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MH370 – Christine Negroni reports today

b-777Flight #MH370 is still an enigma, with many theories rushing about where the aircraft may in fact be. There are many unexplained happenings, such as the ACARS turning off then re-appearing some hour later.


In today’s Australian, Christine Negroni explores an alternate thesis, which fits a reasonable and plausible synopsis.

The families of #MH370 victims still ask why materials were slow to be released, such as the flight track from the cruising altitude and the turn-back.

There has been a lot of independent research into #MH370, which has led to the recovery of identified parts from the B-777. This has not been driven by the #atsb, which has concentrate on an Indian Ocean search exclusively and publicly has not “taken-on-board” the independent research.

Perhaps the words “tendentious bloggers” springs to mind.

Other reading:

ATSB’s Martin Dolan and the MH370 search vs. PelAir


#MH370 and the current situation

Warren Truss on #MH370

#MH370 flaperon identified


#MH370 – Current ATSB activity

MH370 independent review by Brock McKeon

MH370 – latest presumed data for flight


Good night, Malaysian

What happened to MH370 after this final message from the cockpit?

An air safety specialist offers a theory.

The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 1-2, 2016

Story: Christine Negroni

The moonless night was warm and dark with mostly cloudy skies when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lifted off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12.41am on March 8, 2014. On board the overnight flight to Beijing were 12 crew members and 227 passengers. There were business travellers, vacationers and students. There were families, couples and singles from Indonesia, Malaysia, China, the US, Australia and nine other countries; a global community common on international flights.

Because Kuala Lumpur and Beijing are in the same time zone and the flight was to arrive at dawn, many travellers were probably sleeping when things started to go wrong.

At takeoff, First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid was making the radio calls, so we can assume Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was flying the Boeing 777. A 33-year employee of the company, Zaharie, 53, had 18,000 flight hours and had spent more untallied time flying his home-built flight simulator. He took so much pleasure in this activity that he made videos and posted them on his Facebook page, offering tips and instructions to other simulator enthusiasts. He also owned and flew radio-controlled airplanes. There just wasn’t enough flying, as far as Zaharie was concerned.

Professionally speaking, Fariq, 27, was everything Zaharie was not. He had been flying for Malaysia for four years. From 2010 to 2012, he was a co-pilot on Boeing 737s. He was moved to the Airbus A330, where he flew as a first officer for 15 months until he began his transition to the bigger Boeing 777. The flight to Beijing would bring his total hours on the aircraft to 39.

Twenty minutes after takeoff, at 1.01am, the plane reached its assigned altitude, 35,000 feet, and Fariq notified controllers: “Malaysia Three Seven Zero maintaining flight level three five zero.” Shortly afterwards, the 12-year-old plane transmitted a routine status report via ACARS, the Aircraft Communications Addressing & Reporting System; such reports can be done manually if the pilots want to request or send information to the airline, and are also triggered by a novel condition on the plane requiring immediate notice. In the absence of either of these, an automatic status report is transmitted on a schedule set by the airline. At Malaysia, it was every 30 minutes. Neither Zaharie nor Fariq had anything to add to the 1.07am scheduled ACARS report, and it showed nothing amiss.

Around the time the ACARS report was being sent, it appears control of the flight was transferred to the first officer because Zaharie was now making the radio calls. He confirmed to air traffic control that the plane was flying at cruise altitude: “Ehh … Seven Three Seven Zero [an error, as the flight was Three Seven Zero] maintaining level three five zero.” Eleven minutes later, as the plane neared the end of Malaysian airspace, the controller issued a last instruction to the pilots, giving them the radio frequency to use upon crossing into Vietnam’s airspace. “Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Ho Chi Minh one two zero decimal niner, good night.”

“Good night, Malaysian,” Zaharie said. It was 1.19am. His voice was calm, according to a stress analyst who listened to the recording as part of the investigation. There was no indication of trouble.

Zaharie had been in his seat since around 11pm, supervising Fariq, ordering fuel, entering information in the onboard computers, arming systems, checking the weather and discussing the flight with the cabin attendants. The airliner was now at cruise altitude, flying a pre-programmed course. There was very little difference at this point between the Boeing 777 and every other jetliner Fariq had flown. So, in the scenario I envision on Malaysia 370, this would have been the perfect time for Zaharie to tell Fariq, “Your airplane,” leaving the 777 in the first officer’s hands so he could go to the bathroom.

Alone on the flight deck, Fariq must have enjoyed these moments. He was in sole command of one of the world’s largest airliners. Seven years earlier, he had graduated from college and been accepted into Malaysia Airline’s pilot cadet program at the Langkawi Aerospace Training Centre. His professional future was full of promise and so was his personal life. During training he’d fallen in love with a fellow student, Nadira Ramli, who became a first officer with AirAsia, a low-cost carrier. In March 2014, Fariq and Ramli were engaged.

While Zaharie was out of the cockpit, it would be Fariq’s job to tune the radio to the Ho Chi Minh air traffic control frequency. Once he established contact, he would change the transponder’s fourdigit “squawk code” from the one used in Malaysia to one for transiting to Vietnam’s airspace.

A transponder is critical for airliners. It links altitude, direction, speed, and, most significantly, identity to what otherwise would be an anonymous dot on an air traffic control screen. Controllers need the transponder to keep planes from colliding. Airlines use it to track the progress of flights. Pilots depend on it for a timely warning if another plane winds up in their flight path. Turning the knob on the device to the left – to “standby” mode – effectively shuts off the transponder. Standby is used mostly while airliners are taxiing at the airport, so all the planes don’t trigger the collision avoidance system. For all intents and purposes, Standby is “off”.

Zaharie had left the cockpit for what’s known as a “biological break”. Perhaps he would have stopped by the galley for a cup of coffee or a snack. It’s a long flight at cruise altitude, so there would have been no rush to get back to the flight deck.

This is about the time when, I think, a rapid decompression happened near or in the cockpit. It would have made a startling noise, like a clap or the sound of a champagne bottle uncorking, only much, much louder and sharper. This would have been followed by a rush of air and things swirling everywhere. Pens, papers – everything loose – would have been tossed around, including the shoulder straps of Fariq’s seat restraint, which he would have unfastened for comfort not long after takeoff. A white fog would have filled the space as the drop in temperature turned the cabin air into mist. The first officer would have realised immediately, This is an emergency. It would have been a neon light in his brain, but it would also have been competing with other lights and alarm sounds that must have been disconcerting and overwhelming.

The denser air inside Fariq’s body would have rushed out through every orifice, an effect that can be particularly painful in the ears. His fingers, hands and arms would have started to move spastically. Emergency, have to get down, have to let someone know. What first? He would have reached over to the transponder to enter 7700, the four digits that will alert everyone on the ground and in the air that something has gone wrong with the plane. His fingers would still have been trembling as he clutched the small round knob on the device and turned it to Standby. It is not what he would have intended, but he would already have begun to lose his mental edge. In an attempt to transmit a message of distress, he would have inadvertently severed the only means air controllers had of identifying his airplane and the details of his flight. It was half a minute past 1.20 in the morning.

Only a small portion of pilots has experienced the dangerous seduction of hypoxia. Military aviators in many countries are trained to recognise the symptoms of oxygen deprivation by spending time at a simulated 25,000 feet in high-altitude chambers. Yet even they are not subjected to the kind of rapid decompression that could have happened on MH370. The onset of hypoxia above 25,000 feet is too quick, and the health risks too high, to duplicate it in a high-altitude chamber. Fariq’s brain would have been befuddled. When the pressure in the plane suddenly dropped, the young pilot perhaps did the wrong things as his rapidly diminishing mental state was telling him he was doing the right things. He wouldn’t have been aware of his errors: hypoxia victims think they are performing brilliantly.

I recall watching a YouTube video of an army aviator in an altitude chamber training session. He’s flanked by two others using supplemental oxygen, but he has his own regulator off in order to experience hypoxia. He holds a deck of cards and has been asked to flip through them one by one, announcing the number and suit before moving on to the next card. The simulated altitude is 25,000 feet. “I feel really good right now,” he says as he begins announcing, “Six of spades,” showing a six of spades to the camera. “No symptoms yet.” In 24 seconds he reports feeling tingling “in my toes and in my toes”. A minute in, he identifies a five of spades as a four of spades. After being asked twice to look again and making the correction, he calls every card the four of spades. After two minutes, with his thinking increasingly sloppy, he is asked, “Sir, what would you do if this was an aircraft?” He replies, “Four of spades, four of spades.” Ninety seconds later, after he ignores requests to put on his regulator, it’s done for him.

Like the drunk who’s convinced he’s the funniest guy in the room, a pilot suffering from hypoxia can feel a heightened sense of competence and wellbeing. Sufferers ought to be trying to get supplementary oxygen, but they often don’t. Hypoxia creates a state of idiotic bliss.

Fariq’s oxygen mask was stored in a chamber the size of a glove compartment, below his armrest. His movements may have been sluggish, confounded by the difficulty of fitting the mask correctly. When all is working well, the mask should rejuvenate a pilot. But any number of problems may have prevented Fariq from getting enough oxygen. Something wrong with the mask, the oxygen supply, or the connection between the two could explain why he might still be unable to think clearly. Still, he must have wondered: Why hasn’t Zaharie returned?

Everything was in chaos, the altitude warning alarm clanging. I find it logical to assume that Zaharie visited the business-class bathroom near the flight deck that is also used by the flight crew. In this and all the airline’s 777 bathrooms, a dropdown mask is there to provide oxygen in the case of depressurisation. Imagine what it would have been like for Zaharie to see the yellow plastic cup bob down. He would have been momentarily rattled, but he would have realised immediately what had happened and what needed to be done. Still, he had to make a choice: try to get back to the cockpit without oxygen, or remain in the bathroom and wait for Fariq to get the plane to a lower altitude and then rejoin him on the flight deck. I’m guessing Zaharie wasn’t confident in Fariq’s ability to handle the emergency and chose the former course of action. But the effect of oxygen deprivation would have been crippling for Zaharie, too. Air would have been exploding from his respiratory and digestive systems. His extremities would have been shaking. He would have struggled to get out of the bathroom.

The distance between the bathroom and the cockpit is just a few steps, but like Fariq, Zaharie was a smoker and probably more susceptible to the effects of oxygen deprivation. If he got out of the bathroom, down the narrow corridor and to the door of the cockpit without losing consciousness or cognitive function, another challenge would have awaited him.

The cockpit door unlocks automatically when cabin pressure is lost. Would Zaharie have remembered that? Or did he, by force of habit, stop outside the door and try to enter the code? Did he lose precious seconds struggling to remember a passcode he did not need? Or did he just grab the handle and open the door, but succumb to the lack of oxygen before getting into his seat? Pilots at Malaysia Airlines tell me that in a rapid decompression it would have been very difficult for Zaharie to get back onto the flight deck. Previous cases of rapid depressurisation on airliners have shown how physical exertion eats away at the too-few seconds of useful consciousness.

The captain, I believe, was unable to regain command of the airplane. If he had, things might have turned out very differently.

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