Whatever the ultimate outcome of the investigation into the bizarre disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 with its 239 passengers and crew, the autopsy into the mystery will go down as a landmark period in the history of aviation safety.
No one thought a big Boeing B777 jet could vanish into thin air in this day of highly computerised flight decks, advanced satellite communications and 21st century tracking systems. The fact that it did has raised an endless array of questions that will have to be answered.
While the aircraft has not yet been located and with the probability it is now lying deep on the floor of the Indian Ocean, there has been no let-up in the flow of speculation and theories on what occurred as the flight made its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Pilot suicide, Hijacking, a mid-air catastrophic break-up of the plane at 35,000 ft. All of those have happened before.
A political fanatic
What now seems certain, however, is that MH 370 did turn away from its course, fly back over peninsular Malaysia and head west or northwest, flying for up to seven hours before contact was finally lost. What also appears to be confirmed is that none of this happened by accident. Human hands, and ones familiar with the operation of the aircraft, were involved. Whether this was the pilot or pilots, or the crew operating under duress, remains to be seen.
But there is mounting evidence that the flight Captain, a man with years of experience, was a political fanatic, a supporter of Malaysian Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. He had become increasingly angry about the Malaysian government’s treatment of Ibrahim, including his jailing on what many believed were “trumped up” charges.
The reasons for his anger are unimportant. That he might take 238 souls with him if suicide was indeed the aim is difficult to comprehend. The question is: Why was this not discovered until nearly a week after the disappearance? Why had no-one rung alarm bells earlier and what regular psychological screening does Malaysia Airlines conduct on flight crew who hold in their hands the lives of thousands of people annually?
Why had no-one rung alarm bells earlier and what regular psychological screening does Malaysia Airlines conduct on flight crew who hold in their hands the lives of thousands of people annually?
If indeed the pilot was involved, and this still remains a matter of speculation, another issue is raised. The aircraft transponder, which identifies it to air traffic control and provides such information as altitude and location, was turned off.
So were the flights two normal communications systems, apparently 14 minutes apart. All of this essentially made the plane invisible, except to primary radar which would see it merely as a “blip” on the screen without any identification.
The insistence of pilots in having final manual command of aircraft systems is well known. They don’t want to be told “don’t touch”. But should they have the ability to turn off a vital location and information device such as a transponder? Should they have the ability to turn off communication systems?
Unidentified aircraft approaching
This aspect of the flight raises other questions. Even without its transponder the plane was clearly seen, though not identified, by Malaysian military radar. Yet nothing was done about it. No aircraft was scrambled to see what this mystery object was. In its long hours of flight to the west of Malaysia, was it seen by other military radar, such as India’s, or if it flew north-west, by Thailand or even China. It is difficult to believe any of these countries, seeing an unidentified aircraft approaching or entering their airspace, would not have done something to find out what it was.
Another issue which will have to be reviewed by the industry is how data from the aircraft was transmitted to the ground during its flight. Details of engine performance are transmitted at regular intervals from modern aircraft to the engine manufacturer so they can keep track of what is happening and thus inform the airline if they had any issues to deal with.
With today’s satellite networks, data on all aspects of the aircrafts systems could similarly be transmitted. With thousands of aircraft flying daily, this obviously involves a huge amount of data but the industry and regulators will have to look into how it can be done in a manageable way so that aircraft can’t simply vanish into thin air.
In the same way the current “black box” and cockpit voice recorder systems are outdated. Why should investigators spend millions of dollars recovering these items, particularly if they ended up under hundreds of metres of seawater. In today’s world it is feasible for the information they collect to be transmitted in real time to ground stations.
If chatter in the cockpit was being beamed to earth and collected in real time, we might now have a better idea of what happened on the flight deck of MH 370.
When the mud clears and the Malaysia Airlines aircraft is finally found – and most experts believe that is a matter of when, not if – from what will certainly go down as one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history, there will undoubtedly be a number of official inquiries, both within Malaysia and the airline industry, looking into not only the how but the why of what happened.
The blame game has yet to begin but hopefully the outcome will lead to an incredibly safe mode of transport becoming even safer. In the meantime, the long search of the remains of MH370, if that is indeed what the hunters are looking for, goes on.
With the aircraft’s last position being some 2,200 nautical miles from its last known position and much of the search area being little more than guesswork, finding the plane remains the number one priority. The inquisition will begin later.
Tom Ballantyne is Chief Correspondent of the Hong Kong-published Orient Aviation magazine. He has 40 years experience in international journalism. He is a regular commentator on aviation issues on television and radio in Australia, Asia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom. He is also a speaker at numerous aviation conferences and seminars and the author of several travel books.