The Tripwire on Flight 370

The moment the transponder turned off means everything to the investigation—and it happened after the pilots said things were OK.

Edgar Su/Reuters

The fate of Flight MH370 could have been decided in three minutes.

The Malaysians changed more than the clock when they backtracked Monday from their original statement that the last voice contact from the airplane (“All right, good night”) was received at 1:30 a.m., putting it instead at 1:19 a.m.

The need for an absolutely accurate timeline of the Boeing 777’s flight path has always been essential to investigators. It’s the first thing that they request and normally would be instantly retrievable from air traffic control radars and transmissions between the airplane and the ground. It has been severely lacking in this case.

The timeline has big implications for those trying to understand not just the correct sequence of events but what may lay behind them. Critically, it would mean that with the transponder turned off at 1:22 a.m.—three minutes after the final words from the cockpit, the number of suspects grows suddenly larger.

The transponder is really the tripwire for whatever began to unfold on that jet. It identifies the airplane to traffic controllers and confirms its position. As long as it appeared that the transponder was de-activated before the final voice report, it left open the possibility that the pilots lied to air traffic control and were themselves already embarked upon a pre-planned series of actions that would allow the flight to vanish (however bizarre that scenario seemed).

So if the pilots were not covering up a plot, what happened? Was Act One of a skyjacking, and if so, what was Act Two?

The interrogation of the skyjacking theory would start with the choice of airport, and the choice of the flight. Investigators would consider the political context, whether there was any known motivation for taking captive a particular group of passengers and then making political demands in return for their release.

The classic case of this was, of course, in 1976 when four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a French Airbus flying from Israel to France and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The airplane landed at Entebbe, Uganda, and 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages were taken. The episode ended with a dramatic Israeli raid at the airport to free the hostages.

The largest national group aboard Flight 370 was 154 Chinese. In spite of the recent attack at a Beijing railroad station by Muslim Uighur separatists who killed 33 people, there has been no connection made to them, who would anyway appear to lack both the sophistication and resources to carry out a skyjacking.

The silence from any known terrorist group is as complete as is the absence of any other claims for a skyjacking, including the simply venal. There is just no clue to what the motivation for seizing this airplane could have been.

And so I circle back to the tripwire, the disappearance of signals from the transponder as well as the end of transmissions from the 777’s ACARS system—the automatic monitoring and reporting of the performance of its Rolls Royce engines and other functions. The Malaysians are insistent that the cessations of these communications systems demonstrate deliberate intervention by human agents and so far there is nothing to refute that.

Were it not for these stubborn assertions by Malaysia, I would have looked for a mechanical failure to explain the extremely strange trajectory of the 777. One such failure would have been consistent with everything that is known of that trajectory: A pressurization problem leading to the loss of oxygen and consciousness by the aircrew and passengers.

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I have cited before the case of Helios Airways Flight 522 in 2005, where a Boeing 737 suffered an uncontrolled decompression of its cabin and cockpit. The pilots were incapacitated and the airplane continued its flight from Cyprus to Greece on automatic pilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a mountain, killing the 121 people aboard.

The left turn made by Flight 370 could signify the captain attempting to reach one of the nearby airports, either in Malaysia or Vietnam. But by the time the turn was executed the flight crew could have succumbed to hypoxia. The flight is now thought to have continued for at least another six hours, given the fuel supply, which could have taken it for 3,000 miles into the great void of the Indian Ocean with the autopilot in control.

It’s all very possible—but for the absence of any distress call from the cockpit and because the transponder was turned off.

All of this really illustrates that there are actually three searches going on for the answers. The first is the massive search over water. The second is whatever the investigators on the scene in Kuala Lumpur can find as they attempt to reconstruct the timeline, a job made harder than it need be by the lack of precision in what the Malaysians are reporting. And the third is where I am: the search by what you might call the college of experts, all of us seriously handicapped by there being so much noise and so few facts.

Here’s a final thought: Like many others, I usually approach the study of an air crash by empirical means. I look for precursors, either a pattern of problems leading to an accident or a pattern of accidents of which this seems to be another, as in the woeful record of clapped-out airplanes and zero safety enforcement in Africa.

But Flight MH 370 is different. It might actually be that there are no precursors; that nothing like this has happened before.