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

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking


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.

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

  1. Cat on a PC©

    . . . 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. . .

    One report I read was the aircraft climbed to FL450 then descended to FL230 before disappearing. Some would point to this as evidence to evade radar. I’m more inclined this is in fact an out of control aircraft ‘porpoising’. I’m more inclined to believe that it’s likely the aircraft encountered problems from which the pilots were not able to recover.

    All other theories, including Diego Garcia, are possible, but very implausible.

  2. kiwikurt

    In the dearth of much concrete info going into the second week I get the feeling media articles are going to become more and more like throwing darts at a dart board.

    A decade ago when I was in flight training we used to do 4-engine out glide approaches in a 747 into Wellington Airport for fun, just sayin’.

    Last night CNN International had one piece which elements of the ludicrous in it and then ended with Jim Clancy seemingly interviewing himself about what we knew and didn’t know and appearing like he was in need of his meds.

    That piece was followed by a very lucid piece where a reporter was in a 777 simulator and explaining how ACARS is used and where it is controlled from as well as the transponder.

    It’s a shame that it took 11 days to show something that had been far earlier reported and discussed on this blog.

  3. johnno

    Sorry if this shows excessive ignorance, but would it be possible for the plane to have been subject to external control – that is, could an operator on ground or in a nearby chase plane have taken control of this aircraft?

  4. Wobbly

    Malaysian authorities handling of the investigation & their appalling news conferences is fuelling this wild speculation as much as the lack of concrete information.

    Now with the latest revelations on day 11 that OF COURSE the plane was tracked on Thai military radar (as it crossed Thai country on its westerly diversion) but apparently the in investigators hadn’t asked them for radar records – one can only become more and more suspicious of the Malaysians.

    Added to their numerous revisions of the communications timeline, their continuation of search in South China Sea for 7 days when they knew it wasn’t there, the delay in searching pilots homes and reported refusal to share flight sim investigation with US NTSB.

    They surely can’t be that incompetent?

    A whiff of cover up has become a stench.

  5. Cat on a PC©

    @johnno: The short answer is ‘no’. (Just hope Michael O’Leary isn’t reading this or he’d want all his aircraft equipped to be remotely piloted!)

    @Wobbly: The constantly changing timeline and confusion is one reason why I’m staying away from outlandish conspiracy theories. I don’t think there is a cover up, either. I’m ever hopeful the real truth will come out soon for the families are affected by this.

  6. Ben Sandilands


    Very true in my opinion. When incomptency, or secrecy, diminish public confidence in major stories, whether in air disasters, or political or corporate scandals, there is always a vacuum created which gets filled with conspiracy theories and indeed, often well argued theories, and care needs to be taken not to overlook anything that might actually help explain the inexplicable.

  7. Wobbly

    It is relevant to note that in the two previous major air crashes that US NTSB has found cause to be pilot murder/suicide (Egypt Air 990 and SilkAir 185) that the local investigators (Egypt’s ECAA and Indonesia’s NTSC respectively) did not report the same conclusions, but drew inference to mechanical failures with insufficient and/or implausible evidence that was disputed/debunked by the American investigators.

    Unfortunately suicide is such a taboo in many cultures and as Ben has mentioned in previous posts would be the outcome that conveys the the greatest lack of trust in an airline by flying public. A pilot murder/suicide finding has the potential to cause the greatest harm to the airline’s reputation and by extension, the greatest harm to the government that owns it and the country that relies upon it for tourism income.

  8. Sandy G

    Wobbly, then it is at least to their credit that the Malaysian authorities are pointing to deliberate action in the cockpit.

  9. Kevin Stewart

    Not sure you are correct that lower altitude would reduce *endurance*. It would reduce *range*. My understanding is at cruise an airliner burns more fuel, but travels faster for the amount of fuel burned, so range is increased for a given amount of fuel. At lower altitudes, fuel burn ( at lower speeds ) is actually lower, so endurance ( time to fuel exhaustion ) is higher, but less distance is covered per pound burned, so *range* is lower.

  10. Cat on a PC©

    From AP: A twisting flight path [my emphasis] described on Tuesday by Thai air force spokesman Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn took the plane to the Strait of Malacca, which is where Malaysian radar tracked Flight 370 early March 8. But Montol said the Thai military doesn’t know whether it detected the same plane.

    A twisting flight path doesn’t sound like a commandeered aircraft, if indeed this was MH370.

  11. Confirmed Sceptic

    Just a note on the fuel consumption:

    If the aircraft is trying to maintain a fixed indicated airspeed (as opposed to a fixed mach number) then the fuel flow rate will be the same*, and hence the endurance will be largely unchanged. The range however, which is what the searchers care about, would decrease with each lower altitude.

    Since endurance has not been called into question given the last ping 7:31 into the flight, then range remains the unknown.

    *except when that airspeed yields a mach number near maximum for the aircraft when the flow rate does increase a bit.

    The reason that jets fly as high as they can is to get the most true airspeed for their fuel, and hence range.

  12. Wobbly

    ‘at least to their credit that the Malaysian authorities are pointing to deliberate action in the cockpit.’

    One would surmise that there are different pressures coming to bare on the actual investigators from the Malaysian Air Safety Authority, their other government agencies, Malaysian defence and the government. Just how much political interference is occurring? It’s apparent by conflicting statements they haven’t established effective co-ordination between agencies.

  13. Ben Sandilands

    Thanks to Kevin Stewart and Confirmed Sceptic for their corrections when it comes to ‘endurance’. I hope the post is now more accurate.

  14. nightflyer

    I wouldn’t read too much into the Diego Garcia report. As a conscientious pilot he might very well have practised at home approaches he may one day need to execute in a diversion.

  15. Ace Space Trucker

    Nature abhors a vacuum, and a lot of these speculative theories have been fuelled by media madness. The facts have not changed much in these couple of days, up to and including the satellite ping data. No one expects third party radar data to be forthcoming or released, considering how sensitive these are and Malaysia is as much at the mercy of the whims and fancies of countries like India and Pakistan (and China) when it comes to sharing information.

  16. Tango

    Ben: Thank you for a clear reason and well written exasperation why lack of information creates the speculative vacuum leading to rampant bizarre proposals.
    I also believe we should continue to chew on the various possibilities of what could have gone wrong other than pilot mass murder (its really a mass murder vs suicide). It does not fit a suicide profile, it does a mass murder but there is to this point no evidence that either pilot was a whacko (and lord knows the US has had more than our share of them, but you look at them and….)
    If the right ticket had been punched early on with the pilots actions being the only plausible explanation (so far) then the search would have changed sooner and dramatically and a better chance of wreck location ID.

    I do not think its suicide is as the cultural issue, its the suicide being spun on cultural hot buttons that they attempt (usually) to then create a different cause instead of facing it head on.

    The reality is the issue with pilot suicide is it terrifies airlines execs (for good reason it does all of use as we have seen in 3 case, LAM over Mozambique being the other proven one). So, no national airline (I.e nation) wants their Country and or the national airline they own tarnished .

    So they come up with any excuse (including controls that can’t do what they say or a problem that has been fixed).

    What Malaysia motive is I don’t fathom. They are talking about suicide (now at least) and pilot take over, its the complete inability to get a straight track of events. And of course what the hell does Malaria have that impressive array of fighter aircraft for if not to investigate stray aircraft (afraid of or can’t fly in the dark?) They are making themselves a laugh stock for the world in any case.

    I also note the major air assets that they have that have not been deployed (all glitter on the ramp and don’t fly?)

    Some good news in seeing a search areas defined by some NTSB analysis (or other experts). I still don’t understand the hold on that source data but…….

    And long term, what lessons do we get out of this and what can we do.

    1. Lock the door (other cases) and then no one can even come close to stopping themselves
    2. Some systems simply cannot be turned off by the pilot?
    3. Get a third pilot back in the cockpit to stave off this sort of thing?
    4. What kind of screening do you have to do to stop whacko actions?

  17. erikhb

    And of course what the hell does Malaria have that impressive array of fighter aircraft for if not to investigate stray aircraft (afraid of or can’t fly in the dark?)

    De Havilland DH.98 Mosquito fighters, no doubt, but they may be a bit out of date these days.

    Autocorrupt strikes again.

  18. TN Kangaroo (Blue Tail)

    If the aircraft tracked towards or near Diego Garcia the US Air force would have noticed it (and maybe not reported it for whatever reasons).

    The US has millions of dollars worth of assets parked at the Airbase, I doubt an incursion to the airspace went unnoticed !

    What other Military assets have recently been sent to the area ?

    Again we play the waiting game !

  19. RiskMan

    The ACARS worked normally at 1:07am but failed to send its next regularly scheduled update at 1:37am, therefore the ACARS was disabled at 1:07am. The transponder was turned off at 1:21am followed by a military radar plot westward, therefore the aircraft must be in the Gulf of Thailand.

    Talk about joining imaginary dots or not joining real dots. The only way to remedy the Dunning-Kruger situation is bundle them into a real flight (or simulator) to re-enact and let them slowly realise what they have said. Or maybe it’s denial, making matters worse by wasting time/resources… and spawning extreme theories.

    But if they re-enact, start eliminating assumptions. That someone cannot pre-program the auto pilot during pre-flight and the auto pilot performed the turn (vs a hand-fly). Automation usually processes and performs instructions the same way. The results will certainly help with search efforts.

  20. whiskeyalphalimalimadashecho

    I visited Gan International Airport, a few years back, aka ex-RAF Gan. LDA/TODA is about 2400m, more than enough to land (and take-off) remote in the far south of the ‘friendly’ Maldivian archipelago….at least they would have had a better reception that if they had landed at AFB Diego Garcia.

  21. Ace Space Trucker

    No RiskMan, ACARS did not send it’s regular transmission (the next scheduled handshake) expected at 1:37, so it could have been disabled anytime between 1:07 and 1:37.

  22. cud chewer

    We haven’t yet publicly seen an explanation of the physics of the satellite “pings” or the precise method for determining range and/or angle. I would have thought someone would have written about this by now.

    They’re throwing an awful lot of resources on the assumption that those arcs are correct.

  23. cud chewer

    Speaking of joining dots, could someone please provide a link that describes the primary radar evidence from which one could conclude the plane flew a complex path consistent with following several way points. To have that evidence you’d need a radar track, and a fairly long one. Do they have this?

  24. matt andrews

    What do the knowledgeable folks here think of Keith Ledgerwood’s theory?

    Essentially, the idea is that MH370 followed a Singapore Airlines 777 which was close by at the time en route to Spain, closely enough that some primary radar would not see anything unusual, and subsequently peeled off somewhere (heading for Kazakhstan?).

    It’s an interesting idea to me, in that it seems consistent with the level of preparation and navigational expertise displayed by the perpetrators. It is hard to believe that, apart from mental derangement, this remarkable series of actions over Malaysia were taken, and then the aircraft was simply flown into the Indian Ocean until fuel was exhausted.

  25. johnb78

    “what the hell does Malaria have that impressive array of fighter aircraft for if not to investigate stray aircraft”

    Some nice houses for official and royals paid for by brown envelopes from the suppliers?

  26. Palaeo

    If the ACARS was disabled sometime between 1:07am and 1.37pm, and the transponder was turned off at 1:21am, it’s possible that both were ‘turned off’ at the same time. This could have been by a catastrophic failure or a deliberate act. This removes the issue of two separate actions to turn off the signals

  27. Michael Andrews

    Anyone seen this theory on shadowing another 777, SIA68 ? Very interesting. Hope link works OK

  28. Salamander

    Where does the evidence about the aircraft heading for these waypoints come from?

    Is it merely an inference from the primary radar tracking data of the turn-back flight path?

    On the other hand, if they have evidence that the western waypoints were pre-programmed, this must have come from an ACAR transmission before it was disabled.

    This would mean the new flight path was programmed before 1.07 am, ie before the apparently normal voice sign-off at 1.19.

    Also, if a “new” return-west flight path was transmitted, why would this not have raised alarm bells or a query at the time it was received?

  29. Raaraa

    Any thoughts on these, guys?

    I apologise if someone has already posted this earlier.

  30. Ace Space Trucker

    An alternate diversion (emergency) route could have been pre-programmed before take off. Probably Penang or Langkawi or some other long landing strip. I can’t think of any in Malaysia that the pilot would want to head to in an emergency except for these two. Kota Kinabalu or Kuching would be too far away. Ditto Singapore or Bangkok or even Phuket. Most of the strips on Malaysia’s east coast are pretty small.

  31. Confirmed Sceptic

    Here is an excellent primer on the satellite pings, transponders and acars.

    Note though that this blog still lacks a definitive answer on exactly how the inmarsat system determines which angle line the aircraft is transmitting from.

  32. rockwallaby

    C.S. Thanks for the link, something to sink my brain into.
    This appears to be what we needed many days ago.

  33. BugSmasher

    CS, I think it has been fairly conclusively deduced that the Inmarsat position has been established based on timing the reply signal.

    The EU times article is interesting if you like thriller novels. If we suspend our disbelief temporarily and assume that the US military do have the capability to remotely control the aircraft, then the article is remotely plausible. However, it is my understanding that the transponder and VHF comms systems on the 777 are stand-alone, ie they are not integrated into the FMS in any way. I’m happy to be corrected by any 777 jockeys if this is not correct. I’m not so sure about the ACARS, which logically would be integrated into the FMS and thus those holding the remote control may have some jurisdiction over it.

    Once all the possible causes of this incident have been conclusively eliminated, whatever is remaining, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

  34. Confirmed Sceptic

    If they can remotely control the aircraft tell me again why I have to get up at 03:30 to go and fly these things.

  35. rockwallaby

    BugSmasher, are you hinting at the possibility that the transponder may have been switched offline as a result of external control via ACARS?

    But then as you say, VHF maybe available to make a call out on if it is indeed quite separate. Hence mention of mumblings lost in static in short contact with other aircraft on route to Japan as I recall. Was that on VHF?

    But then if VHF remained operational, they could have used that on the fly over of top of Malaysia, unless you can suggest a method it could be taken offline right after final call to ATC?

    I still haven’t come to any conclussion as to the likely end result, ans am hoping with a few of our Orions AP-C3’s out there will spot something of interest.

    There are some interesting comments on that link provided by C.S.

  36. rockwallaby

    Unless of course, “All right, good night” did not orginate from MH370.

    Or maybe it did, but not via its pilots, maybe it was routed from an outside source?

    Is that a possibility as part of what you might be suggesting?

  37. BugSmasher

    At this stage it is probably worth trying to rationalise some of the ‘bungling’ of the investigation. I speculate that by day 2 China and the US had a very good idea where this aircraft was. This would partly explain the Chinese government’s frustration with Malaysian authorities – essentially saying ‘come on guys, get on with, it isn’t that hard’. Now China and US were never going to reveal military secrets, so I imagine that behind the scenes they were ‘directing’ the Malaysian authorities to look for unclassified information (and information that they already had from their own military) to ‘help’ them refine their search.

    In order to protect themselves, the Malaysians could not go public and effectively say ‘look here world, if you want to launch a military attack on Malaysia, this would be a very effective way to do it’. They would have to ensure that this very embarrassing hole in their air defence was conclusively ‘plugged’ prior to their admissions being aired. All this takes time. Whilst from the outside it looks like a shambles, I think on the inside of this investigation there has had to have been a lot of changes to the way of doing things that we just cannot see.

    I suspect that the same goes for the Thai authorities, and possibly the Indonesian and Indian authorities too. Lots of people with their pants down, frantically pulling them up before they can compose themselves to address what is a very sad and serious affair.

    I expect that if nothing else comes out of this incident, at least the airspace over SE Asia (and probably the rest of the world too) has just become much more closely monitored.

  38. BugSmasher

    Rock, I am suggesting that the transponder and VHF comms are independent of the FMS, and thus it is very hard to see them being remotely controlled.

    As for the so-called ‘contact’ via another aircraft on the emergency frequency, I imagine this would be on VHF 121.5, which is monitored by virtually every aircraft in the world (if in fact this communication occurred at all).

    ‘All right, good night’ would have been on the Malaysian VHF control frequency.

  39. comet

    We haven’t heard much detail about that other nearby 777 that was heading to Narita, and heard ‘mumbling’ over the radio from the doomed Malaysian jet.

    Wouldn’t a recording of that conversation be available on the cockpit voice recorder?

    Ah! I just remembered. Those CVRs only record a maximum 2 hours on the new models, and only 30 minutes on older models. It would have been recorded over before his jet touched down in Narita.

    Silly me.

  40. Confirmed Sceptic

    That unconfirmed transmission should have been heard by other radios in the area if it was broadcast by MH370 on its westward diversion. Then again maybe there was no one listening at 01:30 local on the East coast of the peninsula or at sea. But there was a third MH flight closer than the one who reported the contact.

    I used to mention to trainees that an overwater or late night mayday overheard should be preserved by pulling the CVR c/b . No one thinks that way anymore though.

  41. BugSmasher

    Does anyone know if Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control systems are interconnected? Would Malaysian ATC have independently advised Vietnamese ATC of MH370’s ETA for the next way point? Or would Vietnam ATC be relying solely on contact from MH370? I realise that Vietnam ATC would have had MH370’s flight plan, but planes often run late – the flight plan would only indicate EOBT. It may well have been quite some time after 1:20am before someone in Vietnam thought ‘where the hell is MH370?’ and picked up a phone to Malaysian ATC to find out. Let’s say this was an hour after last contact. That fits with the notification to MAS that the plane was missing. Given what we know now, the aircraft would have been well outside Malaysian airspace by this time – but on the northwest side! Who at the time would have thought this though??? No one! It is little wonder that everyone was caught with their pants down and was only able to piece this together after the event.

    Of one thing we can be sure. This was an extraordinarily well planned event. I don’t pretend to be familiar with a suicidal mind, but could it really have been that well organised?

  42. rockwallaby

    Jenny @43,
    Thanks, that was well timed for me to read over with a cup of tea. The notion Keith puts forward seems very plausible to me.

    It will be interesting to hear what the responses from others here will be.

  43. Confirmed Sceptic

    Yeah, ATC are connected and know when and where to expect you. They would have started calling only a few minutes after your ETA as advised by the previous sector unless, and this might be significant, waypoint IGARI was outside of normal range for VHF.

    This happens a lot at the boundary waypoints in the northern section of Manila’s control…southbound from Hong Kong, for example, you get handed over to a VHF frequency on which you can hear control and other aircraft, but it can be ten minutes before they hear you.

    I don’t think I have ever flown over IGARI so I cannot say conclusively, just providing some background info which may or may not be relevant. One thing to note is that the Vietnamese did get anxious enough to ask aircraft to hail MH370 on control and distress frequencies.

    (This, by the way, is almost a daily occurrence: aircraft fly out of range without being told to switch frequencies, they for some reason go off frequency…etc. We find each other on one of the control frequencies or 121.5 and pass on the message to contact control with the desired frequency. Very rarely the calls go unanswered, and we read of the reason in next day’s paper.

  44. BugSmasher

    Thanks CS – I knew that advanced economies had interconnected ATC but wasn’t sure if that would be the case between Malaysia and Vietnam. But your point about Vietnam requesting a relay is valid – they were trying to contact the aircraft at 1:30am so obviously they knew something was wrong much sooner than an hour later.

  45. Confirmed Sceptic

    Inmarsat satellite uses angle to determine aircraft line-of-position, not speed.

    CNN is carrying an explanation of the Inmarsat system today which attempts to explain the system. It does specify that the satellite knows the angle of the signal, not the timing. It is standard CNN info-lite style, but perhaps helpful.

  46. RiskMan

    Discussions seem to be circling. Based on what we know, how many readers believe the flight was on auto pilot when the aircraft turned westward? And why?

    If the flight was on auto pilot, it was either premeditated or spontaneous. If spontaneous eg equipment fire, why follow waypoints away from airports?

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