The Malaysian Insider
March 17, 2014
The investigation into the lost Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 has yet to throw up a persuasive fact that the pilots could have deliberately taken the Boeing 777-200ER to an unknown destination, the Daily Beast reported today.
In an article headlined “The baseless rush to blame the pilots of Flight 370”, the online portal’s journalist Clive Irving noted that “what little evidence there is has been contaminated by the performance of the Malaysian authorities”.
“They resemble a bunch of dumb cops blundering over a crime scene, arguing over what it reveals and what it does not and competing for attention.
“In a sadly familiar ploy of the pursued, the prime minister himself was put up to float a theory so far lacking in any persuasive facts: the pilots did it. Dead men have no defense,” he wrote today in the online portal.
US intelligence officials and the Malaysian government have said that someone in the cockpit had deliberately changed the flight’s course after it vanished from radar screens early March 8 when the passenger jet with 239 people on board was bound for Beijing.
It never arrived and is still missing for the past 10 days.
Irving noted that there were two “apparently solid facts that condition everything else” in the wide-body jet’s disappearance.
“After their last routine exchange with controllers the pilots never sent any Mayday or distress message. The captain’s last reported words were calm and normal: ‘All right, good night.’
“The transponders – the airplane’s continual link with the outside world, receiving and sending information about its position, were turned off.
“Essentially, these two triggers ensured that the Boeing 777 would disappear. That could be either by design, by deliberate human intervention, or as a result of a technical failure,” Irving wrote.
The article also said there were two other ways for the plane to automatically report its progress and one of them was through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).
“In the case of Flight 370, no messages sent to Boeing and engine-maker Rolls Royce indicated a problem.
He said it was discovered a week later that the Boeing 777 was also linked to a satellite system operated from London by Inmarsat.
“For some hours after all other communications stopped, the airplane was sending a ‘ping’ recording its presence to a satellite,” he wrote, nothing that the Financial Times reported that MAS had not paid for the service, and the pinging was “an empty signal” – the minimum remaining after a deactivated automatic data link.
Irving pointed out that the ability of the airplane to monitor and report its health, or otherwise, was the same for all planes, but the volume and quality of information would be different if MH370 was an Airbus jet and not a Boeing plane.
“The cockpits of Boeing and Airbus airliners reflect a fundamental difference in the philosophy of how an airplane is commanded. Boeing, in designing the 777, held to its traditional idea that a pilot should always have the ultimate authority over the machine.
“Airbus, on the other hand, believes that more authority should be placed in the computerised flight management system because it is less likely to make mistakes than a human.
“There is nothing in the safety record of either company to claim that one is better than the other,” he said.
But he wrote that when Air France flight 447 disappeared over the South Atlantic in 2009, investigators had telling clues to its condition within hours as the Airbus A330 had sent 24 so-called fault messages via satellite to a maintenance base in Paris.
He said this was due to the A330’s Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitoring system (ECAM), which itself reflects the precedence given by Airbus to automated flight controls.
In investigations into the Air France crash, he said it turned out the messages described an incremental shutdown of the airplane’s flight control computers, requiring the pilots to take over.
“The computers were being fed anomalous data because of a failed air speed gauge. The pilots, poorly trained, bungled the hand over, and lost control.
“Had the Malaysian 777 been able to transmit such a detailed record of its behavior before disappearing, we would have been more able to discount or pursue possible and imminent mechanical failure – like, for example, any gradual loss of cabin pressure because of a leak in the fuselage structure or a problem in the cargo hold,” Irving wrote.
But what was happening in the cockpit of flight MH370, he asked.
“Turning off the transponders was a simple step for the crew, just a matter of a few twists to the left of a dial placed between the two pilots — not accessing some circuit breaker above. That would be a very strange thing for them to do. It would, however, be the first thing a hijacker who got access to the cockpit would want to do.
“Yet why would any hijacker direct an airplane out into the great void beyond surveillance and without making demands for the safe release of the passengers?” he asked again.
Irving also noted that there was speculation of a suicide pact, but in the two most recent suicidal crashes, the pilots pushed down the nose and dived to the water instantly.
“This was the case with an Egypt Air Boeing 767 soon after leaving JFK airport in 1999 and a Silk Air Boeing 737 flying from Jakarta to Singapore in 1997. A suicidal pilot does not prolong the agony,” he wrote.
The Daily Beast journalist also pointed out that on the psychological behaviour of pilots, “the Malaysians are doing the reverse of what the Egyptian and Indonesian authorities did in those two crashes”.
“In each case the idea of suicide was anathema to the national cultures. The authorities contested the verdicts of the crash investigators and, instead, asserted (without credibility) that the crashes were caused by mechanical failure.
“The Malaysian authorities are doing the opposite: impugning the aircrew without any tangible evidence. First with the prime minister’s assertions of deliberate actions, and then by staging police raids on the captain’s home,” he said.
Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his flight simulator, as seen on a YouTube video he posted. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his flight simulator, as seen on a YouTube video he posted. He also criticised a “so-called analyst” on TV who extrapolated from the fact that the captain had a self-built flight simulator in his home that he might have been practising left turns.
“Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was one of the airline’s longest serving pilots, logging 18,000 hours in the cockpit. He didn’t need to rehearse any turns; he had made many thousands of them.
“The simulator was probably used to keep him current with software updates to the 777’s systems. Pilots often use simulators to keep their airmanship sharp – in these days of automated flight decks there is a danger of losing some of the old ‘seat of the pants’ reflexes that can be crucial in an emergency,” he said.
He also said some sources have reported with a straight face that the Boeing 777 soared to a height of 45,000 feet as whoever was in control deliberately sought to disable passengers.
“First, at that height the airplane would be way beyond its operational ceiling and uncontrollable. Second, at this early stage in its flight it was loaded with fuel that would have made it a struggle to reach even 38,000 feet,” he said.
Irving noted that commercial aviation had never faced a crisis as grave as the one presented by MAS’s flight MH370.
“At a time when flying has never been safer airplanes just don’t go missing without trace. And yet one has, taking 239 people with it. Vanished.
“Public confidence in the governance of international air travel is shaken. The reputation of two world-esteemed companies, Boeing and Rolls Royce, is at stake,” he wrote in the article.
Irving said the flight’s disappearance had been compounded by “an engulfing fog of speculation, frequently reaching a tone of hysteria”.
“People are spooked. They want information that nobody is able to provide. We have come to expect quick enlightenment. That isn’t possible. We demand transparency and coherence. They’re not happening,” he wrote.
He pointed out that the Boeing 777’s safety record was exceptional but asked if there was an issue in the cargo hold of the missing MAS plane.
“Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board discovered that there was an unusually large consignment of lithium-ion batteries on the cargo manifest.
“This technology is more recently known as the cause of fires that led to the grounding of the Boeing 787 fleet, but lithium-ion batteries for personal electronic devices have been a frequent cause of emergencies in cargo holds and baggage handling,” he said.
Irving wrote that the batteries were prone to overheating and combustion and that the FAA’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety recorded many of these incidents in the US, including a fire caused by a battery on a self-propelled surf board on a FedEx airplane.
But he said the pilots would have had time to report an emergency if there was a battery induced fire in the cargo hold of MH370.
“There is, however, a relevant example of a large airplane being lost over the Indian Ocean after a cargo fire. In 1987, a South African Airways 747 with a 159 people aboard suffered an uncontrollable cargo fire that began with computers packed in polystyrene. The airplane fell into a deep part of the ocean east of Mauritius.
“Although the searchers had what they regard as the single most important aid to an undersea mission — a starting point based on the airplane’s last known position — it took two years to recover the flight recorder from depths as great as 15,000 feet,” Irving wrote.
He noted that it would take years before the investigation reaches an outcome about flight MH370.
“Right now it requires a skillful combination of dedicated people working with many different disciplines, scientific, forensic, managerial, informational, humanitarian, military, legal, and political. It will involve different languages and cultures. Commercial interests have to be reconciled with the public need for clarity and integrity.
“So far the way this task has been handled is not encouraging,” he wrote.
He pointed out that Putrajaya had asked for the help of 25 countries in the expanded search.
“Now nations are being asked to check their radar records, which is strange since if anything as large as a 777 had been flying rogue through busy international air corridors and over militarily sensitive sites would have triggered alarms instantly,” he wrote. – March 17, 2014.