As an aviation enthusiast, I find the media coverage of the Malaysia Air Flight 370 disaster to be absolutely appalling. Indeed air crashes of the magnitude of this tragedy inevitably lend themselves to innumerable theories, and the curiosity of what could go wrong. This is undoubtedly a morbid curiosity, feeding off of our innate fear of being in an element that we do not command. For all its technological sophistication – and few man-made machines equal that of a modern commercial airliner – the fact that a giant airplane can crash into the sea under seemingly the most benign circumstances is enough to give even a non-aerophobe a chill. What doesn’t help is that the media hasn’t done its homework and have fed us quite a significant amount of misinformation over the last few hours. Worse yet, they have seemingly settled on the terrorism story as their conspiracy theory of choice despite the fact the evidence is strongly against this.
Mistake number one: read a map, stupid!
The first and most appalling of the media’s misinformation is the claim that “contact was lost 2 hours into the flight”. The source for this mistake is that Subang ATC (Malaysian air traffic control) reported at 2:40am local time to the airline that the plane had gone missing. Yet a gap of over one hour occurred since the plane’s last contact, at around 1:20am. This was the last sighting captured by radar and it is not clear what happened next: whether the plane effectively crashed right at the edge of coverage, or whether it crashed shortly after, in the radar gap between Malaysian and Vietnamese ATCs. According to an unconfirmed Chinese report, Malaysian ATC reported the plane making a steep drop in altitude and changing its heading. However, not much was made of this since it was at the edge of radar coverage when radar readings can get iffy. If true, however, it suggests that something happened at this point, and that the plane both plunged and changed course shortly before crashing into the sea.
“Aviation sources in China report that radar data suggest a steep and sudden descent of the aircraft, during which the track of the aircraft changed from 024 degrees to 333 degrees. The aircraft was estimated to contact Ho Chi Minh Control Center (Vietnam) at 01:20L, but contact was never established.”
Source: AV Herald
Why then is the media at fault for misinforming? Because any friggin’ map would have told you that it would have been impossible to lose the aircraft off the south-west Vietnamese coast two hours into the flight! Two hours into the flight and the plane would have been flying over Laos/Vietnam. This would have been almost exactly one-third of the way to Beijing (it was a six-hour flight after all). How the media has made such a glaring mistake is baffling: even CNN’s alleged aviation “expert”, Richard Quest, has fallen for this. I’m no expert and yet the first thing I found suspicious was that Flight 370’s last known location was nowhere near the 2 hour mark. An unforgivable mistake in the age of Google maps.
Mistake number two: lack of a distress call is “rare”
Actually it isn’t. Many media outlets are comparing Flight 370 with the Air France Flight 447 crash over the Atlantic a few years back. As you may recall, Flight 447 crashed into the sea shortly after the aircraft flew into a tropical storm, which caused the pitot tubes to freeze and the airspeed readings to go blank. This in turn resulted in the autopilot disengaging upon which the crew committed the grave mistake of attempting to pull the nose up while the plane was slowing. The plane then entered a fatal stall which the pilots were unable to recover from. Of course, this was not an emergency that lasted seconds. In fact, eight minutes elapsed between the time first turbulence warning was given and the crash, and around four minutes from which the crew began emergency procedures.
And guess what? They never sent a distress signal.
The media seems to think that the lack of a distress signal is something unprecedented and rare. Usually it is. However, when the crew is battling an emergency of the kind that Flight 447 experienced, it becomes rather superfluous: your entire focus is to keep the plane steady. Furthermore, Flight 447 did not suffer any structural or mechanical failure, say, an engine going out, or a fracture in the hull, or a bird strike. These are typically the type of emergencies that result in pilots sending a distress signal as there is plenty of time to do so, and usually, plenty of time to find a way of coping with the emergency; say, in having an alternative airport to land in, or warning traffic control that the plane will attempt a hard landing. When you’re plummeting from the sky at 11,000 feet a minute (as was the case of Flight 447), a distress signal is as good as worthless. Yet many of the so-called “experts” insist that the lack of a distress signal is proof of something more ominous, like getting shot down or being blown up by a bomb.
My theory: a crash like any other
What the media isn’t reporting is that there are some claims that the aircraft that crashed had previously been involved in a separate incident where one of its wings had been damaged after brushing against another aircraft on the runway. Assuming this claim is true, there are grounds to suspect that the repair work may not have left the plane in 100% shape. It may well have been a ticking time bomb.
The grand majority of air disasters occur shortly before takeoff and landing. The media appears baffled that a modern plane with a near-impeccable safety record like the Boeing 777-200 could have suffered a catastrophic malfunction or breakup 2 hours into its flight, over the sea, with perfect weather conditions. Except it didn’t crash 2 hours into it, it crashed after 40 minutes when there is still a much higher probability that a faulty system can fail. Even if the wing was in perfect shape, there are many other key systems that could have malfunctioned and resulted in an emergency that worsened so quickly that the pilots may have had only a few minutes or even a few seconds to respond to it, hence the lack of a distress signal. What exactly triggered this emergency will, of course, not be known until the wreckage is found, and the black box recovered (which could take months or years).
Now back on the terrorism story, which although it is indeed possible I find to be highly unlikely. We know that two people on that plane were carrying stolen passports; one Italian, one Austrian (Update: Malaysian authorities are apparently investigating four people, not just two). That said, I find it easier to believe that the people who used these stolen passports were drug smugglers or were attempting to circumvent visa restrictions. Plus, it seems more logical that terrorists attempting to make a point against China (the most likely target here) would have blown the plane up when it was over Chinese territory. Of course, the media are now milking the terrorism story dry as it makes for some excellent alarmist headlines. But pure common sense here: what’s more likely, that a pair of white drug smugglers used fake passports to get on the flight or that Chinese/Malaysian/Arab terrorists passed through security with the names Luigi Maraldi and Christian Kozel without arousing any suspicion? Yeah, I thought so.
Ultimately, planes crash, no matter how safe they are. This is a sad fact of life. Hopefully in the next few days we will be able to fit the puzzle of what happened to Flight 370. In the meantime, all this is left is to give our deepest sympathies to the relatives of the deceased and do ourselves a little favor: stop believing the media “experts” on topics where they clearly don’t have expertise.
Update 8/3/14: A good thread the from real experts and enthusiasts from FlyerTalk, an excellent and updated summary from AV Herald, and the last moments of the flight as captured by radar/GPS from FlightRadar24. Real commercial pilots frequently post on these sites.
Update 9/3/14: Added a few more thoughts on the terrorist theory and some minor edits/corrections.
Update 11/3/14: Interpol has confirmed that the two passengers who boarded with stolen passports were Iranians looking to enter Europe illegally. Further proof that the terrorism story was rubbish.