The final outcome of what has happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-370 will not be revealed until the aircraft is actually found and the CVR and FDR located and the data read. Meticulous salvage and rebuilding of the aircraft will also assist is determining the cause of the incident.
Flight MH-370, a Boeing 777-200ER – 9M-MRO (cn28420/404) which first flew on 14/05/2002, disappeared off radar at 02:40 on the 8/03/2014 90Nm north-east of Kota Bharu at position 6 55.15N 103 34.43E after leaving Kuala Lumpur International Airport (WMKK) at 12:43 MYT. Malaysian authorities have confirmed that no signs of any wreckage have been found so far, despite numerous rumours that the Boeing B777-200 aircraft had crashed off the coast of southern Vietnam.
Location of the Aircraft
The tracking website FlightAware (http://www.flightaware.com) reports loss of contact with the aircraft near Kota Bharu. This is a curious situation as 9M-MRO departed WMKK at 12:43, and disappeared at 02:40 while cruising at 35,000ft. Travelling at 428 nmph the location of the aircraft 2 hours later should have placed it nearly 860 nautical miles from Kuala Lumpur. This would locate the aircraft in the vicinity of Vung Tau in Vietnam. Reports however suggest that 9M-MRO never entered Vietnamese ATC controlled airspace. Radar data suggests a steep and sudden descent of the aircraft, during which the track of the aircraft changed from 024 degrees to 333 degrees.
The aircraft would have run out of fuel by now, and there is no report of a landing of this Boeing 777 on any airport in the area. Search and rescue teams from Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are trying to locate the aircraft.
So what would cause a safe aircraft flying straight and level at 35,000 feet to diasppear from radar, without allowing the pilot to alert authorities to their situation? There are only four scenarios that come to mind.
The crash of JAL Flight 123 in August, 1985 in Japan was caused by the failure of the aft pressure bulkhead which resulted in the explosive decompression of the aircraft resulting in a crash 34 minutes later.
United Airlines Flight 811 experienced a cargo door failure in flight on Friday, February 24, 1989, after its stopover at Honolulu International Airport, Hawaii. The resulting decompression blew out several rows of seats, resulting in the deaths of 9 passengers. This aircraft did land safely after returning to Honolulu.
A loss of pressurisation could put the crew and passengers to sleep, as happened with a Learjet, which crashed in October 1999 in South Dakota after the six occupants became incapacitated. However, a loss of pressurisation would cause alarms to sound in the cockpit and allow flight crew to take corrective action. Furthermore, a pressurisation loss would not cause the aircraft to crash immediately. Theoretically, the aircraft could continue on autopilot, following a programmed route, until the fuel ran out before crashing. This did not happen.
To suggest this, or something like this, is the cause of the demise of MH-370 is highly speculative at this point and the actual cause will not be confirmed until the aircraft is found.
Since its introduction in 1995, there are 1,544 Boeing 777-200s in service, with the ER version introduced in 1997. It is a remarkably safe aircraft with little history of incidents. Wikipedia reveals that as of March 2014, the 777 has been in only 10 aviation accidents and incidents, which include three confirmed hull-loss accidents. Before 2013, the only fatality involving the B772 occurred in a refueling fire during which a ground worker sustained fatal burns. The aircraft, operated by British Airways, suffered fire damage to the lower wing panels and engine housing and it was later repaired and returned to service.
In an “airfield incursion” at the Shanghai Pudong airport in September 2012, the MAS plane with the registration 9M-MRO collided with a China Eastern Airlines’ Airbus A340-600, registration B-6050, according to the French Office of Investigations and Analysis for the Safety of Civil Aviation (BEA). An “airfield incursion” is the aviation term used to describe an unauthorized aircraft, vehicle or person on the airfield, which can affect runway safety.
The type’s first hull-loss occurred on January 17, 2008, when British Airways Flight 38, a 777-200ER with Rolls-Royce Trent 895 engines flying from Beijing to London, crash-landed approximately 1,000 feet (300 m) short of Heathrow Airport’s runway 27L and slid onto the runway’s threshold. There were 47 injuries and no fatalities. The impact damaged the landing gear, wing roots and engines. The aircraft was written off. Upon investigation, the accident was blamed on ice crystals from the fuel system clogging the fuel-oil heat exchanger. In 2009, air accident investigators called for a redesign of this component on the Trent 800 series engine. Redesigned fuel oil heat exchangers were installed in British Airways’ 777s by October 2009
The type’s second hull-loss occurred on July 29, 2011, when an an EgyptAir 777-200ER, SU-GBP suffered a cockpit fire while parked at the gate at Cairo International Airport. The plane was successfully evacuated without injuries, and airport fire teams extinguished the fire. The aircraft sustained structural, heat and smoke damage. This aircraft was also written off. Investigators focused on a possible electrical fault with a supply hose in the cockpit crew oxygen system
The type’s third hull loss and first involving fatalities occurred on July 6, 2013, when Asiana Airlines Flight 214, 777-200ER HL7742, crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport after touching down short of the runway. Surviving passengers and crew evacuated before fire destroyed the aircraft. The crash led to the death of three of the 307 people on board. These were the first fatalities in a crash involving a 777. An accident investigation by the NTSB is underway with its initial focus on the aircraft’s low landing speed.
Given the safety record of this aircraft and being involved in so few accidents and incidents, it would seem that mechanical failure is an unlikely cause of this incident. Given that the flight crew had no time to send a distress call or “mayday”, it seems likely that whatever ocurred inflight did so with rapid, unrecoverable results.
The flight crew have between them 21,130 hours flying time and were long time employees of Malaysia Airlines. The captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, is a 53-year-old with 18,365 flying hours experience who joined Malaysian Airlines in 1981. The first officer, Fariq Bin Ab Hamid, is a 27-year-old with 2,763 flying hours, and he has been an employee of Malaysia Airlines since 2007.
In 2009, a Airbus A330-203 flying in straight and level flight unexpectedly crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The final report stated that the aircraft crashed after temporary inconsistencies between the airspeed measurements which were likely due to the aircraft’s pitot tubes being obstructed by ice crystals. This then caused the autopilot to disconnect, after which the crew reacted incorrectly and ultimately led the aircraft to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover. The Air France Airbus A-330 Flight 447, signaled flight errors to the manufacturer’s headquarters in France. The equipment reported problems with height and airspeed as they were happening in a storm, in fact dozens of warnings in the flight’s final minutes which helped locate where it went down.
This example is by no means suggested as the cause of this incident, but included rather to illustrate that incidents can occur in straight and level flight with fatal outcomes if pilots fail to carry out the correct recovery procedures.
9M-MRO was being flown by a senior and respected flight crew, and nothing written here should be contrued as suggesting that pilot error occurred in this flight, rather than to indicate that pilot error can be a cause of air crashes.
Terrorist activities can result in a rapid and catastrophic loss of airframe. An example is the loss of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988, when an onboard bomb detonated and destroyed the aircraft.
In the case of Flight MH-370, and number of anomolies have occurred with the bonafides of the passengers. Officials are currently investigating the possibility of terrorism. Four passengers are confirmed to have been flying with false IDs. Two of these passengers are suspected to have boarded the aircraft using Austrian and Italian passports stolen in Thailand, and Malaysian authorities are also checking the identity of the two other passengers. This may be unrelated to the the aircraft loss, but rather a visa avoidance strategy to enter China. US officials said they were checking into passenger manifests and going back through intelligence. The FBI has sent a number of technical experts to Malaysia to assist with the investigation of the disappearance of the aircraft.
When considering the possible causes of this Malaysian aircraft loss, I had considered that the most likely cause was explosive, catastrophic loss of hull integrity. Aircraft do not just disappear with a trace, with no distress calls from the flight deck as MH-370 has done.
The relative good safety record of this aircraft and it’s senior and experienced flight crew leads me to believe that mechanical failure and pilot error are unlikely.
I had considered that terrorism, while possible, was unlikely, but considering the lack of a distress call suggested the plane either suffered an explosive decompression or was destroyed by an explosive device has led me to reconsider this possibility.
Of course, this is all speculative. Only the location and recovery of the aircraft and subsequent investigation by authorities will determine the actual cause of the incident. Time will tell.
My thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones in this incident.