MH370: Some neglected issues

The disappearance and crash of MH-370 is a very sad incident which has been very much in the news recently. Our hearts go out to the families of the people travelling on the flight and we feel deeply sorry and concerned about the extraordinary ordeal  of emotional ups and downs to which they have been subjected.

The Government of Malaysia has put in enormous effort in determining what has happened, and has obtained the cooperation of a large number of other countries in this effort.

In these days of constant surveillance, where satellites can practically locate a football on the ground, how can a big aircraft with 239 people on board just disappear for so many days?

The Malaysian government has rightly maintained that, at the onset of the investigation, and in the absence of conclusive evidence, no line of enquiry can be closed. And a variety of possibilities were investigated.

The press reports have emphasized the possibility of deliberate human involvement. Initially, the suspicion fell on the terrorist angle, because of two passengers travelling on fake passports. Then the suspicion shifted to hijacking, possibly even hijacking by hacking into the plane’s control systems; it was stated that the transponders had been deliberately turned off and the plane’s course diverted.  Then the possibility was raised that the pilot may have had some devious aims in mind and this led to an examination of his interest in flight simulators.

We feel it is important to ascertain the right cause since that will determine the future course of action. If fake passports and terrorism were the cause, security should be tightened, if remote hijacking was the cause, control systems should be redesigned, and if the issue was pilot involvement,  then more attention should be paid to the psychological stability of pilots and crew.

Accordingly, we feel it is important to point out that the issue of technological failure has been relatively neglected, and has remained in the background, although this has all along been the key possibility. Naturally, if the cause is technological failure rather than human failure then it is very unjust to blame the pilot (or even the Iranian passengers, which encourages the stereotype of Islamic terrorism).

Airplanes are designed to be as lightweight as possible. Consequently, they have a fragile skin which can and does develop cracks caused by metal fatigue due to repeated compression and decompression. These cracks can be aggravated by corrosion in a hot and humid atmosphere. There are several cases of the older Boeing 737-300 developing cracks, as emerged after the well-known case of a Southwest airline flight 812 developing a 5 foot hole in the roof on 1 April 2011, and being forced to make an emergency landing at a military base in Arizona. (Report in the International Herald Tribune, 6 April 2011.) Such cracks can cause explosive decompression of the plane in which a part of the fuselage of the plane may be blown off as happened for example when an 18 foot long portion tore off in the Aloha Airlines flight 243 of 28 April 1988 (a Boeing 737-297) (In that case the oxygen masks worked, and the plane rapidly descended and was able to make an emergency landing with just one fatality.) As shown by the same example, despite an explosive decompression, the plane may continue flying and even land safely.

It will take time to determine what exactly happened in the case of MH-370, and perhaps the full details may never emerge. But, given this past history, it is quite possible that something similar might have happened to it. If part of the fuselage was blown off, that could well  have caused the transponder to fail and the plane to lose radio contact. Perhaps the pilot heroically tried to save the plane by (a) turning back, and (b) descending quickly to 12000 feet. Possibly he did not live long enough to complete the manouevre, because the oxygen masks may have failed. Possibly a change of course happened as a consequence of explosive decompression.  Very likely,  the plane went on to fly on autopilot mode for several hours, and several thousand kilometers until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea.

While this is just a speculation at this stage, it is clearly a very strong possibility. Had anyone deliberately diverted the plane or hijacked it, they would do so for some purpose, and it makes no sense that they should keep quiet about it for so long. Hence, this neglected possibility of  technological failure deserves to be investigated far more thoroughly than has been done till now.

It is important to investigate technological failure as a possible, since if technological failure is the cause, as it has been in several cases in the past, then it would entail a thorough check up of existing aircraft. These aircraft often continue to be used for as many years as possible to recover the large costs of investment. Technological failure would also raise questions about the design of the aircraft and whether the company concerned knew about these possible defects.

We feel that there must be an adequate and public investigation into technological failure as a possible cause of the disappearance of MH-370 since that might help to prevent the repetition of this tragic event, and save many lives in the future.

Press Statement, 29 March 2014