Air-Minded: Lost

everything-we-know-about-malaysia-airlines-flight-370-in-one-graphicSo what do I know about Malaysia Flight 370? Absolutely nothing, yet friends and acquaintances keep asking. I’m a pilot, so I must have some opinion, right?

Information is sparse and contradictory. We were told Thai military radar tracked MA370 turning off course shortly after the transponder quit sending information to civilian controllers. A few hours later Malaysian authorities told us those reports were wrong. A day or two later the Malaysians allowed as how the reports may have been true, but MA370’s new course could have been north or south.

Nearly every new bit of information on MA370 has followed the same trajectory: first the leak, then the breathless media frenzy, then the denial, then the qualified “maybe.”

The only sure thing we know is where the airplane was when its transponder quit, a little less than an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur. Everything else is speculation.

For now I’ll buy the reports of MA370 turning off course. That story seems more solid now than it first did, if only because investigating authorities, after initially denying it, came back to it and have stuck with it for several days in a row, and also because American investigators are saying they’ve seen the radar data and concur.

As for the report of altitude deviations — a climb to to 45,000 feet, followed by a rapid fighter-like descent to a much lower altitude — I totally discount that. Civilian and military radar controllers are far more reliant on aircraft transponders for altitude information than most reporters realize. Controllers aren’t very good at calculating altitude from raw radar returns, and often they’re just guessing.

How can I make this assertion? Because I know it to be true from personal experience with military ground-based and airborne radar controllers. When military fighter pilots conduct air combat training, or fly into actual combat, they often turn off their transponders. A really good controller who knows this is going to happen and is prepared to interpret radar antenna angles can track your approximate altitude and report it to your adversaries. But a controller who is caught flat-footed — hey, MA370’s transponder data just disappeared — wouldn’t be able to get his or her shit together for several minutes, and even then would be grossly out of practice. Not to mention that the point at which MA370’s transponder went off was the point at which Malaysian air traffic control would have been handing MA370 off to Vietnamese air traffic control, no longer concerned with tracking the flight.

Oh, one more thing. The B-777’s service ceiling is less than 45,000 feet (about 43,000 feet, according to Wikipedia). That’s not to say a big airliner can’t be coaxed up to a higher altitude, but you’d have to have golden hands to do it, maintaining an exact speed with zero margin of error on either side, and a perfect climb rate and angle. It would be like balancing the airplane on the point of a pin. And why would you do that in any case?

Controllers can track an airplane’s course with raw radar returns, as mentioned, and that’s why I believe them when they say MA370 turned off course after the transponder quit. Controllers are very poor at tracking aircraft altitude without the transponder, which is why I don’t believe the stories about altitude changes.

Apparently, though, controllers didn’t track MA370 for very long after it turned off course, because they don’t know where it went after that.

One of the wilder assertions I’ve heard is that MA370 flew into the “shadow” of another airplane going somewhere else, and stayed in its shadow to evade radar tracking. I think that’s utter bullshit.

In the mid-1980s I was deployed to Shemya Island in the Aleutians to help support a big naval exercise in the Bering Sea. The Soviets were watching the exercise closely, sending long-range aircraft from Siberian bases to observe. Our job was to intercept the Bears and Bisons, and we were busy every day. One day the radar controllers vectored me west to intercept a hot target, a track they believed was another Soviet bomber or reconnaissance plane inbound to the exercise area. When I finally got close enough to visually pick up the target, five or six miles out, I could see it was a B-747, and could even make out enough of the blue and white paint scheme to identify it as a Korean Air Lines jet. “No, that’s not it,” the controller said, “look below and aft.” I did, but there was nothing there. It took me a while to convince the controller the target was just a single KAL 747.

Apparently the radar controller saw two blips almost superimposed on one another and interpreted that to mean that a Soviet aircraft was shadowing the Korean airliner in order to sneak into the exercise area. In this case there wasn’t really a second target, just a lone KAL 747 on a long flight to Seattle or LA. It was a glitch. If a Thai military radar controller thinks he saw something like that the night MA370 disappeared — if indeed the shadowing story is based on something a radar controller reported and isn’t just a product of some reporter’s fevered imagination — I’d say it was a similar glitch.

Interpreting raw radar returns is tricky, and controllers sometimes see things that aren’t there. Another time during the mid-1980s, I was scrambled from an Alaskan Air Command alert base at King Salmon toward the Bering Strait. My target was flying a north-south orbit in the middle of the strait, up and down the narrow section where Alaska and the USSR are close together (you know, near Sarah Palin’s front porch). As I flew west the radar controller told me I might have more than one target. By the time I got close enough to pick it up visually, he was excitedly reporting as many as a dozen separate targets, and Alaskan Air Command had scrambled two additional F-15s from our other alert site at Galena.

Well. The target, when I got there and slipped in behind it, was a single An-24 Coke, a propeller-driven twin-engined transport the Soviets routinely flew over the Bering Strait to observe the extent and thickness of the ice. We’d intercepted that same plane on numerous occasions, and it was no big deal. But those turning propellers threw off so many false glints the radar controller thought the Russians must have mounted a major air operation over the Bering Strait.

All this by way of telling you that when it comes to raw radar returns, it’s very hard to say what’s actually out there, and to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Back to verifiable facts, we do know that two separate automated systems on MA370 quit sending signals back to the ground. The first system to quit, about 40 minutes after takeoff, was the ACARS, which transmits aircraft and engine performance data back to the parent airline. Fourteen minutes later the transponder, which broadcasts heading, speed, and altitude to radar controllers tracking the flight’s progress, quit sending. In between, one of the pilots made the last known radio transmission, saying “good night” to a ground controller, probably as the flight was being handed off from Malaysian radar control to Vietnamese radar control.

This suggests to some that the two systems were deliberately turned off, one by one, and that the “good night” radio transmission had a more sinister meaning. But I think there are other possibilities. The ACARS sent a burst of data at 1:07AM. It was scheduled to send another burst at 1:37AM but didn’t. In the meantime there was a 1:19AM voice transmission from the flight deck, followed by the cessation of transponder signals at 1:21AM. It could be that MA370 crashed at that point, and that for whatever reason we simply haven’t found it yet. It could also be that around the time the pilot or co-pilot made that last radio call, some progressive electrical malfunction — an electrical fire, perhaps, not yet detected by the crew — was underway. As for the pilot or co-pilot saying “good night” in a radio transmission, that’s pretty standard, and I wouldn’t read anything into it.

This “ping” thing we’re all hearing about is a great mystery, and I’m more and more inclined to write it off as wishful thinking. According to some reports, part of the ACARS system, a part that was not turned off, continued to emit hourly identifying pings for seven hours after MA370 disappeared. The satellites picking up the pings, however, can’t locate where the pings come from. They could have come from an airplane safely parked on the ground somewhere, or they could have come from an airplane in motion. They could have come from a point in the sea where controllers first lost track of the aircraft, or they could have come from points as far as 800 miles away in any direction (as far as MA370 could have flown with the fuel it had on board). Is some part of ACARS battery-powered? Could the pings have come from a floating piece of wreckage, automatically generated until the battery died? Maybe tomorrow or the next day authorities will deny that part of the story. Pings? What are these pings you speak of?

Okay, opinion time: I can’t imagine any organization smaller than a first-world government being able to pull off hijacking an airliner, diverting it to some clandestine airstrip, and then hiding it from satellite surveillance, national authorities, and the local population for more than a week. Personally I think the airplane crashed into the ocean and we just haven’t found the wreckage yet. Whether it crashed as a result of a hijacking attempt, deliberate action on the part of its crew, gross pilot error, or some sort of mechanical catastrophe, is simply unknown. We’ll just have to wait and see.

On that note, I was crushingly disappointed in Rachel Maddow last night. She has been one of the most clear-headed commentators on the mystery of MA370, steadfastly sticking to the few known facts and relentlessly pointing out that everything else is speculation, a reliable and calm voice telling us to be patient, that the mystery will eventually be solved. And then last night she gave air time to the girlfriend of the single American adult passenger on MA370, a woman who believes the airplane is safe on the ground somewhere, the passengers held hostage but mercifully safe.

Oh, Rachel, that was Today Show stuff. I know you’re an expert on what’s good for your ratings, but that was unworthy. Shame on you.

Update: within minutes of publishing this and posting a link on Facebook, two friends alerted me to this Wired article written by an experienced airline pilot. He too thinks MA370 may have experienced an electrical fire, and that the crew turned to the southwest in order to fly straight to the nearest emergency landing field available to them, and that the reason they couldn’t tell us about it was that by then the aircraft was totally disabled electrically. This makes good sense to me, and fits the known facts. We’ll have to wait and see.

© 2014 – 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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