Tuesday, June 7, 2016

MH370: An Important Change in Protocol—A Clue?

I've been following the events swirling around MH370 from day one. I was leaving on a trip to Constanta, Romania, when the news flash came across. I arrived in the hotel room after an 11 hour flight, and had TV on during my stay, following the unhappy story.

Of course I later found my voice in the Twitterverse, and love me or hate me, I have always tried to be a voice of calm and reason—all the while trying to be polite to my detractors (I do have a few). I bring years of Boeing experience into the discussion, and have spent many years in the professional airline world, as I continue to do.

With that as a backdrop, there's always been something nagging at me about the little we do know about MH370, the timeline, and her pilots. Something I could not put a finger on...something just seemed...so...so out of place.

I needed to dig deeper.

Pilots generally have the same quirks and voice mannerisms. We will often have the same "uhs" or inflections. We also rarely switch roles when it comes to radio work. The FO (there are exceptions, but that does not apply here) picks up the ATC clearance, and in the vernacular "works the radio" on the ground. Once airborne, whoever is not flying works the radio while the other pilot flies.

That in mind, when MH370 gets the clearance, it is the FO who speaks first (all times are UTC, and from the Factual Information report):

16:25:52 Fariq Hamid picks up his clearance to Beijing. He does not have an "uuuh" between Malaysian and 370. He somewhat stretches the "zerooo" but not too distinctly.

16:27:31 Fariq once again is on the radio, and with his distinctive lack of an "uuuh" requests a clearance for push back and start. It's virtually always the FO's job. Tonight is no different.

16:40:40 We hear Fariq accept the takeoff clearance. That's a little non-standard for my Western sensibilities. Much of the time the pilot who is not flying takes this radio call, but not always. In the industry, this role is called the "pilot monitoring". The other role, inventively, is the "pilot flying."

16:42:50 For the first time, we hear Captain Zaharie Shah talk. He has a distinctive "Malaysian...aaah...three seven zero" cadence. It's different. It's not Fariq. In fact, in the FI report, the transcription dutifully adds the "aaa" which was missing from the earlier transcripts with Fariq.

What this means to me is that Zaharie is now taking the role of pilot monitoring, and Fariq is the pilot flying. I would expect to hear mostly Z talking from here on out.

16:46:42 As custom dictates, Zaharie takes the handoff to Lumpur Radar. The flight is on the way, and the captain is not flying the airplane.

16:50:08 ATC clears MH370 to climb and maintain flight level 350. Zaharie accepts this clearance.

17:01:17 Zaharie checks in at level 350. This is standard stuff. He's verifying that the previously issued clearance has been reached. I often don't bother with this report myself, unless specifically asked. It's not wrong to report it either. Let's call it a discretionary report.
NOTE: The FI report has the transcription slightly wrong. The transcript has it as "Malaysian aaa three seven zero maintaining flight level three five zero." What he actually says is "[...] maintaining level three five zero" (he does not use the word "flight").
17:07:48 the Aircraft Communications and Addressing System (ACARS) makes its last transmission and goes silent. 

17:07:56 Z inexplicably reports his altitude again. Or was it Z? The voice pattern has changed. I swear it actually could be Fariq's voice. I can't pick up on the "aaa" It seems different. It's also odd because the previous report was given six minutes earlier, and there was no change in altitude, nor an apparent request to report the altitude. Something's different.

17:19:30 We hear the well-known "Good night, Malaysian aaa three seven zero" I noticed that the transcript does not record the "aaa" as it has been, but it's there.

Z's was the last voice we hear. Of that, there's no doubt.

17:21:13 Less than two minutes after Z's last transmission, the transponder stops reporting MH370's unique ATC-assigned code, and information drops from ATC radar screens. Military radar shows a hard left turn occurring at this time.

I had to resolve who the hell was talking 12 minutes before the final sign-off. Was it Z or Fariq?

I have some professional audio software that I ran the clip through. I concentrated on the "three seven zero maintaining level three five zero" which was clearly common between the call at 1707:56 and 17:19:30. The cadence is perfect. The time to say the phrase matches perfectly. I listened to it over and over.

It was Z.

So there's no doubt in my mind that Zaharie made the last call. He also made an oddly placed call just eight seconds after the ACARs last communication. That places him in the cockpit right before MH370 disappeared. But was he alone? We can't know based on ATC transmissions.

But here's the thing. WHY was he even talking on the radio? He actually should have been flying if normal protocols are being followed. At least, that's the way it should have been.

A little backdrop.

Fariq Hamid was being checked out as a B777 first officer. Captain Zaharie Shah was assigned as a check airman who would be assessing Fariq on his final training flight. Fariq was to receive his final evaluation on his next scheduled flight (Source: Factual Information, pg 14).

I confess to having no knowledge how MAS culture works with training flights, but if they follow Western-style culture, the training flights alternate flying duties and monitoring duties. In general terms, the check airman assigned to train a pilot will take the first leg of the journey. They often also like to fly the legs that are not involving landing on home turf...in other words, flying back to your home base is boring.

There's another reason check airmen normally fly the first leg. They want to show the newbie who's boss. It's an Alpha-male (or Alpha-female) thing where the check airman says, in effect, I fly better than you...I'm going to prove it by setting the standard on our first leg...I'll set the gold standard for you to follow.

They also want to get a chance to see how the new pilot performs and works in the cockpit. It's a rare check airman who lets the newbie fly first. It's just the way it is. At least in Western cockpits. I suspect that's probably true in Pacific Rim airlines.

So why the hell is Z even on the radios? He made it a choice not to fly that leg. Why?

***Conjecture alert. I'm just guessing here***

[Edit/addition based on some comments on this post] A poster suggested that Z might have flown first so that he had time to make changes to the Flight Management System (FMS). As the pilot monitoring, anything he might be doing with respect to "the box" would not seem out of place. That seems plausible to me.

I think it also comes down to a bit of compassion. IF Z was behind all this, he basically took some professional pity on Fariq, and at least let him fly for a bit. Even if Fariq did not know this was his final flight, Z knew.

How did Z wind up in the cockpit by himself? Simple. He would only have to order Fariq out under the guise of some instruction—get me some tea, for example.

With the sudden and inexplicable change in the flight path, there's no way that Fariq would have been docile and subservient. Fariq certainly was not flying. Fariq was new to the airplane, and was in the presence of a check airman. This was not a young pilot who was going to go rogue at that time. The ACARS shenanigans happened while Z was in the cockpit. The transponder went off line in less than 2 minutes while Z was demonstrably in the cockpit.

All of this happened precisely in the middle of a handoff between two countries. It could not have been more precisely timed. It was planned and well-executed by someone who was in the cockpit, by someone who was intimately knowledgable about the B777.

[Edit/addition based on a comment to this post] A really insightful poster suggested that the oddly timed altitude report was made to encourage a handoff to HCM. That's a little early to attempt that (MH370 was more than 50 miles from the ATC boundary at that point), but it is a very real possibility. For those unfamiliar with the concept, sometimes air traffic controllers simply forget about you. When you've passed a point where you'd expect a handoff, it's normal to say something to call attention back on yourself. I found a nifty trick is to hit a button on the transponder (the "Ident" button) which brightens up your data on their screen. It calls attention to you. Works nearly every time—hit that button, get a handoff.

Z's unsolicited altitude report 50 miles from boundary with HCM might have been just that. A way to get attention to MH30, and encourage an early handoff. Seems like a plausible thing,

My additional guess is that the oddly placed altitude report concurrent with the ACARS last communications was about the time Fariq was ordered out of the cockpit. He had to have been ordered out of the cockpit at some point. Perhaps Z was a bit rattled by his own actions, and for some reason reaffirmed his altitude unnecessarily. Pure conjecture, obviously—but if Z did indeed fly the aircraft into oblivion, Fariq would have been ordered out of the cockpit sometime after level off, and well before the transponder was disabled.

My nagging sense of something being out of place turns out to be that Z was not flying to begin with. It was also the odd second altitude report call. I'm satisfied with my research that it was indeed Zaharie making the last radio calls, placing him in the cockpit before MH370 disappeared.

The military radar did, however, capture the radar signature of MH370 passing near Penang...the boyhood home of Captain Zaharie Shah.