A pilot’s perspective on the disappearance of MH370
In just over a century, man has gone from earning his wings to making air travel one of the safest and most economical means of global transportation. Although the early days of aviation often spawned mysterious disappearances and names like Amelia Earhart and the Bermuda Triangle haunt us to date, such stories have become exceedingly rare.
The last such incident in Pakistan occurred in 1989 when a small Fokker F27 aircraft disappeared in the northern areas, the wreckage of which was never located and remains a mystery to date. In the modern digital age, aircraft like the Boeing 777 are hailed as wonders of modern technology and incorporate decades of refinement to a point where there is little left to chance and almost all anomalies can be predicted and risks calculated.
In this progressive environment where we can track the location of our loved ones on our cell phones at any given moment, it is no wonder that the disappearance of a jetliner – 65 metres long, weighing half a million pounds – has left the world stunned.
The ensuing media frenzy has every news channel ‘expert’ hatching a conspiracy theory to keep us all glued to our televisions. Journalists throw around terms like transponder and Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) without understanding the workings of these systems and don’t hesitate to point fingers at pilots for having flight simulators in their homes that are simply tools allowing them to practise and hone their skills in order to make a safer environment for their passengers.
With each press conference, we sympathise with the families of the missing passengers and hope for a storybook ending to this saga. The stream of conflicting reports raise our hopes and then shatter them, turning this ordeal into an emotional roller coaster.
But one must ask – is it really impossible for an airliner to disappear? Is it really such a mystery?
What do we know?
Let us look at the facts so far. MH370, a 12-year-old Boeing 777-200 ER departed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and was bound for Beijing, China. At the controls were Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a veteran commander with over three decades at Malaysian Airlines and over 18,000 flying hours and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, a relative novice who had just started flying the 777 but had the required experience for this position.
The flight departed from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport – one of the busiest airports in the region – and climbed as per routine to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet during which regular communication with Malaysian air traffic control ensued. However, approaching the airspace border between Malaysia and Vietnam, the aircraft failed to contact the Vietnamese air traffic control and disappeared off the radar scope.
The sudden absence of radar contact and all forms of communication indicated that some sort of catastrophic failure or explosion was the cause of the disappearance and based on this assumption a search for the missing aircraft began the following morning in the relatively shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand. News of the aircraft being involved in an earlier ground collision which had resulted in a damaged wing came to light, enforcing the view that the aircraft had disintegrated in flight, bringing to mind the Air France 447 flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean just four years ago.
As the days passed, the increasingly desperate search revealed nothing new about the aircraft while new information kept on coming to light. Rumours that MH370 may have turned around and flown for several hours after it disappeared from radar contact grew rampant until finally on the seventh day, the Malaysian prime minister confirmed that the aircraft had been tracked by primary air force radar and ACARS data and had changed course to fly westwards back across the Malay-Thai border. He went on to say that it was last tracked leaving Malaysian airspace in a north-westerly direction over the Andaman Sea and was headed towards the Arabian Sea when radar contact was lost.
Can an airliner simply disappear?
In order to understand how an aircraft can vanish, let’s look at how aircrafts are tracked and what transpired as MH370 ‘disappeared’. All airliners are monitored by air traffic control using secondary radar which is fundamentally different to the primary radar usually deployed by a country’s Air Force or Air Defence. Primary radar scans for any and all objects in the air and is usually used as the first line of defence to identify unexpected aircraft. We usually see this in the movies as a blip on a radar screen.
Secondary radar transmits a signal that queries a transponder on the aircraft which responds with basic flight information such as flight number, speed and altitude that is displayed on the air traffic controller’s screen. With the transponder switched off, the secondary radar can no longer see the aircraft and it practically disappears off the screen.
Yes, it really is that simple.
However, primary radar can and did track an object. But without the means to identify whether this was MH370 or another unidentified aircraft, there was no confirmation. Each country monitors its own airspace which extends out over the waters off its coast. Over large expanses of water, there is no radar and aircrafts are not monitored when they leave the airspace of one country and begin transoceanic flight, until they re-enter the airspace of another country near its coastline.
So, say a flight from London to New York is monitored on radar until it leaves the airspace of the United Kingdom and enters international oceanic airspace over the Atlantic. Pilots still pass routine position reports and estimates for further positions to controllers over the radio but the aircraft is not actually monitored on a radar scope until it nears the North American coast.
Airliners are also equipped with ACARS which is essentially a unit that transmits and receives data using radio or satellite communication. This data can be sent out automatically by the aircraft’s computers in the form of routine performance reports or as maintenance alerts for possible requirements after landing. It can also be used by the pilots to request operational or company information such as weather reports or flight plan updates. Lastly, there is also a satellite communication system that can be used to place phone calls via satellite for areas of poor or no radio communication or in case long-range communication is required.
As the primary radar and ACARS data was analysed and by overlaying this data with the last identified course and position of MH370, it became obvious that MH370 was indeed the same contact seen on the primary radar flying westbound over preconceived aeronautical waypoints that would be used on a regular westerly route. The authorities knew of this at least a day before it was announced to the world as the search area was shifted to the west coast of Malaysia a day before this information was released to the media.
As far as the question of whether or not an airliner can simply vanish without a trace, the answer is yes and no. While a switched off transponder prevents confirmation of the aircraft’s identity via secondary radar, the aircraft is still very much in the air physically and can still be tracked by the primary radar.
Technical glitch or human intervention?
As a 777 pilot myself, let me assure you that such a drastic and specific change in flight path combined with altitude changes and lack of transponder and radio contact, could not be carried out without human intervention. As advanced as the 777 may be, it still requires extensive training to operate, leaving little doubt that the intervention was made by persons trained in the operation of the aircraft either deliberately or under duress.
In a nutshell, there is little doubt of foul play.
Perhaps, the illusion of a ‘disappeared’ aircraft was maintained to deflect attention whilst the aircraft continued on to an unknown destination. As the aircraft left Malaysian airspace, it entered the Arabian Sea – an area with no primary radar – and could no longer be tracked. At this point, the aircraft would still have four to five hours of fuel remaining which would give it a range of over 2,500 miles.
From here onwards, the only information the aircraft continued to transmit was ACARS data containing minimal position information, based on which two vague routes which happen to be in completely opposing directions, have been established as the possible route of flight and a so called ‘search area’. However, realistically speaking, such a large area is practically unsearchable and most of the inquiry about the flight will now focus primarily on the crew and passengers.
The pilots: masterminds or acting under duress?
Based on my own professional experience, I have little doubt that the actions that led to the disappearance of MH370 were deliberate, pre-planned and executed by trained persons in the cockpit. However, the question remains as to whether the captain and first officer of MH370 acted on their own accord or under pressure. Going to such lengths to make the aircraft disappear off radar, and yet, fail to mask ACARS transmissions is an error that a skilled pilot is unlikely to make.
However, ACARS transmissions may be easily overlooked by someone with less insight into the aircraft systems, under whose orders the crew might have been acting. Turning off the ACARS system is not as simple as the one switch that turns the transponder on and off. ACARS is a system buried within the aircraft’s computer architecture and is usually operated automatically. It can only be shut off by removing power to the entire system by pulling circuit breakers – otherwise, obviously not used inflight.
Where could the aircraft have gone?
Although I’d rather not speculate, one needs to bear in mind the accuracy and timing with which the aircraft was made to disappear from radar. This indicates an elaborate plot to draw the world’s attention to a false search area under the premise of a crash whilst the aircraft itself travelled in the opposite direction and possibly onto a particular destination.
There are two possible outcomes to the question where it might have gone. Firstly, it could have crashed somewhere enroute. And secondly, although a rather farfetched scenario (but one that is becoming more realistic) is that, the elaborate deviation of flight path culminated in a final destination. And this brings us to a more difficult question – is it possible to covertly land a large aircraft and if so, where?
Along both the possible flight routes, there are vast expanses of ocean and countless territories which, like the Malaysians, may not be able to identify or intercept a lone aircraft. Furthermore, with the right kind of resources and planning, it is possible to land such an aircraft in a remote airfield, hundreds of which exist in the region.
However, the main question that arises is to what end? A hijacking or terrorist plot would not require such elaborate and painstaking efforts to dupe the authorities and a ‘disappeared’ aircraft would not help in realising their demands. It would be simpler and more effective to hijack the aircraft with full media coverage. However, we must recall that pre 9/11, such a horrific event was unimaginable not to mention that the required preventive security measures could not even be dreamed up since the scenario was so impossible.
The questions that remain…
I would like to put forward several questions that nobody seems to be asking. The fact that a large aircraft could fly for over an hour directly across the Malaysian peninsula, eerily close to the Malay-Thai border under observation of Malaysia Air Force radar, without being intercepted by the Malaysian Defence Forces, is simply shocking. Even more surprising is the fact that it took three days before anyone was able to verify that there was indeed an aircraft crossing Malaysia at the exact same time that a scheduled flight disappeared. The initial 24-48 hours would have been crucial in locating the aircraft.
Unfortunately, the investigation will now shift to the passengers and crew and their already shattered homes shall be picked apart to no end. The media will tout each opportunity to defame them and twist the facts to keep the world’s attention focussed on the TV screens.
Although accidents will continue to occur, it is the mysterious ones that capture our imagination and this may just be another mystery that remains unanswered for a very long time. But what must not be forgotten is that despite the mystery surrounding these events, aviation remains incredibly safe today and 2013 was the safest year in the history of aviation.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.