By Taylor Griffin
Meteor showers, terrorism, pilot suicide, alien invasion — countless theories have surfaced surrounding the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that lost contact with air traffic controllers on March 8. The unexplained disappearance of this Boeing 777 aircraft, which was headed to Beijing, has dumbfounded both airline officials and the rest of the world.
As an aeronautical engineer and retired marine fighter pilot, Dick Campbell, senior lecturer and assistant chair of mechanical engineering, offers a few technical explanations to the various theories regarding this ongoing mystery.
Q: How is it possible that the aircraft has completely been lost?
A: If devices were turned off deliberately, then it’s fairly easy to disappear, especially in that part of the world. There’s a lot of open ocean where radar coverage is not very good, and while a large metal airplane can be tracked by a radar, it returns a very, very weak signal.
Air traffic control radars are designed more to pick up a radar response from the airplane, and that’s what this box called a transponder is. It’s avionics equipment that when it receives a radar ping from air traffic control radar, the box sends back a strong radar signal, and it also has code in it [squawk].
As long as the aircraft is in range of an air traffic control radar and it’s transmitting that squawk, then it will show up.
What I’ve read what happened was that the transponder was turned off, but the military radar continued to track the raw radar reflection from the airplane, but there was nothing being transmitted.
It’s like the way we track missiles or enemy aircraft, but all you’re getting is a blip on a screen. You don’t have any way of identifying it.
The other thing the aircraft was doing was transmitting ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System), a digital signal that can either go on the radio or through a satellite. It’s the way that airlines communicate with each other and share information back and forth.
When you’re under air traffic control, you fly from one region to another. One controller will have everything in that region until a plane crosses the border to another region. In this case they were crossing over from Malaysian airspace to Vietnam airspace.
A few things happened that they finally admitted to, and that’s what’s been part of the problem in this mystery.
Malaysian officials have, in my opinion, just bungled the information that’s been put out, or they’ve been slow and forthcoming, or they just didn’t know what they had and didn’t know how to report it.
One, they said goodnight to the Malaysian air traffic control and never contacted Vietnam, so this all happened during the handoff.
It’s also out over the open ocean with very little coverage as well, so it’s not unusual to be out of contact, especially flying over international waters.
The transponder was turned off, and the ACARS stopped reporting, but the timing of that is unknown. So you can’t draw any conclusions that it was necessarily deliberate.
The ACARS send a ping to satellites, and apparently one of the satellites was receiving pings for hours after the disappearance. So if that’s true, then that means the airplane continued to fly and parts continued to operate even though the transponder had been turned off.
Q: What other speculations have arisen that are also possibilities?
A: There’s a lot of possibilities for this, skipping over the fact that it was deliberate at this point.
I’ve heard speculations such as pilot suicide and terrorists’ acts. If the pilot wanted to, he could decompress the cabin while he was wearing his oxygen mask and cause the entire passenger list to pass out and then do whatever he wanted. Since 9/11, you can’t break down the cockpit doors anymore, and they’re bulletproof. So it’s all hard to tell.
The things I find curious is that it appears that for whatever reason, the transponder was turned off, and the airplane continued to fly and send signals to the satellite. And if the ACARS was turned off, that denotes somebody who knew about the systems.
If it was suicide or they just got befuddled somehow and turned southwest to the southern Indian Ocean and crashed, then it will probably never be found unless debris is found.
If it was a fire, they either would have been able to put it out and turn back to land somewhere, even without communications.
And if they weren’t able to navigate, they crashed. It was also at night their time, so if they lost complete navigation control, then they’ve got to fly by compass and watch, which means they have to know where they are. If there’s no radio, it makes it even more difficult.
One of the things that came out of the Asiana flight in San Francisco [in July 2013] was that pilots these days do not have a lot of stick time; they rely a lot on automated systems. They are less proficient at handling the airplane when unusual emergency strikes.
So if these guys are in the dark scrambling around trying to figure out what’s going on, then they may not have been able to handle it. But again, pure speculation.
Q: Many reports are roping the United States’ help into this situation. How could or should the U.S. get involved?
A: International law says that the country where something happens in is responsible for the investigation.
If it’s over international airspace where there is no jurisdiction, the country under whose flag the aircraft is flying under has jurisdiction, so Malaysia clearly has jurisdiction in this case.
We have volunteered resources to assist them, but we would be out of line to try and take on the investigation.