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What happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370?
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is certainly a mystery – just how does a massive Boeing 777-200ER airliner with 239 people on board simply go missing without a trace? And what happened to cause its sudden disappearance?
The biggest mystery – no distress call.If an aircraft encounters technical difficulties, the pilots would immediately send out a “Mayday” call. Yet none was sent from MH370 – it simply disappeared off the radar screen. This suggests a catastrophic failure, either of the aircraft structure, or within the aircraft, such as a depressurisation that has rendered the pilots incapable of making an SOS call.
Doesn’t the aircraft broadcast its position automatically?Yes, all aircraft are fitted with a transponder, a radio transmitter that identifies the aircraft to air traffic control and broadcasts its position. When MH370 went missing, the transponder seems to have stopped transmitting – again a suggestion of a catastrophic failure. The transponder can be switched off by the crew, however.
Was the crew not talking to Air Traffic Control?No, as MH370 had left the Malaysian ATC control area and was flying over open seas toward Vietnam. At this point, there’s no need to communicate with the ground. It was due to check in with Vietnam ATC at a set time – several hours after it went missing. When it failed to make contact, the alarm was raised.
Could the aircraft have been deliberately crashed?Yes, either by hijackers as on 9/11, or by the crew – there are incidents where for a number of reasons, a pilot has deliberately crashed an airliner. We know there were at least two passengers on board travelling on stolen passports, so hijacking cannot be ruled out. Equally, this could be completely unrelated to the loss of the plane. After 9/11 it has been made much more difficult for hijackers to enter a cockpit – the door is firmly locked when the aircraft is airborne.
Why is it so difficult to find the aircraft?With no transponder signal, we only have a rough idea of where the aircraft may have ended up. The flight data recorder, or “Black Box” is no real help here – it’s built in to the structure of the plane, and is designed to survive a crash – it’ll not be recovered until the wreckage is located.
What about debris?If the aircraft has entered the sea at high speed in one piece, it would have disintegrated on impact, but this would mean any floating debris would be spread over a relatively small area. If the aircraft has disintegrated at high altitude through structural failure or as a result of a bomb explosion – and it was at 35,000ft when last noted by ATC – the debris field would be much larger, covering many miles.
Does that mean it’s more likely to have gone down intact?Possibly – the nearest equivalent incident was the Air France A330 crash of 2009, when a combination of icing on instrument sensors and pilot error caused the aircraft to stall at high altitude and crash into the Atlantic. It took two days of searching before any debris was found, and locating the Black Box took almost two years.
Could the same have happened to MH370?It’s unlikely. The AF crash happened in very poor conditions – the aircraft was flying through a storm. Weather conditions when MH370 went down were much better – mild, with clear skies. However both incidents took place at the same time of the night, when aircrew concentration levels might be compromised.
What about the 777? Is it safe?The Boeing 777 has an exemplary safety record. More than 1,200 Triple-7s have been built, and the combined global fleet has completed more than 6 million take-offs and landings. Until three people died in the China Southern crash on landing at San Francisco last year, there had been no fatalities in 18 years of 777 operations. That incident seems to be down to pilot error.
What about the BA Heathrow incident?In 2008, a British Airways 777-300ER landed heavily just short of the runway at Heathrow after icing in the fuel system meant it lost power to both engines. Boeing has since modified the fleet to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And if it had happened on MH370, the crew would have been able to glide for a long time, giving them plenty of time to send out an SOS, and try and make a safe emergency landing along the lines of Captain Sullenberger’s “Miracle of the Hudson” US Airways Airbus A230.
Why is it so hard to locate the debris?The metal components of the airframe would sink – leaving only small non-metallic components on the surface – interior panels, insulation material, seat cushions, luggage and so on. These tend to be relatively small and would be difficult to detect. They are too small for satellite images to distinguish from flecks of foam on the ocean waves, or small boats. Radar systems won’t pick them up as they would not be moving relative to the sea itself. And Infra-Red images won’t pick them up as they would be at the same temperature as the sea.
So how do you find the site?Simply by flying over the area in question at low level, looking out of the window to try and spot something. And that takes time – even with a number of planes. The Malaysian and Vietnamese authorities are searching two 100-mile diameter circles with 22 aircraft – and they’re not even sure the 777 is in those areas.
Could it have crashed on land?Yes, but it’s hard to imagine this might have happened without someone noticing. However, there are remote jungle areas in both Malaysia and Vietnam, and if the aircraft broke up high above a forested area, the debris would be hard to locate from the air.
Could it have been shot down?Improbable, though there have been incidents – notably the Korean Air Boeing 747 that was shot down when it inadvertently entered Soviet air space in 1978. But that was at the height of the Cold War. At 35,000ft, it would require a fighter jet to make the interception.