Some points on Malaysian Airlines MH370

The disappearance of flight MH370 is baffling indeed, not least due to much poorly presented information, speculation, rumor and a chaotic management of information by the Malaysian government.

I shall try and clarify a few points that seem to be the most problematic, whilst working with the assumption that the aircraft was indeed unlawfuly interfered with and didn’t meet its demise as a result of a malfunction, though the latter is a possibility. Especially if it followed a southern track.

Who Did It and Why?

In an attempt to answer this, we can define three skill and knowledge levels of those on board who would be required to fly the aircraft and operate its systems. First there is  the average passenger or hijacker, whose knowledge would be zero. Then there is the level simialr to those that took control of the four aircraft during the 9/11 attacks. It is not known if anyone with this level of training was aboard. Lastly, the the highest level is that of the aircrew.

In light of the information known up to this point, the first two levels are not sufficient to do what was done on this flight, namely, change waypoint information in the Flight Management Computer and to log off the ACARS digital communication system. Not even someone trained as a “basic” commercial pilot would know how to do this. Only a pilot trained specifically on the Boeing 777, either as a pilot or as an avionics technician could do this. These systems can be disabled from outside the cockpit, via a hatch in the cabin of the 777 but only someone trained to do this would know how. There was a technician on board this flight, though he of course, would not be able to do the rest alone, i.e. fly the aircraft.

Someone like the 9/11 hijackers, who had some flight training, would know how to switch off the transponders, which unlike the ACARS, actually have an ON-OFF button.

Training for a Boeing 777 Type Rating is usually done through the airlines, though it can be provided to private individuals, but this is unusual. A private individual seeking such training would have to present credentials of at least a commercial pilot, usually with some fair working experience. If there was anyone who fit this description on flight MH370 would be very easy to determine.

All of this would suggest that it was either one or both of the pilots, with or without the technician who happened to be on board at the time. Also reinforcing the suspicion on the aircrew, was that the disappearance occured exactly at the handover point between the Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control. Whoever was flying, did this after turning off the transponder and ACARS and after the hand-off by Malaysian ATC.  He just never checked into the Vietnamese ATC, which should take place mere seconds after the hand-off. The mysterious departure to the west, from the flight path took place at this point.

The theory of pilot suicide doesn’t add up, as there was no need to go to all this trouble. All that was needed was for the other pilot to go to the bathroom and then dive straight into the sea or ground.

If the aircraft did follow a southerly track, it would suggest that the crew had struggled with a major malfunction, had initiated a turn back to a Malaysian airport and then become incapacitated. This however, is speculation as there are still too many unknowns and unexplained factors even for this scenario.

Communications Systems on the Aircraft:

There are three systems that provide encrypted data regarding the aircraft and its performance to the ground (and one, the transponder, shares it with other aircraft too). The others are the ACARS, which is a system that allows the transmission of various types of digitized data to the ground, usually (but not only) regarding aircraft performance and maintenance issues. This used VHF radio frequencies to transmit. The third is a satellite data link part of the ACARS system allowing the ACARS data to be sent via satellite.

Malaysian Airlines previously chose not to subscribe to this service, so it was not in use, but the system still set up periodic links to a satellite as part of its default functioning, though no data was sent via these link ups, also called “pings”. Basically the aircraft system would contact the satellite, who would then answer and acknowledge the link, but then no data would follow. These pings allow the satellite to know the angle between it and the aircraft, but as only one satellite was involved, the exact position could not be derived. For this, at least three satellites are needed. What it does tell us, is that the aircraft sent these pings until some seven hours after the take off, and what the angle was between the satellite and the 777 at the last ping, given at 40 degrees. This provides the red arcs that are shown on maps and often misreported as the aircrafts’ flight path. All those arcs show, are where at any point along them, the last ping was received from the flight.

What hasn’t been released are the arcs from the other pings, which could indicate a general east-west flight path.



It is possible the crew/hijacker(s) did not know about these pings and in any event, there was no way to disable them in flight.

Air Traffic Control and Radar Reports:

It is important to understand that civil and military aviation use different types of radar. Civil aviation uses what is called Secondary Surveillance Radar, which depends on the aircraft transponder to display to the controller the height, speed and identity of the aircraft. The military use Primary Radar, which is what everyone understands to be “radar” i.e. creation of returns from aircraft “painted” by radar beams. The two systems are generally not operated together by authorities, not only in Malaysia, but all over the world. Indeed, the same is the case in Europe and the USA, again with 9/11 being an excellent example of when with transponders shut off, the American civilian controllers were unable to follow the hijacked aircraft.

The Malaysians have been very coy about revealing what their military radar did or did not see that night, partly due to not wanting to reveal capabilities, and partly, it is said, due to the Eastern practice of attempting to “save face”. It would appear though, that the military did not detect or respond to the absconding aircraft as it passed across their screens. The time of day (1 am on a Saturday) may well have contributed to the less than stellar performance.

Before we hasten to judge or criticize, we must recall a month ago, when an Ethiopian Airlines First Officer locked his Captain out, and hijacked his own plane to Switzerland. The Swiss were not able to respond in any way as the Swiss Air Force only operates during office hours, strictly 9 to 5, so at 6:30 am they had to ask the Italians if they had any interceptors available. By the time any European fighter was launched, the plane was parked on the ground.

Reports have emanated, of the aircraft making altitude changes, climbing to some 45,000 feet as well as reports of “low flight at 5,000 feet to avoid radar”. Let’s examine these claims.

A Boeing 777 at that weight is not capable of climbing to 45,000 feet, or even close to it. At extreme ranges, radar returns have a large margin of error, which may explain this report. There has been some conjecture online that perhaps the pilots tried to extinguish a fire in the forward electronics bay by climbing as high as possible and by this, starving the fire of oxygen. This explanation is faulty as fires on aircraft are not tackled by climbing to a higher altitude. The concentration of oxygen is the same at all altitudes, throughout the atmosphere, at 21%.

Altitude is problematic for humans as we need a certain level of air pressure in order for oxygen molecules to pass through the membranes of our lungs and into the bloodstream. The higher the altitude, the lower the pressure.

There is also no reason for a pilot, as evil as can be, to make such a maneuver as a climb above 40,000 feet. If he wished to incapacitate everyone else on the plane by oxygen starvation, all he had to do was depressurize the aircraft at its current altitude (35,000 feet) and within a few minutes all would be asleep and a few minutes later, all would be quite dead. True, oxygen masks would have automatically dropped for the passengers, but this oxygen would only last for a number of minutes.

Regarding the low flight – this theory is problematic as at 5,000 feet an aircraft is still very much visible on radar. A much lower altitude would be required to be hidden. It is not clear what is the source of this information, as the aircraft was not transmitting any data regarding its altitude. The only way to know this would be from… radar. It has been said on various news outlets that this happened “over two or three countries”, which if true, would suggest that the aircraft was tracked for far longer than has been publically admitted. Which then begs the question –  why the massive search effort, especially in the southern sector?

A modern jet aircraft burns fuel at a prohibitive rate at such an altitude, so if endurance was an issue for these pilots, it is unlikely that they would fly so low for any length of time. Cell phones of the passengers would also register with towers on the ground at such an altitude.

Which brings us to reports of phones of passengers still ringing days after the disappearance. These rings are not the actual ringing of the cell phones. They are “synthetically” produced by the cell service provider, “ringing” once or twice before going to voice mail.

A heist?

The aircraft was not fully occupied by passengers. Some 50 seats were flown empty, apparently not due to lack of people wanting to board the flight. This could suggest a heavy cargo on board. Some have speculated that this could have been due to a valuable cargo such as several tons of gold. Malaysian Airlines have not helped with this point, by refusing to disclose the cargo manifest. It does however seem that there was no way that the pilots would have known ahead of time that they would be flying such a cargo, though they would probably learn about this once arriving at the aircraft to perform the flight. This would not allow them enough time to plan and arrange the disappearance of the aircraft, as this would require extensive arrangements on the ground, not least, hiding a very large Boeing somewhere. It does however, make for a nice conspiracy theory.

It is impossible to say if we will ever know what happened to this aircraft. In all likelihood, there is more information known to authorities than is being released. Regarding future events, one can only speculate. Such a disappearance in modern times would not be without precedent. In 2003 a Boeing 727 was stolen from Luanda, Angola. The aircraft took off, only to never be heard of again, despite the best efforts of the CIA and FBI to find it.

About the Author
Gideon Afek is a commercial pilot and amateur aviation historian, with a background in project management and sales; Born in South Africa, Gideon immigrated to Israel from Australia in 1985