Malaysia Flight 370: An In-flight Emergency After All?

Flying columnist Les Abend weighs in.

CNN Malaysia Flight 370 Les Abend

CNN Malaysia Flight 370 Les Abend

** Les Abend** (Screenshot from CNN)

More than 10 days after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on a mysterious flight that started out headed for Beijing but ended up who knows where, investigators appear no closer to locating the missing Boeing 777. But a series of tantalizing clues is providing at least a glimpse of what may have happened to the airliner along with its crew and passengers in the hours after it dropped off radar on March 8.

Speculation in the media and even among some Malaysian and U.S. investigators is centering on a theory that somebody in the cockpit intentionally steered the jetliner off course by reprogramming the flight management system and shutting off the transponder and ACARS (aircraft communications addressing and reporting system).

Based on satellite information received from the 777 more than eight hours after it made a sharp turn to the west and disappeared from military radar, the flight’s last known location is presumably along two wide arcs, one stretching north over Asia and the other south over the Indian Ocean. The total search area is nearly 3 million square miles — roughly the size of the entire continental United States.

Some theorize that one or both of the pilots, or at least someone with deep aviation experience, disabled communications gear and intentionally altered the 777’s course as part of a hijacking or sabotage plot.

Not everybody buys into the theory, however.

Les Abend, a 777 captain and Contributing Editor for Flying magazine, says he still believes an onboard emergency is a plausible explanation for the jetliner's disappearance.

“I’ve always asserted that there was some type of mechanical issue that might have progressively gotten worse and worse, where the pilots were trying to go to a checklist and determine what their problem was by troubleshooting it,” Abend told Anderson Cooper on CNN last night.

He noted that the pilots would not have been able to switch off the ACARS from the cockpit. Instead, somebody would have had to physically climb down into the avionics bay to disable the satellite unit. Even with all his experience flying the 777 for a major U.S. airline, Abend told Cooper he wouldn’t know how to do it. A possible explanation for the sudden loss of transponder, ACARS and other communications systems, rather, could be an emergency such as a fire or explosion that damaged components in the avionics bay.

“If this started to slowly degrade all of the avionics and the internal communications system and the flight controls, things could get pretty haywire,” Abend told Cooper. The pilots, he added, could have also lost their ability to use the 777’s electronic checklists to cope with an emergency.

Of course, we’ll probably never know what really happened to Flight 370 without locating the airplane and its flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Given the massive size of the search area and the possibility that the wreckage now rests somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it is a mystery that might prove unsolvable.

You can watch Abend’s appearance on Anderson Cooper 360 here.

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