What we know and what we don’t about the mysterious Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance

Mar 11 2014 - 16 Comments

Some 72 hours after contact with the Boeing 777 flying over the Gulf of Thailand was lost, what really happened to Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight remains a mystery.

It’s almost impossible to say what happened to Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight until the remains of the aircraft, its Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder are found and analysed,  along with all the other data, by investigators.

That said, we can surely sum up what we currently know and what we still don’t know about the fate of the Boeing 777 9M-MRO flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Mar. 8, 2014.

Facts:

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has disappeared from radars about 40 minutes after take off from Kuala Lumpur. According to the ADS-B data the wide body was cruising at 35,000 feet at 471 knots. Last ADS-B data from the aircraft was collected at 17:21:03.

Weather was fairly good and no turbulence was reported before the aircraft was lost.

Between 17:19 and 17:20 the aircraft turned right, changing heading from 25 to 40 degrees. Someone said this is a sign the aircraft was turning back to Kuala Lumpur or had already experienced an in-flight problem. However, the change in heading was probably performed in accordance with the FPL (Flight Plane) as the plane did the same, at the same position, on Mar. 4, 2014.

The last location tracked by Flightradar24 is Lat: 6.97 Lon: 103.63.

The FR24 coverage in that area is good up to 30,000 feet: at lower altitudes, aircraft are invisible to the network’s receiving stations.

What happened after 17:21:03?

ADS-B transponders transmit data twice per second but FlightRadar24.com samples data (speed, position, altitude) every 10-60 second depending on altitude: MH370 data was collected every half minute during the last 10 minutes.

So, the receiving station was expecting to collect and store data from MH370 around 17:21:33. Since no data was saved past 17:21:03 there are three possibilities:

a) The aircraft disintegrated mid-air;

b) The aircraft plunged more than 5,000 feet in 30 seconds (from 35,000 to less than 30,000, where, as said, it was invisible to radars): a steep dive that would equal to 10,000 feet per minute rate of descent or more;

c) The aircraft onboard ADS-B transponder was switched off or failed.

What we don’t know yet:

Since no debris was found yet, we don’t know what happened aboard MH370. Actually, we can’t even be 100 percent sure it crashed (even if it is likely). As already explained, it may take days or weeks to find the debris at sea, months to recover parts of the plane from the sea (even though the Gulf of Thailand is not as deep as the Atlantic Ocean and recovery would be faster than that of AF447 which crashed in 2009).

It is still hard to say whether the two passengers using stolen passports had an active role in the mishap.

Several theories:

Structural collapse: unlikely. The aircraft was flying at cruising altitude. No turbulence reported. Still, possible.

– Hijacking went wrong: the crew may have suffered a cockpit intrusion and the aircraft might have plunged because of a fight in the cockpit. Or the hijacking attempt may have been conducted by the pilot or copilot (as happened for recent Ethiopian airlines flight).

– Terrorist attack: possible, even if the lack of claim of responsibility makes it a bit less likely as time goes by.

– Suicide: unlikely, as suicide victim usually leaves a message behind.

– Uncommanded bomb detonation: terrorists were carrying a bomb to China, but the bomb detonated unexpectedly.

– Unknown aircraft system failure: a catastrophic failure to any on board system or the lack of cabin pressurization that forced the crew to perform a sudden steep descent but left the plane uncontrollable or the crew unconscious as is dived towards the sea. The fact that the crew did not radio any mayday is not relevant: “aviate, navigate, communicate” meaning that before using the radio pilots have to keep the aircraft in the air, navigate towards the nearest landing field and then communicate the emergency to the ATC (Air Traffic Control).

Midair collision with another plane: much unlikely. At 35,000 feet both aircraft should have been under radar control or at least visible, unless it was some sort of military/stealth plane climbing to or descending from higher altitudes.

– Missile: fired from a ship or from another plane, by mistake or on purpose (unlikely).

All the articles about MH370 can be read here (scroll down).

Image credit: FR24

 

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  • R.Lopaka

    Very good analysis.

    • Simon Fraser

      “The combination of primary and secondary radar creates a “target” on the controller’s screen, along with a “data box” that gives further details about the aircraft.”

      Yes and this is married with and compared to the filed Flight plan data to make that data block the Controller sees on their screen. If the returned dat doesn’t match the filed flight plan it must be queried by the Controller

  • CharleyA

    ADS-B transmitters aboard the aircraft, and ADS-B receivers on the ground are independent of ground based radar – in other words, they are two separate systems. Ground based surveillance / enroute radars transmit energy that is reflected off the aircraft and back to the radar receiver, creating a “primary” radar return. That same radar energy also triggers the transponder aboard the aircraft to transmit info that identifies the aircraft and provides its altitude. This system is called “secondary” radar. The combination of primary and secondary radar creates a “target” on the controller’s screen, along with a “data box” that gives further details about the aircraft. ADS-B is a newer system that does not rely on radar to fix the aircraft’s position. Instead, all pertinent info about the aircraft is computed onboard (like position, speed, altitude, heading, id, etc.,) then is transmitted down to a ground station (or up to a satellite) to be displayed on the controller’s screen. Many online aircraft tracking sites utilize ADS-B data, but usually not radar data. If the ADS-B data stream is lost, that does not necessarily mean that the radar derived target data is lost as well. What is unclear from reporting so far is whether the aircraft was under actual radar surveillance, or ADS-B only tracking. Conceivably, if radar coverage was poor in the area (and probably gets worse as altitude decreases,) the aircraft might be on land somewhere in the jungles.

  • R.Lopaka

    No ACARS data?

  • Misterwriter

    Why is it not possible for hijackers to descend to low altitude and avoid radar holes? Remember that hours passed before anyone started checking all odd possibilities. If it was a hijacking then planning went into this. http://www.misterwriter.info

  • Vito Boscaino

    Why was US Military searching in Straits of Malacca from the beginning if it wasn’t known until yesterday that the aircraft may have turned and headed back? US Military obviously had information that other search parties did not. Wonder who is hiding what here?

    • P3 is a Subhunter or an ELINT bird? Launch detected from an unknown sub?

  • R.Lopaka

    Don’t think Malaysian Airline/Gov is being completely honest/forthcoming as many in the west are accustomed.

  • JDH

    Let me ask something that has been bothering me. Would these countries in this region, i.e. Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, not have military radar instillations around their coastlines? And if so, wouldn’t they have been able to track the flight as soon as it went off civilian radar and or ADS-B?

  • johnm

    “if” the plane was “detected at 2.40am near Pulau Perak” (The Guardian), has anyone plotted circle of max flying distance vs remaining fuel from that point?

  • Anon

    Onboard fire… Smoke, fumes affect the crew, who turn the aircraft then succumb, leaving it heading west across the peninsula, eventually crashing hundreds of miles away

  • name

    what about the 2 CES planes coming in? don’t they have radar contact with the flight?

  • Ace K

    Quite detailed explanations and plausible except the part “Suicide: unlikely, as suicide victim usually leaves a message behind.” To say that a suicide is unlikely just because there wasn’t a message left behind is ridiculous. I know a friend of mine who committed suicide and did not leave a message at all. If I ever attempt suicide I wouldn’t leave a message as well just for the sake of mystery. And, I would like to have an explanation why a missile from a ship is unlikely, all of the theories were properly explained except that one. Thanks.

  • alien

    Look at the flight data carefully and the way MH370 flies (U turn more than 180 degrees, zig zag flight path, 45000 ft and then descended 29,500 ft, 23,000 ft). Most probably, after switching to autopilot, MH370 accidentally entered into an alien mothership and the satellite data that we got showing the alien mothership instead of MH370. Don’t laugh yet. Witnesses saw pear shape white lights aircraft flying low (humming sound) on the same day MH370 disappeared near Marang towards South China sea – but we can now rule out that it was MH370 flying toward South China sea.

  • jake

    OMFG get over it world. the plane is gone STFU already

  • thara ravishanker

    if it was a hijacking, it was a 9/11 type hijacking.