Jumpseat: MH370 Speculation Prompts New Mystery

Conspiracy theories about the fate of the disappeared Malaysian airliner abound, but most offer unlikely conclusions.

MH370
The circumstances behind the disappearance of Flight MH370 continue to mystify.Alamy, Maulana Creative

Having reached the two-year mark, the disappearance of MH370 can certainly be called the greatest mystery since Amelia Earhart. But after talking with colleagues, friends and acquaintances, I’ve stumbled on another mystery.

Despite scientific evidence that proves otherwise, many of these educated people are emphatic in their belief that a 650,000-pound airplane is hidden in the desert of a terrorist-harboring nation with a “stan” at the end of its name. The airplane will be flown out fully loaded with weapons of mass destruction in true 9/11 style.

The search area is being defined by the extensive and complex data analysis of satellite communications company Inmarsat. The calculations for this analysis exceed my pilot math comprehension, but suffice it to say that the clever use of geometry, the Doppler effect, satellite and ground-station relationships, airplane performance assumptions, and 777-simulator scenarios have all been part of the equation. Other methodologies outside of the investigation team have also been utilized, all reaching the same basic conclusion.

The bottom line? The airplane is in the Indian Ocean. The flaperon found on the French province of Reunion Island last July validates this theory, in addition to reinforcing the plausibility of the high-probability search area. Four vessels equipped with towed, side-sonar equipment are scanning the ocean floor.

None of this number crunching is occurring in a vacuum. As a matter of fact, the International Civil Aviation Organization protocol for accident investigation is being followed just as it would in the United States. At the request of the Malaysian government, the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau has been leading the search. As parties to the investigation the Malaysians have included Boeing, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the U.K., the Defence Science and Technology Organisation of Australia, the Malaysian Department of Civilian Aviation, Inmarsat and the U.K. division of Thales Corporation. More parties may be included once the 777 is located.

The investigation participants comprise a diverse group of intelligent people with only one agenda: locate MH370 and determine a probable cause. Period. Despite the understandable emotional outcries of coverups, it would seem a rather difficult task to accomplish such a conspiracy while the entire world observes. Why would some very credible organizations and governments invest their efforts and extensive finances in a wild goose chase?

So what happened? First, I’d like to approach the question from the perspective of what didn’t happen, in my humble opinion. For me, a nefarious act seems unlikely. Why? If a terrorist threat originated from the cabin, it would require a multitude of people to commandeer an airplane the size of a 777 in today’s current climate of passenger self-preservation. At least two terrorists would have to be located in the first-class cabin to observe the opening of the cockpit door in order to rush in and take control.

At least two terrorists would have to be located in the first-class cabin to observe the opening of the cockpit door in order to rush in and take control.

With the assumption that the flight was proceeding normally up until the now infamous “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero” as it transitioned into Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Center, why would one of the pilots choose that moment to open the cockpit door anyhow?

Apparently, all passengers were investigated and none were found with connections to terrorism. Only two passengers were suspicious, having used stolen passports with the intent of traveling elsewhere.

Could one crazed lunatic have barged through the door? Sure. But I’m certain that, between the passengers and crew, the individual could have been subdued before incurring havoc to the airplane.

How about a nefarious act of collusion from both pilots? An investigation has determined that neither had a relationship with the other outside the workplace, nor did they make a deliberate attempt to fly the trip together.

Consider the copilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. He was at the top of his game. At 27 years old he was flying one of the biggest and most sophisticated airliners in the world. It was reported that he had been contemplating marriage. Hijack his own flight? Doesn’t seem likely. Suicide? Hamid just doesn’t quite fit that profile.

And Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah? Rumors abound regarding his support of Malaysia’s opposition party leader who was sentenced to five years in prison for sodomy just before the flight, with assertions that it may have prompted Shah to jump off the deep end. The purpose of his in-home flight simulator has been subject to scrutiny, and Capt. Shah’s family relationships have been probed, but, to my knowledge, nothing substantial has been discovered. He had been a loyal 33-year veteran of Malaysian Airlines with approximately 18,000 hours of flight time.

So if the captain had become suicidal or terrorist-minded, why fly the airplane for seven hours until fuel exhaustion into the middle of the Indian Ocean? I could think of more spectacular ways to make a statement than an airplane disappearance. Why not fly the 777 into Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, one of the tallest building structures in the world? Or perhaps wait until the approach into Beijing to make a statement?

MH370
Flying contributing editor Les Abend was tapped as an expert during CNN's coverage of the disappearance.CNN

In July 2011, Egyptair Flight 667, a Boeing 777-200 parked at the gate in Cairo, suffered substantial damage from a fire determined to have originated as a result of non-Boeing-designed electrical wiring contacting the copilot’s oxygen mask hose that was connected to the entire pilots’ emergency system. The extreme heat of the fire from the electronics bay below created a hole in the side of the fuselage about the size of an auto trunk lid just below the copilot’s sliding window.

If a similar event had occurred on board, an explosive depressurization may have resulted, but the fact that a rapid descent wasn’t initiated seems to negate that theory. With the emergency oxygen system destroyed, the pilots would have developed hypoxia if the loss of pressurization were insidious over a greater period of time. The lack of oxygen and the slipstream would most likely have extinguished the fire, but not before damage was inflicted to some portion of the electronic flight control system. Before the crew became incapacitated, perhaps a diversionary airport was entered into the flight management computer, explaining the initial westbound turn.

With the autopilot still maintaining a mostly stable flight regime, degradation of the flight control system could explain the bizarre turn northbound over Malaysia, and then the final turn southbound over the Malacca Strait toward the Indian Ocean. Or a flight attendant carrying a walk-around O2 bottle could have managed to enter the cockpit and attempted to steer the airplane by use of the autopilot’s heading select knob until he or she succumbed to hypoxia when the oxygen supply was depleted from the bottle.

After many conversations with airline colleagues, aviation friends, neighbors, workout buddies and bartenders, I've uncovered a new mystery.

My other scenario involves a fire in one of the cargo compartments. The fire could have originated from lithium batteries documented to have been on board. The FAA is still studying the effects of lithium-battery thermal runaways.

The batteries were transported earlier in the day via a Malaysian Airlines 737 from the resort island of Penang and then loaded onto MH370. Could the packaging have been damaged, allowing high outside temperatures and even hotter baggage-compartment temperatures to cause a thermal discharge? Or could the packaging have been inadequate?

If the crew used the cargo-compartment fire checklist, the extinguishing process would have been initiated. Recirculating fans and supply valves providing air to the compartment are shut down as part of the process. Two of five Halon bottles would have discharged initially.

The behavior of lithium-battery fires is such that they can reignite after appearing to be extinguished. If the fire were re-energized after the crew was rendered unconscious because of hypoxia or fume inhalation, the three remaining Halon bottles would have eventually discharged as part of a timed automatic cycle. This would explain how the airplane stayed airborne for almost an additional seven hours.

Do I have holes in my theories? Absolutely. Hopefully the cockpit voice recorder and the digital flight data recorder will provide answers. That said, the one aspect I am confident about is that we shouldn’t be concerned with the airplane finding us but rather with us finding the airplane.