Flight MH370: An Alternative Hypothesis
There have been a flurry of articles in the print media by retired airline pilots advancing the hypothesis that the accident was caused by a deranged captain.
Words: Paul Clough, Solicitor
Both of the recent commentators writing in The Australian on Flight 370 have flown similar aircraft for some years and their opinion has a basis in reason. However, the plot hole in their reasoning is the first officer. They do not seem to be able to explain what that trained pilot was doing or how he was involved in the suicide scenario that commentator Mr Bailey suggests. Having flown professionally as an airline pilot, I have yet to meet such an accommodating first officer who would agree to a seven hour process before his life ends at the hands of a captain.
The second defect in the retired airline pilots’ reasoning is that the Captain Shah was suffering from some kind of mental illness that has never, by anything in his behaviour, alerted any supervisioning pilot in the operations section of Malaysia Airlines to such a defect. People who commit suicide regularly give an indication to their loved ones or the wider public that they are disturbed.
Captain Shah, did not seem to have financial worries, he was not without family and he seemed to be a stable captain according to the checking and training system within Malaysia. How did he suddenly become mentally unstable. No prognosis is advanced by either Mr Bailey or Mr Hardy to demonstrate that Captain Shah was mentally unstable. There are no notes or records of conversation that indicate that Captain Shah was so upset or angry by the Malaysian government’s treatment of the Deputy PM that he would both kill himself and 259 others to make a political point and without any manifesto.
A third basis of doubt in the media’s scenario was the fundamental acceptance that all the communication and guidance systems can never fail. Further, that the interrelationship between these many electrical systems is such that it will prompt and perhaps override a rogue input by the pilot. It was implicit in the reasoning that the sophistication of the electrical systems was such that only deliberate actions by Shah to disable the various systems in all their complexity is the criteria for the events that occurred.
I would suggest that for these reasons, the scenario or hypothesis published in The Australian under the byline of Mr Bailey and Mr Hardy (the retired airline pilots) has too many furry edges to be accepted at face value.
Another hypothesis may shed some light on what happened.
The prime basis for Mr Bailey’s conclusion in the Weekend Australian is that, “the flight management system must have been reprogrammed”. This sentence seems to encapsulate the most reasonable hypothesis from Mr Bailey’s viewpoint. I beg to differ somewhat, I accept that in some way the FMS has been reprogrammed or adjusted but I cannot be sure that it was done by human hand.
The major hole in Mr Bailey’s scenario is, “If Captain Shah was suicidal and he reprogrammed the FMS” to fly to the south west then to the west over Malaysia and then again to a watery grave somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean all without a word to anyone, what pray tell was the first officer doing all the while? First Officers who fly B777s on the world’s air routes are rarely shrinking violets who will allow a deranged Captain to fly him to their death about 7 hours into the flight. Mr Bailey does not deal with this obvious deficiency in his article.
The first officer was a man with about 2500 hours flying experience mainly on alrliners. Did Captain Shah poison or deal him a blow to silence him? Was Captain Shah an axe murderer? If not, wouldn’t the First Officer transmit to all the world his alarm at Shah’s aberrant behaviour.
I am of the opinion that both pilots, in some way, were disabled and rendered unconscious soon after the F/Os transmission to Kuala Lumpur Control. Additionally, I am of the opinion that the FMS commanding the three autopilots was corrupted in some way but not completely rendered otiose.
I have never flown the B777. I have flown many turbo prop and jet aircraft as an airline Captain. I have only 11,500 hours total experience as opposed to Mr Bailey and Mr Hardy each on more than 25,000 hours experience. However, I have seen some strange auto pilot functions occur when coupled to raw data inputs of airspeed, rate of climb, body angle, thrust and radio aids that have been corrupted somewhat. I am sure that both Mr Bailey and Mr Hardy have said on occasion, “I wonder what the aircraft is doing now?”
My exposure to autopilot control management was in the horse and buggy days of AFCS and flight directors. Let me elaborate on the random strange behaviour of autopilots when under the guidance and coupling of a ground radio aid, such as an ILS. If a false signal is generated the coupled autopilot will respond immediately initiating a sharp turn or dive. The autopilot was usually disconnected immediately by the pilot.
The modern airliners such as the B777 and A380 are a maze of electrical impulses both into and out of on board computers. A casual glance into a modern jet airliner cockpit will reveal a significant circuit breaker panel. Circuit breakers control and can interrupt electrical services within the aircraft. The various switch gear activating the electrical control inputs that comprise general, specific , emergency and communication bus circuits are located in an electronic and electrical compartment, which on most Boeing aircraft are located underfloor and accessed through a hatch in the cockpit floor just behind the captain’s seat. It certainly was on the B727 that I flew.
The E & E compartment is a sealed compartment within the cockpit oxygen-supplemented environment and accessed by a hatch lifted up by a technical person or a crew member.
I pose the question. “Did a minor fire occur in the E & E compartment?”
The drills taught to captains included, as a first action and the most common emergency procedure, disconnecting or turning off the input from the aircraft generators into this E & E compartment and, if a fire extinguisher is fitted, to fire that bottle off into the sealed compartment. Alternately, a crew member, read F/O, may get the cockpit portable fire bottle, open the hatch and squirt the extinguishant foam into the compartment. However, electrical fires give off toxic fumes. It is rational that a diligent first officer was overcome by poisonous gases, fell on the cockpit floor, leaving the hatch open. The captain would have his seat fully forward to open the hatch in the first place and he would not be able to get out fast enough to close the hatch and keep the toxic fumes in the E & E compartment. It is common ground that the air in the cockpit environment is oxygen enriched and the quality of the cockpit air may have propagated a more intense fire but, then again, the fire extinguishing fluid may have retarded it. We can only guess.
If a fire did occur, some services would have been disrupted or interrupted. These could have been the radio communication system ACARS without any involvement of unconscious pilots. Again parts of the FMS and autopilot function may have been corrupted; air-conditioning and pressurisation functions may have been impaired. We can only guess. What is not affected is the running of the engines and the fuel feed to them. Tank fuel pumps come directly off the battery bus if all electrical power is shut down. The engines will keep going with a disastrous electrical fire.
It must be borne in mind that in normal operations with the aircraft is flying normally, the three axis trim function is operated to ensure that the aircraft will fly straight and level hands off. I am sure that both Mr Bailey and Mr Hardy would agree that, without pilot input, a properly trimmed aircraft will fly hands free and follow Newton’s second law of motion and continue in a state of uniform motion until acted upon by an external force. We can assume the both Captain Shah and his first officer would ensure the B777 was aerodynamically trimmed for steady flight either in the climb or an intermediate straight and level body angle.
The fire in the E & E compartment may have died of its own accord and did not conflate. The aircraft could have continued someway to Ho Chi Minh city then ran into turbulence and be flicked onto a south westerly course away from a storm cell and turbulence. As it was trimmed correctly, the engines would have kept running and the B777 could have flown across Malaysia with no live person on board. It could have struck another storm cell in the Bay of Bengal and again changed direction and track to the ultimate fate.
The FMS may have been disabled in the fire and took no part in the control of the aircraft. Then again, it could have had some residual function and assisted in trimming the aircraft into straight and level flight. We will never know. All sorts of other electrical services may have been rendered unserviceable. Pressurisation may have failed and let in ambient air for all the passengers to go to sleep permanently.
One of the imponderables arises in that no passenger or cabin crew made a telephone call alerting someone on the ground to the unusual situation in the air. Certainly, it was in the dead of night, but surely someone would have been awake and sufficiently alert to unusual activity. The air police insist that the cockpit/cabin door be both locked and reinforced so that no passenger can access the cockpit in an emergency or to check the crew status or otherwise. Perhaps more thought should be given to this impediment to air safety?
Ultimately, when the aircraft ran out of fuel the aircraft descended into the ocean and cannot be found.
We should now look at the logical holes in the above scenario.
1. Why would a fire occur in the E & E compartment in the first place?
A careful look through the prior maintenance records may reveal an incipient electrical problem. Perhaps a small metal tool was left in the E & E compartment or a coin dropped in a sensitive place by a technician? A bridge between two relatively high power electrodes was made and about 1 hour 15 minutes after take off ignited the area about it. Turbulence could dislodge a metal object that became the offending bridge between points developing a fire arc. No one can be sure now.
2. Why didn’t the fire consume the whole of the aircraft?
The discharge of the foam retardant may have been effective. The electrical bridge may have been dislodged by the movement of the aircraft. However, the fire in the E & E compartment may have left the aircraft in a crippled state and devoid of electrical control by autopilot or FMS, but may have left enough to ensure straight and level flight. Fuel storage and usage would vary the centre of pressure of the wings as the flight progressed. Fuel is stored in the wings which is quite close to the centre of pressure of the wings for straight and level flight and the usage would have had little impact on the longitudinal trim of the aircraft.
3. Is it possible for a correctly trimmed jet aircraft to fly for long periods without human input? Is this concept a bit far fetched? I mention:
(a) About 10 or 15 years ago a Lear Jet took off from an airfield in Florida carrying a well know US golfing great for a short flight to wherever. The pressurisation failed and the passengers and the pilot had a permanent sleep. The aircraft flew straight and level right across the US of A and crashed in Wyoming. The flight lasted the same time as the fuel that was loaded aboard in Florida allowed. The auto pilot flew the aircraft to an exhausted fuel state.
(b) Some years ago, an FA18 fighter pilot out of Katherine RAAF base had an oxygen failure at height and went to sleep permanently. The aircraft flew right across Arnhem land, the Gulf of Carpentaria and crashed somewhere near Weipa in Queensland. The distance was about the fuel load of the FA18 and I do not recall reading that an FA18 has an FMS or an autopilot fitted.
(c) The Commanding Officer of a Mirage fighter squadron out of Williamtown, I think his name was Vance Drummond, had an oxygen failure that he did not pick up on and after some lengthy time crashed in to the sea near Coffs Harbour. Again I do not think an auto pilot or a controlling FMS was fitted to that aircraft.
(d) I am sure that Bryron Bailey, who is an old knuck, would be conversant with F/Lt Frank Clough’s spatial disorientation ride in a Sabre in the late 1960s. Frank Clough and I are not related. Clough apparently crimped his oxygen feed and was only getting some oxygen but insufficient for normal operations. Frank suffered severe mental disorientation for about an hour until he was formatted upon by a fellow knuck and brought down to land at RAAF Williamtown.
(e) In the ancient past, about 1950, a light aircraft, an Auster, was hand started at Bankstown by a pilot without another pilot at the controls. The aircraft had been chocked and the throttle set for what, one assumed, was idle power. There was no person aboard the Auster. Apparently, the engine started not at idle but at a substantial power setting. The pilot starting the aircraft could not get to the throttle to reduce power, the aircraft jumped the chocks and started across what was then a relatively open paddock at Bankstown airport. At an appropriate rate of knots, the aircraft was trimmed for flight and the aircraft lifted off and commenced a random frolic in and around the western inner part of the Sydney as it was then. Mascot being a more relaxed environment then managed to divert the then crop of airliners around the Auster and the Auster flew up and down and round and about over the CBD, the harbour and the north shore suburbs for about an hour and a half altering course as the diurnal turbulence impinged upon it. Obviously, something had to be done about this wayward Auster. The RAAF were called in and sent a Wirraway from Williamtown, with a gunner in the back seat in an open cockpit with a Bren Gun. That worthy duly fired his Bren gun at the Auster which by this time had reached Manly beach area and about 3000 feet. All the RAAF gunner got was frostbite. The Navy were called in to assist and sent a couple of Fireflys and duly shot the Auster down into the ocean off Manly, where it presumably still lies at rest. Clearly that aircraft had no human input to its gyrations, it had no autopilot, FMS or ACARS, but it was trimmed for flight.
Therefore I am of the opinion that it is possible the Malaysian B777 could have flown until it ran out of fuel if trimmed properly by Captain Shah before the events after about 1 hour and 15 minutes into flight toward China. The flight could have been hands free the whole time that the two crew were rendered incapable.
What about the electronic handshakes? I know little about this communication tool and I cannot explain it at all. I’ll leave that to someone more expert on that matter than I. Watch this space….