16 May 2014

Flying through the Stars

So, this doesn’t usually come up on this blog but in addition to wasting every waking moment on writing about airplanes, I also write science fiction, especially short stories.

I’m super-excited because a short story that was published last year has been nominated for one of the top awards in the industry. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America nominated Alive, Alive Oh for the Nebula Award for best short story, along with four other really excellent stories (darn my luck!).

The Nebula Awards are given each year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) for the best science fiction or fantasy fiction published in the United States during the previous year. The winner receives a trophy but no cash prize; the trophy is a transparent block with an embedded glitter spiral nebula and gemstones cut to resemble planets.

So, I am flying to beautiful California for the 49th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend! By the time you read this, I will be hanging out with cool writerly types and discussing jetpacks and lasers and maybe even space ship crashes!

Meanwhile, here are a couple of amazing videos to tide you over. Please note that if you are subscribed to the mailing list, you will need to click through to the website to see all three videos.

Pilot’s view of a low pass over the Danube. Cpt David Morgan and Cpt András Árday made the first ever low altitude fly-by overhead the bridges of Budapest with an Airbus jetliner.

Developmental Testing phase II (DT-II) of the F-35B Lightning II jet is being conducted aboard USS Wasp (LHD 1). DT-II is a collaborative effort among the Navy, Marine Corps, and coalition partners to validate F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities for amphibious platforms (LHD, LHA).


I’m not really looking forward to an eleven hour flight but this video takes the sting out of it. And also made me vow to take plenty of photographs at the airport.

Next week, I have a wonderful guest post for you that I know you’ll enjoy. And then I’ll be back to tell you all about my trip!

If you’d like to read or listen to the story, it’s here: Alive, Alive Oh by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley | Lightspeed Magazine. Cross fingers and thumbs for me, please!

09 May 2014

Ejection 0.8 Seconds Before Impact

The incident happened in 2003 but I only just saw the photograph and video on /r/aviation last week.

Thunderbird no. 6 ejection at Mountain Home airshow in 2003. Photo by SSgt Bennie J. Davis III – Still Photographer, USAF

This looks like a photoshopped picture or a stunt still from of a Hollywood movie but it is 100% legitimate.

The photograph was taken at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where the Thunderbirds were putting on an aerial display. The photographer snapped this photograph of 31-year-old Captain Chris Stricklin from the tower, capturing the exact moment when Captain Stricklin ejected from the F-16. Stricklin ejected less than a second before the F16 hit the ground.

The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the United States Airforce, the equivalent of the Red Arrows of the UK Royal Air Force or the Blue Angels of the US Navy.

The Thunderbirds were formed in 1917 as an operational squadron. In 1953 they became the aerobatic display team in 1953, taking the name Thunderbirds from the southwestern US folklore around Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. They became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team in 1956 but had to stop after the FAA banned all supersonic flight at air shows.

They tour the US and the world to perform air demonstrations but they apparently are able to rapidly integrate into an operational fighter unit. They fly F16 Fighting Falcons.

Their standard demonstration is documented on Wikipedia:

From the end of the runway the 4-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their take-off roll with the words “Thunderbirds, let’s run em up!” being retransmitted from the team leader’s mic through the PA system for the crowd to hear.

Diamond: Historically, as Thunderbirds 1 through 4 lift off, the slot aircraft slips immediately into position behind 1 to create the signature Diamond formation. Thanks to the 2009 upgrade to the Block 52, the Diamond now has more than enough thrust to continue to climb straight up into their first maneuver, the Diamond Loop.

Solos: Thunderbird 5 takes to the air next performing a clean low altitude aileron roll followed by 6 who performs a split S climbing in a near vertical maneuver rolling over and diving back toward show center pulling up just above the runway and exiting in the opposite direction.

Much of the Thunderbirds’ display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. They have a total of 8 different formations: The Diamond, Delta, Stinger, Arrowhead, Line-Abreast, Trail, Echelon and the Five Card. The arrowhead performs maneuvers in tight formation as close as 18 inches Fuselage to Canopy separation. They perform formation loops and rolls or transitions from one formation to another. All maneuvers are done at speeds of 450-500+ mph.

Stricklin was flying Thunderbird 6, performing the Split S manoeuvre as a part of his solo performance with the Thunderbirds.

The Split S (known in the RAF as the Half Roll and in the Luftwaffe as the Abschwung) is a dog-fighting technique used to disengage from combat. The pilot half-rolls his aircraft so that he’s flying upside down and then dives away in a descending half-loop, pulling out so that he’s flying straight and level in the opposite direction.

At the Mountain Home airshow as that Captain Stricklin did not have enough vertical space to pull out of the half-loop, leading to his last-second ejection. He had performed the Split S manoeuvre over two hundred times.

The astounding photograph was taken by a professional photographer at the control tower and was swiftly leaked to the public despite the fact that the military immediately locked down into an investigation. The photographer posted on the f-16.net message boards.

Thunderbird crash photo (head-on)

I have noticed all over the internet the shot I had taken of the Thunderbird crash at Mountain Home AFB, ID and though I am not at liberty to share the photo; it is out there. I would like to end some speculation and let you know the photo is real.

I’m a Still Photographer for the USAF and I was stationed at MHAFB during the air show. I was on the catwalk of the tower at Mtn Home along with another photog (video) and about seven other (military) spectators. I have shot the T-birds from the tower before and I was pretty excited to do it again (the sky was perfect blue). I followed Thunderbird 6 from takeoff and watched as he pulled into his maneuver. I then noticed something seemed to be wrong, his direction was a little off; he was pulling out and heading right towards the tower. At this point I figured two things: 1. He’s either going to fly past this tower and we’ll feel the heat or 2. This is going to be ugly… I waited for the aircraft to level and clicked the shutter, what I saw through the lens will never go away…

At the same time as I shot I seen a flash of light and horrific sound. I was shooting on high speed continuous and the next couple frames were a ball of fire and my feet, right before I ran. We all ran to the other side of the tower, I tried to get everyone in along with my partner and finally made it in myself. By the time we got inside the 16 had stopped sliding and rested about 100 ft in front of the tower. I then continued documenting the work of our base firefighters as they put out the flames. It was an experience and though I can’t officially make any comments to the matter, I would like to say Capt Stricklin saved lives… enough said.

For those who are wondering the image is not cleared for public release.

Also for those fellow photogs I was shooting with a D1x with a 300mm, 2.8 @ 1000 and 2000

Thanks,
SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
Still Photographer, USAF

The photograph was officially released a few days later, along with the video from the cockpit just before the crash.

Redditors have pointed out that his left arm twitches twice towards the eject lever before committing to the action.

Captain Stricklin sustained only minor injuries. The $20.4 million F16 was destroyed.

This video shows the view from the crowd:

The investigation results were released as a press release a year later:

PRESS RELEASE — Secretary of the Air Force, Directorate of Public Affairs

Release No. 0121045 – Jan 21, 2004

Thunderbirds Accident Report Released

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – Pilot error caused a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft to crash shortly after takeoff at an air show Sept. 14 at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
The pilot ejected just before the aircraft impacted the ground.

According to the accident investigation board report released today, the pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the “Split S” manoeuvre. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S manoeuver.

When he realized something was wrong, the pilot put maximum back stick pressure and rolled slightly left to ensure the aircraft would impact away from the crowd should he have to eject. He ejected when the aircraft was 140 feet above ground — just eight –tenths of a second prior to impact. He sustained only minor injuries from the ejection. There was no other damage to military or civilian property.

The aircraft, valued at about $20.4 million, was destroyed.

Also, the board determined other factors substantially contributed to creating the opportunity for the error including the requirement for demonstration pilots to convert mean sea level and above ground level altitudes and performing a manoeuvre with a limited margin of error.

For more information, contact the ACC Public Affairs office at (757) 764-5007 or e-mail acc.pam@langley.af.mil.

The QNH (sea-level altitude) vs QFE (altitude above the ground) is thus seen as a contributing factor.

Stricklin’s home base at Nellis is at 2,000 feet whereas Mountain Home is at 3,000 feet, so the altitude he selected would have been correct at his home base.

The contributing factor of requiring pilots to convert sea-level altitude information to altitude above ground for radio calls was immediately dealt with by the Air Force. Thunderbird pilots now call out MSL (Mean Sea Level) altitudes rather than AGL (Above Ground Level) altitudes and must climb an additional one thousand feet before performing the Split S manoeuvre.

A bystander reported that after the ejection, Stricklin stood silently by the canopy of the aircraft. Then he threw his helmet at the ground and stomped over to the wreckage. He knew that his time as a Thunderbird pilot was over.

However, I was pleased to see that in 2009, Stricklin was commended for his work on safety programmes in the USAF:

2009: CSAF Individual Safety Award – Lt. Col. Christopher Stricklin, 14th Flying Training Wing, Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.
Colonel Stricklin led and managed flight, ground, and weapon safety programs for 3,000 personnel, including 20 essential safety personnel who provided over 3,120 annual hours of on-call service. As a direct result of his efforts, flight mishaps were reduced in nearly every category; down 50 percent in Class A, 70 percent in Class C, 44 percent in Class E, and 50 percent in Controlled Movement Area Violations.

It makes sense to me; if I’d been that close to smashing into the ground, I’d be pretty thoughtful about flight safety too!

02 May 2014

The Alien Abduction of Frederick Valentich

Frederick Valentich was 20 years old when he disappeared. His father believed that one day, the aliens would bring him back. Australia’s most famous case of alien abduction, Valentich’s lost flight is how the Bass Strait Triangle got its nickname.

Valentich's father holds a photograph of his son

Valentich was a pretty average Australian kid. His dream was to become a professional pilot: he applied to the Royal Australian Air Force twice and then settled for the Air Training Corps. He was studying part-time to become a commercial pilot but struggled with the examinations. He had a private pilot’s licence with about 150 total hours flying time and had completed his night rating.

The boy was enthralled with UFOs and the idea of an alien invasion. Shortly before he disappeared, Valentich claimed that he had seen a flying saucer, moving away very fast. His father said that his son was very worried about what would happen if the extraterrestrials attacked.

It was a sunny evening on the 21st of October in 1978, when Valentich booked a training flight in VH-DSJ, a rental Cessna 182 light aircraft at Moorabbin Airport near Melbourne. The weather forecast was good. He filed a flight plan for a trip to King Island, one of the islands of Tasmania.

The Bass Strait lies between Victoria and Tasmania. Pilots always try to reduce the amount of time flying over water, so rather than fly straight across the strait from Melbourne, Valentich’s routing would have taken him southwest along the coast to Cape Otway to then cross the strait to King Island, making it an 85-kilometre (50-mile) stretch across the water. Following this standard route from Moorabbin Airport to King Island Airport, it is a 90-min flight.

It’s not clear why Valentich was going to King Island. He told his family and his girlfriend that he was going there to pick up some crayfish. At Moorabbin he said that he was going to bring some friends back and took four life jackets with him for the return flight. He’d mentioned to his girlfriend that he’d be back by 19:30, clearly not possible with a 18:00 departure.

Another odd detail was that he didn’t phone King Island airport to tell them that he was inbound to them. The small airfield is uncontrolled and there would be no one there after sunset; he couldn’t land there unless he called to ask them to turn the runway lights on. He had the fuel to go there and back without stopping: the round-trip journey is about 235 kilometres (145 miles) and would take about three hours in the Cessna, well within its range. There was no danger, just that he was embarking on a pointless journey. It was simply odd, especially in combination with his unclear plans, and could imply that he had no intention of going to King Island that evening. He might have been up to something nefarious, smuggling along the coast. Maybe he wanted to be alone in the dark looking for UFOs and didn’t want to admit it on a flight plan. Or, it could have been a simple oversight, one that he would have been embarrassed about when he drew near the airport and realised there was no one there. All we know for sure is that he never made that phone call.

18:10 VH-DSJ was refuelled to capacity, giving it 300 minutes flight time.

18:19 Valentich departed Moorabbin Airport and flew southwest as per his flight plan.

18:43 The sun set. Valentich was flying in the dusk over water. Night flying requires a separate rating for visual flights in Australia because it can be disorienting. Flying at night over water is especially so, as the lack of lights means that there is no way of orientating yourself to the ground. So as the sunlight faded, Valentich would have seen a sky full of stars above and darkness below.

19:00 Valentich contacted Melbourne Air Traffic Control and gave his location as over Cape Otway on the south coast of Victoria. Cape Otway has a light-house, which makes it an easy visual reference point. He confirmed that he was proceeding to King Island. His flight plan showed that he would remain below 5,000 feet and that he had estimated it would take him 41 minutes to fly to Cape Otway and then a further 28 minutes from Cape Otway to King Island. He was right on schedule.

Valentich identifies himself by the final letters of the call sign of the aircraft, VH-DSJ. Melbourne Flight Service Unit use this callsign to make it clear who they are speaking to or, when used on its own, simply to acknowledge that the controller has understood what the pilot said.

19:06:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?

19:06:23 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.

19:06:26 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I am… seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.

19:06:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, what type of aircraft is it?

19:06:50 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I cannot affirm. It is four bright… it seems to me like landing lights.

The obvious first question is: what did Valentich see out there in the dark?

After the event, some people believed that there was nothing there at all. There were rumours that the whole whole thing was simply a hoax and Valentich was having a laugh before purposefully disappearing. But he had no reason to go and all of the evidence points to the fact that Valentich truly believed in extra-terrestial space craft. The air traffic controller said afterwards that he was convinced that it wasn’t a joke. He was sure that Valentich saw something.

19:07:32 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.

19:07:43 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, Roger. And it is a large aircraft? Confirm.

19:07:47 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Er, unknown, due to the speed it’s travelling. Is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?

19:07:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.

It’s possible that the lights were another aircraft small enough not to show up on Melbourne’s radar but it seems to be travelling too fast for that, unless it was military. There were no reports of military aircraft in the area.

Meanwhile, there were a number of reports of UFOs that night. Mt Stromlo Observatory advised that the night of the 21st was the peak of a meteorite storm and they recorded 10-15 meteorite sightings per hour. The uptick in UFO sightings was expected: studies show that 29% of UFO reports are the result of bright stars and planets and a further 9% are explained by meteors. The UFO sightings that night were almost certainly reactions to the meteorite storm. A meteorite might also explain a fast moving craft in the sky. However the meteorite storm doesn’t explain the four clear lights that Valentich reported over him.

19:08:18 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, it’s approaching now from due east, towards me.

19:08:28 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.

19:08:42 —: [open microphone for two seconds]

19:08:49 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game. He’s flying over me two, three times at a time, at speeds I could not identify.

19:09:02 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What is your actual level?

19:09:06 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My level is four and a half thousand. Four Five Zero Zero.

19:09:11 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet and confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.

19:09:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Affirmative.

19:09:18 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. Standby.

19:09:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, Delta Sierra Juliet. It’s not an aircraft, it is… [open microphone for five seconds]

19:09:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, can you describe the, er, aircraft?

19:09:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. As it’s flying past it’s a long shape. [open microphone for three seconds] Cannot identify more than that it has such speed. [open microphone for three seconds] Before me right now, Melbourne.

Some of what he saw could be explained by fast-moving meteorites out of the corner of his eye. However, that doesn’t account for a hovering aircraft directly above him. James McGaha and Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry believe that they know what he saw.

The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved – CSI

As it happens, a computer search of the sky for the day, time, and place of Valentich’s flight reveals that the four points of bright light he would almost certainly have seen were the following: Venus (which was at its very brightest), Mars, Mercury, and the bright star Antares. These four lights would have represented a diamond shape, given the well-known tendency of viewers to “connect the dots,” and so could well have been perceived as an aircraft or UFO. In fact, the striking conjunction was shaped as a vertically elongated diamond, thus explaining Valentich’s saying of the UFO that “it’s a long shape.”

19:10:07 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. And how large would the, er, object be?

19:10:20 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. It seems like it’s a stationary. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me. Also it’s got a green light and sort of metallic-like. It’s all shiny on the outside.

It’s not clear what Valentich might have meant when he said that was orbiting, possibly that he was flying in a holding pattern in order to get a better look at the “object”. What’s absolutely clear is that his entire attention is taken by the unidentified flying object. The mention of the green light is new.

19:10:48 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet…[open microphone for five seconds] It’s just vanished.

19:10:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.

19:11:03 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it a military aircraft?

This wasn’t really a conversation that he needed to be holding right at that moment. But Valentich’s curiosity was peaked.

19:11:08 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, confirm that the, er, aircraft just vanished?

19:11:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Say again?

19:11:17 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, is the aircraft still with you?

19:11:23 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet it’s ah no…[open microphone for two seconds] Now approaching from the south west.

There’s a dangerous configuration that has killed many pilots, especially visual pilots who have not been trained to fly by instruments. It’s known as the graveyard spiral or suicide spiral and is common in poor weather conditions…and at night. The spiral is caused by well-known sensory illusions that affect us in aircraft. The pilot becomes disoriented and loses the ability to judge the orientation of the plane. He believes he is flying straight, with the wings level but in fact, he is pulling the yoke slightly, leading the aircraft into a bank. The aircraft starts to to fly a large circle and, if the pilot does not recognise the situation, the plane will begin a gentle spiral towards the ground.

Graveyard spiral – Wikipedia

For example, a pilot who enters a banking turn to the left will initially have a sensation of a turn in the same direction. If the left turn continues (~20 seconds or more), the pilot will experience the sensation that the airplane is no longer turning to the left. At this point, if the pilot attempts to level the wings this action will produce a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction (to the right). If the pilot believes the illusion of a right turn (which can be very compelling), he/she will re-enter the original left turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of a right turn. If the pilot fails to recognize the illusion and does not level the wings, the airplane will continue turning left and losing altitude.

The graveyard spiral is initiated by an unintentional turn or a return to level flight after an intentional prolonged turn.

Basically, you get disoriented and put the plane into a slight bank. Now that feels straight and level to you, so if you correct the turn, you feel like you are turning. So you don’t. And the plane very slowly and gently flies in circles that get increasingly tighter as the aircraft descends

Valentich and plane

Valentich said that he was orbiting and “the thing” was just orbiting on top of him, so he was probably in a low, slow turn. He did not have much experience with night flights and only had the most basic instrument training. It was dark and he was flying over water, with no horizon to help him to orient himself. He initially saw four white lights but then mentions a green light. His right wing-tip has a green light on it, a navigation light. What he’s seeing points to an aircraft that is not flying straight and level, it’s slowly spiralling down.

19:11:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. The engine is, is rough idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three/twenty four and the thing is coughing.

19:12:04 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What are your intentions?

19:12:09 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My intentions are ah to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. [two seconds open microphone] It’s hovering and it’s not an aircraft.

His engine is running rough but instead of wondering why this is, he’s still staring out the window at the UFO. Even when asked directly what his intentions are, he doesn’t consider breaking off the water crossing as a result of his engine trouble.

The rough engine coughing certainly sounds like a fuel issue. If he’s flying in a tightening spiral or even upside down, that will decrease the fuel flow, leading to exactly those symptoms. What Valentich needs to do right now is stop watching his UFO and fly the plane.

19:12:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. [17 seconds open microphone]

There were no further transmissions.

Melbourne declared a Search and Rescue alert immediately and at 19:33, when Valentich did not arrive at King Island, an intensive air, sea and land search started. They scoured the area for four days but were unable to find any trace of the aircraft.

Five years later, an engine cowl flap was discovered on Flinders Island, washed in from the sea. It was positively identified as coming from a Cessna 182 of the same batch as the rental aircraft that Valentich was flying. No other trace was ever found.

Frederick Valentich’s father joined the Victoria UFO Research Centre and continued to hope that his son was alive and abducted by aliens until his death in 2000.

And yet, there’s strong evidence that the young man’s belief in the extra-terrestrial led to his death. It appears that what should have been a brief distraction became a tragic event.


If you found this post interesting, you should pick up my new book, a detailed analysis of MH370: The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

27 April 2014

So I just released this book about Malaysia Airlines flight 370

It was easy to get obsessed with Malaysia Airlines flight 370. I found myself reading news sites from all over the world trying to put together the pieces. As a part of that, I found myself explaining a lot of issues that weren’t clear in the popular press. And I also found myself investigating a lot of theories that I never expected to take seriously.

Pretty soon, I realised that I had a lot of information in my head that I was trying to share on a one-by-one basis. A random guy at the shop idly asked me what I thought about MH370. 30 minutes later I finally paused for breath and he escaped.

That’s when I started thinking I should write all this stuff down. It was the 1st of April.

In this age of constant surveillance, it shouldn’t be possible to lose a Boeing 777 carrying 239 passengers. It’s inconceivable that the aircraft flew for seven hours without anyone noticing that it was up there, completely off track. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Sylvia Wrigley, pilot and aviation expert, explores the possibilities in the pages of The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

I took some time off work and did nothing but write for two weeks. Everything I knew. Everything I wondered about. Everything that could possibly be.

I got wonderful support. Three people were offering feedback on the first section while I was still writing the second. I worked with a brilliant editor who bounced back text four or five times a day while we tried to structure and revise it while I was still writing. My boyfriend made sure that I was fed and watered and generally got out of my way, other than to keep reading as fast as he could.

Though most of us will board an aircraft at some point in our lives, we know little about how they work and the procedures surrounding their operation. It is that mystery that makes the loss of MH370 so terrifying. Follow along step-by-step as Wrigley recreates the flight and its disappearance. Review the many varied theories as to how it could have happened — up to and including alien abduction. The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 also introduces a variety of related crashes and incidents, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

I’m incredibly excited about the book, which is called The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It covers the facts of the flight and the initial disappearance, of course. But that’s just the introduction. The bulk of the book is about the theories: alien abduction, pilot suicide, mechanical failure, military shoot-down, lithium-ion battery fire: you name it. If it’s been in the popular press, it’s in the book. I went through every theory and discussed the details. I found examples of the various scenarios so we could compare real-life incidents to what we know about the disappearance. Then I got into detail about the search and the aftermath and what happens now.

I’ll tell you honestly, there were a number of times when I thought, I just can’t cover everything. But damnit, I tried my best and I honestly feel that I did the subject justice.

It’s hard to talk generally about the speculation regarding Malaysia Airlines flight 370, as the scope is much broader than is usually the case for an accident investigation. As all of the simple theories regarding its fate became unlikely, the speculation as to what could have happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370 became wilder and wilder.

Now that I’ve survived writing the thing, my biggest problem is obscurity. I need to get the word out and you can help. If you think it sounds interesting, I would be thrilled if you would pick up a copy and give it a read. It’s in all the popular formats: Kindle, ePub, PDF.


The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Buy Now!

If you do read The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the most amazing thing you can do for me is to leave a quick review. Just one or two lines about the book on your online bookstore or on Goodreads can make a huge difference to how often they display my book to others.

If you know someone who might like it, please send them the link: http://mh370.fearoflanding.com/

I’ve posted on Facebook:

and on Twitter:

So if you use them and wouldn’t mind sharing or retweeting, that’s a huge help to getting seen.

The other thing I want to say is: I’m really so glad that you all have given me the chance to write about the subject I love. When I started writing Friday articles for you all, I had no idea how big a part of my life it would become …let alone now much fun it would be!

Now I’m going to go sleep for a week.

25 April 2014

Viral Super Hornet Video from VFA-27

The Royal Maces are having altogether too much fun in their jets. Strike Fighter Squadron 27 is a US Navy Super Hornet fighter squadron based in Japan. Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in the Kanagawa Prefecture, is the largest US Navy air base in the Pacific.

1968 – Introducing the VA-27 Royal Maces.

The attack squadron was established in 1967. The squadron’s insignia, designed by the first members of the squadron, includes a gloved hand holding a large mace and they are known as the Royal Maces. The spikes on the tail were also designed by the squadron members and are meant to represent the spike tips on a mace.

“The design of the Royal Mace and the name came from the Senior Chief that was the plank owner QA Chief in the squadron and also quite an artist. I don’t recall his name right now, but will get out a cruise book and look it up. He was a heavy smoker and was medically retired with emphysema after our first cruise.

The “saw tooth” rudder tail markings that were on the original aircraft, were the brain child of the line division officer, Bill Matto. He had a plane painted with them and showed the skipper. The skipper reamed him out for painting the planes without his permission and made Bill remove them. Then he told Bill to repaint them(now with his permission).

….Bud Biery

However one might feel about the American politics, there’s no denying that these young pilots are risking their lives in some of the most dangerous arenas of the world. They have the best pilots in the Navy and repeatedly have been awarded the Battle Efficiency and Safety awards in the past decade. In 2009 they reached a new milestone: 100,000 hours without a Class “A” mishap.

The Royal Mace mission is to be prepared to conduct sustained combat operations from sea on short notice in support of national policy. We will be ready to provide fused ordnance on target, on time, anytime, anywhere.

In February, the squadron were upgraded to the latest Super Hornets with better systems. They were given heavy training at Air-to-Ground and Air-to-Air events before flying the new Super Hornets back to Atsugi.

On 11 March 2013, CDR Braden “Jimmy” Briller, Commanding Officer of the VFA-27 Royal Maces stationed in Atsugi, Japan, flew the squadron’s brand new 200 jet in loose formation on an Air Force DC-10 tanker prior to receiving fuel. The squadron had completed their transition to new F/A-18E Lot 34/35 Super Hornets, and was en route to Hickam AFB, HI from NAS Fallon, NV on their way back to Japan. (Photo: LCDR Justin “Jugs” Halligan)

I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of giving them GoPro personal video cameras while they train and patrol there but the results are simply amazing. The 5-minute teaser was released on YouTube last week and swiftly gone viral:

The high-definition video from recent patrols includes trips along the Australian and Japanese coasts and incredible footage of an aircraft maneuvering through the Japanese Alps.

“It’s a low-level route we fly all the time — it just happened to be a pretty day,” Matson said.

The full video, Shoot ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, promises 27-minutes fast action, with more low-level flying, carrier operations and footage from the Philippines. It’ll be launched at the NAF Atsugi Spring Festival next weekend and I sure hope there will be a copy online for us all to watch!

18 April 2014

The Disappearance of Aeronaut Walter Powell


I meant to be researching something else entirely but then I stumbled upon the sad story of Walter Powell, a Welsh gentleman born in 1842 who disappeared in 1881.

Walter Powell, the Tory Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, took up ballooning in 1880 after the death of his wife. He received training and soon had his own balloon made for him. The red and yellow striped silk balloon used hydrogen gas and was designed by his friend, James Templer.

Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer is considered the godfather of the modern Royal Air Force. He pioneered the British military use of balloons and airships. In 1878 Captain Templer started a British Army balloon school in Woolwich, using his own balloon, Crusader. Templer was also the Instructor in Ballooning to the Royal Engineers and commanded the military balloon department at Chatham.

Walter Powell became an avid balloonist. He had a dream that one day a balloon would be able to fly across the Atlantic to America. Ballooning took over his life.

Walter Powell – Malmesbury Memories by David Forward

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well.

Captain Templer often used balloons to make observations for the Meteorological Office. On the 9th of December, 1881, London was enveloped by a very peculiar fog and Templer wished to ascend to investigate the conditions which had produced it. The Meteorological Society had been given access to the newly developed military balloon Saladin from the War Office and it was available to Captain Templer for an ascent to measure the temperature and atmospheric conditions which had produced the fog. The Saladin was moored at Bath.

Captain Templer arranged a flight for the 10th of December and invited the 39-year-old Powell to attend to the balloon, which would leave Templer free to make his observations. A gentleman by the name of A. Agg-Gardner was also invited to join them.

Saladin was a green and yellow calico balloon which used coal gas. The balloon rose when sacks of ballast where dropped out to reduce the weight. A valve in the balloon neck allowed the balloonists to let out the gas, reducing the lifting power and bringing the balloon down. The direction was dependent on wind and air currents.

They departed from the field at Bath Gas Works on the 10th in poor conditions and passed over Wells at 4,200 feet. They passed over Glastonbury and then a current of air blew them between Somerton and Langport. Here, they rose to 5,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud and then sank to 2,000 feet and drifted towards Crewkerne.

Visibility was poor. Captain Templer heard the roar of waves and realised they were within half a mile of the sea nears Eypesmouth, west of Bridgport. The balloon was now rapidly drifting towards the sea and Captain Templer felt that the descent was critical.

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast.” Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased.

The Saladin touched the ground less than 150 metres (450 feet) from the edge of a cliff. The “landing” was uncontrolled and violent. Captain Templer half-fell, half-disembarked from the balloon as the car capsized, still holding the valve line in his hand. The balloon rose sharply as a result of the change in weight and Agg-Gardner fell out as well, breaking his leg in the process.

Powell remained in the car as it righted itself. Captain Templar was dragged along by the valve line and shouted at Powell to come down. The car was still just 2.5 metres / 8 feet above the ground but Powell did not jump. The valve line was ripped from Captain Templer’s hands as the balloon rose. Templer said that he believed that Powell stayed with the balloon hoping that he could save it by bringing it down on the beach. The Captain said that it was possible with the light weight that the balloon might even make it across the Channel.

Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templar as the balloon was swept out to sea. No trace of Powell was ever found.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that the remains of Saladin had been discovered. Fragments and shreds of cloth were recovered in the mountains of Sierra del Pedroza in Asturias, on the northwest coast of Spain.

The balloon had in fact made it across the Channel and even the Bay of Biscay, but of its passenger there was no sign.

11 April 2014

Crosswind Landings at Birmingham Airport

It started with this video of an amazing crosswind landing at Birmingham Airport (formerly Birmingham International Airport). Birmingham Airport is 5.5 nautical miles (10 km, 6 miles) southeast of the city with a runway that runs north-west/south-east, which means that aircraft either take off or land directly over Birmingham.

What happens when 120 tonnes of landing Boeing 767 encounters severe turbulence just above the runway (15 at BHX).

The flexing wings are a good indication of the blustery conditions – crosswind gusting 35 knots perpendicular to runway.

Just watch the wheels bouncing in all directions under the shear forces. Very reassuring that the undercarriage can take this sort of punishment without blowing itself to pieces.

Keep an eye on the trees in the background at 0:25 and you can see how the wind is blowing.

I showed it to Anna, who is the one who posts all the amazing links to the Fear of Landing Facebook page, and she pointed out that there was an excellent compilation video of crosswind landings at Birmingham over the last winter, which was particularly harsh with gusty winds.

Some landing and take-off highlights in awkward wind conditions at BHX this winter (a record winter for stormy conditions in the UK). Note the frequent flexing of the planes’ wings in response to the turbulence.

Of the five “missed approaches” shown, three diverted to other airports, two were “go arounds” and landed successfully on second attempt.

Watching these made me feel quite relieved that I’m just a fair-weather pilot… and that I have no reason to fly into Birmingham!

04 April 2014

Extreme ATC Scenarios

A new user on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network posted to ask if there is any reference for uncommon, random and out of the blue scenarios that require ATC attention. He was apparently looking for input for an ATC game he’s writing. Typical PPRuNe, the answers are priceless.

The full thread is at ATC Scenarios – PPRuNe Forums but I’ve picked my favourites to share with you.

Items requiring immediate attention:

  • Coffee cup empty.
  • Relief late for work
  • Santa Claus requesting clearance
  • Horses at home have got out of their paddock

Not sure what I’d do if more than one of these occurred at the same time.

It would take a very large book indeed to list all the possibilities a trained controller might encounter. I have had dense smoke across the airfield from funeral pyres nearby! What a controller has to do is to use his training and experience to deal with routine or unusual occurrences.

Call from Caravan Controller:

“The North Shropshire Hunt is on the runway !!!”

In thirty odd years of ATC I have had an aircraft refuse takeoff because an aircraft was on final approach….that aircraft on approach was Venus…I have had people rescuing swans( apparently they belong to HM the Queen), full blown emergencies including unsafe gear (it wasn’t), a helicopter whose pilot had been incapacitated by a golf ball….seriously….a gentleman on a bike crossing the main runway and a RAF police dog which was on the runway and had decided to no longer accept orders from his handler. There is NOTHING that could be written down that included all the experiences that the people who inhabit this board have had.

How about a fox fast asleep curled up around a lit flush-fitting approach light?(Nice ‘n warm y’see)

Recently we had a report from a pilot that there was an antelope on the runway. There aren’t any antelopes in Toronto, we said.

Turns out it was a very large hare.

Amongst others on the runway unexpectedly, I’ve seen:

Foxes, Hares, Deer, Dogs, Man on bicycle, Drunks returning from a rave, unknown vehicle, kids, sweeper driver deciding to drive in circles and refuse any instruction to move etc etc

On runway “obstructions”.

Heathrow, one wet evening a constant stream was landing. The Captain of one flight rang with humble apologies: “Our First Officer insisted I rang to tell you that as we turned off the runway he saw a man laying on the centreline. I’m really sorry to have troubled you.”

Plenty more had landed but we got a checker vehicle to have a look and, sure enough, there was a bloke laying on the runway! He wasn’t injured but they took him to hospital, where he later died from pneumonia.

ACA DC8F: “Ground, we need assistance, we got chlorine (?) at the door!

Ground: “You got what? ”

ACA DC8F: “We got chlorine (?) at the door!”

Ground: “Chlorine? Gas? You want the fire service?”

ACA DC8F: “Ground, er…anybody who can help…we got clawing at the door…the tiger’s escaped!”

1982, when I was at Stornoway – A friend who was a smallholder asked me if anyone cut the grass in the triangle between the 3 runways. ‘No’ I replied, ‘Can I make some hay there?’, he asked, ‘Sure’ I replied.

‘OK, I’ll send Donnie up with a tractor and cutter’ says my chum. Knowing Donnie was not one of Stornoway’s brightest sons, I told him to make sure that Donnie came to see me and I would brief him on the runway crossing.

Next day Donnie duly reported to the tower, ‘You can cross the runway in front of the tower now, as there is nothing due for a while,’ I told him, ‘ When you have finished, face the tower and flash your headlights and if you see my green lamp flash at you, then you can cross – if it is red, wait and eventually you’ll see the green’.

Everything went as planned and then I went on leave. On my return the other ATCO says, ‘Did you tell a tractor driver that he could cut the grass?’.

‘Yes, you didn’t mind did you?’ I replied.

‘Er, when he came back with his baler he crossed the runway straight in front of Loganair’s Islander that was about to touchdown,so I chased after him in the Land Rover and asked him what the hell he was playing at?’.

He replied, ‘The other fellow said it would be alright.’

Favourite episode at “my” airfield was the summer of ’76 (hot and dry) when the firemen in their mini van managed to set the grass area alight whilst bird scaring….their attempts to extinguish the fire using the van’s floor mats having failed, they then failed to start the van in order to escape….a fiasco which took a while to write up in the log as I recall.

Red Devils paradropping under CAS, base 3500. Aircraft inbound to major international airport normally dropped to 4000. The Islander ‘lift-attendant’ made the occasional request for clearance up to FL120, in which case the aircraft inbound to that major international airport were cleared down to only FL130, naturally.

One day, a clearance cock-up: paradrop from FL120, BAC111 cleared down to 4000 ft. On the way down:

BAC 111: “Hey London, we’ve just passed close to an Islander paradropping.”

TMA-SW: “Roger, was it a red one?”

BAC-111: “Blimey, you’ve got good radar!”

TWA inbound to Heathrow from the west kept a little high due to paradropping at Farnborough. Given information on the Herc and TWA says: “Gee, we can see them, one guy’s boots are on fire.”

Where to start?

1. The only Welsh member of the ATC team trying to retrieve a sheep from the runway.
2. Runway blocked in “Britain in the Sun” due to
a. Bags of fruit all over the runway
b. 30+ pairs of shoes left on the runway from protesting Moroccans.
c. A German motorhome parked up alongside it.

There are some cracking ones in the log books!

A member of the travelling fraternity was found on the apron trying to find a way out, when asked how he had got there he advised that he came from the other side of the airfield but it was ok as he had crossed the runway on the big zebra crossing!

Eventually, someone noticed that the original poster had not responded in the thread.

Perhaps he’s run off screaming just like a lady news reporter in the approach room of a large airport back in the 70s.

She was there to interview one of the ladies and whilst waiting A.M., who was No.1 south, called her across.

“See that?” he said, pointing at the radar, “that’s the Concorde going to New York…and see that?”

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s a Boeing 707 coming from Africa”

“Yes, yes,” she said.

And A.M. shouts hysterically: “And they’re going to hit each other and there’s nothing I can do about it!”

Oh my, the effect was dramatic. Funny, we never saw her again; she’s probably in a mental home.

Got a story for unusual ATC issues? The comments are all yours!

28 March 2014

MH370 Search: Beacons and Pingers and Locators

The press is continuing to speculate as to causes and criminals, but I think we’re all clear now that until we find the aircraft itself, we won’t know what happened. Of course what everyone is hoping for is that we find the “black box” and that it has useful information on it.

A black box is actually a bright-orange container designed for high visibility, which houses the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. The black box is housed at the rear of the aircraft, on the presumption that following the initial impact, the rear of the aircraft will be moving at a slower speed. The black box is engineered to survive a catastrophe, including crashing down to the bottom of the South Indian Ocean. It is extremely likely that if we find the black box, the contents will be safe and we will get at least some data on the final flight of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

However, finding the black box is proving difficult because we simply don’t know where the aircrash was.

Aircraft are fitted with distress radio beacons, often referred to in aviation as ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitter) or more colloquially as pingers. These beacons send out a distress signal every second in order to help search and rescue determine the location of a downed aircraft. Traditionally, a distress beacon would interface with the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, a search and rescue satellite system established in 1979 by Canada, France, the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, it isn’t possible for a distress radio beacon to broadcast to a satellite from underwater. The point of the distress beacon was to find survivors as quickly as possible. It was not intended to discover sunken wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

In 1961, the UK Ministry of Aviation focused on how to locate and recovery aircraft lost in deep water, with the result that commercial aircraft since 1988 carry mounted acoustic beacons for underwater use. All modern commercial jets now carry an Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB). In the photograph above, the Underwater Locator Beacon is the small cylinder on the far right.

A ULB is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Once the beacon is immersed in water, the water closes an electric circuit and the beacon begins to transmit. The ULB will transmit a “ping” at an acoustic frequency of 37.5kHz every second at full power for 30 days. The detection range is 1-2 kilometres in normal conditions and 4-5 kilometers in good conditions. After the 30 days, the ULB will continue to transmit but the range will reduce day by day until it stops altogether. How long it will continue to transmit is based on various factors, including the environment it is in and the age of the beacon and the battery itself which is generally replaced every few years.

After the Air France Flight 447, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) recommended that the ULBs’ transmission period be increased to 90 days.

Honeywell Aerospace, the producers of the black box on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, have confirmed that the cockpit voice recorder will only have the final two hours of the flight on it. However, the flight data recorder will allow us to recreate the flight itself and the wreckage itself may help to unravel the mystery. The ULB will be attached to the black box and we’re hoping it will lead us to the wreckage of the aircraft in the South Indian Ocean.

Hydro International describes deep-water black box retrieval as “A game of hunt-the-pinger against the clock.”

Deep-water Black Box Retrieval – November 2009, Volume 13, Number 09 – Archive – Hydro International

Localising a pinger from the surface in shallow water is relatively easy, as described above. This task becomes increasingly difficult as water depth increases, however, because the direction is affected by both the horizontal bearing and the depression angle to the beacon (Figure 2). When trying to locate a pinger beacon in deep water, the detection equipment should be installed on a self-propelled underwater vehicle (either an ROV/AUV or a manned submersible). However, this presupposes that the position is already known to within the maximum 2-3km detection range. When aircraft debris is scattered over a large area, as with the recent Air France 447 accident off the Brazilian coast in depths up to 3.5km, a grid search must be conducted using underwater acoustic listening equipment. This equipment must be deployed as deep as possible to overcome the bearing/depression angle conflict (such as on the nuclear submarine described in a news feature in the July 2009 issue of Hydro International). The additional time required to mobilise and carry out this search highlights the second major limitation of fitting CAT aircraft with pinger beacons: that of their limited operational life.

Last week, two different search mechanisms were moved into place in the South Indian Ocean: a Towed Ping Locator 25 and a Bluefin-21, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle.

The Towed Pinger Locator 25 will be operated by a team on the Royal Australian Navy supply ship Seahorse Standard. The ray-shaped sensor searches for emergency relocation pingers on downed aircraft up to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet.

The US Navy Fact File: Towed Pinger Locator 25

The system consists of the tow fish, tow cable, winch, hydraulic power unit, generator, and topside control console, although not all of these components are required on every mission. Navigation is accomplished by using algorithms incorporating the amount of cable in the water, the depth indication from the pressure sensor and other parameters. The generator provides electrical power for the system or power from the support platform can be used if it is compatible. The tow fish carries a passive listening device for detecting pingers that automatically transmit an acoustic pulse.

The Pinger Locator is towed behind a vessel at slow speeds, generally from 1 – 5 knots depending on the depth. The received acoustic signal of the pinger is transmitted up the cable and is presented audibly, and can be output to either a Oscilloscope, or Signal Processing Computer. The operator monitors the greatest signal strength and records the navigation coordinates. This procedure is repeated on multiple track lines until the final position is triangulated.

The Bluefin-21 automous underwater vehicle is a sonar-equipped robot used to search for transmissions from the Underwater Locator Beacon as well as detect debris on the ocean floor in an attempt to find the wreckage of MH370. The torpedo-shaped vehicle can operate almost up to three miles underneath sea-level and uses an acoustic camera to provide very high resolution sonar still imagery and video.

Diameter 53 cm / 21 in
Length 493 cm / 16.2 ft
Weight (Dry) 750 kg / 1,650 lb
Depth Rating 4,500 m / 14,763 ft
Endurance 25 hours at 3 knots
Communications RF, Iridium and acoustic;
Ethernet via shore power cable
Data Management 4 GB flash drive for vehicle data
Plus additional payload storage

Last week, I was a guest on a radio show where I explained that trying to find the aircraft wreckage underwater with these locators was looking for a needle in a haystack. “It’s worse than that,” interrupted an ex-NTSB investigator. “We don’t even know where the haystack is yet.” That’s a pretty perfect summary of the situation.

The limited range and speed of the Towed Pinger Locator 25 and the Bluefin-21 mean that they are of little use in a large area. A vessel towing a pinger can search about 15 square nautical miles per hour in depths less than 2 km. As the water gets deeper, the grid-search becomes slower.

The current search area, moved today to a zone about 1,850 km west of Perth, is approximately 319,000 km². Even with two ships searching to a depth of less than 2 km, we’d be talking about over a year of non-stop, uninterrupted searching in perfect weather. Unfortunately, the South Indian Ocean is quite a bit deeper with an average depth of 3.9 km, and the Underwater Locator Beacon will start getting weaker in ten days.

The reason that the TPL-25 and the Bluefin-21 are in place is so that if we do find debris, they are ready for action rather than losing more precious time transporting them to the scene.

Right now, though, all our hopes are pinned on the ocean surface search for debris. The photographic imagery captured today is being assessed overnight and weather conditions for Saturday are expected to be “reasonable”.


Previous articles on MH370:

Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370

21 March 2014

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370

So, this has been an interesting week! I have been speaking to various journalists around the world, trying to help them make sense of the facts and wild rumours flying around the MH370 mystery.

I’ve put links to the various articles at the bottom of this post for you to read, if you are interested. I’m happy to say that in every instance, the journalists were bright, interested and very focused on sticking to verifiable information. They all spoke to me for an hour or more and asked intelligent questions.

After answering many questions and narrowly avoiding stating assumptions of fact, I quite liked this post on Reddit which discusses this type of analysis: Defining three terms: Occam’s Razor, The Principle of Total Evidence, and The Dog That Didn’t Bark : MH370.

With the news over the past week, it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities somewhat. However, all of this is still based on assumptions and until we find the Boeing 777, we honestly just can’t make conclusions with any confidence.

First, a recap of what we know:

The aircraft departed from Kuala Lumpur airport at 00:41 local time en route to Beijing. The take-off was normal.

01:07 The last ACARS data transmission was received.

01:19 The First Officer signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control. He should next have contacted Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control as they entered Vietnamese airspace.

01:21 Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control noted that they had not checked in and began asking questions.

01:30 The transponder was disabled or turned off, resulting in a loss of secondary radar information regarding the flight.

02:14 The aircraft appeared on military radar in the Strait of Malacca.

08:11 A satellite over the Indian Ocean registers the last ping from the ACARS on MH370. The series of pings confirmed that the aircraft was still moving.

This is not a lot of information to be going on.

Inmarsat and Rolls Royce have been appointed as technical advisors to the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch which is assisting the investigation by the Malaysian authorities. Inmarsat have confirmed that they are “absolutely certain” that the satellites picked up pings from the aircraft for hours after it vanished. This means that the aircraft had power and continued flying until at least 08:11 – at least six and a half hours after it lost contact.

I like this graphic by @_antialias_ because it very clearly shows the “two corridors” which have been narrowed down as possible flight corridors in which the aircraft must have ended up as a result of the (minimal) satellite data.

For more information on this data, I recommend this article:

TMF Associates MSS blog » Understanding “satellite pings”…

Firstly, it needs to be made clear that the radar transponder “squawks” and the satellite communications “pings” are from completely separate systems (just because its talking about a transponder, that is nothing to do with satellite transponders). The radar transponder sends an amplified signal in response to reception an incoming radar transmission, which has much more power than a simple reflection from the metal skin of the plane, and has additional information about the plane’s ID. If turned off, less sensitive civilian radar will struggle to pick up the plane’s reflection, though military (air defense) radar should still be able to see the plane. But military radar systems are looking for hostile forces and have missed civilian aircraft in the past.

Quite frankly, I don’t think we should even think about trying to solve the mystery with so little to go on, but in Sherlock mode, we can look at probabilities.

An aircraft disaster is never simple: there’s a cascade of failures which combine in such a way to lead inevitably to the incident. Thus, when I refer to something as coincidental, that isn’t proof that it didn’t happen that way. I just prefer simple theories to complicated ones.

So, let’s start with the basic premise: MH370 was either the victim of a deliberate diversion or a series of mechanical failures or a combination thereof.

Diverted to Unknown Location to Kidnap Passengers

It’s been thirteen days since we lost contact with the aircraft and no sign of the passengers has been found. The aircraft managed to land without anyone reporting an unexpected low-flying Boeing 777. No one has made a ransom demand. Not a single mobile phone has managed to connect. 227 passengers and 12 crew have been hidden and fed with no one noticing. Sadly, I think this theory is more a question of hope that they might be alive rather than a likely possibility.

Pilot Suicide

The profiles of the pilots are interesting and I recommend this article on the subject: MH370: profile of missing Malaysian Airline plane’s pilots starts to emerge. Both of them were stable and did not have any signs of extremist views or terrorist connections. The Captain was a family man and the First Officer engaged to be married.

But more importantly, I can’t work out any reason whatsover that a suicidal pilot would disable the plane in such a way to leave it flying for seven hours before crashing due to fuel starvation. It makes no sense: a competent pilot would just crash the aircraft immediately, on the spot. In the heat of the moment, he has the element of surprise, so it’s possible to kill yourself using a commercial jetliner, but there’s no possible advantage to dragging it out like this.

The same applies to the “assassination by aircraft” theory, in which the aircraft was crashed in order to murder one of the passengers. This seems like the most complicated way ever to murder someone, to be frank, and again, I can’t see any reason why you would want to take your time about it.

Stolen Cargo

I’d originally mentioned cargo theft as a possible motive. Take the aircraft, dispose of the passengers and unnecessary flight crew and land in a completely isolated area such as in the desert. There, you meet someone who has agreed to help you transport the gold bullions away with from the plane to sell.

However, the cargo has been confirmed to be lithium ion batteries and not gold bullions or some other item worth its weight in, well, gold, it’s very unlikely that the aircraft was stolen with the intent of landing in a remote area to make off with the cargo. Considering the bad press regarding lithium ion batteries recently, it also explains why the Malaysian government was loathe to release the information, although there is no reason to believe at this stage that the cargo was dangerous.

Mechanical Failure

We still don’t know for sure that there was definitely a deliberate diversion by someone onboard the aircraft. It could have been a purely mechanical failure with no devious intentions whatsoever.

I recommend the article on Wired: A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet.

There are two types of fires. An electrical fire might not be as fast and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started slowly burning. Yes, this happens with underinflated tires. Remember: Heavy plane, hot night, sea level, long-run takeoff. There was a well known accident in Nigeria of a DC8 that had a landing gear fire on takeoff. Once going, a tire fire would produce horrific, incapacitating smoke. Yes, pilots have access to oxygen masks, but this is a no-no with fire. Most have access to a smoke hood with a filter, but this will last only a few minutes depending on the smoke level. (I used to carry one in my flight bag, and I still carry one in my briefcase when I fly.)

It’s a good piece and it fits in with the routing – a left turn at the initial point of failure followed by another left turn at the Straight of Malacca, ready to head back to their home airport.

However, I’m not convinced. MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur normally and signed off with the air traffic controller as they left Malaysian airspace and entered Vietnamese airspace. This is extra-ordinarily convenient timing for turning off communication devices and disappearing, so it seems a large coincidence that the ACARS and the transponder coincidentally died as a result of fire just as the crew were changing airspace and switching frequencies. In addition, the fact that the fire took out the ACARS, the transponder and the radio and the flight crew but left the aircraft in a flyable condition for seven hours seems quite unlikely to me.

Aircraft Hid in the Shadow of Another Aircraft

Flying in close formation with another plane large enough to provide a shield is extremely difficult. I find it highly improbable that MH370 managed to catch up to a plane and hide in its shadow without being detected. It’s not impossible and as it has been thirteen days without finding the aircraft, I certainly am not ruling out, but it does feel more like a Bond film than reality.

Once you got into position, it be difficult but not impossible to keep up the formation: the pilots just have to listen to the radio communications for any changes in heading and altitude. I just can’t quite imagine how they got into position in the first place.

The Aviationist » “I’m sure: MH370 escaped in the shadow of another plane” retired Air Force Colonel says

The former radar navigator instructor and tactics officer backs this theory.
“When you fly over water or from point to point, pilots are frequently directed to change frequencies, told to turn, climb, descend, you name it. This is all “in the clear” and not privileged communications, anyone with the right radio on the right frequency would hear it. So, this pilot has planned this out to the nth degree and as he’s coming back across the Malay peninsula, he’s looking to fall in behind another airliner and shadow that airplanes flight path.”

Deliberate Diversion Gone Wrong

It seems likely that any deliberate diversion was not with the intention of crashing the aircraft but to take it to a new location. Without more data, we really can’t begin to guess what that motive might have been.

Any modern aircraft disaster consists of a sequence of failures, which within risk analysis is referred to as the Swiss Cheese model.

Swiss cheese model – Wikipedia

The Swiss Cheese model of accident causation is a model used in risk analysis and risk management. It likens human systems to multiple slices of swiss cheese, stacked side by side. It is sometimes called the cumulative act effect.

In the Swiss Cheese model, an organization’s defenses against failure are modeled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices. The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting (in Reason’s words) “a trajectory of accident opportunity”, so that a hazard passes through holes in all of the slices, leading to a failure.

So considering the data so far, I believe that the disaster that struck MH370 is likely to be combination of the two possibilities: a deliberate diversion followed by a mechanical failure.

By this, I mean that MH370 was intentionally “disappeared” as it left Malaysian airspace but before entering Vietnamese airspace, in hopes of delaying search and rescue missions. If so, this was successful: the Boeing 777 was recognised as not responding as expected very early on but was not in fact reported as missing until after its scheduled landing time in Beijing, even though Vietnamese and Chinese controllers knew it had not followed the route to its declared destination.

But then at some later point, something else went wrong, possibly as a result of a struggle for control of the cockpit. Now the aircraft behaviour is no longer in line with the motives for the deviation, which is why it is so impossible to make sense of what was planned.

I had previously considered a simple decompression event like Helios Airways Flight 522 to be unlikely. This was because the aircraft would continue to transmit ACARS and the transponder would continue to supply secondary radar information even though there was no one controlling the aircraft.

However, if the decompression happened after the deliberate diversion, perhaps as the direct result of a weapon (gun, bomb) going off, then it is possible that the aircraft was flying as a ghost plane for the latter part of the flight.

But this is all second guessing, trying to fit the sparse facts we have into some sort of sensible narrative. Have I mentioned that I also write science fiction? It’s a weakness.

Latest News on the Search Operation

Meanwhile, the most important thing is the search operation, to help us to find more.

Here’s the last update from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Missing Malaysia Airline search: ‘We’ve got a lot of hope’ says pilot

Favourable conditions were encountered in the area of ocean being searched for debris that might be related to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

But Royal Australian Air Force pilot Russell Adams’ squadron could not locate the two objects spotted on satellite images that sparked the ocean search on Thursday.


A hat-tip to the journalists who were interested in learning more:

Finlo Rohrer: BBC News – Mechanical v human: Why do planes crash?

Tom de Castella: BBC News – Missing Malaysia plane: 10 theories examined

Laura Villadiego: Cinco preguntas (y sus respuestas) sobre la misteriosa desaparición del vuelo MH370 – Noticias de Mundo

Ειρήνη Ψυχάρη: Ειδήσεις – νέα – Το Βήμα Online