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New information reveals MH 370 was more than 300 miles off course

Speculation about Malaysia 370, the Malaysian Airlines flight that has been missing since March 8, has reached a fever pitch. The disappearance of the jumbo jet has fueled the imagination of the world as people try to understand how a 775,000 pound airliner with 239 people could seemingly vanish into thin air. New information released on March 11 now indicates that the searchers may have been looking 350 miles from the actual crash site. As reported by Reuters, an anonymous Malaysian military official now says that military radars tracked the plane long after civilian air traffic control lost contact. When the plane’s transponder disappeared from civilian air traffic radar, the plane apparently turned west and descended several thousand feet below its cruise altitude.

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200
Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images

When contact was lost about an hour into the flight, MH 370 was flying at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and nearing the southern coast of Vietnam. According to the Reuters report, the plane then turned west and lost 1,000 meters (3,280 feet in altitude). The flight then traveled west for about an hour, crossing the Malay Peninsula. Head of the Malay air force, Gen. Rodzali Daud, told the Malay newspaper Berita Harian, that the plane was last detected at 2:40 a.m., approximately two hours after takeoff, near the island of Pulau Perak, located at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca.

The new information may explain why four days of searching have not yielded any trace of the missing plane, but it prompts new questions as well. It appears that the airplane did not suffer an abrupt structural failure or catastrophic bomb attack that caused an immediate crash, but no one can be certain what caused the airplane to fly under control for hundreds of miles before it presumably plunged into the sea. A timeline of the flight in International Business Times reported that weather along the route was good so loss of control due to storms or lightning strikes can be ruled out.

There are several possible scenarios. One possibility is a rapid decompression combined with an electrical failure. If the airplane’s pressurization failed at 35,000 feet the time of useful consciousness for the pilots would have been about 30 seconds (possibly less since at least one of the pilots was a known smoker, which inhibits the ability of the blood to carry oxygen). Normally, this is plenty of time for a pilot to don his oxygen mask and initiate an emergency descent to the thicker air at lower altitudes.

This theory also does not explain the fact that the plane’s transponder stopped responding to radar queries. One possibility is that that some sort of catastrophic failure caused the pressurization problem as well as a total electrical failure. If trimmed properly, the plane could have flown for hundreds of miles until its fuel was exhausted or something disturbed its equilibrium. It is possible that a bomb that did not immediately destroy the airplane may have caused it to depressurize and lose electrical power.

There are additional problems with this scenario. The airplane had fuel to fly well beyond the two hours when it was last in radar contact. The plane was fueled for a flight to Beijing that would have landed at 6:30 a.m. (Beijing is in the same time zone as Kuala Lumpur). It is possible that the plane flew even further into the Indian Ocean before running out of fuel and crashing.

Further, airliners have more than one source of electricity. Multiple generators and batteries make an instantaneous electrical failure unlikely. Using battery power, the crew should have been able to at least report their situation to ATC. An electrical failure without some sort of crew incapacitation would require a series of serious pilot errors to wander 300 miles off course without any radio contact.

Another possibility is a hijacking, although this is unlikely due to the scrutiny given to the plane’s passengers since its disappearance. Two passengers from Iran were revealed to be traveling on stolen passports, but authorities report having found no links to terrorist groups with these men or the other passengers. Yahoo News Australia reported that several Chinese journalists had received an untraceable email from an encrypted service that claimed responsibility for the attack and referenced last week’s knife attack by Uyghur separatists in China that killed 29.

The Malaysia Airlines website notes that the 777-200 is equipped with satellite phones. In the event of a hijacking or other nonelectrical emergency, it is likely that passengers would have attempted to use these phones to contact authorities or their loved ones as many passengers did during the September 11 attacks. A hijacker in the cockpit might have been able to disable the phones by pulling the cabin circuit breaker, however. They would also likely have been unavailable in a catastrophic electrical failure.

There are problems with the hijacking scenario as well. The biggest is that the plane likely crashed into the sea. Terrorists would have probably chosen a high value target for maximum destruction or landed and presented demands to authorities. It would probably have taken more than the two identified Iranians to control the 239 passengers and crew on MH 370. Yahoo Australian News did report on March 10 that Malaysia’s transport ministry was looking at four suspect passengers.

Perhaps the most likely theory is that one of the pilots committed suicide, taking the rest of the passengers and crew with him. In this scenario, one of the pilots would have left the cockpit, perhaps for a trip to the lav, and the other pilot would have locked him out of the cockpit and disabled the satellite phones in the cabin. At that point, the flying pilot would have turned off the transponder and flown the airplane until either its fuel ran out or until he decided to deliberately crash.

There have been a number of pilots who committed suicide by crashing their airliners. Suicide is suspected in the November 2013 crash of a Mozambique Airlines Embraer 190 according to the International Business Times. The most famous case of pilot suicide was the 1999 crash of Egypt Air 990 enroute from New York to Cairo. Two more crashes in the 1990s, one in Indonesia and the other in Morocco, were also attributed to suicide. A Japan Air Lines DC-8 crashed in 1982 during the captain’s unsuccessful suicide attempt.

It may be days before the wreckage of Malaysia 370 is located. In 2009, it took five days to locate the remains of Air France 447. Even without full radar coverage, the South China Morning Post reported that Rolls Royce, the manufacturer of the plane’s engines, tracks all its engines from its control center in England. It is believed that Boeing has a similar capability for tracking its airplanes.

With Air France 447, it took years to retrieve the flight data recorder and determine the cause of the accident, the answer was finally found. In the case of MH 370, due to the long elapsed time between the loss of contact and the ultimate crash, many of the answers may never be found. Engine parameters will be recorded by the flight data recorder, but cockpit voice recorders are only required to record 30 minutes. They typically delete earlier recordings as they record in a loop. This may mean that the crew’s reaction to whatever happened near the coast of Vietnam is forever lost.