Flight 370

A media circus doesn’t even begin to describe the unmitigated crap festival and bazaar that is passing for coverage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. This is our problem in aviation: we wait until an accident or disaster to go on television and then preach about how safe aviation is and how rare these events are. Our aerospace journalists and aviation experts attempt to quell the ratings-driven lunacy being excreted from the often gorgeous and equally vapid mouths of the news readers. Little do our industry spokespeople know that these news readers are trained in the use of logic countermeasures, where anything that makes sense is spoofed into a far-fetched and much more sensational conclusion. And I’m not even going to mention those other aviation “experts” who are more interested in grinding their own personal axe than being a supportive face for a woefully fragile industry.

First and foremost, the treatment of the families was disgusting. Perhaps it was simple naiveté where the airline did not want to believe that anything bad had happened. Maybe it was a cultural inability to accept blame as we saw in the Asiana accident. In either case, they seemed overwhelmed and confused from the beginning and that is understandable. Crashes are so seldom (at least in western society and those countries that attempt to hold minimum safety standards) that there isn’t much practice in how to deal with the aftermath. But that isn’t an excuse. Once you decide you’re mature enough to operate international airliners, you’re mature enough to be honest about any accident. The first thing that should have been done after a reasonable search of perhaps 1 to 3 days would have been an admission of loss to the families. Let them start healing while you continue looking.

Lest I blame Malaysia Airlines completely for that violation of decency, let us look at the goofballs in our own American media who immediately starting developing scenarios that sounded more like the pitch for a Jerry Bruckheimer film than plausible aircraft crash scenarios. The fact that Rolls Royce continued to receive engine health data for 4 hours after last contact made everyone pull out a calculator, go on Wikipedia and multiply the 777’s cruise speed by 4. Maybe it landed in the Vietnam jungle. Maybe they defected to China. Maybe terrorists stole it and are hiding it until they use it as a ETOPS cruise missile. Maybe aliens beamed it up into the mothership. All of which amounts to grasping at straws. In not a single one of those situations did people consider that these were real people with real families who did not want, nor need to hear their plot twists.

The use of terrorism as a crutch is epidemic. Anything mysterious or not immediately explainable is labeled terrorism. But the events of 9/11 were a horrid aberration. Loss of life due to a select few maladjusted individuals with a one-in-a-billion plan will happen again, but it will not be a direct copy of what happened on that day. To automatically assume that it will is a legitimate loss of situational awareness when it comes to security and safety. As much as people would like to ignore it, there are plenty of ways for an airplane to crash that do not involve terrorism. While nefarious persons may have caused the disappearance, precious days were wasted chasing other theories that made no sense whatsoever.

When the “Terrorists are hiding the plane in Siberia” (where somehow there is enough Jet-A and deicing facilities allow it to fly across the Pacific to attack America) plots unraveled, the pilot then became a suspect. God forbid if a pilot actually likes airplanes enough to take pictures of them and have a flight simulator in his house. I guess all the people who have model train sets are bent on blowing up the entire Southern Pacific railroad. While no stone should be left unturned, the focus on the captain’s mental outlook was probably…okay it was (and I’m not accident investigator but let’s use common sense here) out of sequence. Find the airplane, then figure out if the flight crew was unstable. What good does it do to dissect his life and not have the airplane to investigate if this is true or not? To bastardize the old axiom, “Find the airplane, find the airplane, find the airplane.”

To the world’s credit, those who know how to search are trying very hard to find it. Search teams from multiple nations are combing the ocean to locate some piece of debris from Flight 370. Each lead keeps coming up empty. If there weren’t hundreds of people who were affected by this, the constant switching of search locations would almost be comical. The powerful assets being used are quite capable of detecting a missing aircraft, even sunken in thousands of feet of water. However, if the search area isn’t narrowed down logically first, these wild goose chases will continue (I wonder if any of the search organizers used John P. Craven’s method that helped locate the USS Scorpion when it too mysteriously disappeared. Like Flight 370, it too had made an unexpected turn before its destruction which complicated the search). On the positive side, the solidarity between countries that are sometimes chilled towards each other has warmed a bit, if for no other reason than working together to find the lost craft, its passengers and crew.

The insidious left turn made by the pilots was claimed to be a criminal act by people who should know better. If I kick open a person’s door and run into their house, is it a criminal act? What if I’m trying to drag them out because their attic is on fire and they didn’t answer when I called? Context makes a huge difference in actions. Without knowing what may have caused the crew to change direction, nobody can speculate on why they did. There was also a seldom mentioned rapid change in altitude, if my memory serves me correctly, a rapid climb to well over 40,000 feet followed by an equally abrupt descent to around 12,000 feet. I don’t even fly jets but there are only a few things that can cause that kind of maneuvering. In fact, there are only two things that would normally cause an immediate reversal (or partial reversal) of course in a jet that is quite capable of flying for 3 hours on a single engine

 

1. Fire: Fire is a no-brainer. If a fire starts on an aircraft, chances are it can be extinguished by the on-board systems. If it can’t, or if it continues to smolder, then there is a very serious problem. Either way, the only thing on any pilot’s mind is get it on the ground…preferably where there are emergency services to tend to injured passengers and possibly keep the fire under control while they egress. Some divert fields do not have these services, which may explain the left turn to head back to Kuala Lumpur. Fire also explains the rapid climb since the pilots may have dumped the cabin pressure and rapidly ascended to try to starve the fire of oxygen and then dove back down before those same conditions affected the passengers (who were no doubt on the emergency oxygen supply at this point).

 

2. Rapid/Explosive Decompression: If cabin pressure is suddenly lost, a rapid descent is critical to get to an altitude where people can breathe. Time of useful consciousness above 25,000 feet is very limited. It does not explain the rapid climb but does cover the low altitude flight and left turn factors. Even if the aircraft could fly for many more hours at reduced speed and low altitude, no pilots would subject their passengers to an unpressurized flight any longer than absolutely necessary.

Allow us to use logic in this, not emotion or sensationalism. Whichever scenario you look at, they all entail a crew reversing course, possibly with a stricken craft. Regardless of the cause of the problem or if it was a combination of factors, the logical next step is to assume they were looking for Kuala Lumpur. If there was degradation of the inertial navigation system, if there had been multiple electrical failures, then it stands to reason that old school navigation with the whiskey compass had to be used. Add in a reduced altitude and their visibility over the horizon would suffer. The pilots would know how long they had been in flight since departure and how long it was until the unfortunate event and thus calculate how long it would take to return at an undoubtedly slower airspeed. Perhaps this time came and went, prompting them to assume they missed their target. Would it make any sense for them to continue in a straight line?

At the risk of sounding like a media know-it-all, the flight will probably be found within an hour’s worth (or less) of engine-out cruise speed of Kuala Lumpur. Like a car in an unlit neighborhood at night, they knew they had passed it and another course reversal was required, but how much? How much of their navigational gear working? Could they see stars and take a guess at which way was which? Was smoke in the cockpit, obscuring their vision? Given that the communications stopped and did not resume, at least some of the avionics were adversely affected. How close did they get to the airport but simply not see it because of altitude or other factors?

I refuse to speculate on the cause of the events that led them to rapidly climb and then dive down to what amounts to a lost-pressurization altitude (even engine-out ceilings are higher than 12,000 feet). If it was a battery with thermal runaway, a mislabeled hazardous cargo, or even an intentional detonation device, it is immaterial. The end result is the same and we still cannot locate the wreckage. Let us cease grabbing at straws and start grabbing at facts and probabilities. That is all we have to work with. Unfortunately, it seems that the crew and passengers of Flight 370 weren’t even given that on the night of March 8th, 2014.

 

With deepest condolences to the families of the passengers and crew.

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