The mystery of MH370 & Malaysia’s hapless response

Graphics Generated by AHeneen

Flight MH370 was a Boeing 777-200ER on a scheduled flight operating between Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in China that disappeared on the 8th March 2014 with 239 people on board – 227 passengers and 12 crew.

In command was 53-year-old Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah from Penang – who’d been flying since 1981 when he joined Malaysia Airlines as a cadet. By 1983 he became a second officer He was promoted to captain of Boeing 737-400 airliners in 1991, captain of Airbus A330-300 in 1996, and captain of Boeing 777-200 in 1998. His total experience was 18 365 hours.

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The co-pilot was 27-year-old First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid who joined Malaysia Airlines as a cadet pilot in 2007, then became a second officer of Boeing 737-400 airliners two years later. After flying as First Officer on Boeing 737-400s and Airbus A330’s in 2012, he trained to be a first officer on board Boeing 777-200 aircraft.

He was far less experienced with 2 763 hours total flying time.

Because of Malaysia’s notorious cockpit resource management issues, the co-pilot would have deferred constantly to the Captain, unlike where I fly for example where you fail tests if you don’t question the Captain’s faulty decision-making.

And Flight 370 was Fariq Abdul Hamid’s finally training flight – the next he was supposed to take was an exam so that means he would have been even more sensitive to commands than usual.

It’s the captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah who has been scrutinised the most closely since the crash. There are salacious stories about his philandering and the fact that his wife was about to leave him taking their two children.

The pilots last made voice contact with air traffic control at 01:19 Malaysian Standard time when it was over the South China Sea, less than an hour after take-off. This was precisely at a reporting point. How convenient.

It disappeared from air traffic controllers’ radar screens three minutes later as it appeared both ACARS and the Transponder were switched off, but was being tracked by military radar as it suddenly dived in a south westerly direction.

It turned steeply to the left or north, then turned again to the South West in a manoeuvre which takes some skill or the plane either stalls at that height, or goes into a spiral dive.

At the time that the transponder and ACARS stopped functioning,  the military radar followed the plane until 01.35 – eight minutes after the turn, when it was flying at 35,700 ft on a 231° magnetic heading, with a ground speed of 496 knots.

The military radar track shows that the plane then flew back over northern Malaysia its altitude fluctuated between 31000 and 33000 feet.

The Boeing 777-200ER then turned steeply to the north west and flew over the Andaman sea between Malaysia and Indonesia where the last primary radar signal was picked up at 02 hundred hours 22 heading towards the Nicobar Islands,  200 kilometres north of Bandah Aceh province of Indonesia.

AT that stage it was flying at 29 500 feet and around 490 knots, apparently it appeared to be flown by hand as the altitude was changed by more than 4000 feet over a few minutes. Or the autopilot had been coded incorrectly and was jumping about which is highly unlikely.

Why did the pilots switch off the transponder and ACARS simultaneously or within seconds at the precise point that they were required to change frequency  and report to Vietnamese Air Traffic?

Cockpit of 9M-MRO by Chris Finney

This is such a coincidence that even though lacking correlation with other data, you have to ask – who was so well briefed that they knew to switch off the tracking information at the point of handover?  How could someone in the back of the plane know this unless they were carrying GPS devices – and then make their way into the flight deck, break the door down, overpower those inside, all after the captain who’s voice has been positively identified, had just announced the flight was at a reporting point?

Think about this logically – its almost impossible that seconds later, the transponder was switched off along with ACARS?

It had to have been one of the pilots who cut the communication I’m afraid.

Whomever did this could have bought themselves a few minutes before Vietnam ATC realised MH370 who had been handed over to them, was not attempting to make contact.

At 01:38 MYT, Ho Chi Minh Area Control Centre contacted Kuala Lumpur Area Control Centre to query the whereabouts of Flight 370 and informed them that they had not established verbal communication with Flight 370, which was last detected by radar at waypoint BITOD. That’s over the South China Sea between the two countries.

They continued phoning each other for another 20 minutes as the mystery deepened.

At first Malaysia thought the plane was over Cambodian air space, to the west of Vietnam.

The Boeing had actually turned the opposite direction and at times flew over the southern border of Thailand where it meets Malaysia’s northern territories.

We do have a tiny bit of data about what happened next. The planes’ Rolls Royce engines were pinging the INMARSAT satellite every hour with information. The problem is, this only provides a single point of data not four like GPS, so investigators could only see where it was on a line of latitude, but not whether it was north or south of anywhere.

The secondary ACARS is a measure of the transmission time to and from the airplane measuring the plane’s distance from the satellite. Because it’s a single bit of data, it can’t pinpoint a single location but rather all equidistant locations—a roughly circular set of possibilities.

Think trigonometry.

Given the range limits of MH370, the near-circles can be reduced to arcs across the world but only read hourly.

The most important arc was the seventh and last one or last hour —defined by a final handshake tied in complex ways to fuel exhaustion and the failure of the main engines.

The seventh arc stretches from Central Asia in the north to the Antarctica in the south.

It was crossed by MH370 at 8:19 a.m., Kuala Lumpur time. Calculations of likely flight paths place the airplane’s intersection with the seventh arc—and therefore its end point—in Kazakhstan if the airplane turned north, or in the southern Indian Ocean if it turned south.

It was agreed that Kazakhstan was unlikely because the Boeing would have flown through quite a bit of military radar space.

So it was decided, correctly as we now know, that MH370 followed the southern Arc.

But that’s a vast area.

Why did the transponder and ACARS disappear from air traffic control radar at the same time? Transponders send information about planes altitude, direction and speed constantly and are provided this data by the flight computer.

So how do you switch a transponder off in a Boeing 777-200ER? 

Simple, you flick a switch. ACARS is a completely different baby as I’ll explain.

Transponders are accessible for a number of reasons. On the ground, they tend to cause radio interference with so many planes on apron, taxying, taking off, landing.

When pilots are cleared onto the runway to take off, part of the drill is to turn on the Transponder and in propeller driven planes, to check the fuel boost pump is on and the strobe light is turned on.

We have a little mantra called LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION – which my instructor hated by the way. Lights are the strobe, camera is the transponder, and action is the fuel boost pump.

At the same time, ATC picks up the transponder number which is a four digit number – usually when flying in the circuit its 2000 but could be any four digit number and is provided by ATC or Radar information facilities.  It’s called squawking a number – imagine a duck sending out a squawk letting other ducks know who and what it is.

Except for the three recognized emergency transponder signals. Squawking 7700 tells radar that you have an emergency of some kind, 7600 means you’ve lost comms, and 7500 means the plane has been hijacked.

In MH370 the transponder was off, no-one squawked any of the emergency codes.

It turned into the most expensive  search operation in aviation historyand was suspended after yielding no evidence of the aircraft other than some marine debris on the coast of Africa and islands.  It cost $155 million with Malaysia coughing up 58% of the total cost, Australia 32%, and China 10%.

The report also concluded that the location where the aircraft went down had been narrowed to an area of 25,000 km2 by using satellite images and debris drift analysis.

But over the past six years, debris definitely linked to MH370 has washed up – and eventually at least 20 pieces were positively Id’d as coming from the plane registration 9M-MRO.

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