After hours of chasing and talking to contacts within a number of airlines, it is obvious that the major X-factors that are unresolved include the motives of the hijackers and the movements made by MH370. Which isn’t surprising, until the question of the electronic traces of flight MH370 harvested by satellite is taken further.
Now that Malaysia has shown the two vast arcs along which the missing Boeing 777-200 must have sent its final standby confirmation signal to the Inmarsat system, what did earlier similar signals reveal as to its prior movements?
If as is now understood to be the case, there were regular stand-by pings from the airliner’s otherwise disabled ACARS automated performance update system, between 1.07 am KL time on 8 March when that system stopped filing data, and that last known ping at 8.11 the same morning, what did they show?
They would have shown two arcs in each case just like the map below, made available at the last media conference on Saturday night in KL, in which it was confirmed that such tracking had taken place, and that deliberate intervention had rendered the jet ‘dark’ and flown it off its intended course.
But those earlier traces would also help understand the probabilities for the northern and southern arcs, along which somewhere as far south as the southern Indian Ocean, and as far north as Kazakhstan in western Asia, the jet was last seen by an Inmarsat network of satellites seven hours and 31 minutes after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for a five hours 50 minutes flight to Beijing.
The other things of immense interest but as yet unresolved from the point of view of airline operational professionals is what was on the cargo manifest, and how much fuel was loaded?
The reasonable estimates offered for such a flight for this time of the year taking into account seasonal records for delays and diversions, and the need to carry statutory additional fuel reserves, is that between seven and a half and eight hours fuel would not be surprising.
A 777-200 can fly a lot further than for eight hours if it is fully fuelled, but MH370 went promptly to an initial cruise altitude of 35,000 feet on leaving for Beijing, which suggests it was not at anything like its maximum permitted takeoff weight.
Scepticism but not outright denial of some reports that the jet was observed briefly flying to 45,000 feet after its transponder was turned off and its course was changed was also expressed.
It might have been done in MH370 for the purpose of rendering unconscious if not dead most of those onboard by dumping cabin pressurization, but it would have been a perilous exercise, as well as murderous.
The jet is certified, like most modern airliners, to cruise no higher than 43,000 feet. It can indeed go to 45,000 feet, but when it does so the stalling speed rises in the thinner air, generating less lift from the wing, and the speed it can do in still air falls, meaning stalling speed and cruising speed are headed, very dangerously, in opposite directions to the same place which pilots call ‘Coffin Corner’ in aviation in any sort of plane.
Aerodynamics is aerodynamics, and when you have a stalling speed very close to the fastest speed at which flight can be sustained, you are at great risk.
There has been no official confirmation that the jet was or was not carrying gold bullion, nor how much fuel was uploaded, and there are unofficial indications that there was no valuable cargo onboard other than 239 lives whose fate will be inextricably linked to the reputation, if not survival, of Malaysia Airlines, after this is all resolved.
The question of motivation is fraught. None of those spoken to doubted that a criminal act, whether by a crew member, or a hijacker, started the known sequence of events. However interestingly one source was firmly of the view that something somehow went wrong with whatever the plot was, and that the final hours of the jet were no longer under active piloting, and ended when the fuel ran out on a heading that pointed it toward the deep waters of the southern Indian Ocean.
Those consulted were divided as to where they thought the jet was being taken but favoured a central Asian destination where it might not have been expected that the jet would be serviceable after landing on a remote and barely adequate runway.
The so called X-factor is the motivation for the act. Nothing makes much sense at this stage, but all of those spoken to agreed that the authorities, in Malaysia, in the US, in China, and maybe even in Australia, would understand the motivations in much more detail than they have shared.
It isn’t expected that Malaysia will have too much to say for a while about what is discovered in the homes of the pilots and through investigations into their political or private or indeed religious lives. But we could be surprised, even as soon as tonight, if a further media briefing is held.
After talking to the sorts of people who would have nightmares if their own airlines ever had to deal with such a crisis, someone sent in a link to a story about a planned shoe bomb attack on a Malaysian airliner mentioned in a foreign court, proving that media madness, or alternatively, utter stupidy in jihadist ranks, still applies.
The only outcome from using an explosive device powerful enough to blow open the security door of a 777 would be to severely injure or incapacitate the pilots, who sit very close to it, as well as to their controls, if not cause an explosive decompression of the fuselage, both of which would lead to the immediate destruction of the jet.