A Pilot's Explanation for Missing Flight 370
We have heard every wild hypothesis about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. From being snuck into Pakistan to being hijacked by suicidal pilots, the media has breathlessly reported every crazy idea it has come across.
For a change, let’s discuss the most realistic scenario: An electro-mechanical problem.
Until we recover the airplane, we will not know for sure why air traffic control had a sudden loss of communication with MH 370, including loss of the transponder signal and contact with the pilots. Add to that the sudden left turn and a descent to 12,000 feet, and the public is left with the impression that something sinister occurred.
For those outside of the aviation industry, this is an understandable feeling. But consider this: Any captain facing an over-water emergency situation would have immediately turned the airplane toward the nearest airport and begun a descent.
But what about the loss of contact? The controls for all communications devices are located in the center pedestal between the pilots’ seats. The most plausible explanation for the simultaneous loss of all of these systems would be an electrical fire in that pedestal.
We have been told that this airplane had a large number of lithium batteries in the cargo hold and that they may have been the source of a fire. But, if that were the case, the crew would have received a fire warning and would have had time to transmit its position and emergency situation. They could also have utilized the onboard fire extinguishing systems.
The Boeing 777 is approved for three hours of flight from the nearest suitable airport. That approval is contingent upon a number of things, including the airplane’s ability to contain a fire in the cargo hold for that period of time. Even if the fire was so intense that it overwhelmed the aircraft’s fireproof cargo compartments and fire extinguishing systems, the crew still would have had time to make a mayday call.
Therefore, the fire probably occurred in the cockpit.
At the first indication of any smoke or fire, the crew should have immediately donned their oxygen masks. If they didn’t, the smoke from any cockpit fire would have quickly overcome them. Seeing smoke, the cabin crew would have attempted to contact the captain. Failing this, they would have donned their smoke hoods and entered the flight deck with fire extinguishers.
However, if the entire flight crew was incapacitated, the airplane would simply have flown on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. And that is what appears to have happened.
What may have caused the fire in the first place? It could be something as simple as undetected damage to the center pedestal wire bundles, caused by rough handling during maintenance or a mouse chewing through the insulation. Once again, we will not know until the aircraft is recovered.
However, it is my professional opinion that, when we finally do unravel this mystery, the pilots and flight attendants of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will be lauded as heroes.