A very bright, enterprising and thoughtful man named Keith Ledgerwood has put forth a new theory about how Malaysia Air Flight 370 may have been able to traverse Central Asia without being detected:
They shadowed Singapore Airlines flight 68 while it flew to Madrid.
It's a great theory. Technically it works great, as long as the players involved perform to a rather James Bond standard of awesomeness (which is possible, I suppose). It is, in fact, the single most believable theory I've yet seen about how on earth a 777 may have penetrated the airspace of two rather well-defended nuclear nations who are watching their mutual border closely.
I hope you click through and read the whole thing, because the guy deserves the traffic. If not, here are some of the operative passages:
I quickly realized that SIA68 was in the immediate vicinity as the missing MH370 flight at precisely the same time. Moreover, SIA68 was en-route on a heading towards the same IGREX waypoint on airway P628 that the Malaysian military radar had shown MH370 headed towards at precisely the same time.
It became apparent as I inspected SIA68's flight path history that MH370 had maneuvered itself directly behind SIA68 at approximately 18:00UTC and over the next 15 minutes had been following SIA68. All the pieces of my theory had been fitting together with the facts that have been publically released and I began to feel a little uneasy.
It is my belief that MH370 likely flew in the shadow of SIA68 through India and Afghanistan airspace. As MH370 was flying dark without transponder / ADS-B output, SIA68 would have had no knowledge that MH370 was anywhere around and as it entered Indian airspace, it would have shown up as one single blip on the radar with only the transponder information of SIA68 lighting up ATC and military radar screens.Here's an image of Keith's proposed convergence:
I applaud Keith Ledgerwood's imagination. And his understanding of how big planes work the sky. It's nice to see at a time when so many total novices are talking out their asses.
But here's why I don't think it works...
PROBLEM #1: Whose agenda was it?
Presumably a terrorist who wants to park a future weapon somewhere until it can be used (either against Beijing if it's a Uighur or against the West if it's a typical Islamic fundamentalist). Well, that presumption means the pilots were unwilling - or at least, unprepared - participants. Which leads me to the circumstances surrounding the transponder.
It went straight from Mode C (meaning altitude reporting) to OFF.
Think about that. If I'm a 777 pilot, in this post-9/11 world, and I hear banging on my reinforced cockpit door, or I receive a phone call from a flight attendant at the back of the plane informing me that someone is in 1st Class trying to hijack, my transponder goes to 7500 (hijack), not to OFF. If my instincts don't at first involve the transponder, they would at the very least involve telling my F.O. to "pan pan, pan pan" a distress call of some kind. When you're alone at 35,000' and someone's about to take over your airplane, you do every single thing you can to let the outside world know.
These pilots turned their transponder straight to off. And, apparently, even prior to that, they disabled the ACARS.
It's a hijacking for sure. Just not by anyone aft of the cockpit door.
PROBLEM #2 What then?
Shadowing SIA 68 is pure genius. That aspect of Ledgerwood's theory is - plus or minus the difficulty of maintaining a close formation at night and, potentially, in cloud - quite sound. But the "what then" angle is rather poorly thought out. "Could have easily broken contact and flown and landed in Xianjian, Kyrgystan, Turkmenistan..."
Easily flown? No way.
The chance that an unlabeled return could peel away from SIA 68 and not be noticed by Pakistani controllers is almost zero. For the umpteenth time, a 777 is fucking obvious on radar, transponder or not and we know for a fact that in the last few days since the "one of two arcs" theory solidified, both the Pakistanis and the Indians went through their radar. If they found anything unusual, they sure haven't reported it.
But let's say MH 370 somehow did manage to break formation with SIA 68 and fly somewhere. What are the chances of "easily landing" in any of those places. You need 4600' of runway at sea level at the weight they flew (which I guessed was about 390,000 lbs on landing). The geographic floor of that entire region is 2000' above sea level. So, realistically, at those elevations, say 4000,' you need over 5000' runway. To land. At night. In an unfamiliar area. Terrorist or not, anyone who knows anything wouldn't bother to attempt such a thing into a field shorter than 8,000'. There'd be too great a risk of ruining all the hard work in the final furlong.
If you're planning to want to takeoff again at some point with enough fuel to actually "9/11" Beijing or points in the West, you're really going to want 8,000', otherwise your rogue 777 will need a refueling stop at a not-very-distant longer runway and, in the meantime, you're going to have repaint your 777 because wherever you stop, they're going to see "Malaysia" and the tail number 9M-MRO.
And when you do make that refueling stop, your flight plan is going to show where you came from and you cannot simply just assume an otherwise legitimate flight plan in midair and pretend you're that flight. You would have had to takeoff from the airport shown on the flight plan, otherwise no ATC would have activated your departure clearance and started your data block.
(You can check 777-200ER (aka "High Gross Weight") takeoff and landing data for yourself with this pdf, pages 49 & 54.)
So that means you need an 8,000' runway (and longer if they wanted to hit the US) that the terrorist completely controls for up to several weeks and that leaves very few options in that area that are not owned, and monitored, by militaries. Very few options. And, then, when you land somewhere, where are you going to park the thing? With a 200' wingspan? And not get noticed.
People have said "What about landing it on the floor of the Taklimakan Desert or something." My answer is that a soft field landing in a 777 has about a 90% probability of bending the plane in the daytime and these guys did it at night, in pitch blackness, with no instrument help. That's about a 99.9% probability of an unflyable plane and, even if they did pull it off, how the fuck do they taxi on desert floor without either A) sucking so much debris into the engines that they get destroyed; or B) sinking irretrievably into the terrain the moment the thing comes to a stop. Download the Boeing pdf on "PAVEMENT DATA" if you want to understand the strain these planes put on the landing surface.
Every one of the "landed somewere in Central Asia" theories has a heavy element of James Bond that I just can't abide. They are all predicated on the assumption that two experienced, post-9/11-world pilots sent zero distress calls or hijack squawks during the entire time it took the hijackers to break, blowtorch-cut, bargain or teleport their way through a reinforced cockpit door.
But again, Keith Ledgerwood gets a solid A for both imagination and conceptual understanding of aviation.
I'm a 14-year, instrument-rated private pilot and I've spoken to every airline pilot I know (some 777 guys and a UPS pilot who actually flies the KUL-PEK route occasionally) and we all feel the same way.
Whether it was the captain or the first officer, we're on record that MH 370 is a pilot suicide, involving the elimination of the other pilot, pulled off by a a guy who had a dying wish to not ever be found and to leave his mark as the perpetrator of an enduring mystery. He probably thought about the Marianas Trench as the best place to crash the plane and never be found, but he'd have had to cross the Phillipines to get there and with the amount of US military hardware there, too likely a chance of intercept, which would blow his entire agenda. So he chose the next deepest, most difficult ocean to search and put it down there.
Why wait for 7 hours? Why not just do what the EgyptAir guy did? I can't answer that. It's a human element that we may never know. Except perhaps the guy was thoroughly attached to the notion of disappearing forever, even if it meant taking 238 others with him.
The other theories are very involved, very difficult to pull off and require either the cooperation, or the incompetence, of lots of people. My theory is the simplest one I've come across, and it's the one my pilot friends agree with.
My money is on the Australians narrowing the search area through radar records (they have amazing radar on their West coast) and the plane being found, at some point, in the Southern Indian Ocean.
The one thing I feel most strongly about, however, is that history will judge the Royal Malaysian Air Force almost as harshly as the pilot who pirated the airplane. Had the four guys watching the radar at Butterworth AB done their jobs the morning of March 8th, this story would have been fundamentally different. It would have been an OJ Simpson-style chase story where adjoining nations teamed up to figure out what the hell this plane was doing and the world would have seen it through, most likely, to its conclusion. It wouldn't have ended well, but the families would have gotten closure very quickly.
Sadly, that didn't happen. And I hope the families sue the shit out of the RMAF.
While the timeline of when ACARS was turned off relative to both the transponder and the last voice transmission appears to be in flux, the New York Times is now reporting the following:
Instead of manually operating the plane’s controls, whoever altered Flight 370’s path [to the West, back toward Malaysia - clarification mine] typed seven or eight keystrokes into a computer on a knee-high pedestal between the captain and the first officer, according to officials.I would like Chris Goodfellow, or any of the pro pilots who subscribe to his theory, to weigh in regarding this latest development (which, it seems, comes from US investigators). In the event of a cockpit fire or smoke, I find it unlikely that the life-saving turn toward the nearest airport would be made via CDU. It's possible the 777 has a D-NRST function (like we have in our G1000 Cessnas) which the pilot used to command a turn to Pulau Langkawi. However, Goodfellow accounts for the lack of a distress call by the systematic pulling of breakers to shed electrical load.
In my mind, I'd have my hand firmly on the yoke while the FO did checklists. Only when established on a westerly heading would I command a GPS-direct to Langkawi.
More from the NYT:
Flight 370’s Flight Management System reported its status to the Acars, which in turn transmitted information back to a maintenance base, according to an American official. This shows that the reprogramming happened before the Acars stopped working. The Acars ceased to function about the same time that oral radio contact was lost and the airplane’s transponder also stopped, fueling suspicions that foul play was involved in the plane’s disappearance.