in Kulturkampf

Runaway Plane: A Heroic Hypothesis For Flight MH 370

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It is now certain that the missing Malaysian Airlines plane has been swallowed up by the Indian Ocean. Inmarsat telemetry has confirmed that Flight 370 flew South into remote waters before its fuel ran out. Just as I engaged in speculation about a northern destination last week, when it appeared possible that the plane had been diverted, now I’ll look at the simplest, and saddest, explanation offered so far: that an onboard fire killed the passengers and crew, leaving the Boeing 777-200ER a runaway plane.

As explained by Florida pilot Chris Goodfellow, a fire is the simplest available explanation for the strange flight path and the behavior of the flight crew. Saying that pilot Zahare Ahmad Shah was a “smart pilot” who “didn’t have time” to save his passengers, Goodfellow wrote:

What I think happened is that they were overcome by smoke and the plane just continued on  the heading probably on George (autopilot) until either fuel exhaustion or fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. I said four days ago you will find it along that route – looking elsewhere was pointless.

This pilot, as I say, was a hero struggling with an impossible situation trying to get that plane to Langkawi.

Expanding on his thesis at Wired, Goodfellow explained that radar data about the aircraft’s rapid altitude changes can be explained as Shah fighting an onboard fire.

(L)et’s accept for a minute that the pilot may have ascended to 45,000 feet in a last-ditch effort to quell a fire by seeking the lowest level of oxygen. That is an acceptable scenario. At 45,000 feet, it would be tough to keep this aircraft stable, as the flight envelope is very narrow and loss of control in a stall is entirely possible. The aircraft is at the top of its operational ceiling. The reported rapid rates of descent could have been generated by a stall, followed by a recovery at 25,000 feet. The pilot may even have been diving to extinguish flames.

Yes, Shah and his co-pilot would have had smoke hoods, but those would only have given them a few minutes, and the passengers and cabin crew had only oxygen masks. Furthermore, fires can cause chemical reactions that produce gases which are deadly even if they are not directly inhaled. So if Zahare Ahmad Shah fought a fire but failed to snuff it out, and he and his co-pilot were the last people alive on the plane, did he even have time to reestablish radio contact with a ground station? Did he realize that he would be dead before he could land the plane at Langkawi?

This is a particularly awful scenario to contemplate, to be sure, but it is very possible for an onboard fire or chemical reaction to kill everyone on board before a plane can reach the ground. Air crashes regularly cause death and destruction on the ground, as any good commercial airline pilot knows. And with more than six hours’ worth of fuel left on board, an unmanned airliner is little more than a large, flying bomb.

Did Shah, a happy career pilot with a spotless record who spent his spare time flying in a homemade simulator, program the autopilot in his final moments so that its course would avoid the mainland, islands, and shipping lanes? Did he aim for open water to spare us all the possibility, however remote, of further horror? Maybe there is no “mystery” here after all, and we have horribly misunderstood heroic decisions that were made in the worst possible circumstances.

Just as Goodfellows’s fire theory has the benefit of being simple, therefore making it more likely to be true than complex hypotheses about hijackings and so forth, the “runaway plane” hypothesis has the benefit of matching what we know about the character of the pilot. Families and friends uniformly reject the notion that Shah committed suicide. It makes perfect sense that, knowing he would never live long enough to land the plane, Shah’s final act was to plot a course that would not endanger anyone else. Whereas so many hypotheses ask us to assume Shah experienced some sort of psychotic break, a runaway plane only requires that we believe he was a professional to his last breath.

To be sure, there are problems even with this hypothesis, and I am not an air transportation safety expert. Unless the “black box” is recovered, we may never be completely sure what happened on Flight MH 370, and even then there may be unknowns. But for now, no hypothesis explains the sequence of events or the flight path of the plane better than this one.

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