|The Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER that went missing.|
Quite a few people have asked me since yesterday what I think happened. When you read the following, please keep in mind that I am not a pilot and everything I share here is based on information that is publicly available. So these are just my thoughts.
The first thing that came to my mind was, "Oh god, it's Air France flight 447 all over again!" (AF 447 crashed over the Atlantic in June 2009.) So let's start with that thought. Yes, there are a few similarities with AF 447, but there are important differences as well. What are the similarities? In both cases, a modern two-engine airplane disappeared in-flight, out of the blue, with no distress signals. Both flights were piloted by fairly experienced flight crews. Both planes crashed over the ocean.
However, there are striking differences. The Malaysia Airlines jet was a Boeing 777, which does have fly-by-wire avionics, but - on a 777, in contrast to the Airbus A330, which was used for AF 447 - the pilots can override the system on the 777. So in the case of MH 370, the possibility of a flight computer going bananas and crashing the plane is close to impossible (for AF 447, that was the speculation in the beginning). Another major difference is that MH 370 did not traverse an area of violent weather like the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ). The weather over the South China Sea was very calm, with no thunderstorms, not even a lot of clouds. So MH 370 did not - like AF 447 - have to maneuver around thunderstorm cells and cumulonimbus clouds. The pilots of MH 370 did not report any severe turbulence. Also, MH 370 did not send any error messages - as AF 447 did - to Boeing or Malaysia Airlines before the crash, so the on-board systems seemed to be working just fine.
So what do we know about MH 370? We know that the flight had reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, which is the safest phase of every flight. It was about 40 minutes into its flight and, until then, no anomalies had been reported. The contact to MH 370 was lost just when it was supposed to make contact with Ho Chi Minh Control Center in Vietnam. According to Chinese sources mentioned in The Aviation Herald, "radar data suggest a steep and sudden descent of the aircraft, during which the track of the aircraft changed from 024 degrees to 333 degrees." This is a pretty significant change in flight direction. Some Tweets last night speculated that MH 370 wanted to turn around or toward land, but I doubt that is true. The same speculations were made for AF 447 back in 2009. I think the turn was already part of the steep descend during the crash and was not controlled.
Now comes the mysterious part, and you can make of this whatever you want - two of the passengers on board MH 370 were traveling with stolen passports. I think we need to be careful what this means. It could just be two people traveling with fake passports, a coincidence. Or it could mean there was something wrong with these two people and there's a relationship to the crash.
Let me be pretty blunt here - a 777 does not just fall out of the sky. Especially not when the flight has reached its cruising altitude. Also, the kerosene traces found on the ocean point to the fact that MH 370 did not explode. It looks like the fuel tanks were intact when the plane hit the ocean (obviously, this is only correct if the oil traces were in fact caused by MH 370). Given all this - no explosion, no error messages, no bad weather - the options of what could have happened are fairly limited. A few people have speculated about a terrorist attack. I think that is highly unlikely as well. Terrorism only works by creating fear and claiming responsibility. So far, no terrorist organization or individuals have claimed responsibility for the crash. So terrorism is really not a realistic scenario here.
But what are realistic scenarios? To me, there are only two possibilities at this point:
1) The two people with the stolen passports were involved. Somehow, they took control of the cockpit and crashed the plane. Maybe they wanted to divert the plane, but the pilots didn't cooperate. They could have removed the pilots from the cockpit (or killed them) and tried to fly the aircraft themselves. As sophisticated as the 777 is, it's close to impossible to fly without experience. A similar scenario would be that one of the pilots wanted to commit suicide. You think this is unrealistic? Then check out this Wikipedia entry.
2) The only other option is that some technical or mechanical failure happened and the pilots were too busy figuring out what was going on to radio mayday or send a distress signal. That was the case with AF 447. If the Chinese reports are true and MH 370 did descend quickly and steeply, that could point to a deep stall, just as what happened with AF 447. All reasons for why this ultra-modern 777 went into a stall, are, however, pure speculation at this point. There are a thousand things, at least, that can go wrong. However, it is very, very unlikely that one single error or failure caused this crash. It could very well have been a technical/mechanical issue, combined with a serious of misjudgments by the pilots.
I guess the final answer can only be given when the flight and data recorders of MH 370 are found. The only good news is that the water where the plane crashed is not nearly as deep and mountainous as in the Atlantic, where AF 447 went down. And, following all the updates today, it looks like authorities have a pretty good understanding of where to look for the wreck.
To me, this is indeed a very mysterious and disturbing crash. Especially since I'm a big fan of the Boeing 777 and its reliability. We'll soon know who or what was to blame.