When Malaysian Airline’s Boeing 777 flight MH370, en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China, disappeared between the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea at 1.30 a.m. local time March 8, aviation authorities were caught dumbfounded. With no distress signals from the aircraft, the flight carrying 239 passengers and crew disappeared off the radar. Aviation authorities assume that the pilots would have transmitted a mayday signal if they had time to react to the flight’s unexpected crash. “At the early state, we’re focusing on the facts that we don’t know,” said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing engineer now Director of Airsafe.com Foundation. Speculation about as many as at least two stolen passports used by passengers raise suspicions about possible foul play. New radar reports about the plane making a U-turn also suggest that pilots knew something was wrong but still failed to transmit a distress call.
Detecting an oil slick, potentially resembling a jet fuel spill roughly the size of the 777’s two fuel tanks, Vietnam authorities may have located the debris-field in the vicinity of where Flight MH370 went down. While aviation authorities can’t pinpoint the cause, they’re convinced the plane went down, killing all 239 passengers. Confirmation about a U-turn would potentially rule out catastrophic failure, since pilots would have been in control enough to execute a change in direction. Without a mayday call, it “suggests something very sudden and very violent happened,” said William Waldock, an accident investigation instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Prescott, Ariz. With weather conditions clear, it unlikely inclement weather had anything to do with the plane’s crash. Blaming the crash on sudden structural failure of a 12-year-old Boeing 777 also doesn’t seem plausible.
Airline crash investigators rely heavily on the black boxes, AKA flight data recorders, to account to what brought the aircraft down. When aviation officials finally located the black boxes May 7, 2011 for Air France Flight 447 that plummeted June 1, 2009 in the South Atlantic heading from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, it was nearly two years before the investigation got its answer of icing on the aircraft’s pilot tubes controlling the autopilot No one knows yet the span of the debris field with the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. While Air France Flight 447 has a small debris field, know one knows yet the one for the Malaysian flight. “We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don’t know a whole lot,” said Cox, yet well aware of the realistic probabilities. If the debris field looks wide and scattered, it could indicate catastrophic structural failure or possibly an explosion.
Uncovering the flight’s data recorders could take some time, prompting wild speculation between now and then. “It’s one of the most reliable airplanes ever built,” said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, doubting that the plane spontaneously disintegrated. As various search boats comb the area around the crash site, Malaysian authorities focus on a possible security breach with the two passengers with stolen passports. “I can confirm that we have visuals of the two people on CCTV,” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a press conference. “Our focus in now on the aircraft,” said Hishammudin, saying that intelligence agencies are looking into the flight’s manifest to determine the identities to the two passengers with stolen passports. Interopol Secretary General Ronald Noble chided authorities for lax airport security.
While no one knows yet what happened to Malaysian Flight MH370, aviation experts have trouble believing that catastrophic engine or structural failure brought down the jet. “Now, we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passports holders were terrorists,” said Noble, blaming lax airport security for not authenticating passports. Passengers with the stolen passports marked Austirian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi had connecting flights from Beijing to Amsterdam and Copenhagen. One-way flights have become red flags for authorities to possibly single out terrorists. “Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights,” said Noble. Without recovering debris or the flights data recorders, experts can only make educated guesses.
Pointing to terrorism, authorities are hard pressed to offer other plausible explanations for downing Malaysian Flight MH370. Uncovering stolen passports raise real suspicions of terrorism, because all other explanations seem less likely. Talking of structural disintegration or catastrophic engine failure would not have prevented the pilots from sending out mayday signals. Given the clear weather conditions at the time of the incident, all logic without the black boxes or wreckage point toward a massive onboard explosion. Malaysian authorities are well aware of China’s issues with its Muslim Uighur population, giving radical groups like al-Qaida reason to lash out at Chinese authorities. “We are trying to make sense of this,” said Malaysia’s Air Force Chief Rodzall Daud, referring to conflicting radar reports that the pilots changed direction before the crash.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.