Fact vs. Fiction: Malaysia Airlines 370 and Occam’s Razor
For 14 days now, the world has followed the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370. While the potential debris field recently discovered in the south Indian Ocean offers hope, the world has had two weeks filled with misdirection, red herrings, wild speculation and myriad theories being bandied about that range from the absurd to the preposterous. The 24-hour news feeds, armed with a scant dearth of facts (and no end to the self-proclaimed “experts”) have nothing to show for it besides microscopic dissections of transponders, sketchy “eyewitness” reports, and — perhaps most absurd of all — the armchair, Dr. Phil-style psych profiling of the pilots themselves.
As NYCA Editor Phil Derner, Jr. says in his excellent article, while all possible angles must be investigated by authorities, I feel the media feeding frenzy is an insult not only to the captain, first officer and their loved ones, but to the pilot profession as a whole. These men are heroes, not villains.
Perhaps it’s time we all step back, take a collective deep breath, come back down to earth and take a look at this mystery from the bottom up. For starters, let’s sort fact from fiction. Then let’s put those facts under the microscope of a scientific investigative theory that’s known as Occam’s Razor.
Since Sir William Hamilton coined the phrase in 1852, Occam’s Razor has become a pillar of scientific theory and logical thought. The principle refers to William of Ockham’s philosophical musings in the 12th Century on the establishment of any theory or hypothesis. In short, the simplest explanation tends to be the most likely. A shining modern example would be Einstein’s E=MC2. Simple, all-encompassing, brilliant. And absolutely, 100% correct.
Put another way, Occam’s Razor could be stated thus: statistically, what are the best odds? Or, if you prefer, that which is most likely, is most likely.
Of course, the challenge for us is to figure out, what is the “most likely?”
Step one: sort fact from fiction. We will also add our take about each bullet point:
- “All right, good night”: the last radio transmission from MH370, at 01:19 (local departure time; the flight had departed at 12:41 am.) To Bill and me, both veteran airline captains, this sounds like an absolutely standard sign off. No duress, and no sinister under tone suggesting a diabolical plot from the crew.
- Two minutes later, at 01:21, the transponder is lost (switched off or fails). As Bill mentions on his blog, transponders fail all the time, and the only way pilots know about it is when ATC tells us. However, it is a simple knob that can be turned on or off, or switched to different modes.
- ACARS fails to check in at 01:37. There’s no telling the exact time of ACARS failure, but it would be somewhere between the 30 minute check-in intervals. Two possibilities: failure, or sabotage. This one would be tougher to manually switch off, however. There may be circuit breakers in the cockpit to pull, but short of that, no simple on/off switch.
- Recent findings suggest that the flight may have been reprogrammed for the “air turn-back,” possibly 12 minutes before the last radio transmission. Some say this strongly suggests that “nefarious activities were afoot.” However, it smells to both of us like an immediate deviation due to some sort of emergency.
- Altitude deviations (inconclusive). Some data suggest that, after lost com, MH370 may have climbed from its initial altitude of 30,000’ to 45,000’ (well above its service ceiling) and then descended to as low as 23,000’. A head-scratcher for sure, but it either suggests fugoid oscillations (repeated climbs/descents) from an airplane with no autopilot—and no pilot.
- A shipment of lithium batteries may have been on board. These would be considered “hazmat” (hazardous materials), but if shipped properly, not a hazard. However, some speculations out there suggest this caused a fire. If true, the batteries would burn extremely hot and emit toxic fumes. (A similar scenario, incorporating these lithium batteries, by pilot Chris Goodfellow has has gone viral, and has been talked about by news media as the “simplest” explanation and an alternative to hijack and sabotage theories. While Bill and I generally agree with much of the scenario put forth, some of the details of his conjectures do not make sense.)
- Primary radar and satellite engine data “pings” suggest the aircraft may have been airborne for up to seven hours past its last transmission.
- No signals from ELT or black boxes. In the case of Air France, no signal was ever found, either, probably due to damage on impact. Moreover, in most airliners, there’s no ELT aboard in the conventional sense. There would be a portable one aboard, however, that survivors could manually activate. It could also automatically activate upon contact with salt water. However, the only signals that work underwater would be the pings from the black boxes — and those would be extremely short range, found only after a crash site had been located, as in the case with Air France 447.
- No cell phone calls from passengers were made. When MH370 passengers’ phones were dialed, the callers sometimes ring rather than go right to voicemail. You can disregard these right now. Cell phones have extremely limited range, typically under a mile or two (range varies). And an airliner at 30,000’ is over five miles above the ground. As experts have stated, ringing before going to voicemail is common even when the phone is off.
- Barring confirmation of a debris field in the South Indian Ocean, the wreckage has still not been found. One popular theory: that’s because the plane landed on a secret strip somewhere. While this makes for a great James Bond movie, it most likely isn’t the case. As a “heavy,” the 777 requires special reinforced pavement and an extra long runway — one that would easily be spotted. It took five days to confirm the crash site (via wreckage recovery) of Air France 447, and Bill calculates that the MH370 search area is 594 times larger than that — an area larger than the United States! If the recent discovery in the south Indian Ocean is confirmed, that could be strong evidence to back up the “air turn back” theory.
Now, what does all this mean? Where does it lead? That’s the $64 million question, the one that’s got multiple countries chasing shadows all over the globe right now.
And here’s where Occam’s Razor kicks in.
Let’s start by looking at some historical statistics:
- Airline pilots are highly trained, highly disciplined, and highly unlikely to hijack their own ships. One does not easily throw away years of training, discipline and experience.
- Modern airliners are ultra-safe—but are machines. And machines break.
- Post-9/11, cockpit breaches are possible, but not likely. Hijacks are now extremely rare.
- Passengers onboard MH370 have all been scrutinized, even the two traveling on false passports. Foul play does not appear to be likely.
- Radio and data loss: failure or sabotage? Statistically, mechanical failure is far more likely. The rapid succession loss of transponder, ACARS and radio suggest these were secondary failures due to a larger, more catastrophic primary failure; say, an avionics bay fire or electrical bus short. It is even conceivable that a more catastrophic event caused the primary failure as well, such as a hull breach, causing depressurization.
- As for the flight being programmed to turn back prior to the last radio transmission, one possibility is that some airlines have pilots routinely re-program and update a secondary flight plan with escape routes in the event of an engine failure or other emergency. This hasn’t been discussed in mainstream media, but may offer up an explanation as opposed to a less likely nefarious one. Bill and I are in agreement that this was most likely activated by the pilot flying due to an inflight emergency, to return to the nearest suitable airport.
- Altitude deviation: Either false data, or… what? One suggestion thrown around is that the pilots climbed rapidly to oxygen-starve a fire. Extremely unlikely. Fires spread fast, and diving for the nearest suitable airport is the only hope for survival. Again, statistically, the most likely explanation is that, by this time, the pilots are unconscious or dead. The ship, off autopilot (again possibly part of an avionics failure), begins that fugoid oscillation we mentioned earlier. That is, it may have gradually climbed until it reached “coffin corner,” where stall speed and max speed meet. The plane stalls, and plummets, perhaps as low as the mid-20’s where, due to the inherent positive stability (as all modern aircraft are designed), it recovers from the stall on its own. The cycle could repeat indefinitely, or with smaller and smaller deviations.
- As for the course of an unmanned, non-autopilot airplane, due to positive roll stability, it should stay somewhat close to its last general heading, at least initially. Its actual track would be subject to upset by turbulence and winds aloft. And in seven hours of flying without an autopilot, it could have deviated significantly from its original course.
- As for the course of an unmanned airplane on autopilot, it would have held its last assigned altitude and heading (subject to winds aloft), or its pre-programmed course, until its fuel ran out.
- The recent discovery of a potential debris field in the south Indian Ocean coincides perfectly with the “air turn back” theory, and is indeed in the same probable search area that U.S. authorities predicted.
We will refrain here from speculating on the exact nature of the inflight emergency. But in light of the potential crash site now being searched in the south Indian Ocean, our hopes are high that the loved ones of MH370’s passengers — and all the world — will have their questions answered soon.
Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier is an airline pilot by day, writer by night, and kid by choice. An A320 Captain for a major U.S. airline, he is also a freelance writer, novelist and blogger. His second novel, The Last Bush Pilots, captured the coveted Amazon Top 100 Breakthrough Novels in 2013. Mr. Auxier makes his home in Phoenix, Arizona.