Into Oblivion: Understanding MH 370

“Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” ― Charles Spurgeon

The Australian Edition of International Business Times carried the following article in its issue published 07 July 2014. The same story was also seen published in a variety of other newspapers and periodicals with some minor differences, but retaining the essence of the story.

“In the continuing saga of theories put forward by investigators tasked to find the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Australian authorities said a power outage could have hit the Boeing 777 jet.

“Experts think the power outage was deliberate to avoid radar detection. Four months since the plane disappeared without a trace, investigators are apparently returning to the theory that the pilot, X, deliberately hijacked the plane en route to Beijing with 329 people on board and possibly ran out of fuel after he changed course…

“…The interruption of the jet’s power supply is likely the result of a person in the cockpit who attempted to minimize the use of the aircraft’s system. David Gleave, aviation expert from the Loughborough University, explained, “It could be a deliberate act to switch off both engines for some time. By messing about within the cockpit, you could switch off the power temporarily, and switch it on again, when you need the other system to fly the plane.”

Without comment on the “expert” status of these unnamed experts, I wish to highlight that:

• One does not need to shut down power to entire aircraft to minimize use of cockpit systems or to avoid Radar detection. Mere switching off, or pulling out the circuit breakers, would achieve the aim of the respective systems being disabled.

• While shutting down the transponder would hide the aircraft from Secondary Radar, we know from the earlier discussion on primary radar, there is no way this would hide the aircraft from being detected by a Primary Radar. It is illogical to believe that someone who had the knowledge to switch-off transponders and hide from secondary radar would not know about Primary Radar coverage over the Malay Peninsula. Analyses of the complete circumstances do not indicate any evidence of an intentional attempt to hide from Radar.

• The fact that the aircraft suffered a power outage does not constitute evidence that the Pilot hijacked the plane.

• The fact that the Pilots could have switched off the transponders does not constitute evidence that they actually did switch them off.

• With all due respect to Mr. David Gleave, I hope that he has been either misquoted or quoted out of context. It is important to remember that we are not talking here of a car, truck or ship that is on the surface of earth/ocean. Aircraft fly due to an airflow that is generated over their wings as a result of their speed that is maintained by virtue of the power delivered by their engines. Switching off of the engines, as suggested by the publication, would cause the aircraft to lose power and hence lose its ability to fly. At best, it could then have glided for about a 100 nautical miles, converting its height (Potential Energy) into speed (Kinetic Energy). This is the simplest of applications of the Law of Conservation of Energy. The wreckage, in such a case, would have been found inside a 100nm circle centered at the 17:22 GMT position. It certainly could not have flown across the Malay Peninsula, maintaining speeds in region of 550 knots, for 64 minutes until restoration of power at 18:25 GMT.

• The flight path and speeds maintained by MH370 are a clear indication that there was no problem with its engines. The engines continued to generate expected thrust throughout its flight until the aircraft ran out of fuel just minutes before the last log-on request and incomplete handshake at 00:19 GMT on 08 March 2014.

• The main power sources on a 777ER aircraft are a left integrated drive generator (IDG) and a right IDG, powered by the left and right engines respectively. An auxiliary power unit (APU) can supply power if either or both of the IDGs are unavailable. If power from the left IDG were lost, then a bus tie breaker would close and power would be automatically transferred from the right AC bus. Similarly, if power were lost from the right AC bus, power would be automatically transferred from the left AC bus. This power switching is brief and critical components are designed to ‘hold-up’ during such power interruptions. To experience a power interruption sufficiently long to force equipment shut-down would require a loss of both AC buses or, a disabling of the automatic switching. Following the loss of AC power on both buses, all equipment on board would have experienced a power interruption sufficiently long to force a shut-down. The aircraft’s ram air turbine (RAT) would deploy from the fuselage into the aircraft’s slipstream and the APU would auto-start. The APU would take approximately one minute to start-up and come ‘on-line’ after which time it would provide electrical power to all essential electrical systems on-board.

• This allows us to conclude that the loss of power experienced between 17:21 and 18:25 GMT was not due to failure of any electrical generation capacity, but due to a manual and intentional shut-down.

• However, this does not provide evidence that the shut-down was due to any intent to defraud or hijack. The subsequent flight path and events suggest that this was in response to some other event that caused the integrity of the electrical system to be suspected and forced a response of immediate disconnection to all power sources. Later, having resolved that problem, an attempt was made, at 18:25 GMT, to power-up the electrical systems and restore normal flight.

The analysis so far brings us to the two most crucial questions in this mystery:

  1. What was the event that occurred at 17:21 GMT, that forced electrical systems to be switched off and the large change in heading?
  2. Why normal flight to return for landing could not be achieved after the power was restored at 18:25 GMT?

In my opinion, these are the two most crucial questions whose answers will solve this mystery.

The Human mind is an amazing machine. As someone that has used one such product for over 50 years, and has made a concerted and focused attempt to understand why people do what they do, how they make decisions and why they make mistakes, I can speak with confidence about the ability of human mind to close loops and fill-in gaps where information is not available. This ability of the human mind to extrapolate, to draw likeliness and hence “complete the loop” has been an essential attribute in our survival as a species through scores of turbulent aeons.

I had briefly covered the subject in the ultimate chapters of my book “Waiting…To Happen!” but, we the humans have a need for closure and go to extreme lengths to achieve this aim. A mystery like MH370, that leaves a gap in our understanding while at the same time challenges our sense of security and control, causes us to feel very uncomfortable because it represents how little we know and understand of the technology that we depend on so avidly. It also represents how small we are in the larger context of the Earth and how even objects hundreds of meters in size can still vanish without a trace, despite all the surveillance technologies we have developed. In short, an event like this forces us to face all our insecurities, fears and inadequacies.

Different individuals react differently to such events. To some, reaching a closure is so important that they jump to the conclusion of blaming any individual that could have been responsible, without seeking or waiting for any evidence towards the actual involvement of that person. This is exactly what one needs to guard against. While it is important to be aware of how someone could have influenced the course of events, it is also important, in the larger scheme of things, to not attribute blame without any conclusive evidence of such involvement.

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