Ten days after it vanished, the theories about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are traveling faster than a selfie at the Academy Awards.
The Beijing-bound Boeing 777 with 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers on board is the subject of intense worldwide scrutiny. More than 25 nations, including the U.S., are taking part in search efforts across an area of 2.24 million nautical miles, from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.
But no one can find it.
Did the pilots bring it down or hijack it? Were they forced to change course? New material from the Thai government on Tuesday strengthened the notion that the jet veered sharply westward after communication was lost – but the reasons remain unclear.
Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, air travel blogger and author of Cockpit Confidential, has been following the developments and says that some of the wilder theories about what occurred can be dismissed, while one can’t – at least not yet:
The Radar Ruse. One notion is that the missing jet “tucked up underneath a Singapore Airlines 777, causing the two planes’ radar signatures to appear as one,” reports Smith.
The theory is from a self-described hobby pilot and aviation enthusiast, Keith Ledgerwood, who wrote on his Tumblr that – disguised beneath the other plane and with its communication systems turned off – the Malaysia jet flew on, undetected for hours until it finally broke away and likely crashed somewhere.
This idea, says Smith, fails to explain how the Malaysia jet could have completed its secret diversion without being seen once it separated from the Singapore flight – to say nothing of why such a difficult and elaborate plot would have been undertaken by someone in the first place.
The theory is really about “an aviation hobbyist showing off a little,” says Smith. He says that if the Malaysia plane had been flying just below the Singapore 777, “the latter plane’s radar altimeter, displaying physical distance to objects below, would have shown it.”
The Hijacking Notion. The “long history of air piracy did not begin and end with September 11th, 2001,” says Smith. So “it’s important not to view every hijacking through the crucible of the 9/11 template. People hijack planes for different reasons – it may even have been a rogue crewmember.”
If Flight 370 was hijacked, as some investigators have suggested, Smith says there are still many unanswered questions. “Did the plane land somewhere, possibly to be used later as an airborne weapon of some kind, perhaps loaded with a nuclear or biological weapon? I seriously doubt it.”
He suspects the plane instead crashed into the ocean and will be discovered there eventually. “Remote as some airports are, none are small or unwatched enough to accept a Boeing 777 without it being obvious,” he says.
The Disintegration Idea. Smith calls this idea “wacky.” “Would it be possible for the 777 to have climbed clear out of the atmosphere, so high that ‘it disintegrated,’ went into orbit or otherwise became impossible to track or locate?”
The answer, he says, is a definite no. “Totally impossible. At a certain altitude, a plane’s engines will no longer provide enough power and the wings will no longer provide enough lift. The plane will no longer be able to sustain flight. All commercial passenger jets have maximum certified cruising altitudes below 50,000 feet or so. Even this altitude isn’t always reachable. The maximum altitude at a given time depends on the plane’s weight, the air temperature and other factors.”
The Emergency Response. Here’s one theory that actually merits attention. This theory explains Flight 370’s abrupt off-course turn as a response to an in-flight emergency of some kind, perhaps an electrical fire or a tire that went aflame in the front landing gear.
Pilot Chris Goodfellow advanced this idea on Google+ and then in Wired, saying that, while aiming to make an emergency landing, the crew was overcome by smoke or fumes. With the autopilot on and its course reprogrammed, “the plane then continued on for a time before crashing.”
Smith says this theory “is described as ‘startlingly simple,’ but there’s nothing startling about it. Goodfellow, in fact, puts forth the same idea that I did” several days ago.
On March 14, Smith wrote on his blog:
“…Was the crew diverting to a nearby airport because of a fire or some other emergency? Did the plane crash shortly thereafter; or were the pilots overcome by smoke or fumes, at which point [the] plane continued for a length of time? It’d be interesting to see what some of their divert options were at the point when the jet fell out of contact…”
Smith says that other people have also suggested “the same thing, more or less, once it was revealed that the plane had made an off-course turn. This remains a perfectly plausible theory — a lot more plausible than some of those we’ve been hearing.”
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