by Allen Penticoff
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published online Midwest Flyer Magazine – February/March 2021
I wanted to comment on the article entitled “Miracle Over Minnesota… Survival After Carbon Monoxide Poisoning” by Dan Bass, published in the Oct/Nov 2020 issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine. Related to Dan’s accident, I have a theory on what may have happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH 370), when it disappeared on March 8, 2014.
If you recall, the Boeing 777-200 ER disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport. Several pieces of debris from the aircraft were found on the African coast and on Indian Ocean islands more than a year later, but the main portion of the aircraft is still missing, and the exact cause of its disappearance is unknown. A total of 227 passengers and 12 crew members were on board.
As a former aircraft insurance adjuster for 19 years, I have investigated other accidents like Dan’s in which the aircraft flew itself to the ground/water and people walked/swam away. Dan was fortunate that the gear on his Mooney M20C Ranger was retracted. Otherwise, had the gear been down, his aircraft would have more than likely flipped over and he could have been severely injured or killed.
First, I think that after more than six years since Flight 370 went missing, we can rule out some possible causes:
1) Terrorists. If the aircraft had been highjacked, there would be a demand or statement by now by the terrorist organization. There is no point in waiting to state your grievance. Terrorists would have destroyed the aircraft shortly after taking it over, which is much more difficult to do in the wake of 9/11.
2) Mentally Disturbed Pilot. Like the terrorists, what’s the point of waiting. Technical data transmitted by the aircraft to maintenance computers via satellite indicates the aircraft flew for about seven hours – until fuel exhaustion.
3) Loss of cabin pressure. While certainly capable of incapacitating the crew, it is hardly an unnoticeable occurrence. There are plenty of warnings to the pilots, and the cure is an immediate descent to below 10,000 feet above sea level where there is plenty of oxygen. Even below 15,000 feet, there is plenty of oxygen for the crew to function essentially normal. Such a deviation would have been reported by the pilots using their mandatory oxygen masks (more on this forthcoming).
4) Nose wheel tire fire. The fly in the ointment of the (online) theory that the tire on the nose wheel caught fire on takeoff, and the fumes overcame the pilots, has two problems. One, it was quite some time after takeoff that the “turn” off course occurred. Two, neither pilot radioed a problem and that they were diverting (a burning tire has a rather distinctive, pungent smell and would be an immediate cause for concern, but it may have taken awhile before the pilots would have smelled it. Additionally, both pilots have quick donning oxygen masks, and would have donned their masks if they smelled anything funny. Was there a simple problem with the pilots’ emergency oxygen system? We will likely never know.
But there is a gas that can incapacitate pilots and everyone else aboard an aircraft without anyone being aware of it – carbon monoxide (CO). I am not able to tell you exactly how this could happen, or why the source of the CO would also not generate some detectable smell.
Airliner cabins are pressurized with “bleed air” from the engines. Normally this has nothing to do with the exhaust of the jet engines, since the air being compressed is derived well ahead of where combustion of kerosene takes place in the engine. But, in some way, perhaps due to faulty maintenance (or malice), odorless carbon monoxide could be introduced into the cabin air. The pilots notice there is some problem. Not sure of what it is, they turn for a nearby suitable airport (the turn observed on radar), but are growing steadily groggy and incoherent. The pilots are now oxygen deprived, thus the transponder is turned off, instead of to the emergency code 7700, and other strange statements are made and happenings occur. Normally an airline pilot would report to air traffic control any turn or deviation, so why such a sharp turn and no report, is truly a mystery.
Modern airliners, such as the Boeing 777, are not intended to be flown by hand. They are flown by electronics and the autopilot.
There are five electrical systems on the 777. As long as the engines are running, and power is being generated (which appears to be the case), they fly just fine without any human input. In fact, airplanes in general fly just fine without any human input. They are designed to be stable. Flying is a matter of making small corrections to that stability, unless the pilot is flying in combat or performing aerobatics.
If the pilots had set a new compass heading into the autopilot (a likely case if they were diverting and did not yet have the destination airport programmed into the flight computer) – and they passed out shortly thereafter – the aircraft would continue on its heading and altitude until it ran out of fuel.
Most airliners are flown with enough fuel to complete their flight and have a more-than-adequate supply on reserve, but they generally do not carry full tanks, as keeping all that extra fuel in the air is a waste of speed, power, lifting capacity and money. All indications and preflight records indicate that the aircraft could stay in the air for seven hours and it did.
When outside of the continental United States and Europe, there is not much radar coverage. For instance, a flight to Hawaii is well out of radar range. Pilots make radio position reports to let controllers know where they are until they reappear on someone else’s radar screen. There isn’t much radar coverage where Flight MH 370 turned off course or anywhere else it went after that. Radar coverage is expensive… most governments can’t afford the excellent system we have in the U.S., or simply don’t have enough territory for it to be effective beyond their borders. So, once the transponder is turned off, aircraft all but disappear from radar, even in areas where there is good coverage.
Modern airliners transmit performance data to computers at maintenance support locations. This raw data helps airlines with many maintenance issues. This is the system that detected Flight MH 370 in the Indian Ocean – a job it was not designed for. Using signal times, and satellite location, they developed an arc across the (mostly uncharted bottom) Indian Ocean to where the signal from the ill-fated plane could have been. If, as mentioned earlier, the aircraft was on a set heading with the autopilot, the aircraft would have tried to fly a straight line but would have easily been blown in many directions by the very strong winds at high altitude over the course of seven hours. It was, unfortunately, a very long arc over a very deep ocean.
The aircraft was equipped with an “emergency locator transmitter” (ELT). ELTs are set off on impact and will transmit an aircraft’s location to satellites. But the part of the world where Flight MH 370 was flying does not have many of these satellites, and the aircraft may have gone down before such a satellite passed over. Or, there was not enough impact to set off the ELT.
I have personally investigated aircraft accidents where the aircraft was flown into the water at fairly high speed, did not break up, and sank intact. This is actually more common than not. The oceans and our Great Lakes are littered with aircraft that landed on the water and sank – intact – without releasing any debris. Even a large aircraft, such as the Boeing 777, will land on water with minimal impact and sink. Remember, the “Miracle on the Hudson” was made possible because it happened in the middle of a metropolis, on flat water, surrounded by people with boats. The airplane eventually sank, intact. It is even possible the same scenario played out in the Indian Ocean, with no rescue boats nearby.
My theory of what happened to Flight MH 370.
On autopilot, having only recently run out of engine electrical generation and now operating on powerful batteries for a short time, the airplane, stable on the “assigned heading,” descended from the altitude where it ran out of fuel in a gentle glide with all aboard already asleep/dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In a flat glide (the autopilot would be trying to maintain altitude, but can’t due to a lack of power, but it won’t “stall,” because it is programmed to avoid too low of an airspeed), so it slowly impacts the ocean and floats for a bit, then sinks, intact. Since it descends to the depths rather rapidly, it is not affected much by the oceans currents or wind/waves on the surface.
The southern Indian Ocean is one of the most inhospitable and remote places on Earth. The water is three miles deep. The pinger on the “black box” is not designed to travel through this much water. It is designed to help find the box in an already “identified” location. Even sophisticated military sonar cannot pick up such signals through the deep water (and “inversions”). At one time, I thought some of our fast attack submarines could find this “ping,” but apparently not so, and the U.S. Navy would not rightly tell us one way or another. Although it does seem rather odd that we cannot find something trying to tell us where it is, when our Navy is perfectly capable of finding submarines trying to hide from us. Apparently, pinger batteries were not installed.
With this and similar recent incidents (Air France), one must wonder why the ELT has not been mandated to float free of a sinking aircraft (as some yachts are) to mark its location, or that of survivors. If your yacht sinks, you take your marine ELT called an EPIRB with you to help search satellites and aircraft find you quickly.
Even had the ping been located, there is no guarantee they would have ever found this airplane. Only a handful of vessels can go this deep into the dark (as in no light at all) ocean. And even if they could find it among the crags of uncharted, undersea plateaus and mountains, it may prove impossible to wrest the elusive “cockpit voice recorder” from the downed aircraft in a hostile deep ocean. Even if they could, the recording is on a loop and starts over long before this flight ended. So essentially, they would have an orange box with no answers to what happened in the cockpit.
I believe Flight MH 370 will go down in history as one more great “unsolved mystery!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is based on an article Allen Penticoff wrote for the “Mr. Green Car” column in The Rock River Times of Rockford, Illinois, and published on April 8, 2014 – exactly one month after the disappearance of Flight MH 370.
Interested in flying since the age of 6, Allen Penticoff got his Private Pilot Certificate at age 17 in 1971. Today, he has 5,500 hours of flight time, and holds a Commercial Pilot Certificate, Single-Engine Land and Sea, Multi-Engine Land-Instrument, and an Airframe & Powerplant Mechanics Certificate. Over his career, he has been a helicopter crew chief in the U.S. Army, an aircraft mechanic and an aircraft insurance adjuster. He and his wife, Ruth, live in New Milford, Illinois, near Rockford, and base their Cessna 150 at Albertus Airport (KFEP), Freeport, Illinois. He is a member of EAA Chapter 431 in Brodhead, Wisconsin (C37).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is the expressed opinion of the author only, and in no way intended to place blame on anyone, or any organization or entity. Readers interested in this topic are urged to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.