“I’m sure: MH370 escaped in the shadow of another plane” retired Air Force Colonel says

A retired trained radar navigator and tactics officer is sure: the MH370 flight escaped detection trailing another plane met somewhere over the Strait of Malacca.

There’s an old adage “hide in plain sight,” says Ed Pernotto, a reader of The Aviationist who is a retired AF Reserve Colonel, flew B-52Gs, FB-111s, and HC-130s from Okinawa and has flown with armed forces of Malaysia and Thailand.

As we mentioned a few days back, shadowing another plane at cruising altitude along one of the airways usually used by aircraft flying from Asia to Europe was one of the few ways the Malaysia Airlines MH370 could escape detection by ground radar.

The former radar navigator instructor and tactics officer backs this theory.

“When you fly over water or from point to point, pilots are frequently directed to change frequencies, told to turn, climb, descend, you name it. This is all “in the clear” and not privileged communications, anyone with the right radio on the right frequency would hear it. So, this pilot has planned this out to the nth degree and as he’s coming back across the Malay peninsula, he’s looking to fall in behind another airliner and shadow that airplanes flight path.”

The scenario Pernotto describes may sound unlikely (as many others) but not impossible.

By maintaining the so-called “listening watch” on the proper radio frequencies (while all the transmitting devices were silenced), MH370 pilot in command (co-pilot? hijacker?) “could simply have slipped in behind a northbound airliner and flown slightly higher and behind by a mile or two matching the speed and not exceeding the airliner in front of them.”

For those wondering: no, TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) would not trigger any alert, since it is based on transponder data and MH370 had switched it off.

“They would hear the ATC controller tell them what frequency to change to and match the flight. Now, to a ground radar controller, it would appear as one or two “blips” depending on how close they were. In fact, “ghost images” are VERY common for radar operators. A ghost image is when 1 airplane creates two or more blips because of latency of radars as they “paint” the airplane. This is how they could fool the radar operators then and now, they are hiding in the radar return of another airplane. When they get close to the field, the slip off unnoticed in the middle of China, pull the throttles back, and make a very quiet approach and landing at their destination,” Pernotto explains.

Even if it would be a really difficult maneuver, made visually, at night without radar help and with very few hints to properly estimate reciprocal speeds, altitudes etc, it would not be impossible, at least on paper.

Someone has studied times and routes and suggested Singapore SIA68 flight might be a good candidate to provide MH370 proper masking.
However, I believe that it would be extremely difficult to catch up with another plane, not only ahead of MH370 by several miles but also at higher altitude: the distance required to intercept it would be quite large (thus exposing the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 to detection by some air defense radar guarding some nearby airspaces).

I think that waiting for a plane some minutes flight time behind would be easier: MH370 would just need to fly a bit slower for some minutes until reached by another plane. Some readers pointed out the presence of a KLM flight some 20 – 25 minutes behind the Malaysian 777 at the time of the last recorded radar return over the Strait of Malacca.

Obviously, neither such a maneuver would be too easy as “seeing” the KLM flight approaching from behind would be quite difficult.

Image credit: AFP

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


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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. * what do you think about this:
    is the black box sending any signals with the ACARS turned off?

    “In my personal opinion if the plane had crashed, the black box beacon
    would have sent a signal as the vibration of the G-force (force of
    gravity, when the crash occurred) would have triggered it,”

    * and what about this:
    does it mean that switching off acars meant nothing? (but just a routine thing on that route)

    “It is MAS (Malaysian Airlines) procedure to switch ACARS, VHF, and High Frequency selection
    off, but this is only for flights to China as the service provider for
    Mas does not cover China. Some if not all pilots switch them all off for
    a while and then later switch SATCOMM back on to force the system into
    SATCOMM mode.”

    more: MISSING MH370: ACARS cannot be disabled – Latest – New Straits

  2. Whatever happened to the Flight Malaysia Airlines MH370, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough.

    There could have possibly been a cockpit fire that simply burned the
    plane in the air and also cut off radar and all other communications.
    The Boeing 777, registration 9M-MRO, was delivered new to Malaysia Airlines
    on May 31, 2002. The tip of the wing of the same aircraft broke off
    Aug. 9, 2012, as it was taxiing at Pudong International Airport outside
    Shanghai. The wingtip collided with the tail of a China Eastern Airlines
    A340 plane. The aircraft was powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 892
    engines. Almost 12 years old Boeing 777 had accumulated over 20,000 hours and 3,000 cycles in service.

    The stolen passports are not necessarily related to the disappearance of
    the plane since passengers use false identities for illegal

    The disaster is most similar to the mysterious disappearance of Air France Flight
    447, which killed all 228 people on board. Investigations were unable
    to conclusively come up with a reason for the crash of the Airbus A330
    until the plane’s black boxes – its flight and voice data recorders –
    were recovered from the bottom of the ocean two years later.

    Air France flight Flight 447 provided a cautionary tale against
    premature speculation. The accident was initially blamed by the airline
    on a thunderstorm. Later, investigators pinpointed ice that caused
    faulty speed sensor readings on the plane. But data recovered after a
    two-year search led authorities to conclude that pilot error had also
    played a part – the crew’s handling of the plane after the auto-pilot
    was disengaged put it into a stall from which it could not recover.

    Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370′s disappearance marks the fourth hull loss of a Boeing 777
    – the previous being Asiana Airlines Flight 214 with three fatalities.
    In 2005, during a flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur the crew received a
    “stall warning” forcing the pilot to turn back. On Jul 29, 2011 an
    Egyptair flight MS-667 – Boeing 777-200, registration SU-GBP was
    preparing for departure from Cairo (Egypt) to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) at
    gate F7 with 291 passengers already boarded waiting for a delayed last
    passenger until doors could be closed .when a fire erupted in the
    cockpit causing smoke to also enter the cabin. Emergency exits were not
    opened, all passengers vacated the aircraft through the smoke and the
    main doors.What a lucky set of crew and passengers. Imagine the horror
    had they been airborne.The aircraft was subsequently written off as
    beyond economical repair.

    The more worrying part of the report on the Egypt Air fire was that the
    investigation discovered the suspect wiring and it’s brackets did not
    comply with the Boeing blueprints and a very large batch of 777s had
    been delivered with the same fault.

    If such a fire occurred at FL 350 (35,000 ft), on an aircraft flying
    850 km/h (475 knots), it is plausible to assume it would be
    catastrophic. For context, the strongest Category 5 hurricanes ever
    recorded had sustained winds of only’ 340 km/h, strong enough to destroy
    many buildings that are not made of steel-reinforced concrete.

    If such a quick and devastating cockpit fire occurred aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, it could be consistent with some of the known facts:

    * communications being cut abruptly (pilots struggling to extinguish it, speed of fire, electronics destroyed)

    * no mayday signals sent (no time before cockpit uninhabitable due to smoke and fire, and/or instruments destroyed),

    * the transponder going down,

    * no calls from passengers (too high for cell-phone contact, no time, panic)

    * perhaps the “mumbling” when another pilot radioed (e.g. if static or 500 mph wind sounded like mumbling),

    * perhaps a change of course and/or altitude (if the plane continued to
    fly for some time, even with the cockpit electronics destroyed due to a
    growing fire),

    * perhaps the plane suddenly disappearing once the fire reached some
    critical point (e.g. perhaps igniting fuel tanks or cabin oxygen tanks,
    or the nose-cone/windshield being breached and a catastrophic rush of
    air ripping through the plane, etc.), and

    * possibly (though less likely) the fire even reaching temperatures above 1,100 C, thereby damaging the flight data recorder.

    Evidently the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System –
    ACARS went inoperative few minutes before the last communications with
    the pilot. Disabling the ACARS is not easy,. Most probably an electrical
    problem or an electrical fire cause the shutdown of the ACARS than a
    manual shutdown and the pilots probably were not even aware ACARS was
    not transmitting. Things could have been in the process of going wrong,
    unknown to the pilots. The loss of transponders and communications were
    most probably caused by an electrical fire. In the case of an electrical
    fire, the first response is to pull the main busses and restore
    circuits one by one until the bad one is isolated. If pilots pulled the
    busses, the plane would go silent. It was probably a very serious fire
    and the pilots were occupied with controlling the plane and trying to
    fight the cokpit fire. Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the
    only way in such situations. Probably the pilot was turning towards the
    closest airpot – Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach
    over water and no obstacles. The did not turn towards Kuala Lampur most
    probably due to the fact that he had 8,000-foot ridges to cross. The
    pilot obviously knew the terrain was friendlier towards Langkawi, which
    also was closest airport.

    There are two types of fires. An electrical fire might not be as fast
    and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However
    there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat
    on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started
    slowly burning due to under inflated tires, especially with heavy plane
    and long-run takeoff. A front landing gear tire fire would produce
    horrific, incapacitating smoke. On departing Kuala Lumpur, Flight 370
    would have had fuel for 8 hours of flying. The flight burned almost 25%
    in the first hour with takeoff and the climb to cruise. So when the turn
    was made the flight would have had more than 6 hours worth of fuel. The
    pilots were overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading,
    probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel and it crashed.
    This correlates nicely with the Inmarsat data pings being received
    until fuel exhaustion. The flight continued until time to fuel
    exhaustion confirms that the pilots were incapacitated and the flight
    continued on deep into the South Indian Ocean.

    Much of the wreckage may be at the bottom of the South Indian Ocean. The
    size of the debris field will be one of the first indicators of what
    happened. A smaller field would indicate the plane probably fell
    intact, breaking up upon impact with the water. Discovering the debris
    can take days. If it is due to a deadly mechanical breakdown then
    Malaysia Airlines should take the blame

  3. First, Ignore the moniker. It’s a gag. My take on why flight MH370 crossed Inmarsat sweep path:

    To first arrive at ANY scenario, I would first deconstruct from first data point indicating first deviation from established protocol. That is the first transponder being turned off. You then can start following events and at each bifurcation of possibilities the next known event would logically give rise to, you then follow the most likely choices through. This is going to produce multiple ‘maps’ of possibilities through a course of time. I’m going to take you through the pilot hijack scenario.

    Since it is now known that at the first data point (transponder off), we know that is not done as SOP by either of the crew, so we can follow the likelihood that one or both crew members have at that time or before initiated a hijacking. Now you investigate the crew for SHARED interests that might enhance the credibility that two ‘dudes’ could agree on anything, let alone something with such grave consequences. If you can’t established ‘something’ within a few days that shows a shared link to some ideology, then (staying on the pilot theory) it was only one of them.

    That means one of several possibilities, the simplest being that the one not involved got up just after TOC (top of climb) for a comfort break. This would actually be the expected (and most physiologically probable) time for either the PIC or F/O to leave the flight deck, meaning that the hijacker/pilot can now simply lock the door behind him and take control of the aircraft. Other scenarios, struggle for control ect lead to the same conclusion, so it doesn’t matter HOW it was accomplished; just that it was possibly accomplished. So where are we?

    Now the aircraft makes some maneuvers (possibly a climb to FL450). We just don’t know for sure but we do know that a heading of appr. 270 was established resulting in an over flight of both Malaysian and Thai airspace. WHY would you chance an over fly of BOTH airspaces if your intent was to keep flying to some – as of now – unknown destination. Answer: you would not. You have just increased the probability of detection by 100% (assuming all other unknowns like radar capabilities ect are even between the two airspaces). That equates to a DECREASE by 50% in mission success. DUMB. If we are even following this scenario, we know that the hijacker was anything but dumb. He simply didn’t care about Thai airspace picking him up because he knew they would and wouldn’t care, or would not This is his home base and so would in fact be known 100% either they would or would not. He knew this info for sure, but we will never know why he still did not just over fly one country and not both.

    Now, the aircraft enters Malacca straits and flies to two waypoints in close proximity to one another. There is no reason to fly an aircraft that is being hijacked to waypoints. You would simply fly it to your destination taking evasive actions as required.

    UNLESS: You knew this. That ACARS would attempt to handshake at precisely time X. You KNOW that there is no contract to transmit data, but that a handshake attempt will take place at time X. You know that as long as ACARS Boeing sees that ACARS MH370 is within the flight group (of expected waypoints), no bells go off. That explains the aircraft staying on waypoints while both transponders were off.

    Now you’re loitering along over the Malacca straits with the aircraft totally electronically ‘black’ with the exception of the one system you couldn’t shut off – the ACARS blip. You turn to a north heading and with your NAV and cabin lighting off, you visually watch the NAV lights of the multitude of traffic climbing out of Kuala Lumpur on the north departures while listening to departure control. You know the times of the north bound traffic which will become the west-bound flights to Sri Lanka and India and beyond, and you simply pick up a predetermined aircraft corresponding with expected and radioed position, concur your aircraft in your visual as being the flight you predetermined to follow, and follow it north near the Andaman Islands. This is easily accomplished using nothing more than your radios and your eyes. You could also easily use a downloaded app on you cell phone to accomplish this feat, while maintaining visual and electronic ‘black’.

    You follow that aircraft as it turns westerly and out of the Andaman Sea into the Bay of Bengal/north Indian. Without this ‘lead’ aircraft, you would be reduced to using what is called dead reckoning navigation. With the aircraft totally black, there is nothing below to use to dead reckon on electronically or visually since you are now traversing an expansive ocean devoid of visual navigation points. BUT you now don’t need anything; you simply tail the aircraft (which you know everything about in advance as to their flight path, cruise altitude and destination ect). You just slipped out of all radar and have someone leading the way WITH radar which you are surreptitiously stealing as your own navigation instrument.
    But where are you going? You’re going to meet your next “guide” aircraft, which is a legal private flight and you just divert off from the close tail you had on (flt068) approaching the Indian coast and while in between radar coverage to the east and west, the two planes assume close formation and fly on a northerly heading up through Burma ect. The ACARS will keep pinging, but it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t reveal your position.

    Here’s where it gets reeeeeally smaaart. The two aircraft over fly several countries into China’s airspace eventually. Why China? Because it is known in advance that you are going to use the Inmarsat satellite’s wide arc which you know will reveal your position as being somewhere along that arc as you cross that arc. You NEED to cross that arc, which on the northern axis of the arc, is in China/Kazakhstan. But why do you NEED to cross that arc?

    Because the second you do, your position (to the rest of the world which will inevitably look for you) is now EFFECTIVELY anywhere along that arc in a width that can then be determined by ciphering you TTFE from whatever multitudes of individual positions along that arc. In graphical terms, you have created an arc stretching from China to the southern Indian Ocean several hours of flying time wide, and your position could now be effectively determined to by ANYHWERE within that wide arc, but no where SPECIFIC within that wide arc. You just cloaked yourself by flying over that arc, your position can now only be ciphered as being within an impossibly large sweep of land/sea area. THAT’s why you crossed over that arc before TTFE (time to fuel extinguish) AND with enough fuel plus reserve/divert to follow your chase plane (if it’s still required) to you final destination. By taking the path you have and allowing maximum time until you need to arrive on destination of the arc of the Inmarsat, you have broadened to maximum the tangent along that arc that you could possibly have crossed it, thus maximally conflagrating your true position. You’ve screwed Boeing and everyone else looking for. You have also widened your time window until your position will be successfully found.

    It’s pure genius to cross that arc when they did, because TTFE now cannot possibly be ascertained and plotted to a known position relative to LOS (loss of signal). You could have gone south, you could have gone north, and no one NO ONE can possibly know for sure. Otherwise, Boeing would be able to tell where you are. But by using the satellite AGAINST ACARS, you now have effectively shut Boeing down from being able to triangulate you using fuel burn time against other ‘knowns’. That arc is very effectively a giant Bermuda Triangle electronically, in the way that you have used it against ACARS.

    In this scenario, the plane, obviously hijacked is most probably in a ‘Stan’. It’s been fueled and moved again possibly to a location with a hangar door wider than 200 ft. (Now you have to hide it) and use the aircraft and passengers, if they are alive, in whatever way you intended.

    • I find it odd that everyone concerned was so quick to dismiss/overlook the two Iranians traveling on fake passports. And the plane was taken to 47,000′ according to reports, which would lend itself to the theory that the passengers were culled at altitude; unfortunately not still alive. The question is this: Is the value of a Boeing 777 sufficient to make plausible the idea that the plane was simply stolen? If the cost to repaint/tag/serialize the plane was a small enough percentage of the salvage or “grey market” value of the plane, we can’t rule out that this is just a simple airplane theft. However, if that were the case one might reasonably assume that this would happen more often. I suspect that there was something of particular importance or value aboard this particular flight; probably in the cargo hold.

  4. Simple. Hijacked by one of the pilots. Ghosted the passengers at 45k. Dropped to 21k. Placed the plane on autopilot and bailed out over land.

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