Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Mystery Continues

I've been meaning to write something about the disappearance of MH370, except that there's not a whole lot to say. What we don't know dwarfs what we do. With so little information to go on, speculation runs rampant ... and who's to say what's right?

That's still mostly true. At least, it's true until new facts surface.

Perhaps "surface" is an unfortunate word choice in this case. Last Wednesday, an interesting piece of debris washed up on the shores of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. It's the right size and shape, and more importantly it bears the Boeing part number for a flaperon on a Boeing 777 airliner. News agencies were careful not to go too far out on a limb with this, and only said it might be from MH370.

Caution is all well and good, but exactly one 777 has gone missing. One more than none, and one less than two. If you find such a part floating around the ocean, where might it come from? You get three guesses, and the first two don't count.

Now, we can't say a whole lot just yet. It's only one piece, after all. But its condition tells us a great deal indeed. It allows us to put some reasonable bounds on what might have happened.

First of all, we can once and for all discount and discard all those loony theories about terrorists hijacking it and flying it to a hidden airbase. The fact that fragments are washing ashore means it went down over water. I never could make myself take that option seriously, anyway. The Boeing 777 is an enormous airplane. You'd need eight thousand feet of runway to land it, and 45,000 gallons of fuel tanks to refuel it. Good luck building such a secret airfield without the NRO finding out about it.

No, that never even made bad sense. Nor did any of the other hijack/misdirection theories. The people who might have been able to pull it off lacked any visible motive, and the people with motive had no means.

So, it went into the water. But not on a steep, nose-dive trajectory. That kind of impact would have destroyed it utterly. It's in relatively good condition, no obvious deformation. That argues for some kind of horizontal entry, most likely after fuel exhaustion. Leading, of course, to the question of how it got there. There is certainly no shortage of theories.

What keeps tugging at my attention, though, is what we do know about the plane's path. It went incommunicado shortly after signing off with Malayan ATC, and shortly before they were supposed to contact Ho Chi Minh ATC for enroute clearance.

I wish I could remember precisely where I saw this -- odds are better than even it's someone James Fallows at the Atlantic was corresponding with at the time -- but it reminded me of one key fact. Pilots always have an alternate airfield in mind. No matter where they are in their flight plan, they always know the closest airfield they can make for if something hits the fan. And MH370 made a beeline for Penang, the closest airfield at the time that could accommodate them.

The question becomes: Why?

I'm having a hard time convincing myself that it was anything but a fire in the cockpit, possibly an electrical fire of some kind. In that case, standard procedure is to turn off anything that might be feeding the blaze. Radios, transponders, whatever; if it draws power it's got to go down, until you have the fire under control. The right turn at Penang confused me, though. Then, I went and did some digging. Not much, Googling for "penang approach chart" turns up all kinds of useful information. The details are here if you should care to see for yourself. The pertinent bit is shown below.

At first glance, then, it looks as if they set their autopilot to make a beeline for the BIDMO meter fix, and then join the inbound traffic for runway 04/22. They might even have programmed their autopilot to make the base leg turn ...

Under this theory, they failed to control the fire, and were no longer conscious when they got there. I'd even hazard a guess that no one onboard was. There are no airtight bulkheads on an airliner. Toxic air will get to everyone eventually.

Or it might have been decompression. We had a similar event, on a smaller scale, back in 1999 when Payne Stewart's private plane lost pressurization, and sailed across country until fuel exhaustion.

But this leaves one question unanswered: why did it turn south? If, indeed, it did turn south? Its last known course was more or less towards India. It had to have made a left turn in order to end up in a position for one of its parts to wash ashore on Reunion.

We still don't know. We won't know that until after we find the wreckage ... and we might not know even then. 

We may just have to get used to not knowing. While all questions have answers, we are not promised that all answers will be revealed.

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