Flt 370: Lost In A Fog Of Ineptitude

boeing goingMalaysian Airlines flight MH370 was hi-jacked over the Gulf of Thailand and made to turn west in a desperate attempt to reach Somalia. It fell short, and went down in the Arabian Sea. That may seem an hysterical guess, but it accords with the known facts, and is at least as good a theory as anything put forward by the Malaysian authorities, whose handling of the crisis must go down as the most inept search-and-rescue operation in the history of aviation.

The result is that hundreds of hours of searching by aircraft and ships have been wasted. The Australian taxpayer is even now ticking up a huge bill for a ludicrously misdirected sweep of the southern Indian Ocean by four RAAF Orions.

The mystery of flight MH370 has been characterised from the beginning by incompetence, lack of co-ordination and secrecy. The delay in releasing established facts led to wild theorising. Why did it take two days to disclose that the plane had turned back on its normal track?  Why did it take five days before the important information about the ACARS system and how it works was released?

Then, when press reports from unofficial sources had been screaming that military radar had (unknowingly) tracked the aircraft across the Malay Peninsula, the Malaysia government reluctantly re-directed the search to the Strait of Malacca.

At every step theories were proposed without explanation or disclosure of the facts on which they were supposedly based. The latest, and worst, example is the hypothesis that the aircraft had been flown on a track – either north or south! – from its last known position between Malaysia and Indonesia. These so-called “corridors” would lead to either Kazakhstan or the Roaring Forties of the Indian Ocean.

The only reason for these absurd assumptions was the reception of a few hourly ‘pings’ from the ‘handshake’ transmissions of the ACARS system, and calculations based on satellite angles. Maps reproduced around the world showed neat red lines radiating north and south, and searchers were sent scurrying in both directions. But why would an aircraft with rogue pilots fly regular airline corridors after so much trouble was taken to hide the plane?  Especially, why would they head south, where there is no land until Antarctica?

Today comes the first and only credible fact capable of placing the aircraft reliably on the earth’s surface. A report from the Maldives established that an airliner – white with a red stripe flew low over the islands in the early hours of the morning, when MH370 should have been landing in Beijing.

Let’s assemble the known facts:

  • MH370 turned off its automatic reporting equipment 1 hour and 10 minutes after leaving Kuala Lumpur.
  • It was then at a height of 35,000feet over the Gulf of Thailand, 153kms south of the coast of Vietnam.
  • The aircraft then turned south-west and was tracked by Malaysian and Thai military radar across the Malay Peninsula.
  • These facts indicate the aircraft was flown by a competent pilot.
  • The aircraft was fuelled for a six hour flight to Beijing plus a 45-minute reserve.
  • At maximum, this gave it a range of 5055 kms (KL-Beijing is 4333kms).
  • It had already travelled 1300-1500kms when at its last known position over the Strait of Malacca.
  • From that position to the Maldives is 3000 kms, so it could fly only another 500kms or so from when it was reported there.
  • There are two significant airfields in the Maldives, each capable of taking a Boeing 777-200ER, but neither has reported the aircraft.

The Maldives sighting of the plane (if confirmed) would suggest the pilot was aware of the fuel level and looking for a place to land. However hijackers in the past have refused to believe pilots’ statements about fuel and range, and could have insisted on pushing on westward. It’s another 3000 kms from the Maldives to Mogadishu. With the known fuel load, MH370 could not possiblyhave made the distance.

There has been speculation that the political affiliation of the aircraft’s captain could have motivated him to divert the aircraft. There is no evidence to support this idea. However, whether he had turned rogue or was flying under duress is immaterial to this analysis.

The Malaysian authorities have been unable to suggest a motive for the diversion of the aircraft, and have not received a demand from a terrorist group. This points to a freelance operation, and the most likely source to be operatives from the Horn of Africa/Yemen area, an active area of piracy.

As things stand, the Malaysians are to be condemned for their continuing incompetence. The searches are still looking in the wrong places.

Geoffrey Luck, a pilot, was an ABC Journalist from 1950 until 1976. He last wrote of aviation matters in January, 2014, when he recalled how a combination of inexperience and power lines very nearly cost him his life.

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