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 WOULD YOU LIKE TO READ MORE OF THIS STORY?
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