Flight MH370: A pilot's simple explanation of what went wrong

Evidence suggests the pilot intended to land at Langkawi - the nearest practical landing strip in the event of a fire
Chris Goodfellow

Chris Goodfellow has 20 years experience as a Canadian Class-1 instrumented-rated pilot for multi-engine planes. His theory on what happened to MH370 first appeared on his personal Google+ account. It has been lightly edited - Editor.

LATEST: Wreckage off Perth could be from Flight MH370 - Aussie PM

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GUEST COMMENT

There has been a lot of speculation about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Terrorism, hijacking, meteors. I cannot believe the analysis on CNN; it’s almost disturbing. I tend to look for a simpler explanation, and I find it with the 13,000-foot runway at Pulau Langkawi.

We know the story of MH370: A loaded Boeing 777 departs at midnight from Kuala Lampur, headed to Beijing. A hot night. A heavy aircraft. About an hour out, across the gulf toward Vietnam, the plane goes dark, meaning the transponder and secondary radar tracking go off. Two days later we hear reports that Malaysian military radar (which is a primary radar, meaning the plane is tracked by reflection rather than by transponder interrogation response) has tracked the plane on a southwesterly course back across the Malay Peninsula into the Strait of Malacca.

When I heard this I immediately brought up Google Earth and searched for airports in proximity to the track toward the southwest.

The left turn is the key here. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time. We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always. If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do–you already know what you are going to do. When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport. He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles. The captain did not turn back to Kuala Lampur because he knew he had 8,000-foot ridges to cross. He knew the terrain was friendlier toward Langkawi, which also was closer.

Take a look at Langkawi Airport on Google Earth. The pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make an immediate turn to the closest, safest airport.

For me, the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.

There are two types of fires. An electrical fire might not be as fast and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started slowly burning. Yes, this happens with underinflated tires. Remember: Heavy plane, hot night, sea level, long-run takeoff. There was a well known accident in Nigeria of a DC8 that had a landing gear fire on takeoff. Once going, a tire fire would produce horrific, incapacitating smoke. Yes, pilots have access to oxygen masks, but this is a no-no with fire. Most have access to a smoke hood with a filter, but this will last only a few minutes depending on the smoke level. (I used to carry one in my flight bag, and I still carry one in my briefcase when I fly.)

What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.

lang-660

ABOVE: Lawkawi Airport, with its 13,000 landing strip, was the logical target for the pilot if he was looking for the nearest practical place to land in the event of a fire.

Ongoing speculation of a hijacking and/or murder-suicide and that there was a flight engineer on board does not sway me in favor of foul play until I am presented with evidence of foul play.

We know there was a last voice transmission that, from a pilot’s point of view, was entirely normal. “Good night” is customary on a hand-off to a new air traffic control. The “good night” also strongly indicates to me that all was OK on the flight deck. Remember, there are many ways a pilot can communicate distress. A hijack code or even transponder code off by one digit would alert ATC that something was wrong. Every good pilot knows keying an SOS over the mike always is an option. Even three short clicks would raise an alert. So I conclude that at the point of voice transmission all was perceived as well on the flight deck by the pilots.

But things could have been in the process of going wrong, unknown to the pilots.

Evidently the Acars [aircraft communications addressing and reporting system] went inoperative some time before. Disabling the Acars is not easy, as pointed out. This leads me to believe more in an electrical problem or an electrical fire than a manual shutdown. I suggest the pilots probably were not aware Acars was not transmitting.

As for the reports of altitude fluctuations, given that this was not transponder-generated data but primary radar at maybe 200 miles, the azimuth readings can be affected by a lot of atmospherics and I would not have high confidence in this being totally reliable. But let’s accept for a minute that the pilot may have ascended to 45,000 feet in a last-ditch effort to quell a fire by seeking the lowest level of oxygen. That is an acceptable scenario. At 45,000 feet, it would be tough to keep this aircraft stable, as the flight envelope is very narrow and loss of control in a stall is entirely possible. The aircraft is at the top of its operational ceiling. The reported rapid rates of descent could have been generated by a stall, followed by a recovery at 25,000 feet. The pilot may even have been diving to extinguish flames.

But going to 45,000 feet in a hijack scenario doesn’t make any good sense to me.

Regarding the additional flying time: On departing Kuala Lampur, Flight 370 would have had fuel for Beijing and an alternate destination, probably Shanghai, plus 45 minutes–say, 8 hours. Maybe more. He burned 20-25 percent in the first hour with takeoff and the climb to cruise. So when the turn was made toward Langkawi, he would have had six hours or more hours worth of fuel. This correlates nicely with the Inmarsat data pings being received until fuel exhaustion.

The now known continued flight until time to fuel exhaustion only confirms to me that the crew was incapacitated and the flight continued on deep into the south Indian ocean.

There is no point speculating further until more evidence surfaces, but in the meantime it serves no purpose to malign pilots who well may have been in a struggle to save this aircraft from a fire or other serious mechanical issue. Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a hero struggling with an impossible situation trying to get that plane to Langkawi. There is no doubt in my mind. That’s the reason for the turn and direct route. A hijacking would not have made that deliberate left turn with a direct heading for Langkawi. It probably would have weaved around a bit until the hijackers decided where they were taking it.

Surprisingly, none of the reporters, officials, or other pilots interviewed have looked at this from the pilot’s viewpoint: If something went wrong, where would he go? Thanks to Google Earth I spotted Langkawi in about 30 seconds, zoomed in and saw how long the runway was and I just instinctively knew this pilot knew this airport. He had probably flown there many times.

Fire in an aircraft demands one thing: Get the machine on the ground as soon as possible. There are two well-remembered experiences in my memory. The AirCanada DC9 which landed, I believe, in Columbus, Ohio in the 1980s. That pilot delayed descent and bypassed several airports. He didn’t instinctively know the closest airports. He got it on the ground eventually, but lost 30-odd souls. The 1998 crash of Swissair DC-10 off Nova Scotia was another example of heroic pilots. They were 15 minutes out of Halifax but the fire overcame them and they had to ditch in the ocean. They simply ran out of time. That fire incidentally started when the aircraft was about an hour out of Kennedy. Guess what? The transponders and communications were shut off as they pulled the busses.

Get on Google Earth and type in Pulau Langkawi and then look at it in relation to the radar track heading. Two plus two equals four. For me, that is the simple explanation why it turned and headed in that direction. Smart pilot. He just didn’t have the time.


Goodfellow wrote the above post on March 14. Yesterday, he added the following update - Editor:

I wrote this post before the information regarding the engines continuing to run for approximately six hours and the fact it seems acars was shut down before the transponder.

The continued speculation of hijack and/or murder suicide and the latest this morning that there was a flight engineer on board that is being investigated does not do much to sway me in favour of foul play until I am presented with evidence of foul play.

My present view in light of new evidence:

We know there was a last voice transmission that from a pilot's point of view (POV) was entirely normal. The good night is customary on a hand -off to a new ATC [Air Traffic Control]. The good night also indicates STRONGLY to me all was OK on the flight deck. Remember there are many ways a pilot can communicate distress - the hijack code or even a transponder code different by one digit from assigned would alert ATC that something was wrong. Every good pilot knows keying an SOS over the mike is always an option even three short clicks would raise an alert.

So I conclude at that point of voice transmission all was perceived as well on the flight deck by the pilots. 

But things could have been in the process of going wrong unknown to the pilots - Evidently the ACARS went inoperative some time before. Disabling the ACARS is not easy as pointed out. This leads me to believe more in an electric or electric fire issue than a manual shutdown. I suggest the pilots were probably not aware it was not transmitting.

The next event is the turn to the SW in what appears direct Langkawi.

As I said in the first post the pilot probably had this in his head already.

Someone said why didn't he go to KBR [Kota Bharu] on north coast of Malaysia which was closer. That's a 6,000 foot runway and to put that plane down on a 6,000 foot strip at night uncertain of your aircraft's entire systems is not an option. I would expect the pilot would consider ditching before a 6,000 runway if still above maximum landing weight which he likely was. 

The safest runway in the region to make the approach was certainly Langkawi  - no obstacles over water with a long flat approach. In my humble opinion this 18,000 hour pilot knew this instinctively.

Reports of altitude fluctuations. Well given that this was not transponder generated data but primary radar at maybe 200 miles the azimuth readings can be affected by a lot of atmospherics and I would not have high confidence in this being totally reliable. But let's accept for a minute he might have ascended to 45,000 in a last ditch effort to quell a fire by seeking the lowest level of oxygen. It is an acceptable scenario in my opinion. At 45,000 it would be tough to keep this aircraft stable as the flight envelope is very narrow and loss of control in a stall is entirely possible. The aircraft is at the top of its operational ceiling.  The reported rapid rates of descent could have been generated by a stall and recovery at 25,000. The pilot may even have been diving the aircraft to extinguish flames. All entirely possible.

But going to 45,000 in a hijack scenario doesn't make any good sense to me.

The question of the time the plane flew on.

On departing Kuala he would have had fuel for Beijing and alternate probably Shanghai and 45 minutes. Say 8 hours. Maybe more. He burned 20-25% in first hour with takeoff, climb to cruise. So when the turn was made towards Langkawi  he would have had six hours or more. This correlates nicely with the immarsat data pings being received until fuel exhaustion.

The apparent now known continued flight until the estimated time to fuel exhaustion only actually confirms to me the crew were incapacitated and the flight continued on deep into the south Indian ocean.

There really is no point in speculating further until more evidence surfaces but in the meantime it serves no purpose to malign the pilots who well may have been in an heroic struggle to save this aircraft from a fire or other serious mechanical issue and were overcome. 

I hope the investigation team looks at the maintenance records of the front gear tires - cycles, last pressure check and maintenance inspection. Captain or First Officer as part of pre-flight looks at tires. Is there any video at the airport to support pre-flight walkaround? Any damage on pushback? A day after I wrote the original post a plane in the U.S. blew a tire in takeoff and the t/o was fortunately aborted with a burning tire.

Hopefully - and I believe now it is a slim hope - the wreckage will be found and the Flight Data Recorder and Voice Data Recorder will be recovered and provide us with insight. 

Until facts prove otherwise, I would give the Captain the benefit of respect and professional courtesy.


Earlier today Goodfellow posted the following update - Editor:

I was not going to add anything more myself but new information keeps coming to my attention that only serves to confirm my thinking that we are dealing with a fire/mechanical issue rather than hijack.

Many have written and said why if he had a fire didn't he proceed direct KBR [Kota Bharu airport] which was closer.

My reading would be that KBR is just under 6,000 feet and he would not have had this in his head as a viable safe harbour. Keep in mind this was a heavy and a lot of fuel. If he had fire he would not want to dump fuel. He would head for the long runway. Yes you could probably stuff a 777 into 6,000 feet with everything going your way but it is under the recommended length 7,200 feet I believe and remember this is a ATP with 18,000 hours who would likely go by the book. He turned towards LangKawi and/or Penang.

The real new news is the cargo question. If indeed there was a shipment of lithium batteries in the hold this is a definite line of enquiry. I had a long conversation last night with the reporter for the Christian Science Monitor in Kuala, Peter Ford, and I suggested that he dig deep into the cargo manifest but also try and get more information on the state of the tires on the front landing gear - number of cycles, maintenance records, last pressure check etc. and as many of you know the time honored tradition by the pilot and/or first officer pre-flight walkaround. I suggested there may be security video of all movements in and around the aircraft during the time the aircraft was being serviced and that the pilot or first officer may be on video during their walkaround. Did they stop and take a second look at the nose gear? Any clue there? Was the loading of the lithium batteries on video? Was there an mishap on loading that might have led to leakage?

If indeed there was fire, it was either cargo, avionics or possibly related to a tire overheat.

My thoughts were towards fire from the beginning and the reports by ground witnesses are flowing in. One, in particular, needs careful analysis and that is Mike Mckay the oilfield tech who wrote a detailed email to authorities. He obviously saw something unusual in the night sky and is apparently a reliable person. Other local people made sightings evidently on the north coast.

We now have a good timeline on the Acars [the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system], last voice communication and transponder shutdown. It is clear now that Acars was not shut down before the transponder or last call. It just made a transmission at 1:07 and not as expected at 1:37, so it could have gone down along with the transponder at 1:21 either as a forced shutdown by the pulling of breakers or the breakers all blowing at the same time as fire hit the electronics.

It is clear the data bursts went on for a period of time that correlates very well with fuel exhaustion. There is a lot confusion about these databursts and how they could have been taking place if the Acars was down and other electrics down. I am simply not able to answer how that system functions but it clear it is on a separate electrical system. Most likely if it is communicating via immarsat it is something akin to a satellite phone that dials up and dumps information on a timed basis. It may even be battery powered.

In regard to the piggy back theory: While I will not discount this is possible I think this reaches new levels of speculation. I have no idea of the capability of Malaysian radar but perhaps they were painting the other aircraft that proceeded up the straights of Malacca north westwards as MH370 continued unnoticed south westwards. I would not have high confidence in their primary radar beyond very short range. Remember the other plane would have been squawking on a transponder and provided a stranger return. It may simply be co-incidence that their paths crossed.

A very wise mentor of mine always cautioned me to keep an open mind and I continue to do so. All of our theories are essentially speculation and the most important thing is not to come to any definitive conclusions without the concrete evidence.

This may go down in aviation annals as the longest ghost flight of all time. In an age when we have so much technical capability that we can see a person on a street in Kabul using drones piloted from a bunker down near Tampa Florida it is indeed hard not to want immediate fast answers as to what happened here.

We may never know.  

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