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Malay Mystery

One of our planes is missing. Here are four possible explanations.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

March 16, 2014 - 12:38 pm

One of our planes is missing.

That’s basically all we know for certain right now, but more than a week after losing contact with flight MH370, there are a lot of other suggestive bits of information. Unfortunately, a lot of it is, as usual, being reported by news readers who barely understand that you don’t want to keep the pointy end aimed at the ground for an extended time. Here’s some things we do know now.

The first indication of trouble was when the transponder stopped responding to radar. This is the point where newspeople are saying it “dropped off the radar,” so let’s get a little clarity here to start. A transponder is a device that transmits a response. In a plane, the transponder is receiving an interrogation and responding by transmitting a burst of data. The problem with “dropped off the radar” from the start is that all it indicated was that the transponder stopped transponding. Imagine for a second that you’re trying to find someone in the dark. If you have a flashlight, you can use the flashlight, and hopefully see them in the reflected light. This, in radar, is called a primary radar response. It’s a lot easier, though, if the person you’re looking for has a flashlight too, and can turn it on and wave back at you with it. This is what a transponder does, and it’s the major part of what’s called secondary surveillance radar.

When MH370 “dropped off the radar,” the transponder stopped responding. But transponders have an off switch. There are two independent transponders, so it isn’t probable just that it was just a transponder failure.

It didn’t disappear from primary radar, but primary radar is a lot harder to read. They now think that they might have tracked the plane as it turned back, did some vertical excursions, and headed off into the Indian Ocean.

Turning off the transponders didn’t stop all radio transmissions, however. There is an onboard flight telemetry system that kept transmitting for a long time, as much as seven hours. It’s very difficult to crash and have the telemetry transmissions keep going, so the combination is a pretty strong indication that the transponders turned off but the plane kept flying.

Unfortunately, Malaysia Airlines doesn’t pay for the service, so the only responses were pings saying “nothing to say.” But those pings are timestamped, and that means you can estimate the distance from the satellite to the aircraft by the time the signal arrives at the satellite. Now, PJ is ill-equipped to show a three-dimensional picture, so instead imagine a map. There’s one circle centered on the last known position, which is how far the plane could have flown in seven hours. There’s another circle centered on the satellite, which is all the places that are the estimated distance from the satellite. (Strictly, that’s the surface of a sphere, but we can discount the parts of the sphere that are underground.)

This, by the way, is how GPS works: your GPS receives very accurate time signals from several satellites and computes where all the circles intersect; that’s where you are.

The result is something that looks like this:

map-malaysia

That line is actually fuzzy, because that distance to the satellite isn’t known as accurately as say a GPS signal would be, but the last transmission does mean the plane was somewhere near that circle when it stopped sending telemetry.

So, now is the part of Malay Mystery in which we speculate.

As far as I can see, there are about four possible explanations.

First, something happened that incapacitated the pilots, and the plane flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. This has happened before, in the crash that killed Payne Stewart, although not on a commercial jetliner. The way it apparently happened in the Payne Stewart accident was decompression.

This is fairly unlikely just as an accident on a commercial jet because the pilots have oxygen masks immediately available — but more speculation is coming.

There is a story today that there was a “supergrass” — which is Brit for a highly-placed informant apparently — who described a plot for four or five people to take over a plane by blowing open the cabin door with a shoe bomb. So, let’s imagine that this is what happened. The door blows open, and cabin pressure is lost. The pilots, being a little bit distracted and busy, don’t get their masks on. Everyone passes out — and shortly dies at that altitude. The bodies rattling around in the cockpit cause the plane to make some uncontrolled maneuvers until the autopilot finally stabilizes. I explain the second possibility on the next page.

Second, someone who knew the plane hijacked or diverted the flight. Could be a pilot, could be someone else. (In another piece today, Rick Moran speculates about the captain. I don’t think this seems very likely — guys my age aren’t the most common suicide drivers/bombers/attackers. This guy had a flight simulator setup that he actually bragged about on YouTube, but them a lot of my pilot friends do. My dad had one after he could no longer actually fly. All it’s evidence of is that ther Malaysian captain was an airplane nut, which is what you’d expect of someone with 18,000 hours.)

Now, this hypothetical hijacker basically could have one of several motivations. So possibility 2a is that they wanted to crash the plane. It seems to me that if this is what you want, you don’t fly all day before you do it, so I think this seems unlikely.

Possibility 2b is that the hijackers want the plane itself. In this option they fly somewhere equipped to let a 777 land and take off again. To do that, you need a fairly long runway, 7000 feet or more.

Possibility 2c is that they wanted the passengers as hostages, or — putting on our fiction-writing hats — they want someone or something on the plane and don’t care about the (other) passengers. In that case, they only have to get somewhere where they can land the plane. It turns out that as long as you don’t care about taking off again, that can be done in around 3000 feet of runway.

Possibility 2b — that they wanted the plane and landed — is an unpleasant one. As several people have pointed out, a 777 and a dirty bomb or a North Korean wet-firecracker atomic bomb could make a right mess. But you can bet that there is satellite imagery being taken and analyzed with some urgency — I suspect that an intact plane would have been spotted. (But maybe not, see below.)

So that leads us to possibility 2c, which would make a good thriller sort of movie, which I’ll explain on the next page.
The story opens with the plot to take the plane, and the precipitating event — what Syd Field called “plot point 1″ — is when the hijackers take control. They’re now flying the plane, and they want to land successfully but don’t care about taking off again.

It turns out that arc includes a good bit of Xin Jiang province — which is where the Uyghurs live — as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. But to get to those places, you have to fly across a good bit of China.

So, there’s the flight, trying to tiptoe along the frontier to get to a -stan. No transponder, but they’re picked up by primary radar response from Chinese air defenses. CAPT Li, the officer on duty, calls COL Wang, the unit commander. “OMG there’s an unidentified” — transponder’s off, remember — “big plane crossing into our air space.”

In the U.S., we’d intercept and have a look. I’ve got no idea what the terms of engagement might be in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, but I’m betting they are a little sensitive about unidentified aircraft coming in from the whole Vietnam/Myanmar/South China Sea area. It think it’s entirely possible that COL Wang on his own authority says “so shoot it down.” PLAAF intercepts it and shoots it down, leaving debris and bodies scattered over the terrain.

Then someone, maybe someone in Beijing, puts two and two together — possibly after someone has gotten to the debris field and found something that identifies the plane. Now what?

It’s going to be terribly embarrassing to admit to shooting down a hijacked passenger plane. It would cause everyone involved to “lose face” — and as horrible a cliché as that is, “losing face”, 丢脸 diu4 lian3, “humiliation,” is a very bad thing in China.

Let’s recall that not too long after the disappearance, “unauthorized” satellite pictures were released showing what was said to be debris. That sent searchers off for at least a half day on what turned out to be a wild goose chase.

In my thriller-movie plot, that time would have been spent sending a whole division of the People’s Liberation Army to the crash site, and policing up the debris field.

Now, I don’t know how probable this is. I talked to some of my friends in the intelligence community, and one of them who is more or less a China specialist suggested that if the Chinese had downed the plane, they would instead be exhibiting a lot of belligerence about it, and pointing to their exclusion zones in the South China Sea, saying “don’t mess with us.” Another friend with more of an interest in Central Asia points out that as long as you could expect or extort co-operation from airport personnel, the obvious place to hide a 777 would be an airport. Land, pull into a hangear, easy-peasy.

So this may be just the fiction-writing part of my brain putting out a plot.

It’s sure an interesting plot, however.

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Pilot suicide makes no sense at all. Pilots that have done this in the past don't make elaborate maneuvers, they simply down the plane. Elaborate maneuvers such as the moves played here vastly increase the chance that something goes wrong - say you are overcome by a passenger or the crew - then go to prison instead of dying. You don't go through all these elaborate steps, then fly known waypoints that would take you to the Middle East and begin heading in a northwestern direction along those corridors, to only turn the plane around, head to the Indian Ocean, run out of fuel and die. It just doesn't make any sense. If he wanted to risk getting caught before his suicide in order to run out of fuel before dying for some reason, he could have taken an easier route over the Pacific to accomplish the same ends without having to fly back over Malaysian radar.

Pilot suicide, knowing the facts, is just nonsensical. Which also means that the southern corridor itself is nonsensical, as the southern corridor essentially means pilot suicide. This plane was deliberately concealed, right at the best possible moment (the hand off between two countries' air traffic control), it made evasive maneuvers then continued to fly in the direction it was heading when it disappeared - northwest, along known navigational waypoints that would take it to the Middle East.

The only objection to this theory is the idea that the plane would have to travel over many radar systems to get to its destination. But is this an objection at all? After all, it got across Malaysia, even overflying a major city at lower altitude, with no problem. The Indian Navy has also admitted that their radar system is used on "an as-needed basis" and is often even off at night. If that is the case with those two countries, you can bet it's a snap to overfly Burma and Bangladesh, too. The simple fact is, that's the way the plane was heading, and we now know that getting through the radar systems of these countries is actually not as difficult as we might have imagined before. Whoever did this obviously knew how to do so, which spells state planning. And if a state goes through this much trouble to do something as spectacular as make a passenger jet disappear without trying to mask it as a normal hijacking then you can bet their reason is equally spectacular. And that is one of the most unsettling things about all this... why?
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
I took me five minutes to read this article and gave more analysis than ten hours of CNN coverage.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Lest we forget, the transponder AND the ACARS were both turned off and at separate points in time. The 777, having a glass cockpit, is not like an old Cessna. Operating the various 777 systems takes a LOT of training and proficiency. Unless the hijacker was a 777 pilot it's unlikely he could even FIND the transponder and ACARS, let alone turn them off. And then don't forget he'd have to reprogram the FMS (Flight Mgmt System) for the new course.

Therefore I gotta go with the 'pilot did it' theory at this point. And yes, I think the airplane is sitting in some hangar somewhere.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (181)
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I'll admit to not having gone through all 180 comments but as for "supergrass:" An informant is a "snake in the grass" which gets reduced to "grass." A "supergrass" is just a "super" added to that "grass." So a supergrass is someone who rats someone else out in a major way or major case.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Seems that this is also possible.

After the plane deviated from it's course, it climbed to 45K feet - well above the design capabilities of the plane - why?

- possibly to kill all the passengers by oxygen starvation

Begs the question, why not point the nose down to the ocean if you want to kill the passengers? (see below)

The plane then flies for some 7 hours - either north, south, or west - but most likely west & south, because going north would enable them to be seen by more focused radar eyes.

Why else would you fly south?

You wouldn't be seen, and when the plane crashes into the ocean, it would be very hard to find all all remnants and bodies because of the depth of the ocean. And even if the A/C is found and the boxes are recovered the FVR won't show anything accept quite since it loops every two hours.

Why would the hijackers (pilots) care?

BECAUSE THEY'RE NOT IN THE PLANE!

The passengers could not regain control of the plane once the pilots jumped out - because they were already dead.

I would be curious to know if any transmissions were made from the plane - but not by the planes radio - maybe using a handheld two meter rig or cell phone? Or did anyone take parachute lessons?
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Reprise what we know about the Air France crash: uncontrolled climb to stall then rapid descent and ultimate crash into the ocean. Works to delay any further investigation for awhile. That's all they needed. I'm liking the notion that they faked some sort of incident, loitered awhile, and then fell in behind another aircraft and piggy-backed through all the air defense radar in India, Pak-eeeeee-stahn, and Afghanistan.

It is on the ground safely in Iran or one of the 'stans. The passengers are dead. The crew unless and even maybe if complicit are dead. The 777 is going to be used to deliver a nuclear weapon; but where?
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh please. There are a dozen better - and easier - ways to deliver a nuke. None of them require a long and complicated plot to steal a 777. Used airplanes are a dime a dozen and they don't ask a lot of questions if your cash is good.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, I tend to agree with this line of thinking. There are scads of them just begging for buyers, everything from corporate jets to the biggest jetliners in the air.

But then, our own CIA has sometimes fallen victim to the James Bond Syndrome, making up fantastic, complicated plots that never work, when they could have gotten the job done very simply.

Might have happened with some terrorists.

32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nice movie scenario but it is really hard jumping out of a commercial jet. You have to be going rather slow, maybe too slow to stay in the air. Besides where are they jumping? Landing with in the middle of the ocean with only life vest is tantamount to suicide anyway. Why not just ride it in?
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Unlike DB Cooper's 727, there's really pretty much no way to jump from a triple-seven.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Diagram I just looked at showed two exits at the rear. Having had the opportunity to stick my upper body out of the top of a cruising B-17 I can tell you it's not that hard to get out of a plane going at or near 200kts, unless you don't clear the empenage, which the rear doors may make possible.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Puleeeeze...when you have concrete facts get back to me. In the meantime give me at least one missing airplane free day.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Door's over there. We'll be happy to offer you a refund for the price of admission.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't know Charlie but I think it's fairly likely that, for whatever reason, one or both of the pilots were in on this caper along with some help by unknown passengers. With enough support and pre-planning the plane could be landed and hidden. Why? I guess we wait and see but it's a safe bet it won't be good. Anyone who finds 200 passengers expendable is not likely to be concerned with more casualties. Of course, maybe it just crashed.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Interesting possibilities here:

http://keithledgerwood.tumblr.com/post/79838944823/did-malaysian-airlines-370-disappear-using-sia68

https://twitter.com/KeyserSquishy/status/445391984568442880/photo/1

This second one would have to entail the ping reading being inaccurate to a degree, but that is very possible as it was not set up for that use and may only be a guide.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
I understand that Valerie Jarret is working hard to find evidence of alien involvement because it just can't be that radical muslims could be involved in any way.

She is therefore consulting with Steve Spielberg and also with a medium to contact the ghost of Gene Roddenberry to get further information to give to obama in his next security meeting, should he decide to attend.

Jay Carney has been instructed to consider all information concerning alien abduction of said airliner as fact.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Anywhere near the middle east (from 500 up to 1500 nautical miles) this plane would be picked up on OTH (over the horizon) radar no matter how low they flew.

Also, if you want SF, consider the TV series "Lost".

32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm not saying MH370 involves hypoxia; but note there has been an instance of a commercial airline disaster involving cabin pressurization:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helios_Airways_Flight_522

This happened on older equipment, and both crew training and equipment (including the warning enunciators) have been improved based upon this incident.

I feel hypoxia should remain on the list of possible (if unlikely) factors for now, given the information available to the public.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here is one important factor not accounted for by your theories: the ELT--emergency locator transmitter. It can't be turned off or accessed inflight as it's located in the tail. The ELT would activate if the plane crashed, was shot down or blew up. It's signal continues to transmit for at least a month and can be pinpointed very specifically by satellites anywhere in the world. No mention of an ELT in the news, which to me is very, very strange. Only maintenance personnel could get to the ELT on the ground, so to turn it off or disable it prior or flight would require ground personnel involvement and probably more than one mechanic to be in on the sabotage. The no ELT signal leads me to believe the plane is still intact somewhere.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
There has been a report what the British press call and "engineer" but we Yanks call aircraft mechanic, was on this flight. A mechanic could have turned the ELT off to facilitate the hijacking. I've seen comments that disabling the ACARS requires a trip into the "Hell Hole" or E&E, or EMC compartment below the flight deck. One previous theory was one of the pilot O2 bottles, located in this E&E compartment shot out of its mounts, as happened on a Qantas 747 and destroyed some of the electronics, such as transponder and ACARS and Rolls-Royce Engine Monitoring, etc. In my mind if that happened the aircraft wouldn't have been flying 7 hours later. I discount that theory.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Correction: ELT transmits for about a day, not a month.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Does anyone see an Occam's Razor scenario? I sure don't.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
I do: explosive decompression - auto-pilot - eventual crash.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
This doesn't fit many of the facts. Two different systems turned off 14 minutes apart before disappearance, disappearance taking place right at the perfect moment (after the plane left control of Malay ATC and before it was in the control of Vietnamese ATC - in "no man's land" where it could disappear more easily), evasive maneuvers including possible terrain masking to avoid radar, and finally hitting three different established waypoints, that must be turned toward each time, in order to take a route that would take one to either Europe or the Middle East.

Not to mention the fact that in a true explosive decompression masks would drop - this has happened several times before but only one other time do I know of where decompression incapacitated a passenger plane, and that wasn't explosive but slow and the pilots had a lot of time to radio in and try to figure out what was wrong before running out of air. But again, neither explosive nor slow decompression can account for the other facts above. Occam's razor only applies when it fits the facts.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
Captain hijacked his own aircraft for suicide or to embarrass Malaysian govt. That's the simplest theory I can see that fits. If the Captain was more religious I would suggest he wanted to take out the Chinese passengers for Allah, but do it in a manner that would guarantee Chinese retribution against their Uighers.
32 weeks ago
32 weeks ago Link To Comment
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