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

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