By Chris Goodfellow
16 Jun 2014
Former pilot Chris Goodfellow maintains his view that the loss of MH370 was due to an accident but says matters should be turned over to Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch to find out what really happened
In the early days of the search of MH370, when the mainstream media was favouring a terrorism-hijacking scenario or questioning if one of the pilots was suicidal, I put forward an alternative theory – that the loss of the aeroplane might have been the result of an accident. This theory was picked up on the web and went viral. I did not seek or expect such an enormous response: I wrote simply as a pilot with some knowledge of the issues defending two fellow pilots who were being much-maligned and who could not defend themselves.
More than three months have elapsed since the Boeing 777 vanished after taking off from Kuala Lumpur in the early hours of March 8, bound for Beijing. Yet the mystery of how a modern aircraft can disappear from the face of the earth continues to fascinate and appal. In this era, when delivery companies like UPS and FedEx routinely track vehicles via global satellite positioning (GPS), it seems incredible that this passenger jet, capable of auto-landing in total fog, did not carry a device broadcasting its position in real time and independent of all other systems on board. If one good thing comes out of this accident, it will be a new regulation making the fitting of such a device compulsory.
Since the aircraft belonged to Malaysian Airlines and the incident is presumed to have started in Malaysian airspace, the lead nation in the investigation is Malaysia. In my opinion, this is the Achilles heel of the inquiry.
The majority owner of Malaysian Airlines Systems (MAS) is PMB, a Malaysian government holding company. MAS has clocked up net losses of $1.3 billion (£766 million) in the past three years. This is a clear conflict of interest, which has resulted, intentionally or otherwise, in a bungled investigation. If the bungling is intentional, then might it have something to do with the cargo that MH370 was carrying (more of which later)? Until this matter is resolved, the disappearance will continue to be surrounded by conspiracy theories. For me, the answer is clear: the one party benefiting from the continuing state of confusion surrounding MH370 is Malaysia.
The disappearance of this twin-engine wide-body airliner is without parallel in modern aviation, a mystery replete with questions. But what is certain is that something fast and furious occurred on that aircraft as it flew over the South China Sea.
There is always the possibility of design flaw in anything mechanical, and there is an established procedure by which aircraft manufacturers and regulators handle these issues. Service Bulletins (SBs) issued by manufacturers, and Airworthiness Directives (ADs) issued by regulators keep the industry informed. The Boeing 777 has had its share of such notices, and there are two in particular that are relevant to MH370 – one involving a short-circuit in the hose feeding emergency oxygen to the crew, and one warning of possible rupturing of the aircraft pressure vessel due to the mounting of a satellite communications antenna.
The former was responsible for a well-documented accident (fortunately on the ground at Cairo) involving an Egyptair 777. The resultant fire destroyed the cabin and burned a hole through the plane, and would have been catastrophic if it had occurred in mid-air. The satellite antenna issue could also be fatal, tearing the aircraft’s skin and resulting in rapid depressurisation. It is time for the Malaysian authorities to show that checks and modifications regarding these issues and contained in SBs and ADs were complied with.
But the issue that requires most clarity remains the plane’s cargo. It took almost three weeks for the world to learn that MH370 had been carrying a consignment of lithium-ion batteries. But we do not know for sure how many. What else of a hazardous nature was being carried? Published cargo records show neither the real shippers nor the real recipients. The international community should demand total transparency from the Malaysians in regard to this. After all, huge resources have been spent by Australia, China, the United States and others on the so-far fruitless search for debris in the Indian Ocean.
The US is party to the MH370 investigation for two reasons: American citizens were aboard, and the aircraft was American-built. The FBI has all but cleared Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the flight’s captain, and Fariq Abdul Hamid, his co-pilot, of deliberately causing the disaster. Sure, the captain may have disagreed with his government on some issues, but that does not make him a suicidal mass-murderer. If making a point was his aim, why did he not nose his aircraft straight towards the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, two of the world’s tallest buildings and a headline-grabbing target? His young co-pilot was about to get married and had a wonderful career ahead of him. There is no evidence of either man having been motivated by Islamic extremism.
In the end, everything comes back to the Malaysian authorities. Criminal and civil liability can be big motivators when it comes to cover-ups. If crucial maintenance checks – on the bonding of satellite antennae for example – were being delayed by a loss-making airline to save money, we need to know. If dangerous cargo was being carried to augment revenues, we should be told. The wreckage of MH370 could give us the answers, but we don’t have it. The Malaysians need to come clean.
I will maintain my view that the loss of MH370 was due to an accident until it is proved otherwise. As I stated three months ago in my online post, the crew were almost certainly dealing with a major emergency when they made their unannounced turn to the west. Why west? Because they were diverting towards the island of Langkawi, on the west coast of Malaysia. Langkawi’s international airport boasts a long runway which is easy to approach, a must for a large aircraft in trouble. The 777’s silence could be accounted for by a sudden major fire that knocked out all its systems, or the crew being distracted by their tasks.
At the time that I proposed my theory, the only radar track produced by the Malaysian military showed the aircraft turning west off its scheduled flight path and tracking towards Penang. A few days later, the Malaysians produced another track indicating that MH370 overflew Penang before navigating up through the Straits of Malacca. These course alterations were cited as evidence of human intervention, but they could be the result of the autopilot making its way through pre-programmed waypoints – if indeed the aircraft performed these manoeuvres. Doubt has been cast on all the radar tracks produced by Malaysia in relation to this matter. Maybe MH370 never went west.
Where to search now? There have been sightings from the Bay of Bengal to the Maldives. For the moment, attention remains in the southern Indian Ocean, way to the west of Australia. Mapping of the seabed is expected to be followed by a renewed search in the late summer. That region has been the focus of the search following pings received from MH370 by an Inmarsat communications satellite. But these calculations have been the subject of much controversy.
Only one thing is certain: Malaysia has lost all credibility in regard to the MH370 investigation and should yield control to a competent and impartial authority. That is why I believe matters should be turned over to Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Founded in 1915, it enjoys an unrivalled reputation for thoroughness and independence. Maybe then we will begin to make some progress towards resolving the mystery of the MH370 ghost flight.
Chris Goodfellow is a retired businessman and former pilot who lives in Florida. He is a graduate of McGill and Cornell universities and a former director of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority
Update: Since this article was published, it has been pointed out that flight MH370’s Boeing 777 was not fitted with the satellite antenna involved in one of the Airworthiness Directives mentioned. This Directive was therefore not relevant to flight MH370.