On Wednesday it will be three years since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the deaths of 239 passengers and crew, but the aircraft is yet to be found.
The three-year mark is a good point to review whether the search strategy drawn up by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau was soundly based but unlucky, or whether it was established on the wrong premise and doomed from the start to fail.
The ATSB, which took on responsibility for the search at the request of Malaysia, has taken the stance, at least in public, that both pilots were “unresponsive” at the end of the flight, possibly because they passed out from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) due to decompression of the aircraft.
In the ATSB scenario, the Boeing 777 became a “ghost flight” that ended in an unpiloted “death dive” of a rapid crash into the southern Indian Ocean after the fuel ran out.
The search strategy team based its definition of the 120,000sq km target zone on this premise.
However, there is compelling circumstantial evidence that this is improbable, and that in fact the captain flew the aircraft to the very end and outside the ATSB’s defined search area.
The following explanation provides a coherent argument that the MH370 pilot in command, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, may have carefully planned and executed the destruction of the aircraft, resulting in the deaths of all on board.
It is on record that some days before the flight Captain Zaharie plotted on his computer a route similar to the one that MH370 flew on its final flight on March 8, 2014, when it deviated from its scheduled route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
What is remarkable is that his planned end point was in the southern part of the Indian Ocean in the area that approximates to the target zone in which the unsuccessful search was completed in January.
Another clue is that Zaharie took on extra fuel.
When pilots report for duty they review, among other things, the weather and the computer flight plan. The latter contains a very accurate prediction of the fuel required for the flight, and as the expense of carrying extra fuel is a significant factor in operating costs, a captain will adhere to the calculated figure unless there are mitigating factors such as marginal weather at the destination.
However, on this flight the weather was not an issue and Zaharie elected to upload a significant amount of additional fuel. Why? Was it to take the aircraft even further into very remote and deep waters?
The log of air traffic control radio contacts shows the captain was at the start flying the aircraft, with the co-pilot doing the non- flying duties such as carrying out radio communications. The co-pilot made a call — “Maintaining flight level 350” — early into the flight, as would be expected.
However, it was Captain Zaharie who made the last transmission — “Good night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero” — about 20 minutes later.
The non-flying pilot would normally make this call. Does this indicate that the co-pilot was no longer on the flight deck?
If Zaharie chose to hijack his own aircraft, then he would wish to isolate the co-pilot. It would be easy, under some pretext, to ask the co-pilot to obtain something from the cabin and then lock the flight deck door after he had exited.
The pilot could then depressurise the aeroplane without any interference. The emergency oxygen supply to the passengers would be activated, providing them with 22 minutes of oxygen. However, unless the aircraft commenced an immediate descent, they would become hypoxic and lose consciousness.
The aircraft was cruising at 35,000 feet and shortly after the loss of secondary radar contact it climbed to 35,700 feet. At these heights the “partial pressure” in the lungs is too low to transfer sufficient oxygen into the blood stream to sustain consciousness.
The pilots, on the other hand, have a different oxygen system that allows a modicum of “pressure breathing”, which increases the partial pressure in the lungs. This would probably be enough to allow a degree of consciousness for a short period and an ability to survive, in contrast to the passengers’ fate.
Once assured that the remaining crew and passengers had died, he would repressurise the aircraft.
The evidence suggests Zaharie depressurised the aircraft at the start of the hijack, soon after entering Vietnamese airspace.
It is significant that no mobile telephone calls were made from the aircraft throughout the whole flight, which would indicate there was no sign of life among the passengers and cabin crew.
If an aircraft is to be hijacked an ideal time would be at a radio frequency change associated with a flight information region boundary. The FIR boundaries define the borders where responsibility for air traffic control shifts from one country to another.
About 40 minutes into the flight, the radar transponder on MH370 was switched off, and the ACARS automatic digital reporting system, which transmits flight data between the aircraft and ground stations, was disabled.
This creates an element of uncertainty and confusion for air traffic controllers. It is noteworthy, therefore, that this scenario fits neatly with the events around MH370’s transit from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace and the subsequent confusion, and misinformation, which resulted in a chaotic aftermath that hampered the initial search for the aircraft.
After a very short appearance in Vietnamese airspace the aircraft did a turnback and took up a direct track to Penang.
After flying over Penang MH370 joined one of the thousands of official airways defined in international aviation, in this case one known as N571.
It then tracked to what pilots and air traffic controllers know as official waypoints on such airways, in this case VAMPI and MEKAR in the Malacca Strait.
To make the necessary changes, the flight management computer, or autopilot, would have to be reprogrammed and the required intervention could only be achieved by a person who had the necessary knowledge. These actions could only be executed by an active pilot on the flight deck.
Even at this point it is difficult to understand the ATSB’s official version of a “non-responsive” flight crew. The disabling of the transponder and ACARS requires cockpit familiarity and is clearly deliberate.
The proposition that the aircraft may have had a major emergency does not stand up. There was no distress call, and the aircraft overflew suitable airfields where it could have made an emergency landing, and flew its reprogrammed route to the Indian Ocean.
Another noteworthy event was MH370’s Penang “fly by”. This routing via Penang was intentional and provides circumstantial evidence that a crew member was “responsive” at this point well after the aircraft initially went off course, which is once again contrary to the “unresponsive pilot” scenario on which the ATSB based its search. Penang also happens to be where Zaharie was born and grew up.
After flying past Penang, MH370 flew direct to VAMPI, a waypoint on N571, and proceeded to climb to a higher altitude. It was last seen by Malaysian military radar 10 nautical miles after MEKAR, which is the next waypoint after VAMPI.
At some point not long after MEKAR the aircraft took a southerly track into the Indian Ocean. Once again it is difficult to ignore the probability that a responsive pilot was controlling the aircraft.
In the long flight south an assessment of MH370’s track has been gained from interpreting automatic hourly communication signals sent between the aircraft and ground stations via satellite. This information, combined with fuel calculations and a few assumptions, provides a reasonable guide to the aircraft’s location.
The technology used for these calculations is novel and would not be known, at this point, to the pilot fraternity.
Three years on, there is still one very basic question that arises about MH370’s fate: Why did it end up in the southern Indian Ocean instead of arriving safely at Beijing?
If the intention was to make the aircraft disappear, what better place than an area that is remote, which would make detection and recovery very difficult? Furthermore, there are pockets of very deep water of up to 8000m in that part of the ocean.
The official “unresponsive pilot” scenario being postulated by the ATSB is an assumption, and the flight profile and the manner in which MH370 was flown cast doubt on this theory. The circumstantial evidence points to a pilot hijack and the most likely suspect is the captain.
Media reports suggest senior ATSB officials such as its chief commissioner Greg Hood, and the head of the search, Peter Foley, have privately told select journalists they believe Zaharie did hijack his own plane, but allowed himself to die from hypoxia somewhere on the long last leg of the flight — which would still be consistent with their “ghost flight” and “death dive” theory. But this narrative, disseminated through so-called “background briefings”, does not fit internal logic.
As outlined, the known facts indicate a high probability that this was a well-thought-out and executed plan to destroy the aircraft and make sure it would be difficult to find. If that is the case it would be reasonable to assume that Zaharie would have stayed with the aircraft to the very end, to ensure that something unexpected didn’t thwart his plan.
The assumptions used by the ATSB to justify its account of what happened to MH370 are just assumptions. There is no factual evidence to support its interpretation of events. Therefore, credence should be given to other views, but this is not happening. If it is accepted that this is a well-thought-out pilot hijack, then it could be assumed that the plan would include the desire to minimise debris and also ensure any detection and recovery would be a challenge for investigators. Therefore, it would be a reasonable assumption that the pilot would deliberately run the aircraft out of fuel in order to minimise fuel slick.
It would also be a reasonable assumption that he made some kind of controlled descent and ditched the aircraft. The rationale would be to minimise debris — and the fact that the search aircraft failed to spot anything and little has been washed up could support this theory.
Moreover, by being in control to the end Zaharie could be sure of placing the aircraft in one of the deep water spots that are common in that area.
If Zaharie was indeed responsible for the destruction of the aircraft, it is not only an aircraft “accident”: it is also a crime scene. It cannot be ignored, or forgotten, that there were 239 people on board MH370. It is highly probable that 238 passengers and crew lost their lives needlessly.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has said we must “not only learn the lessons of MH370 but implement them”.
Several weeks ago, the Malaysian government, which under international law is in charge of the investigation into what happened to MH370, called a halt to the search. So where is the resolve to find the truth?
To those who query the $200 million cost of the search, there are very good reasons to spend the time and money in solving the cause of this “accident”.
Lessons are learned from all aircraft accidents and these findings are passed on to the industry to enhance safety.
Furthermore, relatives and friends have a right to know what happened to their loved ones — and if any party is found to have been at fault, they have a right to seek compensation.
Finally, it places closure on conspiracy theories that always abound after an unsolved accident. These theories are often distressing for families and friends.
Malaysia is not a poor country and should be making “best endeavours” to find the aircraft so the cause of the loss of MH370 is found, otherwise there will remain the perception of a cover-up.
WRITER: Captain Mike Keane has spent 45 years in aviation. He spent six years as a navigator in the RNZAF and 14 years as a fighter pilot in the RAF. He then spent 25 years as an airline pilot of which half was in management, including as chief pilot of Britain’s largest airline, EasyJet. Over the course of his career, Keane has accumulated 25,000 flying hours.