Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Kanishka tragedy redux?

It's clear now that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777-200ER, hasn't landed on some remote strip and hope is all but lost. While most of the flight's route was overland, it seems to have gone down in the South China Sea at what should be the safest point in the flight--when it should have been at cruising speed on autopilot at 35,000 feet.

While we can only speculate on what happened at this point of time, what does seem clear is that whatever happened was very sudden and catastrophic, leaving no time for the crew to react or even send a mayday call. Typically, this would most likely be a sudden structural failure that breaks the aircraft up.

The Boeing 777 has also been a safe aircraft, with only two crashes till date and none with all lives lost. On 17 January 2008 British Airways Flight 38, also a 777-200ER, from Beijing to London crashed just short of the runway at Heathrow but there were no fatalities. Ice in fuel was determined as the cause of the crash, which restricted fuel flow to the engines. The engine maker Rolls Royce, made a modification to prevent this problem from reoccurring and it's certain that the Malaysian 777 would have been fitted with the modification years ago. And then on July 6 last year Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from Incheon, South Korea to San Francisco crashed on final approach to San Francisco, killing 3, making it the first Boeing 777 crash with fatalities since the aircraft model entered service in 1995. While Flight 214 was also a Boeing 777-200ER, pilot error was the cause of the crash.

File photo of a Malaysia Airlines plane. Reuters

File photo of a Malaysia Airlines plane. Reuters

However, while the South Korean Asiana Airlines has a spotty safety record, that's not true for either British Airways or Malaysian Airlines. The experienced British Airways pilots of BA 38 were credited with managing to get the aircraft down without fatalities despite the loss of the airframe. The crew of Malaysian flight MH 370 seemed equally capable. The 53-year old pilot was a veteran with more than 18,000 flying hours since 1981, while the 27-year old first officer had about 2,800 hours of experience since 2007. And though the first officer was transitioning to the Boeing 777, he had undergone several months of training. A few weeks earlier, on February 19, CNN's Richard Quest was in a cockpit with him (and possibly the same captain, claims Quest) on a flight between Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur as part of a story for CNN's Business Traveller show. Quest claims the co-pilot made a textbook-perfect landing. And since he was transitioning to the Boeing 777, the captain in command would have been a training captain as indeed the captain of MH 370 was, says Quest.

Weather is unlikely to have played a role too. Modern aircraft can handle very bad weather. Eleven years ago, I was on a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 on a flight to Shanghai when we hit terrible turbulence a few hours after takeoff. Sitting next to the wing and seeing them quite literally flap, I thought for more than a moment that they'd break off. The pilot came on air to calm everyone down as the aircraft bounced around, but while me and others were praying and holding tight for dear life, such experiences are not uncommon and aircraft and pilots of the calibre of those flying MH 370 would be capable of handling very bad weather.

When Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris went down over the Atlantic on 1 June 2009, resulting in 228 deaths, bad weather was a factor, but it didn't cause the crash. The experienced captain handed over to the two co-pilots--the Airbus 330 carried 3 pilots on the 10.5 hour flight--for his rest break and minutes later the aircraft hit a thunderstorm. Unfortunately, a speed sensor called a pitot tube malfunctioned thanks to ice at the high altitude they were at, and the pilots never realised the extent of the problem and made a series of errors because the on-board computers were getting grossly wrong information from the sensor. The captain returned to the cockpit, but still couldn't prevent the A330 hitting the ocean three minutes later. All sensors on A330s were changed after the crash to ensure a similar issue would not reoccur.

In the case of AF 447, the aircraft also sent a series of electronic messages over a three-minute period from an on-board monitoring system via the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) which gave investigators vital clues on what went wrong fairly quickly after the disaster. Malaysia Airlines may have similar information but this may currently be privy only to the investigators looking into what happened to MH 370.

A pilot of a Boeing 777 flying to Tokyo also claims to have established contact with MH 370 after being asked to try by Vietnamese Air Traffic Control though he refused to be named and said the connection was bad and was lost soon.

And while no one is commenting on a terror angle,  with the shocking news that an Austrian and an Italian supposedly on board the flight were never on board, but had their passports stolen in South East Asia and someone used their passports to board this flight, no one is ruling it out either. Reports speak of a security failure at Kuala Lumpur since details of the Italian's passport were available on an Interpol database, but Malaysian authorities did not check it and hence the flyer on the stolen Italian passport was allowed to go through unhindered.

A bomb might cause a sudden catastrophic structural failure leaving the crew no time to react or send a mayday call. If this--and this is complete speculation at this stage--is what happened, it might be similar to what happened on 23 June 1985 to Air India Flight 182, a Boeing 747-200 named after Emperor Kanishka where a bomb placed by Sikh separatists blew up the aircraft at 31,000 feet off the Irish coast resulting in a loss of 329 lives. In the case of AI 182 and the 1988 bombing of PanAm 103 over Lockerbie the method used was similar with bags containing explosives and timers used for detonation. No passenger accompanied either bomb because back then airlines would fly with all passenger luggage if a passenger did not board. But now, in case of a no-show at the boarding gate, airlines remove the passenger's luggage, which means that anyone with similar intentions would have to be a suicide bomber.

And since the traditional image we have of suicide bombers is with big vests laden with bombs, we often assume they would not get through airport security (even at airports with lax security), but small wearable bombs like shoe and underwear bombs using plastic explosives are increasingly worrying aviation security experts. Al-Qaeda has made two failed attempts on scheduled passenger flights till date. On 22 December 2001, Richard Reid tried to set off a shoe bomb on American Airlines Flight 63 but his amateurish attempt failed thanks to alert co-passengers and crew who noticed smoke as he tried to set off the bomb. And on Christmas day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen concealed plastic explosives in his underwear and tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 but just like Reid failed to detonate the explosives properly, partially burnt himself, and was overpowered by co-passengers and crew.

In fact, a few weeks ago, US authorities issued an alert warning about shoe bombs, which came on the heels of another warning to airlines with direct flights to Russia that explosives hidden in toothpaste tubes could be used. And while there is absolutely no evidence now that anything of the sort has happened, if a wearable bomb carried by suicide bombers was indeed behind MH 370 going down, expect all hell to break loose and airport security getting far tighter than you ever thought possible.

And finally, now that the aircraft is fairly certain to have gone down over the ocean, how soon till the wreckage is found?

A Chinese relative of passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines plane cries as she leaves a hotel room for relatives or friends of passengers aboard the missing airplane. AP.

A Chinese relative of passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines plane cries as she leaves a hotel room for relatives or friends of passengers aboard the missing airplane. AP.

There are no easy answers here, especially since no beacons seem to be emitting signals and the last known location of the flight is not completely clear. AF 447's wreckage with 104 more bodies was discovered nearly two years later after four massive search missions, involving everything from full ocean depth autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to French nuclear submarines. Thousands of square kilometres of sea floor were scanned. And while the South China Sea isn't as deep as the Atlantic, finding the wreckage may not be easy if the flight recorders which are fitted with water-activated acoustic underwater locator beacons or 'pingers' are not found soon since these beacons remain active only for around 30 days or so. Besides, the South China Sea is region with many maritime disputes. While all navies (Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, China, Singapore and the US Navy) are now co-operating in the search, weeks or months later, the bonhomie may not last in the face of the constant disputes in a volatile area.

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2014 12:41 PM

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