Do the presence of oil slicks mean the Malaysia Airlines flight crashed in the South China Sea?? Not necessarily….

updated 3/9 re: pilot experience and water landings

updated 3/10 re: cellphone calls connecting but not answered

clarifications 3/10: changed first paragraph from ‘”consistent”‘ to ‘reportedly “consistent”‘; clarified description of fuel dump: added “although jet fuel is highly volatile and dissipates fairly rapidly in open water.”

Two oil slicks that are reportedly “consistent” with the kind of slicks that would be left by a crashed jetliner have been sighted off the coast of southern Vietnam. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8th. The last contact the flight had with air traffic controllers was reported to be around 2:40 a.m. local time, two hours after takeoff, but there is some discrepancy between flight tracking systems. The New York Times reported:

[T]he timeline seemed to suggest that the plane stayed in the air for two hours — long enough to fly not only across the Gulf of Thailand but also far north across Vietnam. But Mr. Lindahl of Flightradar 24, a flight tracking service, said that the last radar contact had been at 1:19 a.m., less than 40 minutes after the flight began. A Malaysia Airlines spokesman said on Saturday evening that the last conversation between the flight crew and air traffic control in Malaysia had been around 1:30 a.m., but he reiterated that the plane had not disappeared from air traffic control systems in Subang until 2:40 a.m.

There are two unusual aspects to the flight’s disappearance:

  • Two of the 227 passengers listed on the flight manifest were in fact not on the plane. An Italian and and Austrian each reported that their passports had been stolen while they were traveling in Thailand.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported that the airline’s CEO, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that there was no distress call or bad weather report from the pilots before the plane lost contact with air control 120 nautical miles (140 miles) off the east coast of Kota Bharu, Malaysia.

Several analysts and experts have said that it was highly unusual that all communication would have been cut off without any indication from the crew that there was a problem, although an Air France flight that crashed in 2009 had also never issued a distress call. Mary Schiavo, the former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN, “That plane has many different ways to locate it: Automatic beacons that tell you where it is; there are several ways to contact it both with radios and GPS, as well as computer communications within the cockpit.” A senior administration officer from the industry, speaking to Chinese media on condition of anonymity, explained that a plane is equipped with several sets of communication devices, which function simultaneously. Even if all of them fail to work, the plane can be located through radar code.

What could explain the sudden and complete communication silence? The obvious explanation is that a disaster similar to the one that befell the Air France flight occurred. But that’s not the only possible explanation.

My analysis and idle theory

The oil slicks may not necessarily be confirmation of a crash. It’s possible that they could also be consistent with a fuel dump done at low altitude – below the radar – although jet fuel is highly volatile and dissipates fairly rapidly in open water. Fuel dumps are made when a jetliner’s weight exceed the maximum allowable weight for landing. Not all airliners have the capability to dump fuel, but a Boeing 777-200 does. Given that two passengers gained access to the flight by using stolen passports, a hijacking could be possible.

Receiving no communication from the plane could point to a failure of locator transmitters. Can the flight data recorder be accessed from within the pressurized cabin? Depending on the airliner, it appears so. The emergency locator transmitter (ELT), cockpit voice recorder (CVR), and flight data recorder (FDR) are installed either in the tail-cone area or the aft top part of cabin. The ELT can be tested by removing it and shielding it or screening it to prevent the radiation from causing a false alert; it seems reasonable to assume that the same would be true for data recorders. Either way, the ELT can be accessed to be controlled manually or prevented from broadcasting. I haven’t yet found information on the Boeing 777-200, but anecdotal information on at least one pilot-centered site suggests that it is possible and (relatively) easy to access the data recorders. If the data recorders were installed in the unpressurized tail compartment, in most aircraft there is normally a lower access door at the rear of the aircraft that will allow access into the the tail.

Access to the unpressurized tail compartment during flight would cause depressurization of the main cabin, which would seem to be a problem for hijackers as well as passengers and crew. It seems to me, though, that depressurization, if one were prepared for it, would be a highly effective way to immobilize the passengers and in-cabin crew and prevent a Flight 93-style passenger revolt. But how would hijackers have access to oxygen? In 2011, the FAA announced that it had ordered the removal of all oxygen masks from airplane lavatories in the United States for security reasons, but in 2012 the FAA ordered the reinstallation of lavatory oxygen systems. It isn’t far-fetched to consider planning for and rigging up some tubing extension from the lavatory system. Upon depressurization, pilots are trained to immediately bring the aircraft down to under 10,000 feet, which could explain why the flight was no longer detected by radar by Flightradar 24 but Subang Air Traffic Control Centre still had flight information: they may have been monitoring via procedural control which uses flight data rather than radar to track location.

Assuming all of the above, if the pilots were successful in bringing the airliner down to a safe altitude, the cockpit door would have already been compromised due to the blow-out of panels in the door that are expressly designed to allow equalization of air pressure between the cockpit and cabin in the event of depressurization. Why would someone want to hijack a plane and not take credit for terrorism? Who knows – drugs in the cargo hold, maybe?  Whatever the motive, it would be possible, if the locator transmitters were disabled, to fly at low altitude over open water late at night for some distance without being detected before landing somewhere. It’s just a theory.

updated 3/9

It’s now been widely reported that the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was highly experienced with over 18,000 hours of flight experience. In addition, he knew the ins and outs of the Boeing 777 extremely well, owned a flight simulator at home, was an avid collector of remote-controlled miniature aircraft, and owned an amphibious aircraft with the word RESCUE printed on top. Fariq Abdul Hamid, son of a government official, was the co-pilot and had over 2,700 hours of flight time.

Could they have been involved in the disappearance of the flight? Given that Shah was familiar with amphibious aircraft, it would not be impossible for him to consider a water landing like Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who in 2009 landed US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River.

And by the way, Class A and Class B cargo holds must by law be accessible during flight to crewmembers in the event of an emergency. I’m now theorizing a water landing with prearranged rescue assistance for the perpetrators, grabbing whatever out of the cargo hold, and leaving the plane to sink. Again, it’s just a theory.

updated 3/10

The International Business Times is reporting that passenger cellphones are ringing through but not being answered. They report that, according to China.org.cn, 19 families have signed a joint statement saying that their family members’ cell phones connected, but the calls hung up. Malaysia Airlines has offered in-flight mobile phone and data services since 2008. The service can be turned off by the crew during flight if necessary. There are apparently no records of any calls, texts, or tweets from the passengers while onboard the flight.

If these reports are true, then the cellphones must be within the reach of a cell tower…which makes it highly unlikely that they are submerged in the ocean, or destroyed in a crash. The oil slicks identified earlier as possibly coming from the plane have been tested and are not jet fuel, adding to the mystery. If the phones are live, can their location be tracked before their batteries run out? Although it’s possible that the flight crashed on land, I would start checking smaller local airports for unauthorized landings. Since the passengers flying on stolen passports have some connection to Thailand, I’d start with Thailand’s Narathiwat Airport, Hat Yai International Airport, and Koh Samui Airport.

This has become a highly fascinating story.

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