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March 14, 2014

The Continuing Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

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Written by: Patrick Smith
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Right, so the blockbuster satellite shots of floating wreckage turned out to be something unrelated — perhaps a shipping container full of Adidas sneakers or knockoff handbags — bringing us back to where we were.

And what’s required first and foremost is some immediate clarity is whether or not the missing plane did indeed continue on for some length of time after the point at which contact was lost. There have been, from the start, two main avenues of possibility: foul play, or some catastrophic malfunction. But we need a yes or no as to whether the plane remained flying, possibly for several hours, to give us at least a slightly better sense of where to search and of which theories to rule out. We’re getting conflicting information about this. Frictions between the different investigative parties, combined with people’s insatiable demand of instant answers, isn’t helping.

Neither is the confusing vernacular of commercial aviation. The media is throwing around words like “transponder” and “radar” without really understanding what these things do and don’t mean, leading people’s theorizing astray.

To that point, several readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder. In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching off the unit might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.

And transponders are only used for tracking in areas of air traffic control radar coverage. Much of the world — most of it, actually, when you consider the size of the oceans — is not covered by ATC radar. Tracking and sequencing in these areas is accomplished through other means. So all of this fixating on transponders isn’t necessarily relevant. The transponder stopped working, but apparently so did the rest of the plane’s communications equipment. Or did it? This isn’t clear.

Power loss. People keep asking “how can a plane simply disappear?” It’s an idea that doesn’t seem to compute in an age of instant and total connectivity. But consider: if somebody yanks the power cord out of your computer, suddenly all the wonderful immediacy and connectivity of the internet is effectively vanished. Similarly, all of the fancy equipment in a 777′s cockpit is only useful if it’s actually running. Thus, together with an absence of primary radar over much of the ocean, the idea that a plane can disappear becomes a lot more conceivable.

And if everything did stop functioning, how? Was it intentional sabotage or some bizarre and total power loss? Nobody knows.

Another scenario I’ve been asked about multiple times: could a rapid loss of cabin pressure render the flight crew, and possibly everyone else on the plane as well, incapacitated, at which point the plane deviated from its course before eventually crashing? This is conceivable, yes (though maybe no more so than assorted other scenarios). Depressurizations are perfectly manageable and rarely fatal, and something that all airline crews train for routinely, but only if the crew understands the problem and does what it’s supposed to do. See Helios Airways.

And as I was saying in my last update, no matter who or what is to blame, we shouldn’t let this latest tragedy overshadow the fact that air travel remains remarkably safe. Worldwide, the trend over the past several years has been one of steady improvement, to the point where last year was the safest in the entire history of commercial aviation. Hopefully their number continues to diminish, but a certain number of accidents will always be inevitable. In some ways, the weirdness of this story speaks to how well we have engineered away what once were the most common causes of crashes. Those that still occur tend to be more mysterious and strange than in decades past (have a look at the year 1985 sometime for an idea of how frequent large-scale air disasters once were).

Meanwhile, it’s fascinating how this story has moved from being one about a presumed airplane crash to, really, a mystery story. It’s the very missing-ness of the plane that the public finds so captivating. If and when the wreckage is discovered, I have to wonder if suddenly people will stop paying such rapt attention. If so, that’s too bad, because the question at hand ought to be what happened on board the jet, not where is the jet.

I say “if and when” because I think people need to reconcile with the possibility that the plane might never be found. I know that sounds absurd to many people in this day and age, where fast and easy answers are taken for granted, but it might happen. I don’t expect that to happen, but it could.

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and host of AskThePilot.com, where this story was first published. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

About the Author

Patrick Smith



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  • capnaux

    Excellent summation and points, Captain!

    I’m so glad you addressed these points that the media doesn’t bother to understand. They don’t even know what they don’t know!

    And speaking of not knowing, this increasingly seems to be pointing in the direction of, we’re not looking in the right place.

    Thanks for the great article!

  • I do not understood, why nobody discuss a big crime in this case. Insurance Fraud is investigated in relation to the passenger, but not in relation to the Airline. The plane was repair. We all know, a repaired care my have trouble with corrosion which stop the usability. What is, if the aviation must be get a huge repair at the next security check? Or it may be unusable?
    There are a lot to obscure Points:
    (1) Airline requests help after 6(!!) hours of connection lost
    (2) Connection los was at the boarder of two radar zones
    (3) All in operation systems like transponder, ads-b, … are disappear simultaneously.
    (3) The obscure operating system Pings from the not subscribed engine logging system who say: The Flight continues over 4 hour …
    (4) The obscure Radar echo’s over the street of malaca and the Andaman sea, where the ocean is huge more deep.
    In my opinion, all this fits to a mass murder crime of make a soul selling flight.

  • Stan Astan

    As probably most suspected from the beginning, this has turned into a fascinating detective story. As with all detective stories: means, motive, and opportunity will lead the way. I’m sure that the families of those involved are frustrated beyond endurance by this time. This is regrettable.

  • nivk
    • Stan Astan

      Fascinating. But the proposed scenario begs Occam’s Razor. My point is that this solution is probably less sophisticated than shadowed flights and such.
      What if they (clearly “they” by now) flew low and straight West. This brings about a world of criminal motives.