Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Did Flight 370 catch on fire?

By Donald Sensing

Last night a currently-serving, American B-777 pilot (airline not identified) was interviewed at length on FNC. He said that absent compelling evidence to the contrary, the most likely explanation for the plane's bizarre course change and subsequent disappearance from civil-aviation-tracking systems was an on-board emergency, not hostile hijacking by either the flight crew themselves or a passenger.

Today, in the continuing silence of new facts from Malaysian authorities, that theory is getting more play. What sort of emergency? Fire.

Take a look at this airport on Google Earth. The pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make an immediate turn to the closest, safest airport. 
For me, the loss of transponders and communications makes perfect sense in a fire. And there most likely was an electrical fire. In the case of a fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one. If they pulled the busses, the plane would go silent. It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.
Much is being made today that the plane's course reversal just after loss of comms was a turn programmed into the plane's flight management system, or autopilot. The 777 pilot last evening addressed that, too, saying that new destinations and waypoints can be programmed into the FMS by the flight crew and that is the usual way to do it.

Even in an emergency? he was asked. He replied that unless he actually needed to physically control the airplane, using the FMS is preferable, since once it is reprogrammed the pilot is free to devote attention and effort to other things than flying the plane.

Like fight a fire.

The fire theorem doesn't fill in all the holes, such as why the plane flew so erratically after overshooting its now-presumed landing destination back on Malaysia's coast. Nor does it explain why, even with the crew overcome by smoke, the plane didn't land itself there since a previously-interviewed 777 pilot said that the plane can do that.

But it makes more sense than that either the pilot or copilot hijacked the airplane or that it was flown to the Asian mainland for another, nefarious purpose. As I said before, even while probing the implications of a hijack, that the plane wound up dropping into the southern Indian Ocean seems its most likely fate. If so, eventually debris will turn up somewhere.

But why on earth didn't either pilot key the mic for just three or four seconds and send a mayday? Especially since, in the "fire" theory, the pilot would want air clearance at the airport and crash vehicles and rescue personnel alerted? The lack of such a call is the weakest link.

Update: This is significant and supports that the plane demise was accidental even if there remain gaps in the explanation: "U.S. Intel Agencies Say No Terror Chatter on Vanished Malaysian Airlines Flight."

Update: The problem with the fire theory is that now media are reporting that the FMS was programmed for the U-turn 12 minutes before the copilot radioed, "All right, good night." The reprogram was, reportedly, communicated via ACARS at the 0107 report, the last one that ACARS made. Presumably, the FMS might have been reprogrammed even before 0107, but that was the time it was reported.


So if the plane was U-turned because of any kind of in-flight emergency, why program it to turn at least 12 minutes later? And why would the copilot's last transmission be so routine?

If the report is true that the FMS was reprogrammed so early - and we surely have learned to treat all info coming from Malaysian authorities with suspicion - then ISTM that it pretty much shoots down the fire-in-flight theory.

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