Guest Post: The Disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370

It’s one thing to look for a needle in the haystack. But the crash and disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370 is confronting investigators with an even more difficult task — they first have to find the haystack, and that may take many more days. The lack of a widespread debris field leads me to believe two things: the plane did NOT break up in flight and then hit the water intact; and the plane may have flown longer — and further — than initially thought. Translation: the investigators may have first looked in the wrong area and will now have to widen their search. As a result, we may have to wait much longer to discover the exact location of the aircraft. And, then, whenever they find the wreckage, that’s when the investigation gets to start in earnest. Then, and ONLY then, can investigators begin to systematically rule things out, one by one, and slowly begin to form a credible and supportable theory as to the probable cause. For the moment, the search continues, and we all wait.

Image: Malaysia Airlines (YouTube)
Image: Malaysia Airlines (YouTube)

But this is what investigators are looking at while we wait:

1. The entire service and maintenance records of this particular 777. Both Boeing and Malaysia are looking for any chronic problems, and in particular any airframe problems or reports of pressurization failures.

2. A complete psychiatric postmortem, if you will, of the cockpit crew. Did either of the pilots have family or marital problems? A recent financial loss? Had either of them been disciplined for any procedural infractions that might impact their long-term career path?

3. The mysterious disengagement of the airplane’s transponder. Any aircraft that flies under air traffic control must have an operational altitude encoding transponder. That piece of equipment continuously signals to air traffic controllers that ID of the specific aircraft, its position and its altitude. It’s the transponder that allows the controllers on the ground to separate aircraft in the air, track them and clear them to different altitudes and routes along their way. There are only two ways for a transponder to be turned off: 1) intentionally and manually by one of the cockpit crew, or 2) as a result of a sudden loss of electrical power. One path investigators are following is the notion that if it wasn’t the result of loss of power, then whoever was in control of the plane made a conscious decision to disengage that transponder, and in doing so the plane essentially became an unidentified flying object. And, very difficult to track. If this was an act of terrorism, what is also puzzling is that no terror group has yet claimed responsibility for the act.

4. Could there have been a sudden and catastrophic structural failure of the airplane itself at altitude? If so, there would certainly be a widespread debris field. For example, when Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, it was flying at 31,000 feet, and the debris field was more than 800 square miles. But no widespread debris field has been found.

5. Could there have been a loss of pressurization in the cockpit (as was the case in the loss of golfer Paine Stewart on his plane), rendering the pilots unconscious? In the Stewart case, the plane flew on for a number of hours on autopilot before it ran out of fuel and crashed. But this scenario can’t explain how the transponder was turned off.

6. Pilot suicide. As frightening as this scenario sounds, it has not been ruled out. It might explain why the transponder was turned off. But again, everything at this point is educated speculation. Until the investigators can specifically and confidently rule things out, they cannot reasonably rule anything in.

And one of the biggest mysteries in the history of commercial aviation continues.