On March 8, 2014, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, Flight 370, departed from Kuala Lumpur Airport at 00:41, proceeding northward, for a flight to Beijing, China. On board were 227 passengers and a crew of 12, for a total of 239 people. The aircraft's transponder signal suddenly halted at 01:30, making the aircraft not recognizable by the civilian ground-based secondary radar that relied on transponder signals from the aircraft.
At the same time, Malaysian military radar, functioning in the primary mode where the plane's position is determined by radar signals reflected back from the aircraft (rather than the aircraft's transponder), saw Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 make a 150-degree turn, proceeding in a southwesterly direction, and then turning west toward the Indian Ocean. Since there was no communications between civilian air traffic control and military facilities, the significance of these events was not recognized by military personnel, and the civilian air traffic personnel made no effort to contact the military radar personnel for help.
With the information available on the second day, I wrote that the most probable scenario was a takeover of the aircraft by either one or more of the passengers, or, one or both of the pilots. I speculated that whoever was in control of the aircraft could be headed for any of the countries bordering on the Indian Ocean, including Yemen, Somalia, or Africa. While Australia was also within possible range, Australia would not be tolerant of hijackers as a Muslin nation. As for distance, as I encountered a number of times on North Atlantic flights, or flights to Hawaii, when unexpected headwinds were encountered that made a ditching probable, reducing engine power for long-range cruise enabled me to go considerably further with the available fuel supply.
It was later revealed that at the approximate point where the transponder was no longer heard, primary military radar detected the airliner suddenly climbed from 35,000 feet to 45,000 feet altitude, and then plunging to 22,000 feet. Still later, it was revealed that the aircraft's ASRS system was operating at the basic level, revealing that the aircraft continued flying until the last signal from that system occurred at 08:11. That was about an hour after it was scheduled to arrive in Beijing, and about the time that the reserve fuel from the planned flight would have been exhausted.
Evaluation of Events
Transponder. It is highly unlikely that they failed, since they are highly reliable, and rarely fail. For that reason alone, deliberate actions were taken, further supported by the sudden change in direction. Almost from the first day, it became obvious that Malaysian Airlines was experiencing a hostile act. (1) The pulling of the transponder circuit breakers; (2) the turn of the aircraft of approximately 150 degree to the left, and then westward into the vast Indian Ocean.
Sudden climb to 45,000 and then plunge to 22,000 feet. As an FAA airline safety inspector, I was given the assignment to discover the cause of a recent high-altitude airline upset and loss of control, believe to be a United Airlines 727, and to come up with a procedure to avoid such emergencies. I discovered that the aircraft flew higher then it could safely do so without stalling out. Pilots at that time were given very little information on how to avoid this danger. The aircraft stalled because it was too heavy for that altitude and then plunged downward. It did not recover until reaching air that was dense enough to recover. I then prepared charts that pilots could use to avoid that dangerous high-altitude upset. In the case of Malaysian Airlines, an examination of Boeing 777 performance charts will probably reveal that the air density at 45,000 feet was too thin to support the weight of the aircraft, resulting in the aircraft stalling out. Then, the aircraft stalled and plunged downward, until recovery was made at about 22,000 feet. The recovery process normally required a higher level of pilot competency.
Passenger or crew complicity? As with the al Qaeda hijackings of four airliners on September 11, 2001, it required only that the hijackers have a basis experience flying an aircraft after it had entered into an enroute configuration. The same in this case, except for one thing. To recover the Malaysian airliner as it was plunging from 45,000 feet would normally require more professional knowledge from the pilot at the control. This recovery suggests that one of the normal Malaysian Airlines crew was in control of the aircraft's diversion.
ACARS System. ACARS is a satellite data link that transmit data from the aircraft to a satellite, and then to the engine manufacturer, to the aircraft manufacturer, and to Malaysian Airlines, if it had signed up to receive the date. Originally, the purpose was to send signals about the condition of the various engine or aircraft systems, and then after the loss of the Air France 747 in the Atlantic, position information was included. London-based Inmarsat Corporation contracts to provide the satellite link and data, in cooperation with the SITA corporation, which then provides the information to Malaysian Airlines. The engines' onboard monitoring system is provided by their manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, and it periodically sends bursts of data about engine health, operations and aircraft movements to facilities on the ground. As part of its maintenance agreements, Malaysia Airlines transmits its engine data live to Rolls-Royce for analysis. The system compiles data from inside the 777's two Trent 800 engines and transmits snapshots of performance, as well as the altitude and speed of the jet. Those snippets are compiled and transmitted in 30-minute increments, according to Rolls-Royce's website. The data is processed automatically "so that subtle changes in condition from one flight to another can be detected."
Sudden altitude changes. This is a reasonable analysis of the cause for the Malaysian Airlines abrupt altitude changes. A sudden conflict occurred in the cockpit, during which the autopilot was disconnected. With the altitude-control off, the aircraft could be expected to deviate either up or down from the former altitude. In this case, the aircraft gained altitude, going beyond the altitude that it could maintain flight for the given weight. It then experienced a high-altitude upset, an event that happened several times in the early days of the jets when this problem was not recognized.
Logical adversarial event. That scenario is similar in part to the Ethiopian Airliner Boeing 767 that was hijacked in November 1996 while enroute from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. The three hijackers wanted to go to Australia, a country beyond its fuel supply. It crash-landed in the Indian ocean near Grande Comore in the Comoros Islands when it ran out of fuel. 125 of the 175 people on board died. The possible motives may have been to instill fear and intrigue into the misuse of a passenger airliner. The possible plan to later misuse the aircraft in a terrorist act is too unrealistic to be given any consideration.
Flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. The orange-colored flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder sends out a signal when it is in water, that last for about 30 days, and help rescuers find their location. They are a heavy contained in a densely-packed unit, and will not float.
Transponders. Transponders send a unique four-digit number to air traffic controllers via the ground-based secondary radar equipment. They are very reliable and rarely malfunction.
The above information was provided by Captain Rodney Stich, a former Naval Aviator, instructor in the PBY Catalina aircraft and Patrol Plane Commander; international airline captain, with experience flying Muslim pilgrims from throughput the Middle East to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and a captain for Japan Airlines; FAA airline safety inspector with unusual life-and-death-assignment; author of several books on the behind-the-scene intrigue in aviation disasters, including for instance Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie; TWA Flight 800; and hijackings of four U.S. airliners on September 11, 2001.