Don’t expect an answer in this blog post, as the airline community in which we live is just as baffled as the rest of the world. But I’ve been following this mystery closely, and keep coming back to the same question: How, in this day and age of continuous connectivity, can a Boeing 777 simply disappear?
In the two weeks since Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 vanished, a stream of possible, vaguely plausible and downright absurd theories have been given air time. It was travelling to North Korea, suggested one caller to CNN. Shot down/hit by a meteor, claimed Internet users. Hijacked by terrorists (no, air pirates) to carry out a 9/11-style attack. Conspiracy theorists have blamed Obama and comparisons have been drawn to the television series Lost.
The media reporting on the fate of the aircraft has varied widely, from knowledgeable analysis to pure speculation. That’s not to say there hasn’t been a great deal of responsible reporting, but what often happens with aviation incidents is that the people presenting the information don’t have the technical know-how to fully understand it.
Most plane crashes occur due to a chain of events, explained by the Swiss cheese model. This model of accident causation likens defences to a series of slices of randomly holed Swiss cheese. An accident or incident occurs in the extremely unlikely event that the holes in these layers align. In layman’s terms, multiple failures at different levels.
But what took place after the Malaysian pilots made their final communication – a routine “All right, good night” – to make the flight fall into total silence and fly for up to seven hours to an inhospitable part of the vast, empty southern Indian Ocean is such a mystery that it’s hard to decipher what is too far-fetched and what might actually have happened.
SABOTAGE: Two possible scenarios are gaining attention, one of which is the human factor, ie, hijacking, sabotage, or a calculated attempt to redirect the aircraft. The fact that the transponder (which signals the plane’s identity, altitude and speed) was turned off and the plane made a sharp left turn at the boundary between Malaysia and Vietnam makes its disappearance sound like a deliberate act. But by whom? If it was premeditated, any theory, no matter how outlandish, is equally valid, be it involving the pilots, crew or passengers.
MECHANICAL FAILURE: The other scenario is that a mechanical incident happened at this exact point – something severe and swift that led to the incapacitation of both pilots. A depressurisation of the aircraft is the most likely explanation and has happened before. In 2005, an Athens-bound 737 suffered such a fate, resulting in the loss of consciousness of both pilots and the eventual crashing of the aircraft after it ran out of fuel.
If a depressurisation did occur two weeks ago, it might explain why the Malaysian pilots initiated a turn but failed to start a descent before succumbing to hypoxia. Another possibility is that the cockpit was filled with some kind of smoke. (Debate will continue to rage about the role of the flammable lithium-ion batteries known to be on board, and which caused the fire that led a UPS 747 to crash in Dubai in 2010.)
COCKPIT SIEGE: Pilot hi-jacking has also happened before. Most recently, last month. On February 17, the first officer on an Ethiopian Boeing 767, flying from Addis Abeba to Rome, shut his captain out of the cockpit while he was taking a bathroom break and flew the aircraft to Geneva, where he requested political asylum.
Sadder, and unfortunately not without precedent either, is pilot suicide. It’s a horrible, unthinkable scenario, and not conclusive in the previous cases – one of which is the 1999 example of the Egypt Air flight from New York to Cairo that crashed into the Atlantic. American investigators pinned the blame on the co-pilot, saying he was suicidal; the Egyptians, however, fight this verdict tooth and nail.
LONG HAUL: Key to finding out what happened to flight MH370 is the plane’s black box; if this is found, it would take just a few days to get an idea of the circumstances surrounding its disappearance from the sky. But the black box is most likely sitting on the floor of the ocean, and while no expense will be spared in combing the seabed, its recovery could take a long time.
After the Air France crash in 2009, it took two years to locate the black box, which had sunk into an underwater mountainous region of the Atlantic. And the authorities knew where that plane went down. (Could it be that the Malaysian plane will never be found? Those who’ve spent time trying to figure out what happened to Amelia Earhart must be wondering this right now.)
While the search for debris continues, I wait anxiously to find out the facts, so we can learn from this accident, like we have from others in the past. In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers are with those involved and the families dealing with the agonising aftermath. Because behind all the theories being bandied around are the faces of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members who boarded the ill-fated plane.