Malaysian Flight 370: A Great Show of Smoke And Mirrors

By Robert Mark on March 16th, 2014
fleming

James Bond creator Ian Fleming

Ian Flemming and Tom Clancy, both master writers of suspense and political intrigue — and their alter egos James Bond and Jack Ryan respectively — are probably looking down from heaven in awe at the story created in Malaysia to cover up the disappearance of MH370.

Clancy

Jack Ryan’s creator Tom Clancy

Just as the tragedy of 9/11 redefined aviation security worldwide more than a decade ago, the March 8 Hijacking of MH Flight 370, in addition to creating one of the greatest smoke and mirror shows ever, is certain to redefine airline security yet again … whether or not we ever find the missing Boeing 777.

An overwhelming lack of hard evidence hasn’t slowed the 24/7 media machine and most anyone with a radio, TV or computer from trying to figure it all out though. But while the search for the airplane goes on, we can’t forget this is not simply an academic exercise. The fate of more than 230 people is still unknown. Nor can we ignore the planning of some people and the incompetence of others on the ground in Malaysia that made this crime possible.

Imagine for a minute, a number of senior Malaysian officials sitting in a witness box someday attempting to defend their actions over the past week and a half.

Yes, security was ridiculously flawed as proven by the two people who boarded the aircraft with stolen passports. Then there was the first officer playing footloose with his social life by allowing inflight visitors to the cockpit in violation of international law, as well as the realization that this occurred more often than most people ever realized. Let’s not forget the piecing out of facts from the Malaysian military that allowed the search to waste valuable time searching first in the Gulf of Thailand, then the Straits of Malacca and eventually northwest toward the Bay of Bengal, before finally admitting they really had no idea where the airplane had gone. Saving face is not usually a concern in an accident investigation, although it is in this case.

malaysia mapThe need to save face makes it a bit easier to understand why the story kept changing, even with so many people’s lives at stake. First there’s the incompetence on the part of the Malaysian government that simply didn’t want anyone else to realize the limits of their defensive and analytical capabilities. With no clear search and rescue leadership either or even a command post, facts emerged in a piecemeal fashion that proved the people in Kuala Lumpur were in over their heads early on, despite their claims to the contrary. And yet everyone kept following the information as if it had actually been confirmed.

Now of course the pilots are under suspicion, as well they should be. But the two pilots didn’t pull this off alone, if indeed they were involved at all. The incompetence of the Malaysian government again actually played a significant role in allowing the people who actually took the airplane to carry out their plans. What a great cover story… and 10 days later we still can’t tell the good guys from the bad.

In addition to finding the airplane and the passengers whose families are left worrying day after day, we still need to figure out the “why” behind the hijacking. The bandits had a reason for sure. Was there something incredibly valuable in the cargo hold, were the passengers what they were after or is the future use of the airplane and those passengers in some other element of mayhem the reason they grabbed it? With these kinds of issues hanging in the balance, is  it any surprise that the worldwide security establishment knows much more than it’s sharing right now?

Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming could have probably offered up a few good possibilities to experts by now. But in fiction, the cost of being wrong is slight.

Unless the passengers stormed the cockpit of MH370 like the people did on Flight 93 in 2001, we’ll probably see this stolen airplane again. And none of the reasons we will are good for anyone.

Rob Mark, Publisher

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18 Responses to “Malaysian Flight 370: A Great Show of Smoke And Mirrors”

  1. GlueBall Says:

    Just one (1) of the pilots who is suicidal could pull this off; just as the Ethiopian copilot had locked out the captain over Egypt and diverted to Geneva. The pilot at the controls likely turned off the packs (pressurization) after heading to the Indian ocean, then leisurely asphyxiated along with the rest of the occupants, thus avoiding an adrenaline drama of violent impact after fuel exhaustion.

  2. creeper Says:

    Your point about the co-pilot’s history of bending the rules is well made.

  3. Lior Samson Says:

    As a writer of techno-thrillers, including one (Chipset) with a carefully researched aviation scenario, I have been following this one closely. Lots of story possibilities and assorted motivations. We may yet learn what was behind the smoke and mirrors or we might not. Keith Ledgerwood, an amateur analyst, has even constructed a plausible scenario based on the scanty tracking data that has MH370 “ghosting” on SQ68 to evade radar enroute to the “-stans.”

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  4. Grant McHerron Says:

    I can’t help think that if this had been done for ransom or to be used as a weapon, we’d have heard about it by now (assuming it went to plan).

    The silence indicates either it’s crashed somewhere OR they were after someone/something on board and the pax are dead while the aircraft’s remains are hidden where it “landed” (you can land any aircraft once & walk/crawl away if you don’t care about re-using it :) )

  5. Jamie Dodson Says:

    Great article, Rob. I fear all the passengers and crew are dead. Let’s hope ithe Boeing 777 will not flyi again as it could make a huge bomb not unlike a small tactical nuke with just a few tones of Semtex.

  6. Jamie Dodson Says:

    Using an iPod in a moving car to is tuff …

  7. JonJW Says:

    A book has already been written, years ago, whose major plot devices are shockingly close to MA370. Go out and check Mr. Ted Bell’s Assassin.

  8. Wayne Says:

    Nightmare Clancy scenario: A terrorist group has the plane and passengers. The plane is loaded with the original passengers AND the group claims that there is WMD on board. The plane is flown toward a large city in Europe or America, and a decision must be made whether to shoot the plane down.

  9. Glen Towler Says:

    I completely agree with you Rob as normal where was the air force ? A airliner switches off its transponder why didn’t this ring alarm bells? A fighter should have sent up to have a look for MH370 then this would all over. They say the 777 was tracked on radar but then who knows what the truth is smoke and mirrors?…..

  10. Echinoidea Says:

    @Wayne – That’s not a difficult choice, of course you shoot the plane down. The cost if you allow the plane to continue is anyone killed on the ground, potential major evacuation of a city or part thereof AND the passengers. Assuming you choose a good place to shoot the plane down (e.g. over ocean or desert) the cost is the passengers only. It’s not likely to be a bluff after all – why would terrorists bluff when they hold all the cards?

    In any case, let us fervently hope that situation does not come to pass.

  11. DC Joe Says:

    In my opinion this plane was hijacked by high tech terrorists, it landed somewhere in the Middle East it is now being refitted and packed with nukes. It is now not a matter of finding this plane it will someday find us over some US or Israel city. That plane is going to be used as a weapon of mass destruction by madmen, they are holding the passengers as hostages as an safety asset, and the terrorist group will announce who they are after they blow those nukes.

  12. Cap. Walt Bates Says:

    A B-777 pilot’s thoughts…

    MH 370 is certainly a captivating mystery!

    If the transponders and ACARS were intentionally turned off it was done either by the plane’s crew or by a highly trained substitute. Further, you would not bother turning them off if your intention were to simply dive the aircraft into the water. Neither would you do it if you intended to fly it for hours and then crash it into the water. You would only do that to hide your track as you proceeded to a preplanned place where you intended to either crash it into a target (as on 9/11) or land it in a controlled manner on a runway.

    This hijacker/pilot scenario, especially with the intent of a landing, brings up the issue of getting B-777 flight training which is only available at the airlines that own those aircraft and at Boeing. In the past, airlines would train anyone that came through the door with enough money to pay for it. Some of our customers at our (world’s largest) flight training center included Danny Kaye, Arnold Palmer and John Denver. Additionally, we would let people use 250,000 frequent flyer miles to pay for one half hour of simulator training in the aircraft of their choice. But since 9/11, airlines stopped giving flight training to anyone other than their own pilots. A B-777 is a highly sophisticated aircraft requiring very specialized training that assumes prior large aircraft with glass cockpit flying experience by the trainee. By contrast, the 9/11 pilots got their training at light airplane flight schools. But they never intended to land the aircraft anywhere and only had to be able to steer it. That’s not going to hack it for making a successful manual landing of a B-777. And forget whatever you’ve heard about “automatic landings”. Manipulating the myriad of controls involved in doing that requires someone with the ability to do the landing manually. In fact, it is more difficult to make an autoland than a manual landing and this is one of the reasons that it is done so rarely. For the system to be “current” someone has to use it at least once every 30 days and we were admonished to do that. That system only exists for use when the visibility is below one half mile which would prohibit a human pilot from seeing far enough to make a manual landing. It also requires a runway that has the requisite CAT 3 guidance transmitters installed on site and has about a mile of land leading up to the end of the runway that is graded flat for a smooth rundown of the radio altimeters on short final approach. This requirement is why the most popular landing runway at O’Hare, 22R, whose approach passes low over the 160 foot high Rosemont Horizon, is not usable for autolands. Oh, and the wind has to be blowing in the right direction. In my 38+ year career I used the system less than five times.

    I heard one of the “experts” say that the GPS system can land the airplane. GPS is used for enroute navigation and is accurate to within about 50 feet left/right and fore/aft and about 75 feet vertically. That is plenty accurate enough for enroute navigation and even for an approach to the end of a runway. But from about 200′ altitude on down you need guidance accuracy that can only come from CAT 3 on-runway transmitters and on-board radar altimeters to do an autolanding. But if the original crew were still in control they could simply do the whole landing manually. One more thing is that the landing (or ditching) had to be done at night as they didn’t have enough fuel to fly until daylight. This would have vastly complicated things for the crew. They would first have to find the “airport” and then land on a presumably dark runway. The landing lights have very short range……..about 1,500 feet. All this means that whoever did this was either the original MH370 crew (and it would only require one of them) or a current or recently retired B-777 pilot.

    Many people have related this to pro-golfer Payne Stuart’s 1999 crash where a sudden decompression at high altitude instantly killed everyone on board. The plane then flew on autopilot from Florida to South Dakota before running out of fuel and crashing in farmland. This could not happen on an airliner. The Learjet has the internal volume of two telephone booths and depressurized in less than five seconds. A B-777 could lose a whole set of windows and it would take several minutes before the cavernous cabin would lose enough air to even require oxygen masks…….which everyone has at their seat. In rapid decompression training we strive to get the aircraft down to 14,000 feet in less than two minutes. In fact, FAA aircraft certification requires that the loss of two complete passenger windows would not result in a cabin altitude exceeding 14,500 feet for 90 seconds. This is why the very high flying Concorde has those tiny triangle shaped passenger windows.

    One more question I hear concerns why transponders can be switched off. All electrical equipment has to be capable of being disabled in the event of a fire, including the voice and data recorders. In the Silk Air suicide crash the captain did switch off those recorders before diving the airplane into the ground. We also want the transponder off when taxiing as it would drive ATC radar operators nuts to have so many returns from such a small area. Therefore, it’s the last thing we turn on as we start the takeoff roll and the first thing off when exiting the runway after landing. The Electrical Smoke and Fire checklists in every airplane I ever flew had step by step directions on shutting everything off in an alternating manner so as to isolate the source of an on-board fire. Only the B-777′s fly-by-wire system is an “always on” system. That is because that aircraft’s flight control system does away with the old cables, pulleys, and bellcranks and instead sends cockpit control inputs over electrical wires to the hydraulic rams that do the muscle work of actually moving the flight control surfaces.

    Another recent and erroneous observation is that the pilot took the aircraft up to 45,000’ to supposedly kill all the passengers by inducing hypoxia. I have flown the B-777 at 45,000’ many times and that results in a cabin altitude of only about 8,000’. That aircraft has over a 9 psi differential pressure limit to allow these high altitudes while most others are about 8 psi. If the pilot wanted to kill everyone else he would simply depressurize the entire airplane while wearing his own oxygen mask. This can easily be done using the manual back-up controls for the pressurization system………another need for detailed pilot training.

    Some planning was clearly done here. They selected a time of day that would result in the whole flight taking place in the dark. They also selected a relatively long flight so that the aircraft would have several hours of range in its fuel tanks. Speaking of range, that 2,500 mile range estimate the press keeps talking about would assume the aircraft remained at optimally high altitudes, stepping up as fuel was consumed. Doing this right would also require a trained B-777 pilot to know that schedule and how it is affected by outside temperature. Stepping up too late wastes fuel while doing it too early puts you into a flight regime where the plane’s stall speed is greater than local Mach 1. We call this “Coffin Corner”. Conversely, if the aircraft were at “wave top” altitude to evade radar its range would have been less than half that. Altitude makes that big of a difference with jet engines. To make it to Pakistan, as some have suggested, they’d have to do everything perfectly for maximum range.

    Considering all this, what I think happened is that either one of the original crew or an airline trained 777 pilot took over the airplane for the purpose of flying it to a remote airfield for some later nefarious mission. What they did with the passengers is anybody’s guess……..probably not pretty. The list of trained pilots who possess a B-777 Type Rating is in the hands of the FAA and could be scanned for “suspects”. I am guessing that there would be about 10,000 people on that list. The airport at which they landed would have to be unique as well. To get to a place very far inland they’d have to fly through too many radar coverage areas. Other aircraft could also see them on their weather radar if they happened to have it on. Though the transponders were off the aircraft would still exhibit a primary return, also known as “skin paint”, if it were close enough to a transmitter. So, it would probably be someplace near the shore of the Indian Ocean.

    Captain Walt Bates (UAL, ret)
    Hm 863 324 2473
    Cl 863 258 9349

  13. Jordan Dove Says:

    You make some great points Robert. Heard you on C2C. I’ve been able to debate this amongst my peers gracefully and with more knowledge then them (in a professional field) – and for that, I thank you!

    Captain Bates,

    First of all, thank you for your service.

    Secondly, thank you for taking the time to write out the extremely well observed and thought out post based on your experiences. My thoughts on what happened to that plane is the same as yours, but your points of principle about the “Facts” were superb.

    God Bless America,

    - Jordan

  14. Bill Palmer Says:

    I remain unconvinced of the terrorism angle or some intentional behavior on the part of the crew to hijack their own plane. I haven’t seen anything that isn’t consistent with some kind of critical on-board situation, such as a fire starting in the avionics bay.

    For my full perspective, see my blog entry at http://trendvector.blogspot.nl/2014/03/MH370.html
    The entry includes some analysis of the difficulty of the search and comparison to that of AF447 including a search are almost 600 times larger than the Air France case.

    BTW, a 777 has a certified ceiling of FL431. Its supercritical airfoil provides for a “coffin corner” that is much wider than previous generation airplanes that had some very tight stall/mach buffet margins at that altitude. As stated, there would be no point going up there. You could just as easily incapacitate everyone at FL350.

    The wandering altitude behavior to me is more indicative of the airplane flying around with the autopilot off and nobody controlling it. The 777′s fly-by-wire control system, including speed stability, speed limit protections, and bank limits, could conceivably give it the ability to fly for hours unattended, while other non fly-by-wire airplanes would eventually spiral into the ground.

    For about $70, you can buy a pretty sophisticated 777 flight simulator program and learn how to do just about everything that you would normally need a multi-million dollar flight simulator for, except the hand flying skills. http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2013/08/30/almost-as-cool-as-the-new-boeing-777-the-new-flight-simulator/
    There are numerous youtube videos to help out.
    But why steal a 777, when you can buy all kinds of airline metal on the used market and nobody would even bat an eye?

    Painting an airplane on weather radar is poor at best, especially on modern radars. If you know where another airplane is, and work at it, you can sometimes pick them up. The odds of noticing another airplane’s skin paint on weather radar is virtually nil.

    In any case, we’ll never know the answers to any of these questions until the airplane is found. The sad fact, however, is that the task is so difficult that it is very possible the remains of the airplane will never be found and it will join the ranks of Amelia Earhart (1937), Northwest Airlines 2501 (1950), Pan American Airways Flight 7 (1957), and others.

  15. Robert Mark Says:

    Interesting points from all here, but I too am left wondering — and I’m leaning toward the hijacking saga — why anyone would want an airplane full of people unless you planned to use them for something else later.

    As Bill points out, there are much less difficult methods of stealing a big airplane. I remember a mechanic who stole a C-130 one night. everyone knew the guy and no one questioned him until they saw the guy taxi out.

    But let’s face it … other than knowing where the airplane was during the final datablock paint, just about everything else is speculation. Draw a 2500-3000 nm ring around that last point and you can be pretty sure the airplane is within that circle. But little else.

    No matter what you think of the Malaysian government, their screwing around cost us all valuable time searching for this airplane. We may never find the 777 because of the Malaysians in fact.

    But we also don’t know for sure how many people on the ground in Kuala Lumpur were involved in this if it was a hijacking. If it was a mechanical, why haven’t we started combing every inch of the water for debris between the last known point and the Malaysian coast line?

    Probably because after 12 days everything that was there has probably sunk or drifted in a dozen different directions.

  16. Glen Towler Says:

    I do think MH370 that it will never be found. As you say Rob its been too long all the debris would have sunk or drifted away by now. Farce just doesn’t do this sorry state of affairs justice.

  17. A pilot’s take on the missing Flight 370 | WGN Radio – 720 AM Says:

    […] Rob Mark, pilot and Jetwhine.com publisher, is on with Steve Cochran to discuss the mystery surrounding Flight 370. He cuts through the rumors and gives the facts, as well as informed ideas, about what could have happened to the airplane. Read Mark’s article here. […]

  18. Cap. Walt Bates Says:

    B-777 Capt and LCA Walt Bates

    March 21, 2014 at 1:21 pm · Reply

    Re the new reports that the course alteration to the west which took the flight off course for the first time PRECEDED by several minutes the copilot’s last and very routine transmission acknowledging their departing Malaysian airspace. This virtually proves to me that at least he was in on this. Whether or not the captain was also complicit could be easily verified by fuel data that Malaysia has not released. In preflight preparation an airline dispatcher will go over weights, winds aloft and forecasted weather at the destination and any alternate airports to calculate what he thinks the fuel burn for the flight will be and then presents his data to the flight’s captain. The captain reviews every assumption made and either approves that fuel or adds some which is done on about 15% of flights. Malaysian Airlines has not released their dispatcher’s calculations so we can not tell if the captain added any fuel. What is known is that the distance to Beijing is almost exactly the same as the distance to Pakistan. The fuel burn, though, would be a good bit greater to Pakistan because of the winds at the time which were out of the west while the Beijing flight would only have had a crosswind. Also he would have had to swing wide to the south or go down to wave-top altitude to avoid numerous radars along India’s south coast. If the captain were planning to fly to Pakistan he would have had to add several thousand pounds of fuel to his dispatcher’s figure which he could do without question or explanation. If Malaysia would release those numbers we could also go back over that same captain’s previous flights to see if he routinely added fuel. A lot of people do that using the old logic that, “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire”. But I suspect that he rarely did that because as a designated check pilot (LCA) he is supposed to teach the downsides of carrying too much fuel and there are many. I know because that’s exactly what I used to teach. If on flight 370 the captain did add a significant amount of fuel that would lend credence to the thought that he was planning a longer flight than that to Beijing. If he was not in on it and did not add any fuel………well, his copilot would have then been in a fix. Though he could have suggested to the captain that he add some fuel, and that is sometimes done, I doubt that it happened here. The copilot was new to the B-777 and it would be highly irregular for someone in his position to question a fuel decision made by his much more experienced and far higher ranking captain. So, he would have had to make do with what he had. If he made it to Pakistan he would have landed on fumes.

    On a separate subject that has always been a thorn in my side………The culpability of the copilot makes the photo showing him going through security with his arms out ironic indeed. Putting the flight crew through security sure didn’t make any difference, did it?

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