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.
Since the Oslo Accord in 1993 there has been a radical decline in the number of terrorist aircraft hijacks or attempted hijacks. Internationally, since 2000 there have been only 18 hijacks or attempted hijacks of large commercial aircraft. Seven were by individuals wanting to get to a destination to seek political asylum, one was a criminal action to steal the cargo. Six were by mentally ill persons, and four were politically motivated . Mental health seem to account for most of the lone-perpetrator hijacks and attempted hijacks. This is certainly true of Australia where since 1960 there have been 11 attempts to hijack aircraft, some of which have been successful. None was terrorism related, none involved fatalities. All were by lone perpetrators, most of whom seemed to be suffering from mental illness.
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.
The following article reflects the growing concern that MH-370 has been “hijacked” or subjected to cockpit intrusion and piracy. This edited press release below is from the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Is this a credible theory, or just another deparate attempt to explain the loss of this aircraft? Areas searched now include the Gulf of Thailand, the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman Sea and now the Bay of Bengal. If as suggested there has been human intervention, and the aircraft has been flown elsewhere it could be anywhere with in a 7 hour 30 minute radius of Kuala Lumpur – assuming that Beijing is 6 hours flying time from Malaysia plus a 1 hour fuel reserve.
Estimated B772 fuel load (WMKK-ZBAA). Courtesy fuelplanner.com
In a previous post on the web site, I stated that I thought terrorism, cockpit intrusion or piracy to be unlikely. I still remain unconvinced at this point. However, this will only be confirmed if and when the aircraft is found.
- Investigators are now convinced the missing Malaysia Airlines plane was hijacked by one or more people with significant flying experience, who switched off communications and diverted the flight, an “official” involved in the investigation said on Saturday. But they do not know the motive or where the plane was taken, the unnamed source told Associated Press. “It is conclusive,” said the Malaysian official, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorised to brief media. This would suggest that a commercial pilot would have to had been involved in the “hijack”, as significant flying experience in this aircraft type can only be gained by actual hands on flying.
- The huge multinational search was focused on the Bay of Bengal early on Saturday, one week after flight MH370 vanished, as US officials confirmed they had directed surveillance aircraft to patrol the area for debris. There were reports that Malaysian military radar indicated the plane made at least two distinct changes of course after apparently turning back from its route towards Beijing. US officials indicated that they believed the plane had crashed in the Indian Ocean and said that an aerial search of the area would begin on Saturday.
- The Malaysian official said it had been established with a “more than 50 percent” degree of certainty that military radar had picked up the missing plane after it dropped off civilian radar.
- The New York Times reported that radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the plane ascending to 45,000 feet and making a sharp turn to the right not long after it disappeared from civilian radar. This is a curious observation as the service ceiling for a B777-200 is 41,300 feet (13,140 metres). an aircraft can climb above it’s service and certified ceiling. It’s not advisable but it is possible.. This information comes from “a preliminary assessment by a person familiar with the data”, the paper said. The same data suggests the plane descended to 23,000 feet as it approached the Malaysian island of Penang, but then re-ascended and flew northwest over the Straits of Malacca.
- CNN is reporting that authorities think the plane may have gone in one of two directions after it passed through the Straits of Malacca: either northwest, towards the Bay of Bengal and the coast of India, or southwest, out into the expanse of the Indian Ocean.
- If the missing airliner crashed in the Indian Ocean, which plunges to depths of 7,000m (23,000ft), it would mean a significant escalation in scale of the challenge facing investigators. Any debris could have been swept far from the original crash site.
- The last communication with the crew was made at around 1.20am, 40 minutes into the flight, as it headed east over the South China Sea towards Vietnam. The plane had enough fuel to fly for another five hours – meaning its potential range was enormous.
- Investigators believe that one or more people switched off communications devices and steered the plane off course, according to the AP source.
- Both military radar readings and the plane’s automatic attempts to establish contact with satellites have offered key clues to its whereabouts, suggesting it flew for four to five hours and was last seen heading north-west towards the Andaman Islands.
- Experts say that while changes in altitude could be caused by fuel burning off, they would not account for the changes in direction. The New York Times also reported that the changes appear to have taken the plane both above and below usual cruising levels for a Boeing-777 at various points in its journey, with it climbing to 45,000 feet before turning west and descending to 23,000 feet as it approached Penang.
- Earlier, an American official told AP that investigators are examining the possibility of “human intervention” in the plane’s disappearance, adding it may have been “an act of piracy.”
- The official suggested a key piece of evidence suggesting intentional interference with communications was that that contact with the Boeing 777’s transponder stopped about a dozen minutes before a messaging system on the jet quit – making it less likely a sudden catastrophic failure was to blame. Some experts have said sequential failures due to technical problems were not impossible – for example if there was a fire – though they would be unusual. It also appeared to be steered to avoid radar detection. The Wall Street Journal reported that manually dismantling communications systems – such as the transponder, which communicates the aircraft’s position, speed and call sign to air traffic control radar – would have required detailed knowledge of the workings of the Boeing-777. It said investigators are also trying to determine why the plane stopped pinging satellites after five hours while apparently cruising over the Indian Ocean. That could be caused by disconnecting the system – an extremely complex task – or by something catastrophic happening to the flight, an expert told them.
- Malaysian police said earlier this week they would be investigating the backgrounds of two pilots, ten crew members and all 227 passengers.
Meanwhile an extraordinary claim has suggested the jetliner may have flown to a position off the west coast of Australia. This extraordinary claim a source cited by Bloomberg news agency, said the last satellite transmission from the airliner has been traced to the Indian Ocean off Australia, 1,ooo kilometres to the west of Perth!
The other thing that continues to puzzle me here is at the time of writng this post, no credible source has come out and confirmed the “hijack” officially. Terms like “a Malaysian official who spoke anonymously”, “an American official”, “experts say” and “a source cited by Bloomberg news agency” are used in the above article, with no official statement from the Malaysian government or the airline. Too many anonymous sources! This smacks of media hype and the need to report something, when there is nothing to report.
Is this a credible story, or is this another example of the wild speculation and conspiracy theories that have surrrounded the disappearance of MH370? You be your own judge.
Time will tell!