Musing on the Mystery

Flight 370 Arc

The “mystery” in the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777’s disappearance is now being blamed on mistakes and confusion in public statements made by Malaysian authorities starting Saturday, March 8, the day the plane was reported missing.

The plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, China, at 12:41 a.m., Saturday, March 8. It reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet at 1:01 a.m. Its last known position on civilian radar was noted at 35,000 feet at 1:21 a.m.

At its last tracked position, the plane was traveling at 539 miles per hour, and airline officials said it still had aboard more than 7 hours of fuel.

At a speed of 539 mph, with 7+ hours of fuel, the plane could have flown just over 4,000 miles, including gliding to earth after running out of fuel. If the plane had flown for an additional 4 hours after disappearing from the radar, it could have covered 2,400 miles, including gliding 80 or 90 miles from an altitude of 35,000 feet.

The plane, a Boeing 777-200ER — ER means “extended range” — has a fuel capacity of 31,000 gallons, and a range fully fueled of 8,890 miles. The Boeing 777 began flying in July 1995, and flew without a fatal crash until July 6, 2013.

On that occasion, an Asiana Airlines flight crashed at San Francisco International Airport after hitting a seawall a few yards short of the runway, killing 3 of the 307 passengers and crew aboard. Survivors were evacuated from the plane before it caught fire and was destroyed by the flames. More than 1,175 of the various versions of the 777 have been built since the plane was introduced in 1995.

The Malaysian Air 777 didn’t “just vanish”

With a safety record “second to none,” what did happen to Malaysia Air Flight MH370 when it disappeared from the radar after midnight, Saturday, March 8? We now know that the plane turned sharply to the west, then south, and flew back the way it had come, re-crossing Malaysia north of Kuala Lumpur, until it arrived at the Strait of Malacca.

The Malaysian Air Force, as usual, had a crew of four watching the skies over Malaysia through the night on radar, and Flight 370 appeared as a blip on their screens — but they either didn’t notice it, or didn’t think the movement of the unidentified dot was important.

No fighters were scrambled to identify the unknown plane as Flight 370 flew through Malaysian air space, and so Malaysia lost what was perhaps the only opportunity to stop the off-course plane from going further.

But one reason the missing plane seemed “just to vanish” was that, although a ranking general was told about the radar blip later on Saturday, the day the plane was reported missing, the Malaysian government did not announce the military had tracked Flight 370 until Wednesday, 5 days into the search for the missing plane. Some of that delay, authorities explained, came from having experts examine and confirm the radar trackings.

So the missing plane didn’t “just vanish,” but what did happen — the return of the plane back over Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca — wasn’t announced until day 5 of the crisis. And then did Flight 370 “vanish?”

No. The military didn’t track the plane after it left Malaysian airspace and turned northwest toward the Indian Ocean, nor did any other radar facility track the plane.

Later it became clear the plane headed out over the Indian Ocean, but that was neither confirmed nor announced until a week of searching for the plane had been wasted, mostly in the Gulf of Thailand, the body of water between Malaysia and Vietnam.

The search was being conducted there because the plane was about a third of the way across the Gulf of Thailand when it disappeared from air traffic radar —and it was being carried out there even though the air force radar had recorded the plane’s flight back across Thailand away from the Gulf of Thailand immediately after the plane disappeared from air control radar.

But it was not until the end of a week of searching that authorities confirmed the plane’s engines had continued sending hourly updates to satellites, after radar and other normal contact with the plane was lost. So the plane that “vanished into thin air, passengers and all,” had not vanished, after all — but it was a long time before the authorities or the public had a full and certain explanation of how and why the engines sent periodic “pings” to the satellites.

What did happen to the plane?

As the investigation proceeded into day 7 and day 8, it became clear that one or more persons with extensive knowledge of the Boeing 777 aircraft had disconnected the communications systems on board the plane in order to hide the location of the plane.

And it became clear that someone then continued to fly the plane on a new course, a course marked by an abrupt turn west after the plane ended radar, voice, and data contact with air traffic controllers at 1:21 a.m.

And what is next? — The pilot becomes a suspect

After the engine “pings” sent to the satellites were confirmed, the last “ping” was used to approximate a possible location for the plane, and the search was moved, and centered on the Indian Ocean between the eastern coast of India and the Andaman Islands.

The satellite pings serve primarily to confirm that a plane is running satisfactorily — and do not include the plane’s location. The satellite does, however, record the plane’s distance from the receiving satellite — though it records no compass bearing, or directional component.

The pings are sent hourly, and on the strength of the last ping received — at 8:11 a.m. — the distance from the plane to the satellite receiving the update was cast into an arc stretching from the beginning of the Himalayan Mountains and running down through Burma and Indonesia, then curving back west into the vast southern expanse of the Indian Ocean.

Initially a search field was set up within that arc concentrating primarily on the Indian Ocean between the Andaman Islands and the eastern coast of India — but then Sunday a halt was called to the search, while a planning meeting was held in Kuala Lumpur.

The upshot of the Sunday planning meeting was stunning: The pilot has become the primary suspect in the disconnecting of the plane’s communications system, and the commandeering of the aircraft after it “vanished” from air control radar at 1:21 a.m. Saturday, March 8.

The pilot’s motive would be protest of recent government policies and actions — and Sunday night, March 16, the key question in the search for the missing airliner is whether the series of hourly pings from the plane’s engines ended because the plane landed somewhere — or because it crashed, possibly into the ocean.