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air safety

Mar 19, 2014

MH370 captain practiced Diego Garcia landings: report

Updated Some very strange reports about MH370 are appearing, including one claiming that police have found that the

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Some very strange reports about MH370 are appearing, including one claiming that police have found that the captain of the missing Boeing 777-200ER was practising Indian Ocean landing field approaches including to the US Diego Garcia military base.

That report isn’t however as surprising as this in the EU Times  claiming, among other things, that a secret cargo consignment on board had caused China authorities to plan to divert the Beijing bound flight with 239 people on board to one of its military fields, only to see it diverted by the US military toward the Indian Ocean.

Should such reports be dismissed out of hand? Arguably they shouldn’t, as there may be something in them that is true and relevant. The difficulty for readers who don’t sign up for conspiracy theories is in attempting to guess what is real, and what is unreal.

The MalayMail Online report is carefully qualified as to the claimed Indian Ocean data base on the MH370 captain’s sophisticated home made flight simulator.  If that data base was found, it doesn’t necessarily prove anything.  But the problem is that his flight is believed by authorities to have been deliberately diverted to an unknown destination, and that as Day 12 of the mystery begins, Australia is leading a very serious and increasingly well resourced search of the southern Indian Ocean.

There are a number of other well argued theories as to what happened to MH370 claiming that a fire or explosion created a crisis shortly after the  ‘all right good night’ radio contact with the Malaysia Airlines flight was made at 1.19 am on Saturday 8 March early in its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Common to those theories is that the pilots struggled to get the flight back to Kuala Lumpur from where it had departed 39 minutes earlier, only to be overcome by oxygen starvation in the depressurized airliner, after which the jet flew on until its fuel was exhausted some time after 8.11 am local time when it sent its last electronic trace to a satellite providing communications services to airlines.

The theories are considered well argued by persons with airliner and operational experience. But they come with serious flaws. One such flaw is evidence that the jet flew a cleverly constructed course to minimise the risk of detection after Malaysia’s defence radar tracked it to a point near Phuket in Thailand.

The other is that a fire or explosion in an airliner would be so damaging to the fuselage and systems onboard MH370 that it could not continue to fly for at least another 6 hours 52 minutes as recorded by standby pings from the jet to an Inmarsat parking in geosynchronous orbit high above the western Indian Ocean.

The ability of MH370 to fly for the eight hours for which it carried fuel on departure would be very adversely affected by excursions in which it flew under the radar at low altitudes, or climbed to say 45,000 feet.  It is known to have been in the air for a total of at least 7 hours 31 minutes, when the last satellite ping was recorded.

A report that a jet which may have been MH370 flew low over the Maldives on the morning of 8 March should be relatively easy to confirm or deny based on primary (non transponder)  radar records before today is over.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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69 thoughts on “MH370 captain practiced Diego Garcia landings: report

  1. The one thing that is constant with all the so called analysis so far in this disappearance is the constant disinformation deliberately rolled out, the facts remain that contact was lost in a precise time frame, the course deliberately changed in a precise manner, flew over what is supposedly one would think controlled airspace (no less than 3 countries) with no one actually noticing a thing?
    And what do we have here, an out of control B777 porpoising it’s way southbound across the sparseness of the great southern ocean disappearing into never ending conjecture due to the lack of evidence…
    No “Mayday” No radio contact, yet flew on for another 6hrs 52minutes presumably with no one in control and with no one noticing (again) with all onboard oblivious one way or another…!
    Is it deliberate subterfuge, or just an out of control B777 no one noticed for almost 7hrs that just disappeared…?
    Curious to what wreckage they find.

  2. The EU Times article also claims the US government faked the AA plane crash into the Pentagon on 9/11. That should give you some idea of their credibility.

    If the plane were diverted to Diego Garcia, we’d have heard about it by now. No doubt the Russians, Chinese, and many others have satellites keeping watch on the US military facilities there. If a 777 suddenly appeared on the tarmac someone would have seen it.

    The fact that the captain practiced landings into Diego Garcia means nothing. He probably also practiced the approaches to Kai Tak and Saba. Why? Because they’re all interesting! What experienced commercial pilot would be interested in practicing landings in Omaha, Nebraska?

  3. Salamader: the FMS has a second, stand-by flight plan. It would be typical to have it loaded for flight to a point an hour or so enroute, then returning to departure airport. That way if you have to execute a return to departure all of the hard work is already done when you had spare time.

    That said, you have to brief your fellow pilot, and he has to cross-check, what is in the FMS.

    Looking at the waypoints and arrival routes for KL I cannot reconcile a return to departure plan with the alleged flight path from IGARI.

  4. Apparently the aircraft was turning west when the final voice contact was made. The Thai radar will be a more trusted source to confirm if true. That eliminates faulty equipment and fire on board.

  5. Salamander: For what it’s worth, the New York Times was reporting a couple of days ago that the ACARS *did* transmit a change in flight plan from the FMS shortly before it was disabled.

  6. Nup, that’s a 737 …is it flying over that landscape? It sure as hell isn’t crashed there.

    And on the reports from the Maldives…Air Mauritius is native to the area, and they are white/red stripes. I wonder if they were in the area?

  7. @Elizabeth #57: No, that image does not at all resemble the planform (top-view shape) of a Boeing 777-200. The wings in the image have a larger relative chord (front-to-back dimension), are significantly less swept back (the angle with respect to the fuselage), and they aren’t nearly as tapered toward the wing tips as they are on a 777. Moreover, there is no hint of the two big wing-mounted engines which would extend well out in front of their leading edges.

    Here’s an example of what the 777-200 would look like from overhead (the 777-200 shown on the left side of the graphic):


  8. No aviation experience, and wondering if someone can enlighten me. The time between the plane going “dark” – 1.21am (ish) – and it being picked up by military radar in the Straits of Malacca – 2.15am – is 54 minutes. The distance between the two points, allowing for a route that went back over Kota Bharu and then Penang, looks less than 400kms. Would you expect the plane to take this long to get that far?

  9. Bug smasher #56: Hah! Me too 🙂
    I always try for a window on the right side sot hat I can sights that I normally don’t. And i often get stares of hatred for putting the window blind up to look out.

    Re apparent relative altitudes: you’d be surprised…I can see an aircraft opposite direction 1000′ below on TCAS appear to be well above us…it is very surprising the illusion created by your own deck angle etc.

    At night i could not detect an aircraft with no lights a mile in front of me…not unless it eclipsed some bright lights or something. And many pilots think it good airmanship to fly with the cockpit overhead light on.

  10. Can we conclude then that the western way points were NOT pre-programmed into the system prior to 1.07 am? Because if they had been this would have been automatically transmitted back to base by the still fully functioning ACARS, and thereby raised an alarm/query?

  11. Since SQ68’s flight path and timing are known exactly, it would be a fairly simple matter to plot the Inmarsat handshakes each hour to see if they match up. This would quickly eliminate the possibility – or draw much suspicion.

  12. No wonder the aircraft is still missing. Someone skilfully piloted the aircraft avoiding radar over land and sea, and shadowed aircrafts for the entire flight time. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction…

  13. Call me pilot nerd CS, but as a pax I spend most of my time either asleep or with my nose on the window. I remember one particular flight (Abu Dhabi to Heathrow) over eastern europe watching an aircraft out the window on a slightly offset and converging track and seemingly at the same level. This concerned me because I knew there was no way it could be 2000 ft above or below us, so had to be flying at a non-standard level. The aircraft eventually passed directly over the top of us at what I estimate was around 500 ft separation. I could quite clearly see that the underside of this Emirates A330 had not been cleaned for some time. Admittedly this was daylight, the sun had just come up.

  14. Also Jenny, that route is pretty heavily used. Other pilots on similar headings or reciprocal headings (vertically separated) would probably have something to say about eyeballing two 777’s making love!

  15. Bugsmasher…all true, but most people are looking at their dinner/video in a bright cabin, not scanning behind for another plane without lights.

    Tailgating would be quite easy in fact, since you know the other guy’s route, and your nGPS is every bit as accurate as his…it would all be done on the autopliot. The target is going to be flying at Mach .82, .83 or .84. Again the autopilot will maintain this for you quite well. Only minor adjustments would be necessary from time to time.

    As implausible as that whole caper sounds, I think that it is technically feasible.

  16. Sorry…I guess two is not “several lateral modes” there are other modes used on the various kinds of approaches, but they are not relevant to the manoeuvre in question.

    Also, regarding the radar info, I should have clarified that It seems iffy to me, and others, but not of immediate concern to the search as they are apparently convinced it is in the IO somewhere.

    Also, waypoints can also be defined relative to each other. Ie, from a known point A you can define a new point B based on direction and distance away from A.

  17. Jenny @43 – the plausibility really depends on military radar capability, and the high chance that someone on SQ68 would see you. I would think it would be reasonably possible to shadow at say 200-300 feet below (or above) and very slightly behind the SIA aicraft, although the flying workload would be very high if you wanted to stay out of sight (I mean visual sight by a human eyeball) from anyone on SQ68 – it may even be impossible. 200-300 feet would probably be sufficient to fool civilian radar (especially if they were not actively looking for you), but military radar probably wouldn’t be fooled. Again though, they might have to be actively looking.

    The chances of not being visually detected by someone on the other plane would be fairly slim I would have thought, even with all the lights off (ie MH370 with no external or internal lighting on – except the dim red light in the cockpit and EFIS displays). There was some moon that night and pax windows provide a fairly wide angle of view up and down.

  18. There is not enough fidelity in the Malaysian’s primary radar tracking info to state, even now, with certainty that it flew over those waypoints mentioned. So I guess your question really is about the tracking. The autopilot would typically be engaged, especially if you were busy programming a new flight plan. Doubly especially if you were not a pilot, but knew which buttons to push.

    The autopilot can be engaged in several lateral modes, including heading hold, LNAV (FMS derived navigation information to specified points*). The 777 may also have a more basic mode found in earlier Boeings, but typically the autopilot would be engaged in either HDG or LNAV.

    *waypoints can be defined by five-letter name, as found on navigation charts, four-letter airport name, two or three-letter navigation beacon code or by typing in Latitude/longitude coordinates.