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.
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.