March 11, 2014
THE DISAPPEARANCE of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is getting stranger by the minute.
Reports now say that military authorities tracked the missing plane for nearly 500 miles after contact was lost with air traffic control. I hate to say it, and to violate my own anti-speculation rule, it’s looking more and more like something very strange, and possibly nefarious, is behind the disappearance. A hijacking, perhaps, that ultimately ended in disaster somewhere in the South China Sea.
Investigators also say the plane’s transponder signal — a location and altitude signal that is tracked by air traffic controllers on the ground — disappeared suddenly. This would indicate a sudden loss of power, as would happen during an inflight explosion or breakup, for instance. But if that were the case, why is the wreckage not where it should be, and what’s to explain the 500-mile continuation? Was there a complete loss of electric power, rendering the transponder inoperative, after which the aircraft continued on for many miles? Or was the device switched off intentionally, perhaps during a hijacking?
There will be no fast or easy answers. It could be weeks or even months before we have a solid idea of what happened. About the worst thing we can do, tempting as might be, is to begin conjecturing too broadly. Almost always in such cases, the earliest theories turn out to be at best incomplete; at worst totally wrong. Seeing how little is known at the moment, any theories are really just guesses.
All we know for sure is that a plane went missing with no warning or communication from the crew. That the crash did not happen during takeoff or landing — the phases of flight when most accident occur — somewhat limits the possibilities, but numerous possibilities remain. The culprit could be anything from sabotage to some kind of bizarre mechanical problem — or, as is so common in airline catastrophes, some combination or compounding of human error and/or mechanical malfunction.
Apart from this latest news of the military tracking, let me briefly hit some of the points I’ve been seeing and hearing in the media…
Lack of a mayday call: No matter an aircraft’s location, the crew is always in contact with both air traffic control and company ground staff. When flying in remote locations, however, this is often a more involved process than simply picking up a microphone and talking. Exactly how it’s done depends on which equipment the plane is fitted with, and which ATC facility you’re working with. Flying over open ocean, relaying even a simple message can be a multi-step process transmitted through FMS datalink or over high frequency radio. In an emergency, communicating with the ground is secondary to dealing with the problems at hand. As the old adage goes: you aviate, navigate, and communicate — in that order. And so, the fact that no messages or distress signals were sent by the crew is not especially surprising or an indicator of anything specific.
The stolen passports: Reportedly, two of flight 370’s passengers were traveling on stolen passports. This has raised eyebrows and incited speculation about a bombing, a possible hijacking attempt or other sabotage. Is this something worth looking at? Absolutely. But so is everything else, from the weather to the cargo manifest to the aircraft’s maintenance history. For what it’s worth, I suspect there are thousands of people jetting around the world on forged or stolen documents, for a variety of shady reasons, but that doesn’t make them terrorist bombers.
Pilot experience: A factor? Maybe, but probably not. The captain of the ill-fated flight had logged close to 20,000 flight hours, a substantial total by any standard. The first officer (copilot), on the other hand, had fewer than three thousand hours to his name. Pilots in North America — those like me, at any rate, who come up through the civilian ranks — generally accrue several thousand hours before landing a job with a major airline. We slog our way through the industry in a step-by-step process, building experience along the way. Thus it would be unheard of to find a Boeing 777 copilot with such a small number of hours. In other areas of the world, the process is often different. Pilots are frequently selected through so-called ab-initio programs, hand-picked by carriers at a young age and trained from the start to fly jetliners. We can debate the perils of this method, but I tend to doubt it’s anything more than a side note. Plus, flight hours in and of themselves aren’t necessarily a good measure of a pilot’s skills or performance under pressure. And any pilot, regardless of his or her logbook totals, and regardless of the airline, needs to meet some pretty rigorous training standards before being signed off to fly a 777.
The Boeing 777: I see no reason for the news media to keep reminding us about last summer’s Asiana accident in San Francisco, which also involved a 777. That both crashes involved the same aircraft model means little or nothing.
Air France redux? Similarly, there are no good reasons yet to be drawing parallels between the Malaysia crash and that of Air France flight 447 five years ago. Although both crashes involved airplanes going down in mid-flight over the ocean, that’s hardly a meaningful coincidence when you consider the many possible causes. And rare as airline catastrophes are, I’m sorry to say that the annals of civil aviation contain many mishaps that are similar in general profile, but vastly different in the details.
We will probably learn the full and sad story eventually. But the possibility exists that we won’t. Much of what happened to Air France 447 still remains shrouded in mystery. Or consider the crash of a South African Airways 747 into the Indian Ocean back in 1987. Investigators believe that a cargo fire was responsible, but officially the disaster remains unsolved, the wreckage having fallen into thousands of feet of water, the bulk of it never recovered. We don’t always get the answers we need.
No matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn’t let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe. Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation. A certain number of accidents, however — and however unfortunate — will always be inevitable. Hopefully that number continues to diminish.
Malaysia Airlines was formed in the early 1970s after its predecessor, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), split to become Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Both carriers are renowned for their outstanding passenger service, and both have excellent safety records. Cabin crews of both airlines wear the iconic, floral pattern “Sarong Kabaya” batik — a adaptation of the traditional Malay kebaya blouse.
Malaysia Airlines’ logo, carried on its tails from the beginning, is an indigenous kite known as the Wau. True story: In 1993 I was in the city of Kota Bahru, a conservative Islamic town in northern Malaysia close to the Thai border, when we saw a group of little kids flying Wau kites. At the time I didn’t realize where the airline’s logo had come from, but I recognized the pattern immediately. It was one of those airline/culture crossover moments that we aerophiles really savor.