March 15, 2014 10:32:56 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
More than a week removed from initial reports of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, three local pilots give different perspective into the mystery.
On March 8, the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board took off from Kuala Lumpur and headed for Beijing, China. Less than an hour after take-off, it lost contact with air traffic control. There was no distress signal, nor was there any indication of weather or technical issues before the aircraft disappeared from radar. Exhaustive search efforts have yet to yield any knowledge of the aircraft's whereabouts.
In the days following the disappearance, clues have emerged. It was confirmed that two of the passengers boarded the aircraft using stolen passports but had no apparent link to terrorist groups. Investigators have concluded that the plane likely stayed in the air for four hours after its last contact with air traffic control and its transponder went offline. Military radar indicated the aircraft had turned west. Satellite images captured three large floating objects.
But the objects weren't found at the suspected crash site. This was one of several false leads that has fueled speculation on how the incident occurred.
Early Saturday, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said the plane's disappearance was the result of deliberate action and that he was very confident that the transponder, or device that emits an identification signal informing air traffic control of a plane's latitude and a unique four-digit code, was purposely disabled. Speculation abounds on what happened and where the remains are.
Three area residents with experience as pilots agreed that a cause can't be determined until there is more information, though their theories on what might have happened differ.
Columbus native and former commercial pilot Dudley Bearden believes the most likely scenario is simpler than much of the speculation posed to this point. Bearden, who flew Boeing 737s, 757s and 767s during his 25-year career for United Airlines, said mechanical failure coupled with poor radar capability can be enough to result in a disaster.
"When you're flying in that part of world, it's not like you're flying in the United States where you've got great communication and great radar," Bearden said. "There are places that would be areas that you wouldn't get good radar and places that you wouldn't be able to talk to somebody for a good distance of time. Unfortunately when you have an accident in that part of the world, it's pretty hard to determine where the airplane is because they might not be exactly on radar."
Local civilian flight instructor Les Pogue questioned how the aircraft was temporarily seen on radar but its transponder wasn't functioning at the time of the sighting.
"When an airplane crashes, it gets low off the radar right before it hits and then when it hits the airplane is destroyed, so the transponder will go away as well. I think that was the initial assumption of the crash," Pogue said. "When they said they were getting additional hits on radar later with no transponder, the transponder would have to have been turned off. You don't normally turn off your transponder, especially for a commercial airline. That's why there's speculation that it was intentionally turned off and flown below radar coverage to go somewhere else for whatever reason, a hijacking or terrorist."
Lynn Spruill, whose career as a Delta Airlines pilot spanned nearly 20 years and time as a Navy pilot mainly involved flights over the Pacific Ocean, said without an easily visible debris pattern, terrorism can't be assumed.
"In (late professional golfer) Payne Stewart's plane, they depleted all their oxygen and everybody was hypoxic and basically went to sleep. The airplane ended up going until it ran out of fuel and crashed, which would have put you in a smaller debris pattern," Spruill said. "Then I thought it might have gotten hijacked and taken away for whatever reason but without anybody getting in touch with anybody for hijacking purposes, I don't know how that would play out. It is truly a mystery at this point because without the obvious debris pattern that comes with something exploding in air or without some sort of communication because normally your pilots, while they're going to be handling the airplane if something goes on, they're also going to be hollering out, 'Mayday' and providing position reports."
Pogue, who is a T-6 simulator and ground training instructor with thousands of hours logged flying F-16s, said the protocol in a situation where a pilot loses contact with radar is to fly to compulsory reporting points, or geographical points where an aircraft must report.
"There are places where losing contact happens. The radar control for Tuscaloosa Regional Airport is Birmingham Approach Control at (Birmingham-)Shuttlesworth (International Airport). Because of the terrain features south of Birmingham, their radar can't see anyone below 3,000-4,000 feet when they're in the Tuscaloosa area," Pogue said. "They don't know where you are and they have to sequence you by where you report you are. If you are not in radar contact, there are mandatory reporting points along the route you've filed and along all the instrument approaches (series of predetermined maneuvers for an aircraft) that you go to. If I did lose radar contact, I would have to report at this intersection along my route of flight. That's what you would do all the way to your destination."
The absence of an operating transponder adds to the mystery of the aircraft's disappearance, Spruill said.
"I just can't imagine why the pilots wouldn't have given some sort of distress signal either verbally or by using their emergency transponder," she said. "Why was the transponder disabled? Did it have a history of transponder problems? Generally, if you do, it's not going in the air."
'When things go wrong'
The amount of controls and equipment on a plane needed to make it fly create for many variables, too many to pinpoint the most likely malfunction until search crews can locate the aircraft's black box, Bearden said. If they have proved unsuccessful so far finding any hints of the plane's debris, it may be a long time before anyone knows what really happened, if ever.
"You don't have the black boxes that are there. Until you recover those and can find out who was in the cockpit and what switches were on and what the parameters of the airplane were, you really are just guessing. You'd just be throwing darts in the dark to know what really happened to that airplane," Bearden said. "Where it is in the water because of the radar coverage and communication problems that you have in that part of the world, it's just unfortunate you don't know where to start searching for it. You've got a big ocean out there."
Spruill said several instances of plane crashes have involved multiple malfunctions at once. While it's unknown now if that was the case with this flight, it would be a practical scenario if air craft control did not have the plane on its radar before mechanical issues began.
"When things go wrong, it takes two things to go wrong for everything to then fall apart," Spruill said. "One malfunction doesn't generally create an emergency. It's when you have multiple malfunctions and whether it's coincidental, just a confluence of events or timing, that's what really generates your incapacity to be able to handle whatever a single emergency when it becomes multiple emergencies. They'll snowball on you."
That scenario raises another question for Pogue, who noted the plane was last projected taking hard track back toward Malaysia before moving northwest to India, which was not part of the scheduled flight path.
"The best landing spot would have been back in Malaysia if there was a problem or emergency. You wouldn't go flying way off to some other country. If it was serious enough, you'd stop in Vietnam somewhere or the nearest suitable emergency field," Pogue said. "In this case, it wouldn't have been hard to turn back to Malaysia. Even if they lost all their power and the transponder went off, they still would have had radar contact. They just wouldn't have had the four digits and the altitude."
Pogue added that he didn't understand why the aircraft would have to fly at a lower altitude unless the aircraft had to be below clouds or inclement weather to see the coastline if there was a total power failure.
"Even that doesn't make much sense because you always have at least a magnetic compass that works with no power and it would know (the correct direction) to get back to Malaysia," he said. "If they needed to land that hard they would overland at Vietnam anyway. You can visibly see airports at night with the lighting systems that we have."
'Truly a huge mystery'
Previous experience as a pilot makes it easier to determine causes of most plane crashes if enough details are provided, Pogue said, but it does not always equal a heightened understanding of what leads to a plane vanishing from radar and remaining nowhere to be found more than a week after it took off.
"It's hard to say right now," Pogue said. "I'd like to hear a little bit more factual evidence about where the transponder went off."
As for why no wreckage been found in more than a week's time despite expanding the search area, Bearden said it's not uncommon to have that problem when there are so few clues.
"It doesn't surprise me that they don't know where that airplane is because there's just not very good communications and radar in that area to know exactly where that would be," Bearden said.
While time continues to elapse until the first shred of wreckage is gathered, more pretend detectives will continue to come out of the woodwork with their conspiracy theories, but still not knowing anything for sure by now is the main reason for the ever-increasing public interest, Spruill said.
"I just don't know. It truly is a huge mystery. You can play all kinds of scenarios out, but all of them have some flaws to them. Something has got to factor in, but I can't imagine at this point," she said. "It goes back to the pilots. To me, absolutely they would have done something had they not been immediately incapacitated in some kind of way. I can't believe they wouldn't have been screaming bloody murder."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.