Malaysia 370: A Tragic Accident (and Nothing More)

It’s slowly becoming clear that Malaysia 370 was a tragic accident, and not one of the numerous terrorist or crime scenarios doing the rounds.

As a retired international airline captain, I have felt for some time that the known flight profile showed an aircraft that was not hijacked, but out of control.  However, the sharp left turn off course that it performed remained an issue.  Why would the pilot do that?

Bear in mind a couple of things.  Firstly, this was a crew operating out of their home base, which they knew intimately.  Pilots call it "local knowledge" – a big advantage if you have a problem.

Secondly, it is rare for one single event to cause a crash.  It is more likely that a series of mishaps and problems, some of them self-imposed, led to an accident.

The jet proceeded on course for Beijing and even made a slight right turn, as required by the route.  It then turned sharply left and proceeded to waypoint VAMPI, which, as we now know, was input by the pilot flying – probably the captain.

So why turn across the Malay Peninsula, away from their destination?  Where were they going?  Much has been made of the fact that an airway from VAMPI leads north to terrorist country, but no one has checked what is south of position VAMPI.

VAMPI is an entry point to Kuala Lumpur.  An airway from VAMPI goes directly back to their departure airport.

Why not fly back direct to KL if they had a problem?  VAMPI is a good choice.  It avoids high mountains running through the center of Malaysia, gives a safe approach over the low-lying coast, and also allows a quick diversion into Penang if necessary.  This is where that local knowledge comes in.  They knew the best way to approach KL with a problem.

This was an experienced training captain.  I am certain he did not think about using VAMPI on the spot, but it was something used in local simulator scenarios many times as Malaysia crews practiced various emergencies.  Also, perhaps Malaysia 370 needed to dump fuel before landing, and that is the preferred dumping area.  (They had just departed with a good load and fuel for eight hours.  A jet generally has a lower landing weight than takeoff weight, so a fuel dump might be necessary if returning quickly.)

So what happened to make them want to return?  Lots of possibilities, but I will give you one.

Perhaps an incident, such as dense, acrid smoke suddenly pouring into the cockpit.  I doubt it was rapid depressurization, as no emergency descent was initiated, but slow hypoxia is also possible.

Whatever it was, it was serious enough that the captain decided to initiate an immediate turn-back and input VAMPI to begin the routing back to KL.

Then they tried to deal with the problem.

The emergency checklist for smoke requires donning masks and removing electrical power to isolate the problem.  That de-powering procedure or whatever was smoldering in the cockpit could account for losing the communications equipment, and probably the autopilot as well.

The smoke might have been so bad or toxic that the pilot and copilot quickly became unable to see their instruments to control the jet.  They might already have been overcome by this stage.  The Boeing climbed erratically without the autopilot engaged (autopilot would have leveled the jet at a preselected cruise altitude) to a high altitude, where it finally stalled and plunged down 20,000 feet, only to slowly and erratically climb up again. This flight path is not indicative of controlled flight, which means they were both certainly incapacitated by now.  No one was flying the plane anymore.

My feeling is that the Boeing 777 then meandered out aimlessly over the ocean with its dead pilots till its fuel was exhausted.

It was a tragic accident, not a conspiracy or crime.  They turned left to come home, not to flee, steal, or murder.  It just went badly wrong.

The plane is in the ocean.  Floating debris will turn up sooner or later, and the black boxes will tell the final story.