I have stated all the way through the mystery that MH370 has become, that terrorism was unlikely. I still maintain that view. That’s not to say that human intervention is written all over this incident. I had initially believed that explosive decompression or gross mechanical failure of power plants and possible consequent damage to control surfaces was likely to be the cause of the loss of MH370, but the longer the aircraft remains unlocated the less likely hull or mechanical failure are the cause of the loss.
Then the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the ACARS and transponders on flight MH370 had been deliberately disabled and the plane diverted off its published FP towards the southern Indian Ocean off the West Australian coast or north-west towards Kazakhstan, which suggests influence or action one or both of the pilots, or with a cockpit incursion by one or more of the passengers was responsible for the loss of the aircraft.
This new Malaysian information release again raised the possiblity of terrorism. Terrorism still cannot be completely ruled out, but seems less likely than other possibilities. Terrorism is always politically motivated with a specific or strategic outcome sought. One would expect if terrorism was involved, that the perpetrators would have claimed responsibility and already used the plane as a weapon against a possible target immediately. One would expect that political demands would have been made, or there would have been an attempt to put pressure on their selected target government.
It has been suggested that terrorist groups do not always claim responsibility for their acts, but that is more likely to be true when there is little doubt about who the perpetrators are and what they want. There seems little point in terrorists hijacking MH370 if no one knows why they did it or what they are seeking to achieve by doing so.
I would appear that the most likely cause for the MH370 diversion seems to be a mental illness on the part of one of the pilots, or perhaps a passenger as a result of a sucessfulcockpit incursion and was able to force a pilot to fly a particular direction to a pre-planned destination – or indeed was able to fly the aircraft himself. But what became of the pilots if the aircraft was taken over by another.
The MH370 incident highlights a number of aviation security problems that will need to be addressed.
- Airport security – Lax passport checking against the Interpol stolen passport database allowed two persons with stolen passports to board the aircraft. These person were probably seeking illegal entry into Europe so are probably innocent in respect of the takeover of the aircraft itself. All passports must be checked against Interpol stolen passport lists.
- Management of the incident information was poor. The lack of a central command centre or spokesperson allowed many agencies to release erronious information which raised hopes of family members then dashed them again, which led to confusion about what could be believed and what could not. For example, for several days it was publicised by Malaysian Airlines that there were a number of no-shows for flight, and whose baggage had been offloaded. Malaysian police stated later this was incorrect and there were no no-shows. The Malaysian government withheld the vital loss of ACARS and transponder information, that could have helped the countries searching for the aircraft. International media did not assist efforts by continually publicising advice from technical experts, academics, leaks from inside the investigation, and their attempts to make news when there was no news.
- The security of cockpit door. Reinforcing the door was good to prevent hijackers entering the flight deck, but is diminished by the door needing to be opened for personal, refreshment and crew handover needs in flight. Perhaps personal and refreshment facilities need to be located on the cockpit side of the door for added security. It is possible for somebody on the cockpit side of the door to keep out a returning pilot/co-pilot from regaining access to the cockpit area. On the 17/02/2014 the co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines plane flying from Addis Ababa to Rome locked the pilot out of the cockpit and then flew the plane to Switzerland on his own to seek asylum.
- Diversion from FP – unauthorised and unexpected diversions from a published FP should identified and investigated immediately.
- Air security officers or flight marshals. Many governments, including Australia’s, have been reducing funding in this area and it is probable now that not more than 5 per cent of international flights have air security officers on board. This is due in part to the vast reduction in hijacking and attempted hijecking world-wide. An officer on Flight MH370 may have made a difference – provided of course he or she was able to open the cockpit door, and was not incapicitated during the climb to FL450 in a possible depresurisation attempt to overcome the passengers.
- Pilot mental health. This needs to be regularly reviewed. Long haul flying can be extremely boring and mind-numbing which can lead to stress problems. Flying has been described as 99% boredom and 1% sheer terrror! Are there current studies into the effects on mental health of frequent long-haul flights on pilots and flight crew?
- Transponders, ACARS and communications equipment. No one on an aircraft should be able to disable the ACARS or transponder whilst the aircraft is in flight. This equipment must be fitted in a secure area.
- Ground crew. Ground crew screening needs to be more thorough as they have complete and often unsupervised access to all areas of the airport and to aircraft. A respondent to one of my earlier posts an ATP pilot (thank you, Ingrid) suggested persons could be secreted into a hold container, loaded into the aircraft in a full forward position, from where upon exiting the container, they would have full access to the main electronics bay (MEB) below the flight deck – and to the flight deck itself. Once in the MEB, the intruders would have full access to the communications systems of the B777-2H6 and thus be able to disable them.