Australia’s news program 60 Minutes told viewers on Sunday that the only possible explanation for the disappearance of Malaysia 370 is “that a skilled pilot deliberately landed the 777 on the water.”
Headline-making to be sure, but it’s unlikely to have gone down the way the program suggests.
The twenty minute report by correspondent Ross Coulthart, rejuvenates the pilot suicide theory with the help of Larry Vance, who was a senior investigator for the Canadian Transport Safety Board during the crash of Swissair 111 in 1998.
The key to the MH370 mystery, according to Vance is in the flaperon, a flight control surface located at the back of the wing. Found on a beach in Reunion Island in 2015, it was the first piece of wreckage to wash up.
In the pictures, the flaperon has a mangled edge which Vance finds significant. Only if the flaperon had been extended by the pilot by the time the plane hit the water would the edge be in that condition.
“The force of the water is the only thing that could make the jagged edge that we see,” Vance told the reporter.
“When the flaperon was found then everyone in my opinion should have concluded it was a human-engineered event,” Vance said, meaning that the pilot used it in an attempt to purposely land on the surface of the South Indian Ocean. “There’s no other explanation.”
Where this theory goes terribly wrong is in the inmarsat data.
All we know about where this plane flew after it veered from its path northeast to Beijing on the night of March 8, 2014, comes from the signals between the aircraft and the satellite. Analysis of those signals led searchers southwest, to the expansive ocean that has so far yielded very little.
But the inmarsat data also shows that more than seven hours after departing Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the airplane sent a very different kind of signal. This one, a handshake message, that indicated the airplane was powering back up from an interruption of some kind.
The interruption was probably caused by the two-engine, wide-body airliner finally running out of fuel and the power-up was the result of the deployment of a ram air turbine.
The turbine, called a RAT is like a big box fan without the box. The blade drops from beneath the airplane into the wind and the turning provides basic power to supply the most critical flight controls.
“The RAT powers tail and wing flight controls but not the flaps,” said Mike Bowers, a retired Boeing 777 captain. “There’s a one-way check valve to prevent RAT hydraulic fluid from getting to the flaps. So the RAT cannot power the flaps.”
Simply put, once the plane ran out of fuel, the pilots were unable to move the flaps or the flaperon if the RAT was the only power source. How the flaperon got its ragged edge, who knows, but we can be pretty sure, it wasn’t because the pilots were using it to perfect their water landing techniques.
In wholeheartedly embracing the guided-landing theory, Coulthart, the 60 Minutes reporter, overlooked a truly curious piece of news from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau that makes the ditching scenario even less likely.
“We’ve got a bit of hard data that says the aircraft was in a rapid rate of descent,” Peter Foley, a sea and marine engineer responsible for overseeing the ATSB’s search said.
Forgetting the issue of the RAT not powering the flap controls, this would put another damper on the pilot-controlled ditching theory because the flaperon can’t be deployed above 20 thousand feet or at speeds higher than 265 knots.
Foley told 60 Minutes, “We’ve got a rate of descent that’s between 12 to 20 thousand feet a minute.”
For those of you who need a little assistance with descent rate numbers, it’s like “going straight down,” another retired 777 pilot explained.
“Bottom line I don’t think you can recover from a 12 to 20 thousand foot rate of decent,” Bowers, a former military fighter pilot told me, if the suicide theory required the pilots to pull out of that kind of a dive, and then make a controlled ditching on the sea, it’s probably not possible he said. “I don’t think you can get an airplane stabilized without exceeding the structural integrity of the airplane.”
How the Australians have new data on the speed of the descent, is a mystery to me. There’s no radar, nor do I believe is this information available from the satellite.
It is possible that the rate of descent was extrapolated by an entity involved in the investigation. Boeing perhaps? Or maybe the French BEA, which has posession of the part. The engineers would only need to work backwards. How fast would the airplane have to be plummeting to cause the kind of damage seen on the flaperon? That’s my guess. Anyway, I’ve asked the ATSB for clarification.
But assuming the ATSB’s Foley wasn’t feeding nonsense to Australia’s “leading current affairs program”, the Boeing 777 pilots I talk to say an entirely different scenario can explain the speed and maybe even the damage on the flaperon.
After flying at cruise altitude seven and a half hours through the night, Malaysia 370 ran out of fuel. When the engines lost power, the RAT deployed. The plane may have wallowed a bit, one pilot told me, but but let’s get real, it could not fly forever. And this could explain the high speed descent.
With no discredit to the retired Canadian investigator Larry Vance, who I do not know but whom the reporter calls “one of the world’s best,” his guided-pilot theory is complex, unrealistic, in some aspects impossible.
What’s staring everyone in the face is a much more straightforward scenario involving no convoluted plots, or inexplicable mind games coming out of left field from a formerly well-regarded captain.
I don’t know for sure what happened to MH370, though you can read my theory in my soon-to-be-published book, The Crash Detectives. But it is equally perplexing how some scenarios ignore inconsistencies and disregard basic aviation principals to take viewers on a flight to the absurd.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.