Saturday, December 26, 2015

My hunch about MH370's path—and it affects everything.

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday.

If MH370 is actually found anywhere near the current search area, then there never was a pilot suicide scenario, and my theory was wrong. I, like seemingly most people, presumed a straight-ish path to fuel exhaustion. The number of possible paths is staggering but some pretty smart folks have come up with a probability map based on some form of straight-ish path solutions. IF MH370 is found in this area, I will owe his family very public apology for putting the suicide theory on the table.

In my earlier post, I laid out a case that Captain Zaharie Shah was solely responsible for the deaths of all those people in an as-yet-explained suicide flight in which innocents were taken. My case fell squarely on the presumption that if he did this, it was to hide the crime. He would not want his family name to be forever sullied with such a heinous act that would forever be associated with wanton evil.

In the back of my mind was the choice of flight path. Why that direction? Why not more to the south-west and in an even more remote area? It came down realizing that Zaharie wanted to have his final morning prayer before his own imminent death. It all made sense to me, and nicely explained why the path was were it was—it placed Captain Shah where he could see his first light, and have his required morning prayer. The timing of it all was just perfect.

Based on some really rough estimates of the general area, first light at 32,500 feet (or thereabouts) civil twilight would be around 23:30 UTC. There are so many variables with that, it's difficult to work with it. Firstly, the altitude generally causes solar events to happen about 10-12 minutes earlier than on the earth's surface. Secondly, well, it requires knowing where MH370 was. But since it was within a few weeks of the vernal equinox the Earth's terminator was somewhat north-south (not exactly, but close).

My epiphany occurred last night.


Or more precisely, the Ka'aba. Observant Muslims seek to face the Ka'aba when praying. I've flown on Kuwaiti Airways which displays, on a more or less continuous basis, the direction to the Ka'aba. This direction is always in relationship to the front of the airplane.

For his last and most important prayer of his life, Zaharie would have to face in the direction of the Ka'aba. There is software available to pilots who can plug in their altitude and route of flight, and it will provide the correct heading for Mecca, and the listing of prayer times. I presume that Zaharie would have had a similar tool available to him.

Zaharie would have been in a very nasty and unhappy place with all the dead people in the cabin. Under any normal circumstance, one could easily face the Ka'aba in an open area in the passenger cabin. But this was no normal circumstance. There would be, if the pilot-caused decompression theory is right, a lot of dead people in the cabin, likely many near the cockpit door. These would have been the last desperate people trying to enter the cockpit to save themselves—likely led by the young First Officer Fariq Hamid attempting to return after being locked out by Zaharie.

Death most likely occurred 5-6 hours earlier, and these bodies all would have been in nearing full rigor mortis in the chilly cabin. Moving them would be difficult and onerous. I doubt that is what happened, simply because facing the horror of his act would have been psychologically paralyzing.

No, what Zaharie would have likely done was to turn the plane towards the Ka'aba in Mecca. The cockpit of a Boeing 777 is large enough to offer a place on the floor to prostrate one's self if need be. The autopilot would be a snap to simply turn the heading to the desired direction, and the plane Mr. Boeing built would dutifully maintain that course.

My rough guess would be a true heading of about 304°. That's basically heading to the northwest. Of course, that is probably not precise enough, but the greater point is that at some point during his journey, Zaharie would have flown towards the northwest for nearly 30 minutes during that first light.

I will probably regret pointing this out, but that particular course does coincide with pointing towards Diego Garcia. Lest the stalwart fans of MH370-Diego-Garcia rejoice, there was not enough fuel at that point to even get close. That was not a destination. That's simply a geographical alignment, that's all.

So what happened after his final prayers?

I don't know. I presume that he would have turned the airplane around, and continued in broad daylight to the south until fuel exhaustion. At least that's what makes sense to me. A southerly route pointed away from civilization and ships. The final plunge he would take would be in full daylight, and he would want full control to the very end.

Some of you reading this may have noticed the timing of the turn towards the Ka'aba. Around 23:30 UTC. Yes, a guess, but it's close. Here's the key point: the "handshakes" occurred at regular intervals. 19:41, 20:41, 21:41, 22:41...but the 23:41 handshake is missing. IF my timing of the turn is in the ballpark, it's possible that the aircraft antenna had lost contact with the satellite, and was still trying to find it during that time. The airplane would have turned around and was flying towards Mecca with an antenna that was mis-oriented.

So here's my new take on the disappearance of MH370.

I still believe it was pilot suicide. I now believe that Zaharie actually turned the B777 towards Mecca so he could have a proper final prayer facing the correct direction. I think he then turned the airplane back towards the south, and crossed that Inmarsat 7th arc before he flew a high-speed dive into the water after fuel exhaustion.

The act of turning the plane to the NW for 25-30 minutes before resuming a southernly route would inherently cause the crossing of the arc to be much further north than is currently assumed.

If the MH370 is found anywhere in the southern arc, then the pilot suicide theory no longer makes any sense to me. With such meticulous planning, Zaharie would have certainly wanted to face Mecca, and he could not in the cabin of the B777. He would have had to point the nose in that direction.

***LET ME BE PERFECTLY CLEAR***: I do NOT presume that Captain Shah caused this because of his Muslim faith. I don't believe that for a moment. This heinous act could have been caused by a Catholic. A Mormon. Pick a faith. I don't have any reason to believe that religion had anything to do with MH370. If he did indeed cause the death of his passengers and crew, the motive and reasons went to his grave.

Here's a prediction I'll make: IF somehow a more precise path can be built on these assumptions I am now putting out there, then MH370 will be found significantly more to the north of the current search area. The aircraft will be shattered and the only identifiable parts will be the big things: gear, engine cores, perhaps the tail. A debris trail will be spread out with the current, with the heaviest parts near the entry point.

There will be no information on any recording device. Those would have been deactivated before the flight deviated from plan.

Find the plane, find the cockpit door. The truth of what happened that night will be etched in the desperate attempts to enter the locked cockpit by whatever means possible. That may be the only silent witness to that night that can be deciphered.

Find the wreckage. Find the cockpit door.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Full MH370 Theory. What I withheld for a year.

I’ve been withholding my final clue since late March of 2014. It’s time for me to reveal what it is, and why I have been holding back on it.

But you are going to have to indulge me as I finish my full theory.

As I left it in Part 2 of my South Indian Ocean theory, I believe the captain was cold and miserable with the oxygen mask clamped to his face. He may only have had to endure this for a few hours, perhaps. He did his best to warm the cockpit using the bleed air system, and it certainly helped. But it would still be cold.

When he caused the aircraft to go “dark” electronically by pulling circuit breakers and shutting off everything—all the things that communicate—he also would literally cause the plane to go dark: he shut off all the external lights, the navigation lights and strobe lights—anything that would light the aircraft from the outside. To preclude anyone from seeing lights on the inside, he turned off the emergency lighting system, and turned off the cabin utility and lighting and in flight entertainment (IFE) systems. He de-powered the utility bus which sent power to the cabin lights. It was truly a dark airplane. He would have taken the precaution of turning off the cockpit dome light, and any reading lights.

He had one mission at this point. He pointed the airplane towards the South-South East and noted the time. He could not know if he successfully evaded being detected yet, but he would have tuned at least one radio to 121.5 MHz. That’s the universal emergency frequency. He knew any fighter sent to intercept him would fly alongside and attempt to communicate using that frequency. He listened for the MH370 callsign but heard none. Several hours into the flight, and no intercept, he would feel confident he had succeeded with his plan so far.

I seriously doubt that he would have sufficient oxygen to last all the way to fuel exhaustion, and he could not survive at high altitude without it. On any modern Boeing there are computer screens that will display many things. One of them is the oxygen pressure available to the flight deck. This is measured in pounds per square inch in an O2 tank, and is typically in the 1600 to 1800 pound range for larger cockpits (particularly long-range aircraft that might have three or more crew members like the B777). A warning will display CREW OXYGEN LOW at some point—the Boeing manual does not say exactly when—but I don’t believe the captain ever saw that.

There was no need to.

After he felt there was no one who would recover from the decompressed cabin, it was time to re-pressurize the cabin once again.

Reversing the order, he threw two switches to close the outflow valves, and placed the pressurization system back into the automatic mode. He could feel the pressure increasing in the cabin as the conditioned air began to press against the fuselage.

There are quite a few tools available to the captain. He could see the cabin temperatures in several zones, but the most important figure to him was the cabin altitude display. He needed to have sufficient pressure so he could finally remove that damn mask that was keeping him alive. He would have been watching the cabin begin to lower from his cruising altitude. He watched intently for the cabin to at the very least, register an altitude below 14,000—something that he could breath normally.

Being cautious not to succumb to hypoxia, he patiently waited until the cabin was finally below 10,000 feet.

Only then did he remove that mask that tormented him. His face would be deeply grooved with the outline of the plastic part covering his face.

It would have been a while since he heard any sounds coming from the cabin. The call “dings” on the intercom stopped well over an hour before. He re-powered the utility bus and restored some cabin lighting to the back of the plane. The autopilot was engaged and holding steady. He slid his seat back and to the left, unbuckled, and stood up.

Stepping back to the hardened cockpit door, he took a look through the security peep hole to see if there was anyone moving. Straining to see, he saw nothing. No movement at all.

I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of what happened next, but he had to open the door to take a look. What he saw would only be unnecessary conjecture on my part. I so won’t go there.

The captain may, or may not, have elected to do something quite natural. He had to use the bathroom. He would have had basically two choices, simply find a place in the cockpit, or actually step back and use the lavatory in first class.

I suspect that he may have actually used the forward lavatory, rather than soil the cockpit.

Whether or not he decided to walk through the airplane at this point is anybody’s guess. Well, actually, everything I’m writing is a guess. I’ll go with he did not. The horror of what he did probably sank in with what he was seeing in the cabin. He did not want any more of it.

He returned to the cockpit, and as a precaution, closed and locked the door.

At this point of his last flight, he successfully flew a B777 out over the water, and was now heading to the South Indian Ocean…just as he planned.

He had only one thing left to do.

He looked at his watch and looked at the fuel remaining. He still had three more hours to go. But it was not the fuel that had three more hours to go.


Now we come to what I believe is the reason for the South Indian Ocean. Why that path. Why that direction.

Take a look at this simulated depiction of the Earth about just over one hour before MH370 is calculated to run out of fuel. I used a solar system simulator to pick the date and time. I wanted to see what the conditions were around that area when the fuel ran out. Was it night? Daylight? What was going on. Could the plane’s final plunge be seen by anyone?

Then I noticed what you’re now noticing.

The captain, by all accounts, was a practicing Muslim. The most important prayers to a Muslim is the Fajr prayer. It is marked by the first light and ends at sunrise. It is the first of five daily prayers by practicing Muslims.

It simply jumped out at me. He was flying to dawn! He needed to pray the Fajr before he died, and he would have known where that would have occurred. As an airline pilot he would have had the software to determine his prayer times, and he certainly could have planned approximately where he needed to be at first light.

PLEASE UNDERSTAND. I am NOT suggesting the hijacking of MH370 by  the captain was because he was a Muslim. I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT IN ANY WAY. I simply believe BECAUSE he was a Muslim, he NEEDED to get his Fajr performed before he died. I have withheld this aspect of my theory out of religious respect, and hope that the plane would be found within a year. I fear the plane may never be found, so perhaps my clue may be of some worth in thinking where it is not.

Got it? No hate comments please. I’ve been respectful and patient.

Anyone ignoring this aspect of the mystery, combined with the observation I just offered, is simply ignoring a clue in front of them. The sunrise pattern must be taken into account when discussing where the airplane wound up.

This is why I don’t believe he flew north. The fuel exhaustion point would have been at night anywhere to the north. I don’t believe the Inmarsat rings too far to the west is right either. His final plunge would be sometime after sunrise. There is no way this occurred during darkness. The sun was above the horizon before the plane smashed into the ocean.

Let’s return to the cockpit again to finish out my theory.

It would have been difficult, even for a senior and experienced pilot, to predict with absolute accuracy when the B777 would run out of fuel. The flight management computer (FMC) has calculations that are pretty accurate, and it will provide some time information. Available to the captain would be a display of fuel burn and a very accurate fuel quantity indicating system. I’m pretty sure that he was managing the clock, watching the fuel, and watching the eastern horizon.

I suspect that as he flew further south-southeast, he may have hedged his calculations, and added a few more degrees to the left to ensure he had that last, first light.

There must have been relief on his part as he saw the unmistakable hint of light as the sun crept towards the horizon. If he flew directly east towards the sunrise, he would have artificially hastened a natural sunrise as the forward motion of the big Boeing moved against the Earth’s rotation. I presume that the flight path would have been, at the very least, somewhat parallel with the Earth’s shadow terminator line.

From his perch on the left seat of the cockpit, he would have had full view of the sunrise and may, in fact, have gotten out of his seat to perform the ritual sajdah in the space behind the captain and first officer’s seats.

The moment the sun crested the horizon, the obligatory Fajr would have been complete, and now the captain would be lost in his thoughts as he prepared for his own death.

A about an hour or so earlier, he passed a point beyond which there was no turning back. He had neither the fuel nor inclination to do so. There simply was no fuel to get to any airport at this point.

The captain picked this remote area of the world to hide his crime. He fully understood that even at that hour, search crews were looking for the aircraft in the Gulf of Thailand. He must have had some sort of satisfaction that his plan, for whatever reason he came up with it——worked. He needed to plan his final dive with minimum fuel on the aircraft so as not to create any kind of post-crash fire and subsequent smoke. Even in this remote area ships might spot the plume.

He felt confident that there was no way this act could ever be conclusively blamed on him. It must have been important to him to go through all the planning for this moment.

I’ve little doubt that he anticipated the suicidal dive he was about to take would destroy the plane, all the evidence, and send it to the bottom of a very deep sea. There would be no plan to attempt to ditch the airplane to keep it intact. Why go through that only to drown a miserable death? As I outlined a few entries ago, pilot suicides end in a violent crash, typically a nose dive. They are cowards.

What he could not have known, because it simply was too deep into the systems description—was for the entire flight, an antenna was trying to phone home.

Little bits of electronic crumbs were being left every hour.

As the fuel began to dwindle, one engine probably flamed out first. The engines did what they needed to do, and he did not need them anymore. As he practiced in his flight simulator, he turned off the autopilot, and banked the airplane towards the blue water as his final act.

As the airplane took that final plunge, the antenna noted the change in attitude, and attempted to connect one last time.


For the families of those lost on MH370, I believe your loved ones really did not suffer. I truly believe that the effects of hypoxia caused them to feel a sense of well-being although somewhat bewildered by what was happening. They simply fell asleep.

None of them would have been aware of anything or ever regained consciousness when the cabin re-pressurized.

I wish it had a different, happier, ending.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Case for the South Indian Ocean Part 2

Over the last few blogs, I’ve been building my case for my personal theory about what happened to MH370. I’ve lost a few days with reading the new report released by the Malaysian government.

Some of you may even have read the somewhat alarmist-sounding tweet I sent out regarding the report. Inexplicably, Malaysia released a non-secure report that anyone with professional software (like Adobe Acrobat Pro) can simply edit the content and save the document with new content. I’ve little doubt that will happen. Some may even remember the debacle with the supposed iPhone image sent from Diego Garcia by a passenger of MH370. Anyone with a few dollars can edit the GPS metadata to make it appear that’s what happened.

I subsequently took a picture of a pink plastic chair, set the metadata to the same Diego Garcia location (and date and time, mind you) and tweeted that out. I proved that it was not difficult to spoof an image. Some went absolutely nuts when I did that—babbling about violating Twitter terms of agreement. Yikes.

But I digress.

So what is it about the South Indian Ocean that I think is the final resting place of the Boeing 777? And just where is it, in that vast ocean?

Let me take you back to the beginning of that awful day. I need only really start with MH370’s departure from KUL. I won’t attempt to describe all the detailed stuff about where it was, or what time it got to yadda yadda intersection. I really don’t care about that detail. It does not matter yet.

Here’s what I believe happened (Spoiler alert: I won’t be covering anything new here. It’s been tossed out there before):

At some point, just prior to entering Vietnamese airspace, a very carefully planned action was put into effect. I believe (let’s take that as a given…from here out. This is all just what I think happened) the captain concocted a reason for the young first officer (FO) to leave the flight deck.

Get me tea. Get me my bag in the back. Whatever. He created a reason for the FO to leave the flight deck. He was told to just leave the cockpit without a flight attendant entering. I don’t know Malaysian Airlines procedures, but airlines I am familiar with do not allow a pilot (intentionally) to be in the cockpit by themselves. Ever. A flight attendant must replace the departing pilot until they return.

Why? Simple. Who will open the door for the returning pilot?

It’s of course more complex than that, but basically you need someone to let the pilot back in—preferably someone not flying the plane at the time. So how did the FO allow the captain to send him out leaving the captain alone?

Again, simple. In the airline culture of that part of the world, captain is king. You don’t question authority. Especially a senior check airman. Especially when you are new to the airplane. It’s not done.

It’s not the time or place for me to go into recent headlines about unfortunate airline crashes, but the root cause is often culturally deeply engrained. Western cockpits have a deeply evolved Crew Resource Management (CRM) culture in which the cockpit works as an integrated crew. This is not uniformly true in a global sense. There’s no way to really tip-toe around it. Asian cockpits have a reputation for having difficult captains who simply will not allow themselves to be criticized or corrected…particularly by the perceived subordinate FO. There will be airline pilots “in the know” who will be silently nodding in agreement with me right now. Readers outside the airline industry won’t likely get it. As an aside, Asian airlines are working on solving this problem. They know they have a problem, and are diligently working to fix it.

Let me be clear. I am NOT suggesting that the captain of MH370 was such a person. I am suggesting that when a captain in that culture says “leave the cockpit now and get me a tea” you do it. You don’t question it.

Even if it means leaving that captain alone in the cockpit.

Why was the FO ordered out of the cockpit prior to entering Vietnamese airspace? If you want to create some confusion, that would be the time to make an unexpected maneuver. Like change directions without warning. And you can’t normally get away with that when you are flying with another pilot who’s not with your program.

The Air Traffic Control (ATC) handoff is rather mundane. Even when crossing country borders. There’s a bit of a window where you are in between controllers. As an aircraft approaches an international ATC boundary, a hand off occurs. It’s not particularly exotic. The controlling agency contacts the next “sector” and says basically, “Hey Ho Chi Minh, I’ve got MH370 approaching IGARI can you accept him?”

They do that because they don’t know what other controller is doing, or what aircraft they are dealing with. It’s basically a coordinated hand off. Can you take ‘em? Yep. Send ‘em over.

It’s almost that simple.

There’s a bit of an understood delay. The ATC controller tells the aircraft to contact the next controller, gives them a frequency, it gets acknowledged, and the controller doing the hand off is done. They don’t even think about it anymore. It just works.

Good night. See ya. (I know quite a few languages around the world for that hand off. My favorite in Hungarian is “Veeslat” Not sure how it’s spelled, but it does means “see ya”).

What’s happening on the other side?

The receiving controller is now expecting to hear from the new inbound aircraft. But they know it takes a few minutes for the process. The “Hey Joe, can you take…” to the “Good Evening, Ho Chi Minh, MH370 level 350” will take a bit of time. The time this can take starts to get even lengthier at night. There are not as many aircraft airborne, and frankly, I suspect, the controllers are not as attentive. At least it seems that way.

The handoff of MH370 occurs very early on Saturday morning. It may have been a somewhat quiet and sleepy time. It happens more than you might think.

The MH370 captain knows this. He’s highly experienced, and can expect just this kind of environment. If there were a time to initiate a plan to take control of an aircraft, and execute a diabolical plan, that would be exactly when it should be done. In the middle of the handoff.

Once the FO was out of the cockpit, and the captain alone, there was little that could be done to save the airplane from any experienced aviator with ill intent. Boeing makes a great hardened, bullet-proof cockpit door. It’s damn difficult to get through.

That’s the whole point of the door.

I won’t go into the specifics. As a professional aviator, I owe it to the community not to discuss exactly how the door works, but I feel comfortable with sharing that the door is under full control of the person in the cockpit. That’s all I’ll say.

Now it’s a just matter of getting the airplane to wherever the captain wanted to take it. But he had some natural issues to deal with. Namely the passengers and crew on the other side of the door. They were not interested in being part of the plan as they sit on the sidelines waiting for what’s next.

With a plane load of passengers, an able FO who could fly the airplane by himself (and who knew how the cockpit door worked), it would have been only a matter of time before the door would be breached. Yes, the door is a strong one, but it won’t take a continuous and vigorous assault. It’s presumed that any terrorist attempting to storm the door would be stopped by passengers and crew as the door buys time.

The scenario evolving on MH370 was never part of the equation.

As I outlined the process earlier, this was the time for the captain to deal with the passengers and crew. The captain donned the crew on-demand oxygen mask. He pushed two buttons, flipped two switches, and opened two valves to the outside pressure. This process was not immediate. There was no “fwoomp”, swirling smoke and dust as suddenly the cabin was at the same atmospheric pressure as the outside.

It takes time.

(NOTE: I am not going to attempt to account for the wild flight path prior to the turn towards the south. I won’t attempt to address the altitude excursions either. I will do that, but not with this entry)

The initial awareness of anyone on board would be through the ears. I presume the cabin would have been “climbing” at around 1,500-2,000 feet per minute. Assuming it was around 6,000 pressure altitude, about 4 minutes later the yellow cabin masks deployed from the passenger service units (PSUs).

Approaching the deployment of the masks, passengers would have almost certainly been aware something was wrong. Early effects of hypoxia would be setting in at different times for each person. One effect of hypoxia is a sense of well-being, almost euphoria. It does not sound overly unpleasant, but it would have been a confusing environment.

The sudden deployment of the yellow masks would be confirmation that something was seriously wrong. I doubt that the captain would have made any kind of public address…but who knows. Maybe he tried to explain or apologize to the passengers or crew. Hard to know.

The flight attendants and the first officer would certainly have known what was going on with the cabin pressure, and probably were not surprised when the masks came out. Pulling down the mask snaps the chemical generator into action, and oxygen flows to the user.

It also starts a 12-minute period until the oxygen is exhausted (there is a 22-minute option for the O2 generator, but I have no idea what version Malaysia chose). Once exhausted, there would be no more oxygen left to a passenger unless an unused mask was available to them.

The cabin would continue to climb during the depressurization process. To equalize to the altitude MH370 was at, would take approximately 18 minutes (a guess). With the initial 4 minutes until the masks deployed, the masks would have run out of available oxygen just about the time the cabin was fully depressurized.

The cabin temperature dropped during this time. As the pressurized air evacuated through the outflow valves, the remaining air expanded in the volume of the fuselage. This expansion of air will cool. How cold I don’t know. I’ve little doubt there is a formula for it—but suffice it to say it was cold.

The time of useful consciousness is measured in seconds at this point. As passengers oxygen ran out, they would have fallen unconscious not unlike a surgical procedure. Euphemistically speaking they fell asleep, and would never wake again.

The flight attendants and first officer had other tools at their disposal. They had walk-around bottles of oxygen available to them. These are tanks of O2 that, when paired with a special mask, allows crew members to move about the cabin assisting passengers during a loss-of-pressure event. These oxygen bottles have limited amounts of O2 available to them, but they typically have at least 30 minutes.

The crew in the cabin also would know that any unused yellow oxygen mask (one not yet pulled) would provide a lifeline of 12 more minutes of oxygen. Once the walk-around oxygen exhausted, the crew member would be stuck wherever the yellow mask was hanging. Based on the number of passengers on the aircraft, there would a limited supply available to crew.

The first officer would have been thinking about only one thing: get back into the cockpit. I’ve little doubt, absent any kind of an announcement to the passengers, he would assume that something was going very wrong in the cockpit, and would not connect the calamity to his captain.

Being on the wrong side of the armored door, the first officer would have used a special method (I won’t disclose) to attempt to reenter the cockpit. As I mentioned earlier, the door is under control by the cockpit, and any attempt to enter using “normal” methods can be overridden in a special way by the pilot. You’d want the pilot to have that ability.

Unless, of course, the aircraft is under control by a suicidal pilot.

There are ways of letting the cockpit know you want to get their attention. You’ve seen the flight attendants talking on what looks like a phone. It basically is exactly that. The handset has a button you can push that causes a “ding” sound in the cockpit. Normally, that results in one of the pilots answering with some kind of pleasantry.

Each “ding” would have told the captain that someone was still conscious in the cabin. He would have to have been on his own O2 mask, of course, and probably would be simply ignoring the calls for his attention. What he would have been doing, I suspect, was waiting for the chimes to stop.

Once the calls from the cabin stopped for an extended time, the captain would know he was the only conscious person aboard. As I discussed a few entries ago, the Helios accident investigation indicated that passengers were still alive (doubtfully conscious) at impact. Anyone planning this kind of event would have known this through a simple Internet search. The captain would need extended time to ensure those in the back of the plane were no longer alive.

The horror of what I am describing cannot be understated. It galls me that I even think a fellow pilot would be capable of such an act.

Yet, undeniably, it has happened. Pilots have committed suicide, taking passengers with them.

I’ve little doubt (in fact I know) people are upset that I suggest that the captain of MH370 committed what is undeniably a crime of historic proportions. I didn’t know the man. I don’t know what his frame of mind was like. I don’t know if he had a motive (although he must have had a reason known only to himself).

I’m sure he was a really nice guy. Someone who loved and was loved. But that was equally true of all those people on the plane that day.

What I do know, as a highly experienced pilot, that the known facts of the disappearance of MH370 fits a hijacking by a highly skilled pilot. One who intimately knew the Malaysian airspace, the Boeing 777, and could make the airplane disappear into the night.

The captain.

And he was the one who eventually turned the airplane south towards the Indian Ocean. So why there? The captain, by all accounts, was a highly respected and loved person. He would have been fully aware that suicidal pilots always become suspects after recovering the wreckage of their aircraft. The wreckage contains clues and silent testimony to what happened. When operating, the cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder provide damning evidence.

He needed to ensure the plane would never be found.

Once the plane went missing, he anticipated that a search would ensue in the Gulf of Thailand. He needed to hide the B777 electronic signatures, the digital noise, and its ATC links. With the interest, he presumed, in the filed flight path, he basically did a head fake, and managed to escape attention before turning south, once he was clear of the shore-based radars.

He would be alone in a cold airplane. He had heaters available to him in the cockpit, but probably not enough to stay warm. His face would be stinging from the O2 mask. The mask keeping him alive would have also made him miserable. The mask has an elastic band that firmly clamps the life-saving oxygen mask to the wearer’s face. It works well, but it is also painful to wear over an extended time. I speak from experience. Any pilot who has worn these kinds of masks knows exactly what I mean.

As the sole user, the captain had hours and hours of available oxygen to him. But it is limited. I sincerely doubt that there was sufficient oxygen to get him to fuel exhaustion.

The captain had a trick up his sleeve, and he was ready to use it.

NEXT: I finally reveal my hidden clue I've been holding for almost a year.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Case for the South Indian Ocean: Part 1

In my previous blogs, I outlined two key kinds of aircraft incidents which I believe are clues to what happened to MH370. In the decompression/non-pressurizing situations I have two observations: people apparently can survive at least 2 hours at 34,000 (although unconscious), and at higher altitudes (above 40,000 in the Payne Stewart accident), it is unsurvivable.

Facts are important when making conjectures about MH370.

One of my favorites was a Twitterverse claim the US Navy hid MH370 in an underground/water secret hangar on Diego Garcia. When asked about the kind of construction required to put such a monstrosity on a tiny sea level atoll (you’d need a really deep hangar, a really long ramp, or some Gru-like elevator system, and a way of getting air down there), I was assailed for my stupidity, called a troll (whatever that is), then summarily blocked by some Twitter users.

According to those theorists, MH370 was in an underwater Diego Garcia hangar simply because—well it just HAD to be. And of course, you know, the US government can do such things. Obviously.

Back to the decompression/depressurization issue. There are two types. An explosive one. It’s sudden, violent, and normally without warning. That’s not what happened on MH370. If a someone depressurized the cabin then there’s only one way to do it. The automatic pressurization system had to be switched to a manual mode, and the cabin had to be raised. In pilot jargon, “climb” the cabin.

On the Boeing 777 are two big plate-like valves. These are the outflow valves which control the cabin pressure of the airplane. They’re constantly adjusting how much air leaves the cabin in order to maintain a comfortable altitude. In Boeing-speak: “Cabin pressurization is controlled by regulating the discharge of conditioned cabin air through the outflow valves.” Typically when you’re flying on a passenger aircraft, it’s like being in, say, Denver, Colorado. There are certainly many cities around the world at higher elevations, but aircraft cabins are generally maintained in the 5000-6000’ range.

The crew can directly control the position of the outflow valves using the manual mode, bypassing all the protections and controls offered by the aircraft’s computers. It’s provided in case the computers wander off the reservation. To take manual control of these valves, it’s a deliberate action. It requires pushing two buttons on the overhead panel for each valve, then moving two more switches to open the valves. Air then leaves the cabin until the inside of the cabin is at the same pressure as the outside. It takes some time for all this to happen. The Boeing manual is silent on just how long, presumably, because there are many variables involved.

The short version: depressurizing a Boeing 777 can’t be done accidentally.

At really high altitudes, it’s always subfreezing on any scale. Flying at 35,000 the standard temperature would be -55° c. For my American readers, that’s -67° f. It’s really chilly. That’s not to suggest that’s how cold it would get in the cabin after decompression. Remember air LEAVES the cabin in this event. As the air leaves the cabin the remaining air expands. It’s an unassailable law of physics. It will get really cold. The chilly outside air at that altitude will eventually be a factor, but it won’t happen quickly.

As I contemplate this part of the MH370 mystery, IF the cabin were decompressed to incapacitate and eventually kill people, it will take time, and the cabin needs to be above 35,000 feet for some duration to be fatal.

Remember those plastic yellow cups which provide oxygen for, as the flight attendants soothly murmur “in the unlikely event of an emergency”? They are deployed automatically when the cabin reaches about 13,500 feet pressure. There’s a crew control to manually DEPLOY the oxygen masks, but there is no way to prevent the oxygen masks from dropping. There’s no plausible scenario in which you’d want to stop masks from being presented for the passengers’ use.

If one wanted to kill potential people who would attempt to thwart your control an aircraft (read: passengers), you’d need a well-thought out plan, and you’d need time. Lots of it.

The passengers will get their 12 minutes of oxygen. What about the flight deck crew? They have a very different source of oxygen. It comes from an O2 tank designed to provide oxygen on demand through four masks available in the cockpit. Read that again. Four masks. There are four seats for pilots in the B777. Two obviously for the folks all the way at the pointy end of the airplane, and two observer seats (called jumpseats). Oxygen must be sufficient to provide long-term use to the flight deck, no just for a pressurization problem, but in case of smoke or fumes in the cockpit.

Pilots get much more than 12 minutes. They get a lot. For all four. When there’s only one pilot inhaling oxygen meant to supply four, you can go a really, really long time. How long? No clue, actually. But it would be measured in hours.

Hours needed to fly far away. Like a distant ocean.

Let’s revisit my discussion about pilot suicide. It happens. History documents that when pilots want to kill themselves, they nearly always do it alone. They await a chance to be by themselves in the cockpit, or concoct a reason to send a pilot out of the cockpit. It’s harder to fly an airplane into the ground when the other pilot is not on the same page as you are.

How do we know this? Simply because these suicide accident scenes are either found quickly, or the watery remains of the aircraft are found and recovered. Accident investigator’s have a lot of tools at their discretion. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) tells a lot of what happened in the cockpit, and the digital flight data recorder (DFDR) tells them what happened to the airplane. Control inputs, speeds, attitude are but a few of the hundreds of data inputs in modern jet aircraft. Even when the suicidal pilot disables the the CVR/DFDR by pulling circuit breakers (CB) there are clues left.

These clues are often related to the fact that the recorders go strangely silent just before the airplane goes into a nose dive. If the DFDR circuit breaker is pulled first, there are tell-tale sounds (or lack of them) that suggest what happened. A CB doing circuit breaker stuff makes a distinctive “pop” which does not occur when a pilot pulls it.

And of course, there’s often radar data associated with the suicidal dive. DFDR/CVR goes dead. Plane heads like a lawn dart to the ground minutes later (as recorded on radar), and recovering the shattered aircraft parts will show there was no control issues leading up to the plunge. How that forensic study is done is not part of my discussion. It is amazing science though.

Any pilot who is a student of the industry (as I am), knows that the rare (very rare) suicide is eventually uncovered. Especially when you have an airplane part to look at. Even shattered ones. If you have a perceived reputation to uphold, family members to protect, and wish not to be forever known as a suicidal pilot, you don’t want your plane to be found to be subjected to forensic investigation.

What about that suicidal plunge? Why that?

Simple. You don’t want it to hurt.

There are no recorded suicides (I’m aware of) in which the pilot makes some kind of half-hearted attempt to land the airplane in a really bad way. I remember when I was a private pilot, I took a buddy of mine up flying in a small Piper single engine aircraft. I’ll never forget what he said.

“If something goes badly, nose it over. I don’t want to lay in a hospital bed for months.”

As a professional pilot however, I can tell you that when something goes badly, I’ll be fighting to save the aircraft, the passengers, and myself, all the way to the end. I’d never give up. I’d try to find a way to fix the problem, and never accept failure.

As famous stunt pilot Bob Hoover once opined, “If you're faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”

True dat.

Let me take all of this and put it together for a SIO scenario.

I believe that MH370 was flown to the remote part of the SIO for one reason, and one reason only. To hide the crime. To fly that far requires incapacitating all non-participants so they can’t stop you. In order to do that, you have to depressurize the cabin, and you need time for that that to work.

Additionally, if you are going to hide the crime, you need to disable all the noisy electronic stuff on the airplane. All the things that report your location, and all things that communicate to the outside world.

And you have to do that while evading, or at the very least, attempting not to draw attention to yourself on radar. You have to get outside of the ever-watchful eyes of not only ATC radar, but known military radar looking for inbound invaders.

Do do this, a great time to do it would be at night. Even better, late at night, preferably leading into the weekend when minds are dulled, and thinking more about weekend fun.

NEXT: The Case for the South Indian Ocean: Part 2.

Friday, March 6, 2015

My Ptolemy Problem

As I sorted out the puzzle pieces of MH370, I pondered all of the possibilities. Of course I could not help but to think about what was going on in the cockpit.

As the reported facts began to coalesce from the flotsam and jetsam of different news sources (I must admit I did not watch one second of CNN non-stop coverage), details emerged. The fundamental recurring theme was that after failing to check in with Vietnam controllers, the airplane made a sudden turn away from its path, did some kind of crazy climb to an altitude that seemed implausible, performed a lowish pass back over Malaysia, headed up as if to join airways going to the north west, then turned and headed south towards the Indian Ocean.

This was difficult to wrap my head around. There must have been hijackers on board, some kind of crazy fight for control, then the hijackers must have defeated the crew, and flew…south? Why there? It’s simply ocean. Lots of it. Why would “they” bother to go through all that just to crash in a remote area.

Maybe my premise was wrong.

What about the crew? The horrifying thought that this could be a crew-based incident.

My last blog entry was about decompression/no pressurization accidents. I established documented histories involving what happens when a plane decompresses (or in some cases, fails to pressurize). It’s time to turn towards another taboo topic: pilots who commit homicide/suicide by killing themselves and a plane load of people with them.

And yes, the sad truth is that it does indeed happen.

Pre-dating MH370, a website published some pilot suicide cases: Some of the best known in the industry would be Silk Air 185, Egypt Air 990, and LAM 470. The captain is blamed for two of the crashes after the first officer left the flight deck. In the other, the captain is encouraged to leave the cockpit by the suicidal first officer.

Silk Air 185. The captain is suspected of pulling the circuit breakers to the flight recorders, and taking a supersonic nose dive into the water. The wreckage, or what was left of it, was recovered. The captain’s wife denies that he was capable of such a horrendous act, and is still trying to clear his name. She cited evidence that he called her to remind her to pick him up at the airport to suggest that he had no intention of killing himself.

Egypt Air 990. The first officer in a relief pilot role dove the plane towards the ocean right after the captain left the flight deck. The wreckage was found, and the flight data recorders were recovered. A transcript of the last moments is terrifying to consider the bedlam in the cockpit. The blame placed on the relief pilot is in contention by authorities in Egypt who claim mechanical problems. The family of the blamed pilot expressed outrage that their loved one could have done such a thing. “they are running out of things to say, so they are ruining the guy’s reputation” said his nephew.

LAM 470. The first officer leaves the flight deck, and minutes later the captain starts a nose dive. The cockpit recorder contains sounds of someone banging on the cockpit door, trying (presumably the first officer) to get back in. The wreckage was found, and forensics were able to reconstruct what happened. In this case, there was sufficient motive to suggest why the captain killed himself and passengers. Again, horrific.

There are other whisper campaigns about other pilot-suicide accidents. But these three are the ones that come to mind.

Here’s the thing: in all cases, a pilot leaves the cockpit, in one deliberate deactivation of the flight recorders, and for all three, the wreckage was recovered and a suicidal pilot blamed for the accident. In at least two of these, the families refuse to accept that their loved one could have ever commit such a horrible act.

And in ALL of the pilot suicide cases, aircraft wreckage was found, and forensics established many clues to pin the blame on a pilot.

So that got me thinking about MH370. The awful reality is that it is possible that one of the crewmembers was responsible for the disappearance of the aircraft and people. Which one? I quickly dismissed the first officer. Not enough time, not enough technical expertise.

The captain? Certainly. He had all of the skills required to disable communications, and redirect the aircraft in such a manner as to hide it within the normal traffic, and the knowledge to fly a route to minimize exposure to radar.

But how to prove such a thing?

Putting myself in the cockpit, I imagined how it could be done. The proof? None. Purely conjecture. But I came up with a scenario that explained it all.

Everything. Even the choice to fly south.

But first I have to acknowledge that I have a Ptolemy problem. Claudius Ptolemy was a Greek mathematician who lived in Egypt in the beginning of the last millennium. His claim to fame is that he concocted tables and charts that correctly predict the locations of planets, both in the future and past. His Ptolemaic system of tables were famous for their accuracy. He was also able to correctly predict the troublesome retrograde movement of Mars.

He did all of this amazing work based on the assumption that the Earth was the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around us.

In short, his accuracy was astonishing. But he was also dead wrong.

So let me end today’s blog, as I build my case, by acknowledging that although my theory perfectly can explain what happened, I, like Ptolemy, could have the whole thing based on wrong assumptions. Just because I can give a perfectly reasoned description of what happened to MH370 I could have it all totally wrong.

But I don’t feel I do.

NEXT: Why the South Indian Ocean.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

An Early Theory Begins to Form

As the mystery of what happened to MH370 continued to unfold, I naturally approached the discussion from a wholly different perspective than non-pilots.

Did the Boeing suffer some kind of catastrophic failure that rendered the crew incapacitated, and it flew on until it eventually crashed from fuel starvation or loss of control? That was a scary thought to me. Airliners simply don’t do that. Sure, crashes happen—but to vanish?

There is a recent example in which an aircraft climbed unpressurized, incapacitating all aboard. It flew on autopilot until fuel starvation.

Helios Airways 522, a Boeing 737, did not decompress per-se. It climbed unpressurized because the crew failed to notice that the pressurization system was not in the automatic mode and never pressurized during the climb from Larnaca to Athens.

The lack of sufficient atmospheric pressure in the cabin eventually incapacitated the pilots. The autopilot leveled the aircraft at 34,000 feet. Jets scrambled to intercept the 737 observed a lifeless cockpit, and oxygen masks hanging from the ceilings. Nearly 2 ½ hours after last contact with the crew, and after direct observation by the fighter jets, Flight Attendant Andreas Prodromou entered the cockpit. He managed to survive those 2 ½ hours by using portable breathing oxygen.

Unfortunately, because of his lack of experience, the flight attendant was unable to save the plane and passengers. Less than ten minutes after Prodromou entered the cockpit, the Boeing ran out of fuel and crashed.

In the post crash investigation, examiners determined that all passengers were alive at impact. They did not make any determination about consciousness, but it is safe to assume none were (perhaps the flight attendant was indeed the sole witness to the horror).

The passengers would have had access to oxygen for a little while. But it is literally a short while. Those little yellow masks you see in an aircraft safety demonstration only supplies you with only 12 (sometimes 22) minutes of oxygen. Surprised? You would be forgiven. Most are after learning that detail.

But that’s all you get. Think about THAT the next time you ignore that safety demonstration about that dangly yellow cup the flight attendant holds high.

Those chemical oxygen generators kick out a lot of heat and some oxygen, then they burn out. The 12 minutes of oxygen (sometimes 22) is sufficient when a heroic crew quickly descends to breathable air pressure (normally below 14,000).

Of course, if your crew is unconscious, that heroic descent won’t happen. Unfortunate things happen after that.

Golfer Payne Stewart famously died in his Lear Jet after it decompressed during a climb. In that case, the plane climbed to over 46,000 feet. All aboard were presumed dead prior to the plane plummeting to Earth over four hours after decompressing.

There are other examples. All of them occurred prior to MH370 disappearing.

As a pilot, these decompression/unpressurized events are all well known to me. Captain Shah would have known about those events as well.

It dawned on me that perhaps some clues could be used towards understanding what happened to MH370.

First is that apparently at 34,000 feet, people don’t die quickly. They assuredly will lose consciousness, but re-introduce proper atmospheric pressure, and they probably will recover to some degree.

Second, higher altitudes will kill people. And it gets really, really cold in the airplane when it’s unpressurized at that altitude.

Third, a walk-around bottle of oxygen will keep you alive as long as you have that bottle with you. There are many of these bottles available to cabin crew members.

Early word started filtering out that MH370 made some kind of steep climb, an almost impossible climb for a Boeing 777. And then the stories started to leak out that the first officer may have attempted to place a mobile call during the westbound portion over Malaysia—after the high climb. Whether or not a mobile call was actually attempted is in dispute. But the story is out there.

I contemplated all this information, but my developing theory took an unexpected twist as I investigated further details of that day.

NEXT: My Ptolemy Problem

One year later. It's almost time to share my theory.

For those of you who follow my Twitter feed, you know that I have denied requests to share my full belief of what happened on March 8, 2014.

My decision was based primarily on the fact that I simply don't know what happened to MH370. I don't particularly care for the conjecture game, yet that's human nature to do just that. It's difficult to simply say one does not have a "feeling" what happened.

It's also challenging to discuss the disappearance of a large transport jet without asking the question "what do you think happened to it?" When pressed, most people will at least share something about what they think happened.

In the early days of the disappearance, I felt certain that the large jet had been hijacked, and was being hidden in a desert to be used in some nefarious way. Transport jets simply don't vanish like that. It had to be purposeful, and it was going to show up as a missile sooner rather than later.

At least that's what I thought.

Then the bombshell that the aircraft flew on for hours after it disappeared. Some satellite provider I had never heard of was postulating something about rings, and that the airplane was either north or south on a ring. North worked for me. That was where deserts and bad people were. South made no sense because there was just a big old ocean there.

Who would want to do that? It would just be suicide to fly in that direction.

A little background is in order here. I am a highly experienced Boeing pilot. I have never flown a B777, but all of my Boeing time has been in 767s and 757s. I've written manuals for the aircraft, and have designed SOPs and checklists. I've flown the world in these trusty (but aging) aircraft, and I have total faith in them.

Boeing builds damn good planes. And I can write about that in the first person singular.

One aspect of modern Boeing jets is the astonishing level of commonality between aircraft. Sit in just about any Boeing airliner built in the last 30 years, and there will be a familiarity to the design, function, and layout of the cockpit. I don't need to fly a B777 to have a sense of what it is like to fly one, and how things work—true, there are indeed differences. I'm talking about the generic, big, chunky, similarities.

In short, I could place myself in the MH370's cockpit, and think about what might have happened. What I cannot possibly know (nor can really anyone else) is the why. Why would someone purposely kill all those innocent passengers? Who would do such a thing?

I started to get interested in the Twitter activities in the middle of March. It was fascinating for me to read tweets from people who suggested somehow that the airplane was hijacked to Diego Garcia, a remote military base in the Indian Ocean.

...not only hijacked there—but remotely hijacked by some kind of new-fangled piece of hardware that would wrest control away from the hapless pilot who might as well go to the back and have a drink.

The thing is, I've been to Diego Garcia. I flew civilian missions there in 757s and 767s. It was impossible (in my view) and anyone suggesting this scenario was simply grasping at some very slender straws.

So I waded into the discussion, and spent most of my time being accused of being something called a "troll." I knew the term, of course, but what did that have to do with sending out 140 character messages?

I had a lot to learn.

NEXT: I developed a theory about what happened.