Clueless in Kuala Lumpur

The Baseless Rush to Blame the Pilots of Flight 370

Malaysian leaders have turned the airmen into scapegoats without a single fact. Meanwhile, the government’s culpability in the loss of 239 people grows.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Commercial aviation has never faced a crisis as grave as the one presented by Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370. At a time when flying has never been safer airplanes just don’t go missing without trace. And yet one has, taking 239 people with it. Vanished.

Public confidence in the governance of international air travel is shaken. The reputation of two world-esteemed companies, Boeing and Rolls Royce, is at stake. Not only that, but the whole technical hubris of the age of super-connectivity has been rendered hollow by the discovery that, in fact, we are not being watched all of the time wherever we are on the planet. There are, it turns out, vast voids as little watched over as the moon.

This sad drama has been compounded by an engulfing fog of speculation, frequently reaching a tone of hysteria. People are spooked. They want information that nobody is able to provide. We have come to expect quick enlightenment. That isn’t possible. We demand transparency and coherence. They’re not happening.

What little evidence there is has been contaminated by the performance of the Malaysian authorities. They resemble a bunch of dumb cops blundering over a crime scene, arguing over what it reveals and what it does not and competing for attention. In a sadly familiar ploy of the pursued, the prime minister himself was put up to float a theory so far lacking in any persuasive facts: the pilots did it. Dead men have no defense.

So, after nine days, what can really be understood about the forensics of this tragedy?

There are two apparently solid facts that condition everything else:

After their last routine exchange with controllers the pilots never sent any Mayday or distress message. The captain’s last reported words were calm and normal: “All right, good night.”

The transponders – the airplane’s continual link with the outside world, receiving and sending information about its position, were turned off.

Essentially, these two triggers ensured that the Boeing 777 would disappear. That could be either by design, by deliberate human intervention, or as a result of a technical failure.

There were two other ways for the airplane to automatically report its progress. All modern jets have computers constantly monitoring their systems and, in a limited way, able to send status reports to flight control centers on the ground. The 777 was equipped with Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). In the case of Flight 370, no messages sent to Boeing and engine-maker Rolls Royce indicated a problem.

After a whole week went by, it emerged that the 777 was also linked to a satellite system operated from London by Inmarsat. For some hours after all other communications stopped, the airplane was sending a “ping” recording its presence to a satellite. (The Financial Times reported that Malaysian Airlines had not paid for the service, and the pinging was “an empty signal” – the minimum remaining after a deactivated automatic data link.)

What is interesting about this ability of the airplane to monitor and report its health, or otherwise, is that if Flight 370 had been an Airbus, and not a Boeing, the volume and quality of the information would have been different.

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The cockpits of Boeing and Airbus airliners reflect a fundamental difference in the philosophy of how an airplane is commanded. Boeing, in designing the 777, held to its traditional idea that a pilot should always have the ultimate authority over the machine. Airbus, on the other hand, believes that more authority should be placed in the computerized flight management system because it is less likely to make mistakes than a human. There is nothing in the safety record of either company to claim that one is better than the other.

However, when Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the South Atlantic in 2009, investigators had telling clues to its condition within hours. This was because the Airbus A330 had sent 24 so-called fault messages via satellite to a maintenance base in Paris. These were as a result of its Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitoring system (ECAM), which itself reflects the precedence given by Airbus to automated flight controls.

It turned out that these messages described an incremental shutdown of the airplane’s flight control computers, requiring the pilots to take over. The computers were being fed anomalous data because of a failed air speed gauge. The pilots, poorly trained, bungled the hand over, and lost control.

Had the Malaysian 777 been able to transmit such a detailed record of its behavior before disappearing, we would have been more able to discount or pursue possible and imminent mechanical failure – like, for example, any gradual loss of cabin pressure because of a leak in the fuselage structure or a problem in the cargo hold.

What was happening in the cockpit of Flight 370? Turning off the transponders was a simple step for the crew, just a matter of a few twists to the left of a dial placed between the two pilots—not accessing some circuit breaker above. That would be a very strange thing for them to do. It would, however, be the first thing a hijacker who got access to the cockpit would want to do.

Yet why would any hijacker direct an airplane out into the great void beyond surveillance and without making demands for the safe release of the passengers?

A suicide pact by the crew has been raised, but in the two most recent suicidal crashes the pilots pushed down the nose and dived to the water instantly. This was the case with an Egypt Air Boeing 767 soon after leaving JFK airport in 1999 and a Silk Air Boeing 737 flying from Jakarta to Singapore in 1997. A suicidal pilot does not prolong the agony.

When it comes the psychological behavior of pilots, the Malaysians are doing the reverse of what the Egyptian and Indonesian authorities did in those two crashes. In each case the idea of suicide was anathema to the national cultures. The authorities contested the verdicts of the crash investigators and, instead, asserted (without credibility) that the crashes were caused by mechanical failure.

The Malaysian authorities are doing the opposite: impugning the aircrew without any tangible evidence. First with the prime minister’s assertions of deliberate actions, and then by staging police raids on the captain’s home.

One TV so-called analyst extrapolated from the fact that the captain had a self-built flight simulator in his home that he might have been practicing left turns. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was one of the airline’s longest serving pilots, logging 18,000 hours in the cockpit. He didn’t need to rehearse any turns; he had made many thousands of them. The simulator was probably used to keep him current with software updates to the 777’s systems. Pilots often use simulators to keep their airmanship sharp – in these days of automated flight decks there is a danger of losing some of the old “seat of the pants” reflexes that can be crucial in an emergency.

Some sources have reported with a straight face that the Boeing 777 soared to a height of 45,000 feet as whoever was in control deliberately sought to disable passengers. First, at that height the airplane would be way beyond its operational ceiling and uncontrollable. Second, at this early stage in its flight it was loaded with fuel that would have made it a struggle to reach even 38,000 feet.

How safe is the 777? There was a brief flurry of alarm when it emerged that the Federal Aviation Administration had issued an Airworthiness Directive after inspectors found corrosion in one model of the 777 that could have led to a structural failure and loss of cabin pressure. It turned out that the Malaysian 777 was of a model not affected. In any case, Airworthiness Directives are issued all the time – they are the direct result of experience with the daily operations of airplanes, and they are the front line that ensures that prospective problems are detected early.

The 777’s safety record is exceptional. One way of illustrating this is to compare it to the much smaller 737. Since it first entered airline service in 1968 more than 4,200 people have been killed in 737 crashes. Until last summer the 777, which entered service in 1995, had not killed a single passenger. (Last year’s crash in San Francisco was caused by pilot error.)

For fairness and clarity, this comparison must be qualified. The 737 is a world-wide daily workhorse on domestic routes, sometimes making as many as seven flights a day. Ten thousand 737s have been either delivered or ordered, and the accident statistics are influenced by the fact that many older 737s fly in regions like Africa with lax safety oversight and where crashes are too frequent.

More than 1,170 777s have been delivered and they fly long routes with far fewer flights being made per day, a less punishing regime. Nonetheless, the 777 is of a far later generation in its technology than the 737 and consequently benefits from advances made in its structure.

In the case of the Malaysian 777, was there a problem in the cargo hold? Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board discovered that there was an unusually large consignment of lithium-ion batteries on the cargo manifest. This technology is more recently known as the cause of fires that led to the grounding of the Boeing 787 fleet, but lithium-ion batteries for personal electronic devices have been a frequent cause of emergencies in cargo holds and baggage handling.

They are prone to overheating and combustion. The FAA’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety records many of these incidents in the U.S., including a fire caused by a battery on a self-propelled surf board on a FedEx airplane.

If there had been a battery-induced fire in the cargo hold of Flight 370, automatic smoke warnings would have alerted the pilots and they surely would have had time to report an emergency.

There is, however, a relevant example of a large airplane being lost over the Indian Ocean after a cargo fire. In 1987, a South African Airways 747 with a 159 people aboard suffered an uncontrollable cargo fire that began with computers packed in polystyrene. The airplane fell into a deep part of the ocean east of Mauritius.

Although the searchers had what they regard as the single most important aid to an undersea mission—a starting point based off the airplane’s last known position—it took two years to recover the flight recorder from depths as great as 15,000 feet.

To be sure, the technology of submersibles and of deep water searches, driven largely by trophy and treasure hunters, has improved immensely since the 1980s, as the successful locating and recovery of the wreck of Flight 447, also after two years, shows. The search now being conducted for Flight 370 includes the far reaches of the Indian Ocean where the depth can reach 20,000 feet. In that case the challenge of finding it will be unprecedented.

It will probably take years before the investigation reaches an outcome. Right now it requires a skillful combination of dedicated people working with many different disciplines, scientific, forensic, managerial, informational, humanitarian, military, legal, and political. It will involve different languages and cultures. Commercial interests have to be reconciled with the public need for clarity and integrity.

So far the way this task has been handled is not encouraging. The Malaysians have asked for the help of 25 countries in the expanded search. Now nations are being asked to check their radar records, which is strange since if anything as large as a 777 had been flying rogue through busy international air corridors and over militarily sensitive sites would have triggered alarms instantly.