Time To Stop Obsessing About MH370’s Black Boxes

November 28, 2016 / 8 Comments
The region of Western Australia where the search for MH-370 was centered. Data from Inmarsat's satellite network led the company to conclude the plane flew south and assisted communications among those searching for the plane. Photo by the author

At Inmarsat, an engineer points to the region of Western Australia where the search for MH-370 was centered.

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.

Malaysia 370 news conference March 19

Malaysia 370 news conference March 19, 2014

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.

Tail assembly of Helios Flight 527 rests on a hillside. Photo of the Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board

Remains of Helios Flight 527 rest on a hillside. Photo courtesy Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board

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 theMalaysia 370 airplane 9M-MRO 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

Categories: Flying Lessons


8 responses to “Time To Stop Obsessing About MH370’s Black Boxes”

  1. Christine
    I am an aviation attorney who has worked on most of the cases you have written on. I represented some of the TWA 800 families and I appreciated your perspective in Deadly Departures. I am presently representing 31 individuals in the case filed in the European Court of Human Rights against the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin arising out of the missile attack on MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014.
    I spend a lot of time in Kuala Lumpur. The government has deliberately mishandled the MH370 investigation.
    As in the MH17 circumstance, a complete unbiased investigation would have to include the Malaysian Government investigating itself. The sentiment in KL is that the government is so corrupt that it is easier to hide behind the still missing CVR and DFDR than deal with the obvious elephant in the room. The communications that seem shut down could not have been silenced without help on the flight line. The time table makes a solo effort impossible.
    Here is the bottom line from my perspective. In MH 17 the government points at the Russians alone. In MH 370 the government points at the missing ” black boxes”. Both events create uncertainty which allows the government and the British insurers to hide behind a 1956 Malaysian Damages statute which renders a lost Malaysian life to be worth as little as RM 24,000. Roughly about $18K a person.
    Malaysia makes Malaysian life lost in aircrashes among the best deals for a marginal airline on the planet
    Christine, they cannot give up the narrative of critical lost data boxes or Russian missiles, it would cost them too much. Justice is to expensive.
    Jerry Skinner
    LHD Lawyers, Sydney Australia.
    and LHD Lawyers/ US, Cincinnati, OH.
    001 513 532 9200

  2. Vector-1 says:

    It was the flap not the flaperon that determined it was not a flaps down controlled landing.
    This did no exclude suicide, the pilot could be dead from hypoxia up to five and a half hours before and there is no indication it was or was not suicide. He could even have been alive at the end knowing all along how it was going to finish.
    No proof of the cause can ever be determined without the black boxes regardless of how much circumstantial evidence is gathered.

  3. The problem with any depressurization hypothesis is the multiple, radical course changes after the aircraft went silent (especially the final one, which in Christine’s scenario, happened well after the crew passed out). In every depressurization case the aircraft continued on its final heading until fuel exhaustion. Moreover, in this case, it does not account for the fact that the transponder ceased operation at the same time as the aircraft went silent. Barring further evidence, which seems increasingly unlikely, the only plausible hypothesis consistent with the known facts is some form of deliberate human intervention.

  4. Christine Negroni says:

    Alan, while I appreciate your comment, you have mischaracterized my scenario. The multiple course changes and the final, consistent flight on one heading are both discussed at length in The Crash Detectives. So before you insist I’m wrong, please read the book.

  5. Christine Negroni says:

    Jerry, I fear you may be correct about what motivates the Malaysian government in its handling of the MH370 investigation.

  6. S. Sharaf says:

    I agree

  7. Val says:

    You should be lauded for your effort but you are horribly wrong. For one, a power failure means that the aircraft is running on batteries that have less than 20 minutes to power those systems. That means flying by hand at night over the darkest place on the planet, the ocean where a pilot cannot distinguish the horizon. Spatial disorientation of the pilots would have been inevitable and MH370 would have crashed. The precise interception and following the air route in the Malacca straight illuminates that the electrical system was powered and the navigation system was being programmed on those specific navigational waypoints. In fact there is one button that cuts through all of that nonsense called “Direct” and it would have brought up the nearest airports to land which is the solution if you have total electrical failure, fire, or sudden decompression. Instead, MH370 overflew at low altitude, so there would not have been hypoxia as you claim. The one example you leave out? Germanwings Flight 9525 suicide by pilot. The fact MH370 was heading to the deepest point in the Indian Ocean the Diamantina Deep should also be factored into the analysis, as not sheer coincidence but a focused effort to crash into a place nobody would have ever thought to look and if they did, it would be like searching the Swiss Alps, at night without a map.

  8. Steve from Perth Australia says:

    There was an allegation of tampering with the audio between MH370 and Malay ATC. A “forensic” audio expert claims discrepancies in volume and intermittent lack of background noise which he attributed to deletion of certain dialogue and substitution of manufactured post-event audio -“cut and paste”. Are there any updates on this aspect, or is it deemed a red herring?

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