LAST MOMENTS OF AN AIRLINE?
Losing one aircraft was bad enough, but now, as a new book about the missing Malaysian 370 flight is published, the besieged airline is dealing with the aftermath of losing a second jetliner. IAN WISHART reports on the downing of Malaysian Airlines
You can hear the creak down the phone line as aviation expert Ewan Wilson, presumably reclining back in his chair, ponders the question. It’s March, the world is transfixed by the disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200ER with 239 people on board. It has, quite literally, vanished into thin air.
“What do you think happened?”
It is, simply, the $64 million question and it remains unanswered. What we know, when expressed as a list of facts, you can write on a sheet of A4 paper and still have room for a photograph. What we don’t know could fill a book.
It should have been a routine flight – the overnighter between Kuala Lumpur and the Chinese capital Beijing. The record shows the big jetliner with the near perfect safety record began gunning down the runway at Malaysia’s main airport in the tropical night heat of 8 March 2014, with lift off at precisely 00:42 minutes and five seconds.
“Departure, Malaysian Three Seven Zero,” the flight deck acknowledged to the air traffic control tower as the wheels left the ground.
On board, 227 passengers and twelve crew, strapped into their seats, tray tables fastened away, waiting for the climb to cruising altitude and a light refreshment on the five hour flight north to China. Within four minutes they’d reached 25,000 feet, and at 00:50 local time, just eight minutes after departure, the crew confirmed over the radio they were levelling off at “350”, aviation jargon for 35,000 feet.
At 1:07 am Malaysian time, the jet’s ACARS automatic reporting system sent its final position message, and a minute later the crew radioed a flight level confirmation: “Malaysian…Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero.”
At 1:19, Malaysian Air Traffic Control radioed MH370 advising them to switch to the Vietnamese ATC radio frequency. The flight deck responded with its now haunting final transmission:
“Goodnight, Malaysian Three Seven Zero”.
And that was it.
At 1:21am secondary radar blipped MH370 in its last confirmed position, crossing the navigational waypoint known as IGARI in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s around this time that the jet appears to have made a sharp, almost 180 degree turn, backtracking towards Malaysia instead of continuing into Vietnamese airspace.
It gets murky because at the same time, the aircraft’s main transponder, the transmitter that radio’s its position and carries identifying details including the flight number, was turned off. This was a separate system from ACARS, and they both had to have been turned off manually.
A third system, the ADS-B, was also turned off at 1:22. This system relied on the aircraft’s satnav system and retransmitted the position of the plane based on this. It’s intended as a back-up to transponders.
By turning all these systems off, the flight thus became “invisible” to civilian air traffic control (secondary radar) which relies on transponders to identify aircraft. Here’s where MH370 slipped between the cracks. Military radar, or “primary” radar, physically scans the skies for metallic objects. Military installations are not plugged into civilian control towers and cannot read transponder data anyway. Thus, military radar operators continued to see the same plane which had taken off from KL, and was now tracking back to Malaysia. They didn’t scramble interceptors because it was just another civil flight blip on their screens.
The military radar indicates the jet may have climbed to 45,000 feet briefly, before dipping to 23,000 feet and possibly as low as 12,000 feet. Whether this was to avoid radar or because of fighting on the flight deck is unclear.
The plane crossed the Malaysian peninsula heading towards Sumatra, then veered northwest towards India. This is the last radar data available on MH370, timed at 2:15am, just under an hour after the last voice transmission and 94 minutes after takeoff. If you were looking at a map, the aircraft was almost exactly in the middle of the Strait between the very northern tip of Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula, about 500km or 40 mins flight time southwest of India’s Nicobar Islands air force base.
India has no record of MH370 entering its airspace, but was forced to admit most of its military radar stations are turned off at night to save money!
Were the passengers still alive at this time? Nobody knows. If the cabin had been depressurised it’s possible the passengers and flight stewards were unconscious or already dead. Certainly a dramatic climb to 45,000 feet and descent to 23,000 along with the turning back would have alerted them all that something was wrong. But sealed doors to prevent terrorists getting on to the flight deck also would have left the 237 people on the other side of the door powerless to wrest control of the plane from a rogue pilot.
From its last confirmed radar position off the northern tip of Sumatra, MH370 had enough fuel on board to fly six and a half more hours at a speed of nearly 900km/h, giving it an absolute maximum range of nearly 6,000 km. This could alter depending on headwinds, cruising speed and how much extra fuel had been burnt climbing to 45,000 feet, if that happened.
The plane could have reached Somalia from that position, although the satellite ping data suggests that was not the route it took.
The important thing is that the plane, up to its last known position, was still under the control of a human pilot, as the changes in course and altitude indicate.
Whoever was in control, he wasn’t taking phone calls. Although communications with the plane were re-established around 2:25am, a ground to air phone call from Malaysian Air Traffic Control using the jet’s satellite system went unanswered.
Which brings us back to Ewan Wilson, reclining back in his chair, pondering his answer to the question. “I think this was a murder suicide, or more correctly, a mass-murder suicide,” he explains. He doesn’t buy the conspiracy theories – “this plane was not abducted by aliens” – nor does he buy the early theory of a slow-burning fire. Too many flight path changes away from airports, no distress calls from passengers on their cellphones as the “burning” plane flew back over densely populated Malaysia, and no aircraft fire in history has killed everyone on board, burnt out the communications systems, but allowed the plane to fly, Marie Celeste-like, for eight more hours into the sunrise.
Wilson ought to know about aircraft fires – a plane he was co-piloting caught alight en route from Australia to Norfolk Island. The crew managed to extinguish the flames. As the former head of Kiwi Airlines and a registered jet pilot, Wilson now splits his time between aviation consultancy and his role as a Hamilton City Councillor. As a result of the massive interest in MH370, he teamed up with journalist Geoff Taylor to write “Goodnight Malaysian 370”, the first credible book on the mystery.
The pair interviewed family and friends of the pilots and officials in Malaysia, and they have no doubt the disappearance of the plane was deliberate. They also believe the aircraft flew along the southern arc of the Inmarsat pings, putting the plane in the ocean somewhere west of Australia, although the lack of any flotsam or jetsam remains a puzzle, given the Boeing 777 would have ploughed into a rough ocean at speed and broken up on impact. You’d at least expect the seat cushions to wash up somewhere.
Goodnight Malaysian 370 debunks the various conspiracy theories and draws the reader to one chilling conclusion. Except for the intervention of the worst possible luck in aviation history – Malaysian Airlines losing a second Boeing 777, and necessitating a postscript being added.
Just days before his book was due at the printers, news broke that flight MH17 with 298 people on board including several New Zealanders and 27 Australians, had been shot out of the sky over disputed territory in Ukraine.
It emerged that airlines had been warned that Ukrainian airspace was risky, but the international agencies had not gone as far as to declare it a no-fly zone. Now they have. For Malaysia Airlines though, it may be too late.
Already reporting a financial loss of US$374 million last year, the costs of the MH370 tragedy and the downstream impacts of reduced bookings were already taking their toll on the struggling, majority state-owned carrier.
Investors at the 25 June shareholders meeting in Kuala Lumpur were calling their company “a sunken ship” and “a patient in intensive care.” Chinese bookings had dropped by 60% since the vanishing, and other routes had fallen in popularity as well.
Mohshin Aziz, an equity markets analyst was quoted by Al Jazeera on 30 June:
“Everybody knows that Malaysia Airlines is walking the final few months of its existence if nothing is drastically reformed. There has to be a new way of doing things as soon as possible.”
And that was before the missile attack.
The way things are going, Wilson might not just have to rewrite the ending, but shorten the new book’s title. “Goodnight Malaysian…”