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18 March 2014

Four plausible scenarios for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

It has been more than 10 days since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a 777-200ER, deviated from its intended route during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China. Since then, no trace of the aircraft has been found, and the fate of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members is unknown. Some of the circumstances around the disappearance of the aircraft, especially the lack of any communication from the aircraft after it radically changed course, has led to speculation in the media and elsewhere about why the aircraft went missing.

Although there is currently no physical evidence from the aircraft or data from the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder (the black boxes) that can help investigators and the public understand what happened and why it happened, there is a substantial amount of other information, including radar data and data relayed from the aircraft to a satellite, that provide insights into the general kinds of situations that the crew may have had to deal with.

The investigation into the disappearance of the flight is still in the earliest phases, but that has not prevented the media and the public from speculating about what happened to the flight. While many possible scenarios have been put forth by the public and the media, some are much more plausible given the available evidence. Based on that evidence and a comparison with a number of past accidents, incidents, and acts of sabotage or hijacking; the following four scenarios are consistent with what is known about the behavior of the flight.

  1. Hijacking not involving the crew - One or more of the passengers hijacked the plane against the wishes of the flight crew and cabin crew.
  2. Hijacking involving the crew - One or more flight crew or cabin crew members hijacked the plane, possibly with the help of one or more hijackers from among the passengers.
  3. An extraordinary situation involving one or more aircraft systems - The deviations from the expected route and departures from normal procedures, including turning off transponders and other systems, could have been done by the crew in order to deal with a situation that put the aircraft at extreme risk. It is very likely in such a situation that a crew would exercise both initiative and creativity and take whatever steps were necessary, including disengaging, reconfiguring, or shutting down numerous systems, in order to maintain control of the aircraft.
  4. Inaction from the crew - The 777 has a complex flight control system that in some circumstances may be able to keep the aircraft in controlled flight without further input from the crew, even if no specific flight plan had been programmed by the crew, until the jet's fuel is exhausted.

Combinations of scenarios
It is possible that none of these general scenarios explain what happened. It is also possible that flight MH370 went through two or more of these scenarios, such as a hijacking followed by extraordinary attempts to regain control of the aircraft. Should additional information, specifically the information from the black boxes, become available, that information will likely clarify what actually took place.

Why would the crew not communicate with ATC? Pilots, no matter what kind of aircraft they may be flying, are taught to have three general priorities in an emergency. The first is to aviate, or to maintain control of the aircraft. The second is to navigate, which is to determine both one's location and intended flight path. The least important of these three priorities is to communicate, or to let someone else, including air traffic controllers or the cabin crew, know your plans or your needs.

The fact that the crew did not speak to air traffic controllers or to other aircraft after deviating from their flight plan could be do to many causes, including malfunctioning communications equipment or because they were not allowed to do so. It is also conceivable that there were attempts to communicate, but that no one heard them.

What is needed to understand this event Ideally, if the aircraft is recovered intact, and all of the crew and passengers are alive, there will be plenty of evidence from witness statements, black box data, and even from the personal electronic devices of passengers, and this evidence will likely answer all of the key questions surrounding this flight. However, even this ideal scenario won't include all of the relevant data because the cockpit voice recorder only records roughly the last two hours of cockpit conversations and radio communications, so there would be no recorded cockpit conversations from the early phases of the flight when the aircraft deviated from its flight plan.

If there are no crew or passengers available for interviews, it may become very important for the investigating authorities to recover as many potential recording devices such as tablets and mobile phones that may have been carried by passengers and crew members. These devices may provide direct or indirect evidence of what went on during the course of the flight.


BBC radio interview from 13 March 2014 discussing the possibility that the aircraft continued to fly for several hours.

NTN 24 La Tarde interview from 13 March 2014 discussing the investigation (Spanish)

14 March 2014

How far Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have flown

The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines continues, with recent evidence suggesting that the aircraft may have flown for at least four hours beyond its last known position. The following graphic published 14 March 20114 by the Washington Post illustrates the possible maximum range of the aircraft given the amount of fuel it had at takeoff (about seven hours worth), and the maximum range assuming four hours of flight after last contact.

This graphic illustrates several things that will give you an idea of just how difficult the search for this 777 may be:

  • Potential locations: Countries within a radius of four hours flying time (2,400 statue miles or about 3,900 km) include parts or all of Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Palau, East Timor, and the Maldives Islands. Bodies of water include parts or all of the South China Sea, the Sea of Thailand, the Andaman Sea, the western Pacific Ocean, and the central and eastern Indian Ocean.
  • Potential size of the search area: A circle with a radius of 2,400 statue miles has a surface area about 18,095,600 square miles, or 46,847,250 square km, is an area slightly bigger than the combined surface areas of the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil, and China.
  • Extent of search area: A circle with a 2,400 mile radius, has a 4,800 mile diameter, which is roughly the distance between the following city pairs:
    • Moscow and Washington, DC
    • Havana and Honolulu
    • Harare and Rio de Janeiro
    • Mumbai and the North Pole

Dr. Curtis 16 March 2014 Radio New Zealand interview (14:11)
Dr. Curtis 15 March 2014 BBC interview (8:58)
Dr. Curtis 13 March 2014 BBC interview (7:23)
Other 777 events

BBC radio interview from 13 March 2014 discussing the possibility that the aircraft continued to fly for several hours.

NTN 24 La Tarde interview from 13 March 2014 discussing the investigation (Spanish)

11 March 2014

Stolen passports and Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

The ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370; a 777 that went missing about an hour after it departed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for Beijing, China; continues to have a high level of media interest because no trace of the aircraft has yet to be found.

One of the leads that are being pursued by several authorities, including law enforcement agencies, was the use of stolen passports by two passengers.

These two men, Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Syed Mohammad Reza, 29, are alleged by Malaysian authorities to have used stolen passports to board flight MH370

While there is no evidence that these two passengers had anything to do with the disappearance of the aircraft, it does raise questions about the use of stolen passports and the ability of authorities prevent passengers from traveling with false documents.

A member of the audience provided some information that suggests that the the problem may be more widespread and insidious than just stolen passports. What follows are two alleged incidents of government officials offering passengers cash to engage in what were likely illegal activities.

Incident #1 - Offered $1,000 to carry two bottles
In 2011, this audience member, who was a citizen of India studying in Europe, was traveling from London to India. After arriving in New Delhi, an immigration officer asked him about his final destination. After learning that he was taking a domestic flight to another city in India, the immigration officer offered him the equivalent of $1,000 USD to carry a bag containing two bottles to his destination airport. He refused. Also, he was encouraged by friends and family to NOT report the incident to the police.

Incident #2 - Offered $4,000 to change travel plans
About two years ago, an acquaintance of the audience member was traveling on an international flight from Kuala Lumpur, Maylaysia to Kolkata, India, and at the immigration counter in Malaysia, an immigration officer offered this passenger the equivalent of $4,000 USD to travel to Taiwan rather than to India, and to deliver a pair of suitcases containing toys to someone in Taiwan.

In addition to the money, he was also a two-day stay at a resort in Taiwan. The Malaysian immigration officer also guaranteed that the passenger would get a passport with a Taiwan visa on it within a couple of minutes, which would have enabled that person to travel legally to Taiwan. This person also refused this offer.

If true, these incidents would imply that misuse of passports in air travel is not limited to criminals, but may also involve government officials entrusted with ensuring the safety and security of all airline passengers. The audience member also shared some additional concerns about his experiences:

"I am not sure if immigration officers are checking the honesty of passengers or if there is a network which they are running to make more money. But after learning about some fake passport involved in the flight 370, I think it could have some potential relevance."

Dr. Curtis 16 March 2014 Radio New Zealand interview (14:11)
Dr. Curtis 15 March 2014 BBC interview (8:58)
Dr. Curtis 13 March 2014 BBC interview (7:23)

BBC radio interview from 13 March 2014 discussing the possibility that the aircraft continued to fly for several hours.