The latest government report on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 two and a half years ago comes from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
The report runs 27 pages, and includes 22 images and graphics. Eleven agencies with names as long as the “Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation” and as short and simple as “Boeing” are acknowledged. Millions of dollars have been spent on the probe. Millions of facts exchanged. Billions of words written.
So sitting here in my home office in a suburb of New York, having just written book that purports to solve the mystery, you might be asking yourself, “Christine, what do you know that the rest of us don’t?”
It’s a fair question.
First a disclaimer. While my book, The Crash Detectives (Penguin 2016) describes in detail what happened on the flight deck, it is only a theory. Some details are known. Some we can infer. But for the most part, my story is a creation rooted in past air accidents that share important similarities to MH370.
The Crash Detectives proposes that around the time the flight leveled off at 35,000 feet the captain turned control of the airplane over to first officer. We can assume this because the last radio call, the famous “Goodnight, Malaysian 370” was made by Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, suggesting the First Officer, Fariq Adbul Hamid was flying the plane.
Then, Capt. Zaharie exited the cockpit for a bathroom break. It was during this time that the plane rapidly lost pressurization. During the confusion and the spasms that accompany a sudden loss of oxygen at altitude, Fariq reached over to the transponder to dial the emergency frequency, and inadvertently put it on standby, which is effectively “off.”
Fariq donned his emergency oxygen mask, but by any one of a number of known failures, the mask did not deliver 100 percent oxygen under pressure to the pilot. He was getting enough oxygen to remain conscious, but not enough to make intelligent decisions.
With his thinking greatly impaired, Fariq failed to begin a descent to a lower altitude. Instead, he turned the plane back toward Malaysia, the first of many illogical decisions. This is entirely consistent with oxygen deprivation, also known as hypoxia.
Thinking he was performing brilliantly—another symptom of hypoxia—Fariq piloted the airplane back across the peninsula in a series of zig zags that would only make sense to someone in a hypoxic state.
From the business class bathroom, Capt. Zaharie, would have had to make a decision when the plane depressurized; remain where he was and breathe with the drop-down mask, or try and get back to the flight deck. If he chose the latter, he was unlikely to be successful. Physical exertion eats away at precious seconds of useful consciousness. Capt. Zaharie probably lost consciousness before reaching the cockpit.
Eventually, after turning south and then west, Fariq also passed out and the airplane continued flying until it ran out of fuel in the South Indian Ocean.
In explaining my theory, some people may find it difficult to believe that the pilot would have mishandled the emergency. But here’s where the similar cases come in.
In 2005, on Helios Flight 522 the pilots did not respond correctly to an unpressurized cabin warning. They fell unconscious and the plane flew on autopilot until running out of fuel and crashing, killing everyone on board.
Looking at private aviation there are a half dozen cases including the crash that killed American golfer Payne Stewart in a LearJet in 1999, and the ghost flight of a Socata TBM 700 that killed Laurence and Jane Glazer in 2015.
So, the scenario in The Crash Detectives is neither far-fetched nor unprecedented.
What I have done in The Crash Detectives that the Malaysians investigators appear not to have done, is to take a look at the evidence available rather than focus on the elusive black boxes. While Malaysian officials are fond of saying they won’t know what happened without the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, that’s not necessarily the case. In The Crash Detectives I write about leads that, if pursued, might tell us more about the condition of the Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO • MSN 28420 • LN 404), the airplane flying as Flight 370.
By examining what could have gone wrong, The Crash Detectives tackles the mystery as if it were the de Havilland DH 106 Comet investigation.
You remember the Comet. It was the world’s first jetliner that, back in the 1950s, had a bad habit of blowing apart in flight, puzzling its manufacturer and British aviation authorities. Before ultimately determining what was causing these in-flight breakups, air safety investigators examined everything that could have played a role and fixed those issues.
That’s the way I went about it. That’s what the Malaysians ought to be doing instead of shrugging their shoulders and conceding defeat.
Whether the scenario in The Crash Detectives is exactly what happened isn’t the point. There’s plenty to learn from what could have happened. That’s what crash detectives do, but apparently not in Malaysia.
The Crash Detectives Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Airline Disasters (Penguin 2016) examines air accidents that have baffled the world over a century of commercial flight. It includes puzzling cases of design flaws and human error, conspiracies and cover-ups. Capt. Chesley Sully Sullenberger praised the book and my understanding of the role of human factors in air safety. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and most bookstores and online booksellers. I write about aviation safety for The New York Times, ABC News, Air & Space, Airways and other publications. Read more at christinenegroni.com.