Media speculation does little to solve fate of Malaysian 370

March 19, 2014
Veteran aviation expert contends evidence fails to support the theory of an airline hijacking

I have observed during my lifetime that humans, as members of the animal kingdom, still embrace a herding instinct.  Many years ago standing on a bridge to an opening of the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo, I observed a mass of Japanese citizens intent on entering the palace grounds to see the Emperor for the one day a year that allowed public visitation.  Shortly after I entered the Palace perimeter, the authorities indicated that they were closing the entrance. This announcement prompted a stampede that resulted in the death of several people who were attempting to cross the narrow bridge to the palace gate. 

As I watch the recent media stampede bent on showcasing aviation acumen – and aviation security knowledge in particular – my belief in the human instinct to stampede is once again confirmed!

Some airline or government official, or a so called aviation expert, provided a smidgen of data that the media pundits immediately seized as cannon fodder in the Malaysian Flight 370 crises, reaching the conclusion that the disappearance must have been a hijacking – or an attempted hijacking gone wrong.

The media herd has stormed pell-mell into this possible conclusion despite the fact subsequent data continues to send mixed signals.  The obvious question is what was the end goal of a potential hijacking?  For me, the hijack scenario has too many holes to be plausible.

  • If it was a hijacking why didn’t any of the passengers manage to make a cell phone call when the airplane re-crossed the Malayan peninsula?
  • If either of the pilots were involved in commandeering the airplane, what would have prompted the plane’s climb to 45,000 feet before descending to somewhere between 23,500 and 29,000 feet?
  • Wouldn’t these actions be contrary to the skills of either pilot if they indeed had hijacked the airplane?
  • What if the attempted hijacking by one of the crew resulted in his death or severely incapacitated one or both of the pilots? What were the consequences?
  • If it was a hijacking, where does a hijacker fly a Boeing 777 airplane to a safe haven given its range and fuel state?
  • What would the bad guy(s) do with 227 passengers and the crew – figuring that none were involved in the hijacking?
  • How many hijackers would it take to control 227 passengers plus 12 crew members?

When you consider the improbabilities of a hijacking as an explanation for the disappearance of MH-370, reality quickly tells you there are few rational answers!  So, what then?  What surprises me most is that despite the constant head butting the hijacking theory into the proverbial stone wall, mainstream media is not deterred. They continue to fill each 24-hour news cycle with even more implausible “breaking news”.

Might the answer lay elsewhere?

Let’s play out the following scenario. It begins with the detonation of a small IED or the eruption of hazardous materials within the cargo hold – the hazardous materials were either improperly packaged or illegally shipped - or both.  This eruption causes a fire in the cargo hold; the fire then progressively and serially destroys the airplane’s communications systems. The toxic fumes quickly rupture into the passenger cabin, disabling and killing the passengers. The toxic fumes and smoke fill the cockpit, disabling one of the cockpit crew. The other pilot, who is probably physically or mentally impaired by now, manages to get his oxygen mask on and attempts to turn the aircraft back to Kuala Lumpur before also becoming disabled. 

It’s also plausible both cockpit crew members may have successfully donned their oxygen masks. Unfortunately these masks are not always air-tight.  There is at least one documented instance in 1983 where an explosion within a cargo hold of a Gulf Air B-737 flying from Karachi, Pakistan to Abu Dhabi, where all 111 passengers and crew aboard -- except the first officer – were asphyxiated by smoke.  The captain had donned his oxygen mask but apparently it trapped some ambient air that fouled his oxygen.  The first officer had set his mask to 100 percent oxygen and remained conscious until inadvertently flying the airplane into the desert at high speed because smoke had engulfed the cockpit and obscured the instruments.

Using this scenario, MH-370 goes into a climb to FL450 (45,000 feet) because of the pilots’ inability to clearly see and set the controls for a return to Kuala Lumpur.  The aircraft becomes unstable and “stalls” at FL450, which is above its certified operating ceiling. The aircraft descends back to a lower altitude (one report says 23,000, another says 29,000) before once again becoming stabilized on a new course.  At some point the surviving individual(s) on the airplane may have temporarily regained consciousness before once again succumbing to either oxygen loss or remaining toxic fumes.  The airplane continues to fly until its fuel is exhausted and it crashes into the ocean. Again, the ocean crash is more plausible since there has been no report of Emergency Locater Transmitter (ELT) signals, which would be received by satellite if the crash were on land.

I am persuaded to this view because of the numerous improbabilities of other scenario.  For instance, thus far there has been no indication that either of the pilots was criminally involved in the disappearance of this airplane.  Neither has Malaysia released data indicating anything amiss in their security clearances or those of the passengers on this flight.  The one early question raised about the two passengers traveling on stolen passports has been cleared, indicating they were planning to illegally claim refugee status in another country -- probably Germany.

As more media theories hit the wall, it begs the question: is news really news if it is fueled by baseless speculation void of fact?

About the Author:

Billie H. Vincent, AVSEC, C-T, ATC/ATM?, served with the FAA in Air Traffic Control, Training, Regulatory Activities and Aviation Security, and for the last several years in the private sector. His last position in the FAA was the Director of the Office of Civil Aviation Security from early 1982 to the middle of 1986. He has over 30 years in various fields of security and counter-terrorism and has written, instructed and spoken extensively on the subject of security protection of local, regional, and national infrastructure. He retired as the President and CEO of Aerospace Services International, Inc. in 2013. Mr. Vincent published a landmark book on his more than three decades of experience in aviation security and counter-terrorism; and an analysis of potential future threats to world aviation entitled "Bombers, Hijackers, Body Scanners, and Jihadists."