuselage cracking, and an imaginative theory building on from that of a slow leak in cabin air pressure causing everyone on board to suffer from hypoxia, such that by the time the alarms sounded in the cockpit for low air pressure, it would be ‘too late’.  Maybe the plane just flew on auto pilot until then crashing when it ran out of fuel.

Another interesting theory is that the plane was taken over by terrorists and then the brave pilot(s) deliberately crashed the plane to foil the terrorists’ plans.  This ‘hero pilot’ theory was put forward by, ahem, a pilot.

There have also been mentions of perhaps someone hacked into the airplane’s computer system and took over the plane that way, although we’d rate this low on the list of possible occurrences.

Most recently, US officials are saying they have an ‘indication’ that the plane may have crashed in the Indian ocean.  The vagueness of what exactly the new indication is suggests it is from some type of sensitive monitoring capability that the military does not wish to disclose.  This image shows the earlier expanding search area, the new search area would be even further west.

Summary

The plane could be anywhere within a three thousand mile radius of its last for-sure known position.  At least in theory, it could have flown to Japan, Russia, either Korea, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Australia, or anywhere else within that radius – in total, about 28 million square miles of territory (here’s an image based on 2500 flying miles).

Okay, so some of those destinations are highly improbable/unlikely, and for sure would have triggered various air defense alerts, but keep in mind, when reading about how the search region is widening into some tens of thousands of square miles of space that the total maximum space the plane could have reached is tens of millions, not tens of thousands of square miles.

And so it is unsurprising that the plane has yet to be found.

Will it ever be found?  If the plane was under human command and if it landed safely somewhere and has now been obscured in a hangar or under netting, it is possible it may never be found – at least, not until ‘too late’ – ie, after the plane has been repurposed for some nefarious act.

But if the plane crashed somewhere, then it is probable the plane will be found.  Maybe today, maybe not for a year or more.  A key factor there are the two black boxes, which have locator beacons in them; these typically operate for 30 days.  The plane will become harder to find when they go silent.

Once the black boxes are located, it is very likely they will reveal what happened to the plane.  We look forward to that time.

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