Saturday, January 30, 2016

#MH370: The unending controversy

As an avid student of Human Mind and Human Error, it is very interesting for me to note certain individual’s inability to deal with uncertainty. Their need to fix blame, find a link or to make a definitive statement is so great, that they would often jump at the simplest of conclusions, even if what is simple is not the truth! In fact, often what is simple is not real for that very reason – it’s too simple to be logical! The maxim, ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true’ has been proved to be right once too often, at least with aircraft accident investigations, to be believed in the case of #MH370 also.

There have been numerous reports in the press, attributed to very experienced, often famous, Pilots and other leaders in the aviation sector, which would have us believe that MH370 was hijacked by its Captain, or by the co-pilot, who killed all on board by depressurizing the aircraft and then flew it into the ocean. The ease with which any Pilot can do this is cited as the chief reason for their claim. As has also been explained by the Government of Australia through the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau statement that can be found at this link, there are significant errors in this theory.

Earlier, in my book ‘Into Oblivion:Understanding MH370’ also I had discussed these and similar theories and explained why they cannot be relied upon, however the controversy refuses to die out. The purpose of my book ‘Into Oblivion: Understanding Mh370’ was to firstly ensure that the loss of this flight is never allowed to fade away into oblivion and secondly, to ensure that no one suffers a humiliation, insult or blame without any fault or an opportunity to defend themselves, especially when they may no longer be around to defend themselves. Hence here in this post today, I make one more attempt to set the record straight about how likely is it that the loss of MH370 was a result of deliberate Pilot action.
Consider this, proponents of the Pilot hijack theory suggest that the Pilot manually switched-off the ACARS and Transponder to hide the aircraft. However, if the only equipment shut down were the ACARS and Transponder, then why there were no pings received by the satellite between 17:22 and 18:25? This satellite equipment, we know, has no switch or other nature of control to be switched-off. It can only stop working if there is a total loss of electrical power. Therefore, if the loss of ACARS and Transponder was merely a Pilot action to hide the aircraft, at least one ping should have been received in this period of more than one hour because the system was set to ping every hour. The satellite did ping the aircraft at 18:03, and got no response. Please refer to discussion on page 188 of my book ‘Into Oblivion: Understanding MH370’ for more details on this. Now, go to page 218 and read the further analysis. When we put everything together, following significant clues emerge from analysis of the data (all times are GMT. Malaysia is located in time zone +8, so 00:41 Malaysia Time corresponds to 16:41 GMT):

  • 16:41 Take-off. A/c logged on to Ground Earth Station.
  • 17:07 Last acknowledged Satellite Ground-to-air transmission. ACARS data transmitted by A/c.
  • 18:03 Handshake initiated by the ground station. Aircraft did not respond (failed handshake)
  • 18:25.27 1st handshake initiated by the aircraft (log-on request)
  • 18:39.52  Unanswered ground to air telephone call
  • 19:41.00  2nd handshake initiated by the ground station
  •  20:41.02  3rd handshake initiated by the ground station
  •  21:41.24  4th handshake initiated by the ground station
  •  22:41.19  5th handshake initiated by the ground station
  •  23:13.58  Unanswered ground to air telephone call
  •  00:10.58  6th handshake initiated by the ground station
  •  00:19.29 7th handshake initiated by the aircraft (Log-on request)
  •  01:15.56 Aircraft did not respond to log-on interrogation from the satellite earth ground station (failed handshake).
To put this into simple words, 
  1. Sometime between 17:07 GMT (last ACARS transmission) and 18:03 GMT (Aircraft did not respond to satellite interrogation) the aircraft suffered an event that resulted in loss of power to the Satellite Communications equipment on-board. However, since we already know that the aircraft was responding on voice as well as secondary radar up until 17:21 GMT, we can narrow this event down to have occurred between 17:21 GMT and 18:03 GMT. We also know that sometime between 17:21 GMT and 17:28 GMT the aircraft changed course to head in a westerly direction, and it is reasonable to assume that these two events coincided, or occurred within a few minutes of each other. Therefore, we can narrow this down to have occurred inside this 7 minute window of 17:21 and 17:28, but in all likelihood closer to 17:21 than to 17:28.
  2. It is reasonable to assume that the aircraft was without electrical power for 64 minutes from 17:21 GMT to 18:25 GMT.
  3. Then, at 18:25 GMT, the satellite received a ‘log-on request’ from MH370. This means that at 18:25 the electrical systems on board the aircraft were powering-up again and the on-board computers were re-booting
  4. A satellite telephone call was attempted by Malaysian Airlines to the aircraft at 18:39 GMT, but no one from the aircraft responded to this call, although the satellite records show evidence that the call was indeed received by the on-board satellite communications equipment.
  5. The aircraft exchanged normal ‘pings’ with the satellite at 19:41, 20:41, 21:41 and 22:41. Each exactly an hour apart, as the system was programmed to respond. This indicates that normal electrical supply was available on-board the aircraft throughout this period of time.
  6. At 23:14, Malaysia Airlines attempted yet another Satellite call to the aircraft. Once again, there is evidence that the call was received by the on-board aircraft equipment, but the call was not answered.
  7. Then at 00:19, the aircraft initiated yet another log-on request. This indicates that at 00:19 the aircraft was recovering from yet another incident of loss of electrical power and the on-board systems were booting-up.
  8. The aircraft did not respond to the satellite at 01:15, indicating that between 00:19 and 01:15, the flight had ended.
  9. Approximately 90 seconds after the 18:25 log-on request, communications from the IFE (In Flight Entertainment) system on the aircraft were recorded in the satellite communication log. Similar messages would be expected after the 00:19 logon request, however none were received. This further indicates that a complete loss of generated electrical power occurred inside 90 seconds of 00:19.
  10. Based on this, the flight can be assumed to have crashed inside 90 seconds of 00:19 GMT. 
In order to understand how all this relates to the conclusion that there was no deliberate action by the Pilots to hide or hijack the aircraft, we need to understand a little bit about the Boeing 777 electrical system. 

The main power sources on a 777ER aircraft are a left integrated drive generator (IDG) and a right IDG, powered by the left and right engines respectively. An auxiliary power unit (APU) can supply power if either or both of the IDGs are unavailable. If power from the left IDG were lost, then a bus tie breaker would close and power would be automatically transferred from the right AC bus. Similarly, if power were lost from the right AC bus, power would be automatically transferred from the left AC bus. This power switching is brief and critical components are designed to ‘hold-up’ during such power interruptions. To experience a power interruption sufficiently long to force equipment shut-down would require a loss of both AC buses or, a disabling of the automatic switching. Following the loss of AC power on both buses, all equipment on board would experience a power interruption sufficiently long to force a shut-down. The aircraft’s Ram Air Turbine (RAT) would deploy from the fuselage into the aircraft’s slipstream and the APU would auto-start. The APU would take approximately one minute to start-up and come ‘on-line’ after which time it would provide electrical power to all essential electrical systems on-board. 

Considering the fact that the aircraft was without power for over one hour between 17:07 and 18:03, we can conclude that this power outage was certainly intentional. If it had not been intentional, but due to a systemic failure, the Ram Air Turbine would have auto-deployed and essential services would have been available inside one minute, permitting the aircraft to resume ACARS transmissions, Secondary Radar response and satellite pings.

The question that arises is, why would a pilot, any pilot, switch-off total electrical supply? To conclude that this intentional shut down was with the objective of hiding the aircraft is being very naive. Firstly, any pilot would know about the primary radar coverage and they could not miss the fact that military radars would detect them. Secondly, it is not required to shut down complete power to the aircraft if the intention was simply to hide from secondary radar. Merely pulling-out the circuit breakers for the ACARS and the Transponder would achieve the aim of hiding from the secondary radar. We know that all electrical generation had been disabled, and not merely the ACARS and transponder, because the satellite ping response would have stopped functioning only if entire electrical power was lost. These 'pings' were exchanged using an equipment called an SDU. This equipment receives power from the left AC bus, which in turn is powered by the left engine generators. Other than a total loss of electrical power, the SDU can stop functioning if the pilot, from inside the Cockpit, switched off the left generator, and back-up generator switches with the bus tie (that results in power supply diversion from the right generator) also disabled. Did this happen? I content no. MH370 did not have satellite tracking equipment installed on-board and at that point in time, no one, not even the designers and manufacturers of the aircraft, had any idea about how an SDU could be used to infer location of the aircraft in absence of complete satellite tracking functions being enabled. It was only about 2 days after the loss of Mh370 that the scientists working at INMARSAT realized that they had a signal from the SDU that could possibly yield a single position line... not a position, but one position line that indicated firstly that the aircraft was still flying with all systems operating and secondly that its position could lie anywhere on an arc that resulted on the Earths surface as a consequence of some very complicated calculations on this signal. I am inclined to maintain that we have sufficient circumstantial evidence here to conclude that SDU did not transmit because all electrical generation had been manually disabled from the cockpit, and not merely the left generator and its associated bus tie.

Disabling entire electrics also disables all lighting, ventilation, air-conditioning and most importantly, the communication, navigation, automatic pilot and all the other associated computer systems… even the intercom that the pilots use to communicate with each other and with the cabin crew. This is very extreme and with all these support systems gone, the aircraft would rapidly become a very hostile environment. Additionally, the pilots would now be forced to fly manually, without support of the electrical and hydraulic systems that otherwise support the aerodynamic loads… and believe you me, this is very demanding. So, if a pilot was forced to take such an action, it can only be because the event that was being responded to was itself very extreme. Like a fire or other serious life-threatening situation. I do not believe that anyone, however incompetent, who knows anything about flying a 777 would intentionally shut down entire power generation if there was another way to achieve their objectives, and every system in the aircraft can be selectively disabled using the circuit breakers located in the panel above and by the side of the pilots.

Therefore, we can state with a reasonable degree of certainty that the crew were faced with an event that could only be brought under control by disabling complete power. Based on historical data, such an event could have been precipitated due to an electrical short-circuit, as happened with the Egypt Air flight 667 (page 125 of ‘Into Oblivion: Understanding MH370’), or with Lithium Batteries in forward cargo hold (Page 132 of ‘Into Oblivion:Understanding MH370’).

This brings us to the second point. Given that the first shut-down was intentional, its restart would need to be intentional too. Someone flicked the switches off, now we would need someone to flick them back on. So, certainly someone was still alive and struggling to regain control at 18:25. What happened in-between is anyone’s guess at this point in time. My assessment is tilting strongly towards a fire. Electrical or Lithium. But a fire. Electrics were disabled to prevent further spread and to be able to use all types of fire-extinguishers, even water, to fight it without risking electrical shock. Now somewhere in this process, either the aircraft lost pressurization (refer to the picture of Egypt Air 777 on pages 127 and 128 that show a hole on the side of cockpit due to this fire) or otherwise became poisonous due to smoke (recall what happened to the crew of UPS flight 6, page 132). The crew would have deployed oxygen masks, but those would be available only to people who could still remain in their seats.

There are a limited number of portable oxygen cylinders also available, essentially for the use of crew to be able to move around and help passengers in their seats. But the number is limited. These have a 30 minutes supply. The passenger oxygen system on the seats has only 15 minutes. So, in all likelihood, someone did survive through the one hour, managed to put out the fire, ventilate the aircraft, clear the toxic fumes and by 18:25 was then trying to regain some control of the aircraft. It is reasonable to assume that most of the passengers and crew were dead by this time and this person was most likely one or more of the cabin crew, because they are the ones who have access to the portable oxygen systems with 30 minute back-up, and could have had access to two or more of these devices to be able to breath for over an hour.

Even if the person was not a cabin crew but one of the pilots, the random and confused nature of path between 18:28 and 19:41(the distance is 195 miles, the estimated speed is 550 kts. Elapsed time is 73 minutes. Clearly this was not flown in a straight line track, leaving a 52 minute position ambiguity) suggest that the person(s) were clearly not in full control of their mental/physical faculties… Just a last ditch effort by someone who knew they had very little time and were rapidly losing consciousness and control. It is also now reasonable to infer that soon after change of course to the southerly direction, this person(s) also died or lost consciousness, most likely due to non-availability of any more oxygen, leaving the plane to now fly on until it ran out of fuel, just like the Helios flight 522 (Page 158 of ‘Into Oblivion: Understanding MH370’), where the only person left alive was a flight attendant who made some effort to regain control in the cockpit but too late due to fuel exhaustion in that case.

Then is the question of why the satellite call at 18:39 was not answered? Clearly someone was present in the cockpit at least at 18:25, struggling to regain control of the aircraft. There could be several reasons for this... fire damage to the equipment, lack of knowledge about how to use it, high cockpit noise level (due to hole in the cockpit as occurred with EgyptAir flight 990) drowning out the sound of satellite communication equipment ringing...

Now coming to the event of 00:19, considering that (a) this was a log-on request, indicative of the satellite equipment rebooting after a power loss; (b) it was not followed by the normal  communications from the IFE (In Flight Entertainment) system, which ought to have followed it in 90 seconds; and (c) the aircraft did not respond thereafter to the satellite requests; we can conclude that this request was received because at this time all electrical generation had been lost due to the failure of both engines and the Ram Air Turbine had deployed to restore the electrical power. However, since both engines had already failed at this time, the aircraft could not have maintained its altitude and was clearly speeding rapidly towards the ocean. The normally expected IFE signals were not received because the aircraft impacted the water and was destroyed inside 90 seconds of this 00:19 log-on request.

As we approach the second anniversary of this very sad event, I like many others, spend sleepless nights trying to think things through. Nothing can be stated with authority at this point in time. That is why it is very important for us to remain grounded in scientific proof. It’s too easy to blame the pilots, but one must not forget that they had many years of exemplary service record and absolutely no shred of incriminating evidence against them has been found despite an extensive investigation that also involved the FBI. Just because they could have done something does not constitute a proof that they actually did it. It’s too simple a solution and the historical evidence does not back it up. In my experience, answers to aircraft accidents are rarely single point or simple. Also, why would anyone desiring to commit suicide fly for several hours heading into nowhere? Would they not like to simply crash the aircraft down at the point where opportunity for it existed and end it quickly? Historical evidence on Pilot Suicide cases, Silk Air flight 185 (page 108) and Egypt Air flight 990 (page 112), and more recently of GermanWings flight 9525 that occurred after the publication of my book ‘Into Oblivion: Understanding MH370’, do suggest this as the most likely course of action by a pilot desiring to commit suicide with his aircraft.

At this time, I can only hope for the wreckage and the black boxes to be found, so we may know what actually happened and how to prevent another from occurring. Until then, we need to be very careful not to tarnish the memory of the departed by wild and baseless accusations without any scientific proof. The least that we humans can do to support the departed crew members family is to not cause additional avoidable pain.

Stay Safe,

The Erring Human