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.






26 comments:

  1. What an amazing #MH370 analytics #ZaharieInCockpitAtFinalMoments

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    1. Thank you for the comment. I hope that the wreckage is found so we can gain some clues as to what happened.

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    2. Malaysian Military radar did not see MH370 make a hard left turn at IGARI. This was disproven by two Thales Raytheon radar engineers employed by the JACC to review all the radar data. (Angus Houston Interview 24 June 2014, Malaysian Chronicle) It has since become a mythical assertion by those who are careless with the truth.

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    3. A further assertion that Malaysia's military radar saw MH370 pass by Penang has often been asserted but the Malaysian Government refuses to produce radar data evidence to corroborate it.

      On the other hand at the groundspeed asserted by Malaysia's FI Report of 594 knots, MH370 would have to be flying at an altitude where both radar at Hat Yai & Lhokseumwae would have seen it, but neither did.

      Unless Malaysia steps up and proves the allegation with real data, it can be dismissed along with Najib's claim in a Press Conference on 14 March 2014 that military radar also spotted MH370 climb to 45,000ft for 23 minutes.

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  2. Or if you've already taken out the f/o, you have to do the radios. Maybe the old chloroform on a rag trick, before take off.

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  4. "It was also the odd second altitude report call."

    I think with these altitude calls Z was very likely fishing for the handoff.

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    1. Another reason to make the extra radio is to effectively report "back on" when the pilot has been distracted. As much as I try to always keep radio vigilance, occasionally I have doubts about whether I heard every call, so I'll throw in an extra radio call just in case. Could the MH370 flight crew have been temporarily distracted with and then made the radio call?

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  5. Wow. That's something I've not considered. That's an excellent observation!

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  6. Excellent analysis Ed
    I totally concur to PENANG flyby
    About then our theories part way and why

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  7. "For those unfamiliar with the concept, sometimes air traffic controllers simply forget about you."

    Which throws a rather large wrench in what would otherwise be a good sleuth job. Don't get me wrong, the mysterious nature of the ATC recording is definitely something that should be focused on. But here's what I mean. Let's talk about intent.

    If the intent was to fly the plane into oblivion - literally, take it to its grave, wouldn't you want to be "forgotten" by ATC? Wouldn't you want to go unnoticed? So why not just fly outside of radar but not cross over into another zone where you'd get flagged?

    As I understand it, there is a section of SIO that is literally "blind" to all countries. Why not go there?

    Better yet, why go so far north as if you intended to go to your destination but then sharply turn?

    If the intent is just to mass murder, then why not just fly it to Kazakhstan knowing you'd get shot down?

    Or why not just fly to Diego Garcia suspecting you'd get shot down by the US?

    There are too many open "intent" questions for it to be as simple as "pilot had a plan, got homesick, flew to some mysterious spot near Australia" when there are so many other places he could have ditched the plane.

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  8. If Z's motive was political, perhaps the second altitude call was a "signal" to "someone", that signified, "I have the plane, the plan is a "go"".

    I have often wondered about that "mysterious" last phone call Z made in the terminal. When he made that call, everything was "on time and on track" for departure.

    The call could have been to an accomplice on the ground, probably in Kota, with a scanner, giving him final confirmation of call-sign, flight-plan route to Igari, estimated time of take-off, estimated time at Igari etc. This person was to monitor the frequency for MH-370's radio transmissions.

    Perhaps the "double maintaining level call" at "about the right time(s), was the signal to that accomplice, that meant, "I have the plane, the plan is a "go"", and thus, it was time for that accomplice to implement the plan to place the political demands on the government.

    Now, that would take time. Time is critical here.

    The accomplice would have to use an "untraceable phone" (easily obtained) to place one or more calls to certain people in "government circles", who would then need "time" to "react", i.e. pass it up the food chain, get people out of bed, etc, etc, enough time for Z to fly back to Penang before anyone in government circles "got their act together".

    Z knew that his flight up the Mallacca Strait would be tracked by Western Hill, and that within an hour or so (say 18:30z) he would be "safely out of reach" north west of Ache, and the government would know he was there.

    Mexican stand-off.

    The reason for the SDU reboot, was that he was "expecting a call from an accomplice", from a "known number", indicating the government knew he had the plane.

    Although there was the first sat call at 18:40z, it was not from the "known number" so he deliberately did not answer it.

    In accordance with his plan, he flew south, (west of Sumartra) waiting, and waiting, for 'that call" from "his man". It never came.

    After another hour or so (19:40z), with no call from his man, to confirm the government would "play ball", he knew that the government would not play ball, so "the die was cast", he proceeded with his "Plan B" to oblivion in the SIO.

    I am pretty sure that Z would have been perfectly prepared for this eventuality, and knowing that the CVR had a two hour recording, I am sure that he will have given a full explanation of his actions and reasons for, and then "pulled the circuit breaker" to preserve that information in the CVR.

    For this reason, it is absolutely essential, that if the wreckage is ever found, and if the CVR is ever recovered, it is absolutely essential, that the Malaysian government never get their hands on it.

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    2. your explanation seems too convincing. Some people believed it was polically motivated but there been no proper explanations of it until this comment came along

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  9. your explanation seems too convincing. Some people believed it was polically motivated but there been no proper explanations of it until this comment came along

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  10. Please explain this..... once Fariq has been ordered out of the cockpit, how long before he, the rest of the flight crew, and all the passengers realize something is wrong and start going berserk? There were 3 Security Officers on the flight that presumably have been trained for this type of scenario? How are they responding? I'm trying to imagine how this situation could have been sustained for several hours while flying into the SIO?

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  11. Please explain this..... once Fariq has been ordered out of the cockpit, how long before he, the rest of the flight crew, and all the passengers realize something is wrong and start going berserk? There were 3 Security Officers on the flight that presumably have been trained for this type of scenario? How are they responding? I'm trying to imagine how this situation could have been sustained for several hours while flying into the SIO?

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  12. Ed & JB,

    It is not necessary for Fariq to be ordered out of the flight deck.

    If Fariq was PF as Ed has proposed, Z could have simply said, "I am going to the toilet", and simply got up, saying he was going to put on his coat, and at an opportune moment, with Fariq's eyes on the panel, grab a headset, and strangle him with the lead.

    Silent, quick, efficient, no one in the cabin would know.

    Z returns to his seat, and the plan is on.

    As for the turn-back, it would have been gradual, not the "fighter like" bullshit in the media.

    There is no reason to suspect that anyone in the cabin, late at night, most people dozing off or even already asleep, not the cabin crew, not even a dead-heading pilot (if there was one, and awake), would "suss" anything was odd, let alone wrong.

    As for the security officers - please - they are NOT trained for "this type of scenario". They would have been as clueless as anyone else.

    As for navigation, what is the probability of anyone realizing that they had turned west etc, at night ?

    I am a trained navigator, and many years ago, was quite used to reading star charts and almanacs and taking sights with a sextant, doing the sight reduction calculations, plot positions, course, speed, the lot, (all pre GPS of course - I am well over 60yo) and quite frankly, I don't think that even "I" would have "noticed" unless (a) I had some "heads up" that something was up, and / or
    (b) A window seat.

    Everybody on board knew they were in for 5 hours plus of night flight, in the dark.

    I doubt that anyone, even me, might have suspected anything at all, until the non arrival of "expected dawn", nearing top of descent into Beijing, around 2230 utc. By then, it was way too late.

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  13. Ed tks for this. I have a few observations to make. Clearly people who knew both pilots will have categorically identified who was speaking at any time. For me, one of them puts an "err" between malaysian and 370 every time and the other one doesnt. The "err" is used only in all the airborne calls. If we say the "err" was used by Zaharie then the Captain handled the aircraft on the ground up to and probably including take-off. From then on the F/O was PF and Zaharie handled the radio right up to last call.
    "send f/o to get tea" ? no way. Demeaning and Its the job of Cabin Crew to do that anyway.
    "ATC sometimes forgets you". not in a million years, more than their job's worth.
    "I dont bother to report reaching a flight level". Sorry , you might not but In my experience everyone else did.
    I assume MAS had Airshow on this aircraft. a 180 degree turn would have registered on it and would surely have caught some passengers' attentions (and crew)?

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  14. I'm a retired Navy Seal..... executing a person with mike cord is pretty risky for someone not trained. It's not as easy, quick, or certain as you imply. Fariq's hands, feet and legs are free, he is going to be fighting back until he succumbs. I've never flown a plane but I would think there is a high risk of the flight path being impacted during Fariq's strangulation?

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  15. I'm a retired Navy Seal..... executing a person with mike cord is pretty risky for someone not trained. It's not as easy, quick, or certain as you imply. Fariq's hands, feet and legs are free, he is going to be fighting back until he succumbs. I've never flown a plane but I would think there is a high risk of the flight path being impacted during Fariq's strangulation?

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  16. No need to strangle or chloroform co-pilot. If co-pilot leaves the cockpit to get tea for Z (as suggested or for any other reasonable request), Z can dump the air in the plane very quickly. Crew not on supplemental oxygen are unconscious in about 10 seconds. Masks will drop for the passengers, but they only last 15 minutes max. Even on supplemental oxygen (bottles) the crew could not get in the cockpit as evidenced in the German intentional co-pilot suicide. Only long term oxygen supply is the one for the pilot from the tanks below the flight deck. By the time he dropped the plane to low altitude crossing Malaysian peninsula after the turn west, everyone in the back would already be dead from hypoxia.

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  17. On the pilot's motivation for ditching the plane: He was an Islamist with several things to be upset about:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581817/Doomed-airliner-pilot-political-fanatic-Hours-taking-control-flight-MH370-attended-trial-jailed-opposition-leader-sodomite.html

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  18. sir,

    is it possible to remotely hijack the plane ?

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  19. The pilots wife is convinced her husband is not the one that made the last transmission. Assuming Blaine Gibson research is correct and adding the original claim that the Freescale secrets are the reason for the disappearance. The last sighting of the plane over the Maldives is where the perpetrators parachuted from the plane with the laptop hard drives. The people that made up the false claim that the plane over Maldives was a propeller flight might also be involved? How they took over the flight is interesting. Maybe they had previously hypnotized the Captain? Their technicall knowledge seems enormous. They might have substituted components in the satellite system to give a fake location.

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