Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Disappearing act

Tip o'the lid: American Digest

If an airliner falls in the middle of the ocean, and nobody hears (or sees it), does it make any noise, sight, or sense?

Having spent some 17 years working in the aviation safety field, I ought to have something to say about the mysterious disappearance (as of this writing) of Malaysia Flight Three Seven Zero.

I won't keep you in suspense: I don't know what to think.

A working hypothesis requires evidence. There is no evidence. The investigative authorities always say in the immediate aftermath of an accident that speculation should be avoided until the facts are known. Perfectly right. Good luck with that.

We all have terrorism on the brain these days. It is strange that voice communication and the transponder that prints the flight number, altitude, and location on radar flight following suddenly stopped. No pilot, unless insane or under duress, would have commanded that. And unless the airplane experienced a catastrophic failure like a stuck rudder hard-over, an especially devastating uncontained engine failure, or a mid-air break-up, there would have been time for the pilots to send a radio message. None was received.

Could terrorists have forced their way into the cockpit? Not impossible. Could explosives have destroyed the aircraft in flight? Conceivably.

But terrorism seems unlikely. The fact that two (or more) passengers were traveling with stolen passports is almost certainly a red herring. Why take a chance of being stopped because of a fake passport when you have a valid one? In that part of the world -- and maybe elsewhere -- any given flight probably includes passengers with phony IDs. What message was supposed to be sent? If it was down to Muslim fanatics, why blow up a plane on the national airline of Malaysia, a Muslim country?

A radio frequency is reserved for pilots to transmit an automated message of a hijacking, although I don't know if its use is universal among airlines.

It was reported that military radar showed that the flight did a U-turn. It was only an hour from its airport of origin, and if some mechanical difficulty had been detected, the best plan might have been to return whence it had taken off. But why no radio communication? The normal course would have been to contact the airline's maintenance technical staff for advice, or declare an urgency or emergency. 

Pilot suicide? It is a serious breach of good manners if as a pilot you take all your passengers with should you decide to say goodbye to this cruel word, but it happens, albeit rarely. There was EgyptAir Nine Nine Zero. SilkAir One Eight Five.

And it was reported that a woman claimed that one of the pilots on Malaysia Three Seven Zero once invited her to share his quarters on the flight deck during an entire flight. If that is true, it was a disgraceful violation of cockpit discipline. But it's hard to see any relevance to this situation.

Probably a debris field will be discovered -- tomorrow, next week, next month. Depending on its location and, if in the sea, the depth of the wreckage, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder will be recovered. It could take a while; I believe it was two years before they found the recorders from Air France Four Four Seven.

Meanwhile my heart goes out to the relatives of the passengers, still nursing whatever hope they can that some are alive in the air, on land, or at sea.

1 comment:

YIH said...

As you likely know Charles Hugh Smith has been speculating on what may have happened.
Karl Denninger has also been trying to piece together what could have happened. He also points out that if the plane changed course with transponder off that it would be:
''Folks, check a map and make sure you plot a course that avoids all the ADIZ boundaries and their radars, because if you pop up at 20 or 30,000 feet on one of those without a transponder you're going to be presumed to be a military aircraft -- and tagged immediately as "not one of ours" when the IFF sent at you doesn't come back.''
Of course a 'strange' aircraft entering territorial airspace could and would be assumed 'hostile' until confirmed not. As in attempts to contact on radio, possibly a force down and if all else fails, shoot down.
Even if it visually appears as a commercial airliner it's plausible in such a situation to consider the possibility that it could be used as a weapon even if unarmed (haven't we all seen it done before?).
Like you I hope nothing but the best, though after this much time whatever fate has befallen them is likely not a good one.