The has probably not been a more harrowing mystery behind a fallen airliner than that of Malaysia Air Flight 370. In a previous post, I wrote my initial theory: that the plane had suffered some catastrophic structural failure and went down, rather than the farfetched terrorist theories that had been raised by the media. However, the evidence since then seems to point almost undeniably towards some form of foul play, possibly a hijacking or some other sinister motives that the pilots may have taken with them to their grave.
In recent days a very well thought out theory by Chris Goodfellow, a real life pilot, has made the rounds, alleging that the plane suffered a fire emergency which resulted in the crew switching off many of the electrical systems and proceeding to the nearest large runway they could find: Palau Langkawii, an island off the north-west coast of Malaysia with an international airport. This island just so happens to have been exactly on the flight path that the plane took once it veered off to a different direction at which point, according to Goodfellow, the pilots and the passengers died of asphyxiation while the plane cruised on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. I like the argument, and it is certainly a superior scenario to those brought forth by the conspiracy theorists and the alarmist media. Unfortunately it suffers from various flaws, the first and most obvious being that the plane did not simply travel west: at some point after crossing the peninsula, it veered north west and then gave its last satellite ping somewhere along two possible arcs, neither of which cross the area where it would have crashed if Goodfellow’s theory were to be correct.
So where did the plane crash?
Enter Google Earth. We know that the distance between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing (the plane’s original flight path) is just over 2,800 miles, a distance that would have taken MH370 six hours to complete. Airliners are generally loaded with slightly more fuel than necessary to complete the trip, but not too much: only enough to keep it in the air if for some reason it needs to hover about for some time before landing. So we can safely assume that MH370 had enough fuel for around 3,000 miles. Using Google Earth we can plot exactly were on the two arcs the 3,000 mile point lies which you can see on the maps attached. If the plane had traveled north, it would have reached just past the Himalayas. On the other hand, if the plane had flown south, it would have run out of fuel off the west coast of Australia.
Which of these is most likely? In my opinion (apparently shared by the rescue teams) is that the southern arc is the only truly viable option. Had the plane flown north it would have had to travel over military sensitive territory which means it would have been tracked by radar. The media has put forth theories that perhaps the pilots or hijackers were in collusion with one of the countries or the radar authorities on this path but this seems ridiculous; you would have to cross through India AND China, two countries which are definitely on permanent military alert. Plus, why steal a plane? How do you keep it hidden when satellites are watching over every square kilometer? How do you hide 229 passengers? There’s too many questions that would remain unanswered under a scenario where the plane went north.
The Christmas Island theory
So we have it then that the plane most likely flew south and crashed at some point in the water along the satellite’s southern ark. Why? First of all, if that was its intended destination, then every single action that the crew took seems consistent with trying to avoid radar detection throughout the whole journey. This involved crossing the Malayan peninsula just around the area where Malaysia shares a border with Thailand. Since the plane was crossing west, any radar potentially tracking it would have not have immediately seen it as a threat as it was not flying deeper into Malaysia or Thailand. In any case, being Malayan, the pilots probably already knew that their own military was on a low state of readiness and would therefore not scramble jets when an unknown blip appeared on their radar screens, especially past midnight and especially if it wasn’t flying on a course that appeared threatening. Furthermore, they probably knew that other civilian radars would not track it at that hour of the night either.
After crossing the peninsula, the plane flew north west, which is consistent with trying to avoid land-based radar coverage. That is because the island of Sumatra still lies on the plane’s western route, so it needs to fly around it: first by going north west towards the Andaman Islands (the fact that gave initial credence to the idea that the plane was flying on a northern route), then curving around Sumatra before heading south or south west. As to where exactly on the arc the plane ran out of fuel and crashed, my belief is that it crashed around the 3,000 mile mark, although this could be shorter (i.e. further north along the arc) if the plane had burned off fuel quicker. This would have implied that it flew quite close to the ground, a tactic that is consistent with trying to avoid radar, but nothing about the limited radar info we have about the flight seems to suggest that. If anything, the fact that they DIDN’T fly low means that they wanted to conserve fuel as much as possible which suggests they wanted to go as far as they could.
At first glance on Google Earth or Maps it may not be obvious but there is one remote island that coincidentally falls exactly around the southern arc: Christmas Island. It is a small piece of Australian-governed real estate south of the Indonesian island of Java. And, according to Google Earth, puts it at almost exactly the 2,900 mile mark. The latest news from the Australian government suggests a possible finding of debris southwest of Perth, on the west coast of Australia. Looking at a map of the surface currents in that area of the ocean, it does seem conceivable that the debris from a plane going down around Christmas Island could have floated west, done a southward loop and then spotted as it was drifting back north. Then again, if the plane sank while trying to land on water, it is possible that there will be no debris, and these sightings are just false leads. A more far-fetched possibility is that the aircraft was trying to reach the even more remote Cocos Islands, south west of Christmas Island. These are the only two habitable islands with airfields in that sector of the Indian Ocean. The Cocos Islands also happen to be demographically over 80% ethnically Malayan, which could raise suspicions if the pilots had accomplices on the ground. However, they don’t lie anywhere close to the satellite arc which makes it less likely that the plane went down anywhere near it.
Were the pilots trying to reach the closest bit of Australian territory they could conceivably reach? And if so, why? The grand majority of the population on the island is of Chinese ethical origin, just as were the passengers on the plane. Could it be that the pilots were forced by some of the passengers to divert there for some sinister purpose? Or that the pilots were planning to go there all along? Were the violent changes in altitude early in the flight representative of a struggle between the pilots and the potential hijackers, or the passengers against the pilots after they realized something was amiss? Was it a deliberate attempt to depressurize the cabin and potentially kill or render the passengers unconscious? In a post 9/11 world, the pilots could have simply shut themselves in the cabin as the steel-locked doors would not have let any passenger mob inside. In other words, even if the passengers had been aware of the change in flight plan there really was not much they could do about it if the pilots had holed themselves in. And believe me, assuming they were still alive by then, they would have known. It only takes any curious George with a GPS phone or anyone smart enough to notice after sunrise that the plane was still flying over water to have raised the alarms (the flight attendants would should have been the first).
Ultimately I believe the plane had a destination, but for whatever reason it didn’t make it, most likely because it ran out of fuel. I find it hard to believe that two experienced pilots would venture forth on a virtual suicide mission lasting hours rather than just ditch the plane at the first chance they could. Why risk a plan going wrong by over-complicating it? The fact of the matter is that until we find the plane itself, the reasons why MH370 flew in the direction it did and disappeared will not be known. Let us hope that the next few hours or days will shed light on this tragic mystery.
Here’s a map showing the two arcs which mark the distance where the plane crashed.
Update 20/3/14: Edited the post to incorporate the possibility that the plane was heading towards the Christmas Islands, and how this could be consistent with the supposed debris findings by Australian satellite.