Discovery could eliminate wild theories

16:00, Mar 20 2014

The location of debris from the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in the Southern Indian Ocean – if that’s what it turns out to be – would eliminate some of the wilder theories about what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 and  would lean toward the likelihood of an emergency on the flight, an attempt by the crew to turn back and complications that caused them to fall into unconciousness leaving the plane on a ghost flight until it out of fuel. 

While some sort of botched hijacking that led to the pilots being killed can’t be ruled out entirely, it seems very unlikely given the location of the wreckage. The hijack theory would have more credence if MH370 was located along the north west flight path toward the Middle East. The trajectory might have even pointed to the political motivation.  Hijacking sits uncomfortably with the fact that after 10 days no suspect passenger has been identified.

The location also seems to rule out the heist theories, because there are no airports along the southern flight path that could have been used to land the plane.

Far more plausible is the theory, favoured for days now by professional pilots on chat sites and blogs, is that the pilots had an event on board that took out the communications and led to a slow or rapid decompression which rendered the crew incapable of completeing an emergency landing.  Pilots have only a few minutes to bring the plane down to below 14,000 feet before the passengers and crew will become disoriented, then unconscious and eventually die.  In 1999 a Lear jet carrying pro golfer, Payne Stewart flew for several hours with its passengers and crew unresponsive, before it ran out of fuel and crashed.

The possible causes of the emergency will be the chief focus of any accident investigation, however speculation has centred on:

* Corrosion around the satellite antenna which caused it to break off, cutting off communications, and causing a slow decompression that left the crew confused by the time the cabin pressure alarm went off. The satellite antennas on Boeing 777s had been the subject of a recent airworthiness directive issued by the National Transport Safety Bureau in November 2013. It asked airlines to inspect corrosion.


* An explosion of the flight deck crew’s emergency oxygen supply, located in a bay under the floor which also includes communications systems.  In 2008 an emergency  oxygen tank exploded on a Qantas 747 en route from Europe, causing a hole in the fuselage, decompression,  and an emergency landing.

* A fire, which might explain why the plane initially climbed before decending. The crew may have been attempting to extinguish the fire by depriving it of oxygen, but then were overcome by smoke and fumes, leaving the plane to continue on autopilot.

A number of pilots familiar with Asian air routes have speculated that the new  route programmed into the plane’s computer was consistent with it heading for the Langkawi Islands which had a large airport and  easy terrain, rather than trying to return to Kuala Lumpur.

The possibility of pilot suicide can’t be ruled out, but in the last two cases where it was suspected, the planes were plunged into the ground.  The notion of a pilot disabling the communications systems and then sitting back to wait for the plane to run out of fuel in eight hours time, while passengers and crew banged on the cabin door, seems far-fetched. It only makes sense if the pilot killed himself and the passengers and crew by depriving them of oxygen after setting a course on autopilot.

Sadly, in many of these scenarios, the cockpit voice recorder is likely to be of little assistance. It works on a two-hour loop and tapes over the previous two hours.

Sydney Morning Herald