After 31 months of uncertainty and more than $120 million dollars spent in the search for the wreckage of Malaysia 370, it is long past time for investigators to broaden the focus of their search. Since March 8, 2014 when the plane made an inexplicable change of course and flew into the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board, air safety investigators have pinned their hopes on finding the cockpit voice and flight data recorders. The Malaysians have gone so far as to say that without the boxes, they will never know what happened to the jetliner. This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What’s notable, however, is that the most promising information has come not from the sea but from good old fashioned detective work.
It was the enterprising engineers at the satellite data company Inmarsat who examined signals transmitted from the airplane and realized it had not crashed immediately after disappearing from radar. Most recently, those satellite signals helped them determine that at the end of the flight, the airplane was in such a high-speed descent it could have broken apart in the air, raining down into the sea in pieces.
Another significant clue came from a piece of the airplane’s right wing called a flaperon that washed up on a beach. Damage to this part appears to rule out the popular theory the Malaysian pilots tried to make a controlled landing in the sea in an act of murder/suicide or terrorism.
These shards of significant information show that fixating on the black boxes can distract investigators from obvious clues.
Here’s an example. In July 15, 2015, I contacted Martin Dolan, the then chairman of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau asking why, in light of all the money being spent in the sea, the ATSB had not also tried an aerial search of the shoreline where debris might be expected to wash up. Mr. Dolan replied that local authorities were responsible for that.
Relying on the attentiveness and current affairs awareness of residents in some of the world’s most remote communities, seemed a lethargic approach but more puzzling was Mr. Dolan’s statement that debris would offer little of value.
Two weeks after our email correspondence, though, the flaperon which revealed so much was found by a beachcomber. Who knows how long it had been there waiting discovery.
The official probe favors Rube Goldberg-like solutions over basic Sherlock Holmes. From my home office, I spent two years working a theory about what might have happened to MH-370 which I write about in my book, The Crash Detectives.
Using known and inferred details and previous similar events, I conclude that the Boeing 777 lost pressurization while at cruise altitude and that the crew emergency masks did not provide the pilots with sufficient oxygen under pressure affecting their ability to think properly. They steered the plane back towards Malaysia until they passed out. Then the airplane flew on auto pilot until running out of fuel.
This theory is based on the repair records of the airplane and known maintenance issues with the crew oxygen system and prior events.
On a 737 flight from Cyprus to Athens in 2005, the pilots did not respond correctly to an unpressurized cabin. With the pilots unconscious, the plane flew until it ran out of fuel. On a flight from Chicago to Florida in 1999, two of three pilots and a flight attendant fell unconscious after mishandling a pressurization problem. The sole pilot wearing an oxygen mask made an emergency landing, saving the flight from catastrophe.
Pressurization problems on smaller airplanes killed American golfer Payne Stewart in in 1999, the pilots of a German charter jet in 1983 and private pilot Laurence Glazer and his wife on a flight from Rochester to Florida in 2015.
Whether the scenario I describe is exactly what happened isn’t the point. Air safety investigations are preventative. They have value even when they can go no farther than identifying possibilities. This was the case in the fifties when three of the world’s first jetliner, the de Havilland Comet came apart in flight. Before discovering the cause – flaws in the plane’s structural design – more than eighty fixes were applied to the airplane because they might have contributed.
Nothing similar has happened in MH370, because the Malaysians have essentially thrown up their hands and the Australians are wedded to the high-priced sea search over all else, including examining clues in their own files.
Around the time that things started to go wrong on MH-370, there was a loss of satellite communication that lasted for an hour or more. The most likely cause is a total loss of power on the airplane, but why?
In my research, I came across a Qantas Boeing 747 that lost power on a flight to Bangkok in 2008, a scary episode that ended well. The problem was attributed to water leaking from the galley into the plane’s electronics bay directly below. It had happened on at least five other airplanes.
The galley on Malaysia 370 is also located above the electronics bay so its curious that the Australians did not compare the Qantas flight to the puzzling loss of power on MH370.
People often ask me if Malaysia 370 will ever be found and I remind them, twenty pieces of the plane have already washed ashore. The question isn’t whether the plane will be found but rather when investigators will stop being so distracted by the black boxes they cannot find and start examining the clues they have.
This opinion piece first appeared along with an excerpt of The Crash Detectives in Hearst Newspapers on November 27, 2016
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