Did missing flight MH370 suffer a brief but catastrophic windshield fire that combined with a leaking emergency crew oxygen system and caused it to fly unpressurised to its yet to be found crash site in the south Indian Ocean?

It’s a hypothesis closely argued by Michael Gilbert, an Australian follower of the mystery who has based it on some very interesting manufacturing data for the Boeing 777-200ER that was operating MH370 for Malaysia Airlines when it vanished with 239 people on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing with 239 people on board on March 8, 2014.

He has also combined this with evidence suggesting there was a leak in the cockpit oxygen setup that would have made a windshield fire even more intense in the short interval before the conflagration ended.

There are of course major problems with MH370 hypotheticals, in that if the key assumptions are wrong, they couldn’t explain the flight’s disappearance. Mr Gilbert’s paper however plausible, wouldn’t correctly identify the cause if the pilots weren’t in fact overpowered by the unforeseen events he describes.

But this paper is thoroughly researched. The link to an updated version can be found here. It should be read by those who have not made up their minds as to the cause of the loss, and only seek the company of those supporting a rogue pilot, or an elaborate conspiracy involving a decoy ‘double’, or other nonsensical constructs. Mr Gilbert also credits two high profile MH370 researchers, John Cox, and a former 777 check captain and current A330 pilot who just calls himself ‘Andrew’ but is well known for his contributions elsewhere.

The early MH370 search may have been very close to finding it
The early MH370 search may have been very close to finding it

There were at least 39 windscreen fires in Boeing jets between 2002 and 2014, eight of them in 777s. The Malaysia Airlines jet involved, 9M-MRO belonged to a cohort of 777s that were statistically over represented in windshield heater related incidents.

Mr Gilbert has used the operational records for 9M-MRO, the Factual Information Report, Boeing Service Bulletins and relevant FAA airworthiness directives to conclude that the crew oxygen system may have been leaking.

Hypothesis

Here are extracts from what Mr Gilbert says could have happened.

“I believe that MH370 suffered a windshield heater related incident involving the Captain’s windshield…the fire most likely would have broken out around the frame of the Captain’s windshield.

“He would have ordered the first officer to identify the nearest airport and initiate a diversion.

“I suspect the Captain got out of his seat to retrieve the cockpit fire extinguisher. That would have meant either taking his mask off or having it torn off when the oxygen hose reached full extension. The first officer would have been left to work the Smoke, Fire or Fumes checklist. A mayday call does not appear on the checklist.

“Having identified the source of the fire as the Captain’s windshield the First Officer would have first turned the windshield heat off on the overhead panel and then isolated the left AC Bus, in doing so power to the SATCOM would have been cut. The oxygenation of the flight deck (from the leaking emergency oxygen hose) would cause the fire to flare, tripping the transponder circuit breaker and possibly injuring either or both of the pilots.

“The fire would have then propagated rapidly possibly forcing one or both pilots from the flight deck.

“However it would have only burned for a few minutes and then the Captain’s windshield would have failed. When the windshield failed initially shattered glass and windshield debris would have been blasted into the cockpit at about 500 km/h.

“That would have been immediately followed by a rapid depressurisation. The depressurisation would have extinguished the fire. If there was anyone still on the flight deck when the windshield failed it is difficult to see how they would not have been seriously, if not fatally, wounded. “

End of flight

Mr Gilbert says “I believe that MH370 ran out of fuel on the 7th arc near 34 degrees 12 S and 94 degrees 30 E about 695 kilometres north east of the ATSB hot spot and about 200 kilometres outside the current search area.

“The ATSB modelling assumed an undamaged, intact airplane and favours flight paths to the 7th arc that are consistent with a normal fuel burn.

“Factoring in the additional drag from the failed windscreen makes shorter paths that use more fuel over the same period more likely. A southerly track on 180 degrees gives a final leg that is 360 kilometres (or nearly ten percent) shorter than that modelled as most likely by the ATSB.

“34 degrees 12 S by 94 degrees 30 E is interesting in another regard also: it sits right on the north-western edge of the aerial search zone of 2-3 April 2014. A debris field would have drifted more than 100 kilometres north-west b y the time the search reached that location on April 3.

“The aerial search may well have found the debris field if search efforts had been continued in that area as originally planned. Regrettably, on April 4, 2014 all the search assets were redirected about 1500 kilometres to the north chasing what turned out to be spurious underwater acoustic signals.”

Reporter comment

Mr Gilbert’s analysis might have a single point of failure, in that their may not have been a windscreen fire, but it plausibly deals with a number of nagging issues, and in far more detail than the extracts in this post.

If the flight data recorder is ever located, recovered and read, it would very quickly determine a sequence of events which would confirm or dismiss the key elements of this hypothesis.

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