by Mark Swint
It has been just over a year now since the disappearance of Malaysia flight MH-370 somewhere in Southeast Asia or over the Indian Ocean. Like the rest of you I have watched with avid curiosity waiting for one of commercial aviation’s greatest mysteries to unfold. Alas, it hasn’t and now it seems destined to go down in history as one of aviation’s greatest UNSOLVED mysteries. So, as a Boeing 777 Captain and as a commercial pilot who regularly flies over that portion of the world I think it is time for me to throw my thoughts into the ring.
As with all other media reporting of aviation events and disasters, the reporting and the conjecture on the fate of MH-370 was like chalk on a fingernail board – wait! – nevermind. You know what I mean. That sounds silly but no sillier than some of the things I heard ‘experts’ say on TV. In fairness to them I must admit or at least allow that maybe they were under some sort of constraints as to what they might say publically. I say this because some elements of this event were not nearly so mysterious as the reporting made it sound. Now, as I go through these points please remember that I currently fly 777s and I know well how they work. I know what they are capable of and what they cannot do by themselves. One thing they cannot do is ‘go walkabout’ for six and a half hours wandering around the Indian Ocean, though that is what the media would have you believe. Let me explain how this works.
Airspace around the world is highly regulated and controlled. As the air traffic has increased over the years the need to reduce separation between airplanes became more and more necessary. To that end, the performance of airplane systems was tightened up and the requirement that the plane always be on autopilot at and above 29,000 was put in place. Now the autopilot (Actually there are three on the 777) is very good, even able to make remarkably good landings in very bad weather. Coupled with the autopilot is an extremely accurate GPS based navigation system that can keep the plane on a track no wider than a few feet all the way across the Pacific. Before the plane ever leaves the gate the pilots have entered the entire route for the trip into the navigation units and have verified the waypoints, distances, headings etc. Once airborne and on their way, and during the climb, the pilot flying engages the autopilot and from that point until the top of the descent the pilot’s s job is to monitor aircraft performance and navigation and to modify as required or directed by air traffic control and as weather might dictate. Otherwise, the plane flies blissfully along as the preprogrammed computers were tasked to do.
One of the things that pilots do get to do is regularly communicate with the controllers of the various sectors along the route. Kuala Lumpur airspace is controlled by Subang ATC (often erroneously called Kuala Lumpur center). As MH-370 departed K.L. the pilots first talked to K.L.departure control and at some point were handed off to Subang Center. They would have checked in with a report of their altitude and, if climbing, the altitude they were climbing to. It was late on the night of the disappearance and so the communications were probably minimal but at the boundary of Subang Control and Ho Chi Minh Control (Viet Nam), Also called the FIR boundary, Subang called and Handed MH-370 off to HO Chi Minh saying something very much like “Malaysia 370, contact Ho Chi Minh now on XXX.XX Good night. MH-370 responded with something not quite SOP but good enough. They said something like “OK good night”. Now, here’s what should be happening in the cockpit at this time. As Subang calls the plane the pilot monitoring the radios moves his hand to the radio, knowing a frequency change is coming, and as Subang gives him the frequency he is dialing that in on the ‘scratchpad’ half of the radio. As soon as he says ‘goodnight; he pushes a little button in the middle of the radio and the ‘scratchpad frequency becomes the active frequency. In almost the same moment the pilot would (Unless someone else was already talking on the frequency) say “HO Chi Minh Malaysia 370 level 350, indicating that the airplane was flying level at 35,000. This did not happen.
Of course this is where all the conjecture began for the news organizations. Let’s consider a few.
1. The plane blew up… Nope, we know from publically released records that the plane continued flying for approximately six and one half hours more. Additionally, the odds that a perfectly good 777 would blow up at exactly the instant between talking to Subang and trying to talk to Ho Chi minh are astronomically small.
2. The pilots became incapacitated… Nope. A pilot capable of saying goodnight to Subang would certainly be able to say good evening to Ho Chi Minh one second later. I am unaware of any medical malady that could incapacitate both pilots that quickly.
Now, information trickled out rather slowly at first about those first few minutes of this event but regardless, conjecture on either of these two points was foolish from the beginning and the so called experts should have know this.
We now know that at the very same moment that the pilots supposedly became incapacitated, the airplane also suffered failure of the transponder and the ADS-B and the CPDLC. You don’t need to know what those are but just know that they are various ways the airplane communicates autonomously with various ground facilities for various reasons. Now ask yourself, what are the odds that the aircraft would lose communications at the exact same instant that the pilots would presumably became non-responsive. This fact alone was the flag that shouted “This was no accident!” Virtually all international pilots knew this from the very beginning. Yet the experts kept on talking nonsense on the 24 hour news cycles. Over and Over and Over.
EVEN IF these things had happened magically without pilot intervention what happened next is impossible. The airplane turned! And not just to any random heading! It turned to follow the FIR boundary exactly. The plane split the line between Subang and Ho Chi Minh perfectly, supposedly so that each agency would think the other was talking to the aircraft. Also, being virtually invisible electronically it is possible that both ATC centers might not even have seen the plane. Nothing could have been more deliberate. What you, dear reader, need to know is that there is no way the airplane would automatically turn like this. If everybody on board suddenly died and the plane was left to itself it would continue on the pre-programmed course that was set back on the ground in Kuala Lumpur. The plane would have continued on to Beijing and then probably kept the same course until it ran out of gas. This is what happened to the Lear Jet that Paine Stewart died on.
So, make no mistake, one way or the other this plane was intentionally diverted and the transponder was intentionally turned off. Turning off the ADS and the CPDLC was more difficult and not many pilots would know how to do that – but it is not hard and can be done with a little bit of study. The one thing the pilots or the responsible parties did not do and probably did not know about was the automatic reporting the engines tried repeatedly to do to the home factories for the next six and a half hours. This was the element that let the world know that the airplane did not crash right away.
Now the real question: “What happen to flight MH-370?”
These questions are harder to answer; but not impossible. First of all there is absolutely NO precedent to suggest that a pilot bent on suicide or mayhem would steal a plane and then fly it around for six and a half more hours. Even the cowardly act of committing suicide takes a level of courage that doesn’t last long. Germanwings 9525 and EgyptAir 990 both went down quickly and before anyone else had a chance to intervene. Why would MH-370 fly around till sunrise? Maybe that is the answer! Sunrise! The only difference between when the plane disappeared and when it supposedly went down was that the Sun came up and the person at the controls could see. Why would that make a difference? Because maybe, just maybe the person at the controls needed to see in order to land the plane on some un-improved strip in Bangladesh, or Myanmar, or, pick your place. Somewhere. But, you say, they told us it went down in the middle of the ocean. Interestingly, we have not found a single life preserver, set cushion, piece of insulation or other buoyant object. You should know that if the plane went down under control A’la Captain Sully it would have remained intact. It would have floated for a considerable time; however, there are five emergency locator transmitters on board, anyone of which would have automatically triggered and begun sending out signals that would have been picked up by any number of satellites. If it crashed and broke up there would be debris, no matter where it hit the water. “But” you say, “All the news organizations say it went down in the middle of the ocean”. That doesn’t make it so.
Let me share with you a few things that are absolutely true, I swear.
1. The bad guys still want a big airplane. It is their number one goal. I was told this in recurrent training just before MH-370 disappeared and it has remained true every year before and since.
2. For life to continue and for economies to keep growing the public has to feel safe and secure. This means not letting the public know about every attempt by bad guys to hurt us. Let me tell you about a experience I had. I swear this is absolutely true. I had the opportunity to sit, on an airplane, next to one of the most powerful politicians in the U.S. One of the very most powerful. We were talking about all of the security measures, ie Homeland Security, the TSA and all of the security related restrictions we as Americans face daily because of 9/11. I asked him if this was really necessary? Was the threat really as great as it seemed? He looked me straight in the eye and with a seriousness that caught me off guard he said, “Oh yes. They try every day! Our security is just that good.” He then went on to share some additional insight with me. I realized that it was in the American public’s best interest to not know everything that goes on. Rather we just want to know that what ever is going on, we are being protected by people whose job it is to know.
3.Do we know where the plane is/was? Probably. A few years after 9/11 there was a raid conducted jointly by the Americans and the French in which some very high ranking Al Qaieda leaders were captured. A tremendous amount of intelligence was gathered at the same time but a French commander made a terrible blunder. In front of the cameras he held up a notebook that contained all of the phone numbers, computer passwords and contact information about all of the other Al Qaieda bad guys. The Americans were incensed because the release of the fact that we had the book immediately rendered it useless. It was tantamount to telling the Germans that we had decrypted the Enigma machine during World War II. I find it highly improbable that we don’t know where the plane was during the entire event. The U.S. has a number of spy satellites positioned all around the world. these are the ones that can read a license plane from 400 miles up. They are not really that secret. The first really good ones were called the KH-11 Keyhole satellites. I believe we re now up to KH-11 series 14. These are just part of the reconnaissance assets that the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) has at their command. I believe we can see anything on Earth that we want to. More on this in a moment.
4. It has long been rumored that a number of nuclear warheads from the former Soviet Union ‘disappeared’ from inventory with the break up of the USSR. Probably true. Lots of things go missing in government hands…sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. Now, let’s just suppose for a minute that the bad guys have one or two of these, I mean they had to go somewhere and that somewhere would certainly be into the hands of bad guys…right? They would probably be pretty easy to hide. I mean, look how long it took us to find Bin Laden. But even if bad guys had a nuke they would have no way to throw it at us, hence the desire to get a long range plane. So, back to the previous point; If we know that bad guys want a plane to deliver a nuke and we don’t know where the nuke is, BUT, we do know where the plane is, then the smartest thing we could do is keep our mouths shut, pretend we are looking for the plane in the middle of the Indian Ocean like everyone else, and wait until the bomb shows up. Then, just like any good James Bond movie, we send in the best we have and they take out to whole mess, plane, bomb and bad guys. And, just like any good James Bond movie, the world never knows how close they came to disaster! This is the formula for every good spy movie and novel, but it is not without merit. As my politician friend indicated, things happen everyday and we never know about them.
I could go on but you get the point. My belief is that the plane is no longer a plane. It was destroyed on the ground days or weeks later; not in the ocean that night. There is so much more I could write and in fact I am thinking about writing a fictional novel giving the whole plot but I’ll spare you that today. Thanks for reading and sticking with me through this whole thing. Now, go think about it for a while. It just might give you chills.