Aviation News

March 20, 2014

Fact vs. Fiction: Malaysia Airlines 370 and Occam’s Razor

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By: Eric Auxier
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The missing Boeing 777-200, as shown in a file photo courtesy of Malaysia Airlines.
The missing Boeing 777-200, as shown in a file photo courtesy of Malaysia Airlines.
Editor’s note: the author wishes to express gratitude to Bill Palmer, Airbus 330 captain and author of Understanding Air France 447, in lending his expertise to this piece. On both Captain Palmer and Eric Auxier’s blogs, they provide educated analysis on “what could have happened”, and their pieces are strikingly similar. For this article, however, in keeping with NYCA’s journalistic creed, they adhere solely to the facts.

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.

Taken together:

  • 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.

Further reading:

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.

  • Coeks

    Nice job Eric! Your ol friend here. The historical facts you’ve started, relate to millions of flights by millions of pilots of the present and past. They’ve (pilots) have flown successful flights getting travelers to their destinations with the occasional incidents/accidents that are now always explained by experts in accident investigations.

    As pilots, we find it inconceivable to blame pilots for nefarious acts. Because we equate our personal experiences and what we would do in those same situations. The equation has changed. There are in recent history flights that fall outside of the historical data. Silk Air Flight 185 and Egypt Air Flight 990 were both flights that were both brought down by suicidal pilots.

    Egypt Air 990 was proven to be a suicidal act by the First Officer by Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorders. The political landscape was tenuous between the USA and Egypt yet they were a major ally in the Middle East and this accident was swept under the rug.

    Silk Air 185 was on the other side of the world and was explained and we forgot about it rather quickly.

    Malaysia 370 is also on the other side of the world but is unexplained. I’ve heard every explanation from experts to idiots and until they find the wreckage or plane intact along with Gilligan and the Skipper, I’m afraid this will be water-cooler and web blog fodder for some time to come!

    • capnaux

      Well said, Coeks!
      We did not mention them in our report, but you are certainly right, that there have been relatively recent incidents of pilot intervention. However, inflight mechanical failures and fires are a daily occurrence–in the entire history of aviation, less than a handful of pilot-sabotage. Purely playing the odds, my money would be on mechanical of some type. With an absolute dearth of facts to go on, that was one of our main points in the piece.
      I greatly appreciate you bringing up your counter arguments in a respectful, constructive way. That is, sadly, a rare occurrence on pieces such as this, where everybody who has a few hundred hours on a home flight sim is suddenly thinks themselves an expert.
      Thanks for the comment!

  • Capt. JC Kidder

    I found the article refreshing in light of the media circus that is relentlessly following this tragedy. I am disgusted by the way they, the mainstream media, has demonized the Captain and First Officer. I actually heard on CNN that the course change had to have been made via the FMS because quote “A pilot would have a hard time maintaining altitude in a turn such as the one made by MH370″ what… Also I can’t understand why former airline pilots on these panels CNN put together continue to back this myth that there is a elaborate process for shutting down ACARS. Without giving any operational secrets out I can tell you there is a only one switch to “pull” on the flight deck that will disable the system and my fellow airman know exactly what I’m referring to. I also really love how they’re going after the Captain because of his flight simulator. I actually heard Greg Fife say quote “All the airline pilots I know say they spend enough time flying why would we want to do it at home”. Now keep in mind this is coming from the same person who said pilots may only actually hand fly a plane for 15 minuets per flight. I could go on and on but I’ll leave that to folks like Captain Auxier who articulate much better the frustration felt by airline pilots such as myself.

    • capnaux

      Thanks for your comment, Captain!

      So many frustrating issues all around in this—most especially the “experts” aka media circus clowns. I am hopeful that time will reveal the true story and, ultimately, exonerate the pilots.

    • Simon Gunson

      Capt Kidder I know some of Zaharie’s siblings and they would be heartened by your words. Thank you. Zaharie was not depressed, their housemaid Nur Hyatii witnesssed him hug and kiss his wife in the hallway as he left for work. Nor was he a Jihadist. On facebook he condemned the Boston marathon bombing. One of Zaharie’s sisters is married to an Irishman and one of his nieces is married to an Irish American. I have sat down to dinner with his family and they asked me to say Grace. Hardly the demonized image of Muslims we were all given. Zaharie was a spontaneously compassionate man involved in many charities.

  • daneyd

    The only part of all your theories that bothers me is that the last known transmission happens some time after the turn. If it was an inflight emergency why wasn’t that transmitted. The emergency would of provoked the change of coarse, why then did he not transmit a mayday, instead issues a standard hand off “Good Night?”He obviously had working radios and time to transmit as he did. This to me kills the air emergency theory. I do believe that there was a depressurization, however, why and how that happened is a mystery. Did the co-pilot do it on purpose, maybe to incapacitate intruders then became incapacitated himself? Did he plan the whole thing and himself depressurized the plane sending it on it long journey to the bottom of the ocean long after he and everyone else had parishes from lack of oxygen? Did he depressurize then get to take control then got into a scuffle with the pilot incapacitating both of them thereby sending the plane on it merry way. I do believe there was an emergency but not a mechanical one. I also believe there had to be a depressurization. At the end of the day its anyones guess, and they are all guess’s however some guesses are better than others based on what we now know.

    • capnaux

      To my knowledge, the fabled, “Good night” comes BEFORE everything else. If that is wrong, then we are wrong. Our whole premise is that something happened so rapidly that no transmission—for whatever reason—was able to happen.

      Here’s an updated news snippet from Mar. 23: “Malaysian authorities said the last transmission from the missing aircraft’s reporting system showed it heading to Beijing — a revelation that appears to undercut the theory that someone reprogrammed the plane’s flight path before the co-pilot signed off with air-traffic controllers for the last time.”

      The biggest challenge in all this has been to dig out the known facts from rumor, conflicting data, and flat out errors in reporting.

    • daneyd

      Yes I agree that the information is slow, inconsistent, inaccurate, and plainly suspect. I know that all of this, including the forgoing, is highly speculative but from what I’m seeing its looking more like a 9/11 FL 93 “Lets Role” scenario. Cockpit is breached by intruders, they order electronics turned off, attempts to commandeer the plane lead to pilots depressurizing cabin in an attempt to debilitate intruders but then the pilots themselves become incapacitated and the 777 flies on into the abyss. This scenario fits into all the facts we now know, although limited and speculative.

    • daneyd

      In other words I think MH370 starts out as a FL 93 battle scenario and ends like a Paine Stewart flight depressurization killing all and plane flies on its own till fuel starvation.

  • Meliyu

    I may be off base but, could the crew have been suffering from hypoxia?

    • capnaux

      Absolutely! A very real possibility in a depressurization scenario.

      However, it would appear most likely that something happened rapidly, rather than a slow onset, like Hypoxia often has. If there was a rapid depressurization, the pilots would have most likely donned their Oxygen masks.
      Thank you for the question, Meliyu!

  • Alex Harvey

    This is my theory.

    Let’s assume a suicide mission by a pilot or a hijacker – yes, it did seem insane a fortnight ago – but. There were lots of smart engineers on board. The motive could be anything from being mentally unwell, insurance fraud, or something else.

    Whoever was flying the plane knew how to disappear from civilian radar, yet didn’t know about military radar? The plane did disappear from military radar, as it flew south past Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia – only to be observed for 6 hours by satellite handshakes that no one in the world knew anything about previously.

    Let’s imagine the satellite handshakes had not existed, as we can imagine a hijacker/suiciding pilot would have done. We would now believe either that MH370 crashed around 1.20am (if the military observed nothing at all) or more likely at 2.20am. And we would be searching for MH370 either off the coast of Vietnam or off the coast of India. And of course, the plane would never be found.

    Recently there were scattered reports by Malay fishermen of a plane flying very low in and around the area where MH370 disappeared. At the time, these eyewitness reports were dismissed by journalists. The idea that MH370 could fly under radar across India was dismissed – it would be too hard. But to fly across the ocean for 7 hours, that’s much easier.

    The pre-programmed flight route to Central Asia would have made it look like a middle eastern hijacking to investigators. And by flying along a commercial route, Malaysian military mistook it for a commercial flight, and failed to scramble jets to intercept.

    Once safely past the limits of Malaysian radar, the plane dropped to an altitude that it could no longer be observed by any radar – including Malaysian radar (which we know was there and should have otherwise seen the southward journey), Indonesian radar (The Indonesians announced they had the capability to see the plane but didn’t), and high-tech Australian radar.

    It turned back south and headed for the limits of its fuel for the deepest part of the ocean, never to be seen again.

    • capnaux

      Thank you for presenting what certainly is a plausible theory, for the reasons you have stated. One thing in question as to your scenario is that jets are extremely inefficient at low altitudes, so if it was “flying low to avoid radar” it could not have possibly flown as far as the assumed crash site being searched in the S. Ind. Ocean.

      I am hoping this mystery is wrapped up soon…or at least in our lifetime!

    • Alex Harvey

      It looks like they’ve found the plane around here: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BkmJNwIIAAAZXjo.jpg That’s a lot further north than originally thought. Does that resolve the concern about fuel?

  • aknauer

    Thank you for taking a very level headed approach.

    What would be of interest, are the raw Malaysian Military Radar records.
    Since, based on these, it was claimed that MH370 climbed to FL450. A comparison of the recorded climb rate to well beyond the service ceiling with the relevant parameters of MH370 could shed some light. The T/O weight, fuel on board, estimated fuel burn after one hours flight, density altitude (Met data) must be available. From there you, or anyone with the appropriate knowledge, would be able to calculate the max Rate Of Climb (considering TOGA setting), max altitude, and possibly even a position where FL450 could be reached, if at all possible. Also the speed profile could be compared to a 777. I don’t have the knowledge or data to do these calculations.

    One of the theories is, that the pilots deliberately climbed to FL450 to starve the cabin of oxygen. Why risk this maneuvre, when the cabin pressurisation can be turned of, as happened on Helios 522 by accident?

    There seem to be some inconsistencies in the claims made by Malaysian Military: Unidentified Object – but Commercial and not Hostile, hence not intercepted – how did they now if it was unidentified?

    “Thrown around like a fighter plane”? MH370 was still very heavy at the time.

    I read in various reports, that the target descended down as low as 5000ft and was flying at a very high speed. If the pattern was caused by fugoid oscillation, would there not be a real danger of structural failure after diving down from coffin corner through 20,000 ft or more?

    If it is true that there was a joint US/Thai land/sea/air defence exercise going on in the area, would not every listening post in the area be on high alert and gathering data? If this is a fair assumtion, then there would also be more records of the movements.

    Is it thinkable, that the unidentified target on primary radar was in fact a fighter plane returning from it’s sortie?

  • Simon Gunson

    Great article Eric and Bill. Only discovered this many months after MH370 disappeared, but your points are still valid.

    Were you aware the Flightaware website redacted an ADS-B return from MH370 at 17:50 UTC, but later reinstated the information?


    The 17:50 location was 06.9298N, 103.5901E. This was 27nm NNE of IGARI and to me this suggests it was returning from near Ca Mau peninsula.

    Occams Razor suggests pilots decided to turn back for IGARI heading for Kuala Lumpur before catastrophe struck. It also means that MH370 could well have flown within sight of the oil rig worker Mike McKay.

    Extrapolating from this that MH370 flew back from IGARI directly over Kuala Lumpur with the autopilot following a magnetic heading, then the local Agonic variation over the Indian ocean would have gradually altered the true course to the East as it flew south. When you plot that Rhumb line the amusing irony is that it ends up very much like the official theory via Aceh.