Where on earth is Flight MH 370?

It is the mystery that has gripped the world- what has happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Now, one of Australia's most experienced aviators, Michael Apps of the Snowy Aviation Academy in Cooma, offers a possible explanation.

OVER the past week the world's press has been speculating over what could have happened to the Malaysian Boeing 777 Flight (MH 370), which went missing on its scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing in China. Theories abound and range from a bizarre alien abduction through to possible hijacks, terrorist action, catastrophic aircraft failure leading to aircraft break-up and total disappearance over the ocean.

The aircraft took off from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia on the evening of Saturday March 8 bound for China(Beijing). It carried 227 passengers and a crew of 12 and made a last call around 1.30 am local time on Sunday morning March 9 and was expected to arrive at its destination in the Chinese capital some four-and-a-half to five hours later that day.

Dismissing alien abduction as complete and utter fantasy I offer my own thoughts on the disappearance. The facts as we know them are that:

a. The aircraft appeared to be flying normally along its planned track and altitude until the pilot made a last transmission at 01.30 on the Sunday morning - "All right, good night".

b. At or about that same time the aircraft was lost on radar and all communication ceased as the aircraft approached the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace. The transponder was also turned off.

c. Shortly after the communications failure the aircraft appeared to turn back towards Malaysia tracking in a westerly direction.

d. An unidentified contact was picked up by Royal Malaysian Air Force primary radar flying back over the Malaysian peninsula at 29,500 ft.

e. The contact was tracked until it disappeared from Air Traffic radar at 02.40 am when the aircraft appeared to turn to the northwest. In tracking its altitude profile appeared erratic and the aircraft was reported to have climbed to 45,000 ft. before descending again to 19,000 ft.

f. The plane was equipped with cellular communications hardware to provide GSM via satellite and when the aircraft was overdue in Beijing, 19 families allege that they were able to call MH 370 passengers and obtain the ring tone, but got no response.

g. This reinforces the argument that the aircraft was still in the air at the time it was due in Beijing. At this time the aircraft was also in satellite contact.

h. At 08.11 am satellite contact with Flight MH 370 was lost from somewhere within the satellite area which stretches from the Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan.

i. Flight MH 370 continued to fly for many hours after the last recorded transmission from its pilot.

j. A significant search by aircraft and ships from 10 nations along the planned route of the aircraft to the estimated position the aircraft disappeared failed to find any trace or signs of wreckage up to the present time - over a week later.

Terrorism, or hijack?

We have had dramatic and explicit examples of terrorist actions in recent years such as the blowing up of Pan Am Boeing 747 flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland killing 243 passengers on December 21, 1988. More horrifying and unforgettable were the mass attacks against New York's Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. After each attack a terrorist group was quick to claim responsibility, but in the case of MF 370 over a week has passed and no one has claimed involvement. A bomb or catastrophic break-up in mid air would have left wreckage scattered over a wide area of ocean along the aircraft's route to Beijing and we now know that the aircraft kept flying for hours after the last recorded transmission, so both these actions can be discounted.

What about a hijack? Although the aircraft's communications were lost or turned off there were 227 passengers plus 12 crew on the plane, many with mobile phones and we now know from 19 sworn statements from family and friends waiting for their arrival that satellite coverage was available. Since the phones rang in response to attempted calls from the ground, it is reasonable to assume that someone would have been able to make a mobile phone call from the aircraft via satellite to alert authorities if a hijack or other threat had been made after take off. The aircraft was fitted with cellular communication services via satellite, but when Malaysian Airlines tried to call the same numbers the next day, the phones did not ring and the plane would have been out of fuel and probably lying on the ocean floor. The significance of the mobile phone information is that it confirms that the aircraft was still in the air at or about the time it was due to arrive in Beijing some five hours after all communications had been lost.

So what did happen to Malaysian Flight MH 370?

I would like to summarise additional information and put forward a theory that could explain the disappearance of MH 370 on that fateful morning just over a week ago.

Background information. In November 2013 the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD) for the Boeing 777 aircraft. The AD was issued because of reports of cracking in the fuselage skin underneath the satellite communication (SATCOM) antenna adapter. The AD required repetitive inspections of the visible fuselage skin to detect and repair any cracking or corrosion around the antenna adapter, which if untreated could lead to rapid decompression and loss of structural integrity of the aircraft.

After studying the limited and sometimes conflicting evidence, a plausible scenario is that the aircraft did experience a fuselage section fracture near the SATCOM antenna. The damage was not serious enough to cause a catastrophic break up of MH 370, but did in fact cause the aircraft to suffer decompression and lead to the ultimate disappearance of the plane and all its passengers. Such a fuselage failure could have disabled some or all of the Ground Positioning System (GPS), the Aircraft Communications and Reporting Systems (ACARS), the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) and the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Contract (ADS-C) antennas and systems, comprising co-operative technology for tracking aircraft reports in remote and oceanic areas. With these systems out of action only primary radars would detect the aircraft and primary radar range is usually less than 100 nautical miles, and generally ineffective at high altitudes. Hence a resulting loss of radar contact which we now know occurred at 01.30 local time just before the aircraft entered Vietnamese airspace cruising over the Gulf of Thailand at around 33,000 ft.

Pilot and crew incapacitated

Additionally and far more serious, this failure of the fuselage around the SATCOM antenna could have resulted in a small hole or tear - probably no larger than 25 mm - which in turn would have led to slow decompression ultimately leaving all the passengers unconscious and the pilot and crew incapacitated. With a slow decompression, it is entirely possible that the pilots, who were busily trying to sort out the cockpit warnings and the looming emergency became increasingly confused and impaired. It is also likely that they did not put on their oxygen masks until it was too late and before the cabin altitude (pressure) warnings sounded. Hypoxia can cause critical incapacity and can render a pilot insensible within a minute to a minute and a half. This would provide enough time for the pilot to react to the communications and other emergency warnings appearing in the cockpit and perhaps change the heading lock to turn the aircraft around before becoming unconscious. It would be a sensible reaction by the crew to try to turn back towards Kuala Lumpur if they were having problems with the communications and warnings were going off in the cockpit!!

Credence to this theory of pilot incapacitation is strengthened by a report from another pilot some 30 minutes ahead of MH 370, who reported that he heard 'mumbling' from the Malaysian pilots and it is worth noting that VHF communications would not have been affected by the SATCOM equipment failure. It is probable that most if not all of the passengers would have been asleep at that time of the morning and would have just become unconscious. Passenger oxygen masks are deployed only in an emergency when the cabin pressure drops to 13,500 ft and are intended to provide oxygen to passengers for the few minutes it takes for the pilot to make an emergency descent from a high cruising altitude to a breathable height of 10,000 ft.

From the above and with all the crew and passengers on Flight MH 370 either unconscious or dead, the aircraft continued flying its programmed headings until its systems shut down and/or the fuel ran out. This has happened before when on August 14, 2005 a Boeing 737 31-S of Cypriot Airways (Helios 522) en route from Cyprus to Greece with 115 passengers and a crew of six suffered decompression and after flying on auto-pilot, the aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into a mountain 25 miles from Athens killing all on board.

To further complicate the search and rescue problems facing the authorities, we now know that the plane altered course and turned back towards Malaysia after communications were lost. Malaysian military radar picked up an unidentified contact flying at 29,500 ft westwards across the Malaysian Peninsula. The radar contact was lost at 02.40 am on Sunday morning about 500 kms west of MH 370's last known position and 320 kms northwest ofPenang.

No evidence of debris

A massive and sustained air and sea search with additional satellite assistance has so far failed to find any evidence of debris or wreckage in and around the last known position of Flight MH 370. No mayday call was received and there is fairly positive evidence that the aircraft continued to fly after all communications with the plane was lost. It would seem probable that MH 370 suffered a fuselage failure that was not detected or evident prior to its final flight last Saturday. The resultant damage from the fuselage failure was of sufficient seriousness to cause a SATCOM failure and a slow decompression which incapacitated the crew and led to total unconsciousness and the ultimate death of all on board. It is also fairly conclusive that the aircraft changed course and headed back towards the west. As has happened on at least three previous occasions, the aircraft flew on auto-pilot on a programmed track for perhaps five or six hours before finally running out of fuel.

With an incapacitated crew the aircraft obviously crashed into the ocean sometime after its last known position at 01.30 am on the Sunday morning and certainly when the fuel was exhausted. MH 370 has challenged the Search and Rescue Authorities with an unprecedented task to search thousands of miles of open ocean to find and recover the aeroplane and its 'black boxes'.

These boxes transmit a sonar signal for 30 days and hold the secrets which will reveal what caused the disappearance. It is anyone's guess how long it will take, but every effort is being made to find them and once retrieved the mysteries surrounding this last flight will be uncovered.

The story Where on earth is Flight MH 370? first appeared on Cooma-Monaro Express.

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