It’s at times like these that the ordinary citizen realises he doesn’t know whom to trust, and the search for the mysteriously ‘disappeared’ Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200ER is a case in point. Over the last fortnight the Malaysian government has been both secretive and evasive, reluctantly and parsimoniously parcelling out vital facts about the flight. Now it has been found to have deliberately not acted on a line of enquiry – and been prodded into action belatedly by the FBI.
Who would have guessed that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was estranged from his wife, although living under the same roof? Or that with the attention given to his home flight simulator, the government would have refrained from asking her questions about the captain’s state of mind — because of cultural concern for her bereavement? For a fortnight!
It’s been left to the Americans to press for answers that might give some inkling of motivation for what happened on the flight deck at 1.21am (Malaysia time) on March 8. That’s when the aircraft’s radar transponder and ACARS automatic reporting systems were switched off, and the plane diverted 135 degrees from its planned flight path.
The FBI’s prodding has also forced Kuala Lumpur to discover that Captain Zaharie took a two-minute phone call from a mobile using a SIM card bought by a woman using a false identity. She has not yet been traced, and the significance, if any, of the conversion is unknown.
The last confirmed position of the aircraft was in the far north of the Strait of Malacca, when it was heading north-west, as if on a flight to Europe. That was at 2.14am, one hour and thirty-four minutes after take-off. Since then, all has been conjecture.
The only clue to where the aircraft was going was in the hourly ‘pings’, the automatic handshake signals generated by the ACARS system. Although switched off and unable to transmit data about the plane’s systems, ACARS sent ‘pings’ which were detected by the stationary Inmarsat satellite over the Indian Ocean. It was therefore claimed to be possible to calculate the angle between the satellite and the position of each ‘ping’, thus giving a rough estimate of the plane’s movement.
The results of this work were published around the world as neat red arcs on the map. But it was not possible to say whether the ‘pings’ came from locations on the northern or southern arcs.
What directed the search south was the report of a satellite image of an unidentified object in the Roaring Forties of the south Indian Ocean. This set off, naturally and properly, a massive search to locate this object of interest, and perhaps less wisely, the introduction of political grandstanders into the equation. A Chinese satellite then came up with a second photo of a large object in roughly the same area.
Pretty charts like that in the Washington Post graphically depict what is going on, but they can also seriously mislead. The circle defines the “Estimated range of a 777-200 travelling in a straight line for seven hours.”
Big problem. Flight MH370 had been fuelled for a six-hour flight to Beijing, with a reserve to reach an alternate if diverted. That makes seven hours of fuel. But it had already been flying for 90 minutes before turning south from the Andaman Sea (if that’s what it did). The radius of the WaPo’s circle should be five and a half hours, maximum six.
It will be seen immediately that unless the plane took on more fuel than normal and reported, it could not have reached the area now being searched for wreckage. The information on the map, including the “pings’ on the arcs have been retro-fitted to suit the satellite pictures and the search pattern.
Of course we don’t know if the 777 took on more fuel than the flight plan required. Have the Malaysian authorities checked this? Surely the refuelling docket, which the captain has to sign off on, is critical to estimating how far the plane could have flown.
Then of course the aircraft could have flown north. Or the calculations on the ‘pings’ could be wrong. Or….the possibilities are widening, not narrowing.
Geoffrey Luck, a pilot, was an ABC journalist from 1950 until 1976. This is the second of his analyses of the hunt for Flight 370. In January, 2014, he recalled how a combination of inexperience and power lines very nearly cost him his life