Theories on jetliner’s disappearance

By Joel Achenbach The Washington Post

Debris possibly spotted, Australia says

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Four military search planes were dispatched early today to try to determine whether two large objects bobbing in a remote part of the Indian Ocean were part of a possible debris field of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

One of the objects spotted by satellite imagery had a dimension of 82 feet, and the other one was smaller. There could be other objects in waters nearby in the area that’s a four-hour flight from Australia’s southwestern coast, said John Young, manager of Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.

“This is a lead; it’s probably the best lead we have right now,” said Young, while cautioning that the objects could also be seaborne debris along a key shipping route where containers periodically fall off cargo vessels.

Young told a news conference in Canberra, Australia’s capital, that planes had been sent to the area about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth to check on the objects. He said that satellite images “do not always turn out to be related to the search even if they look good, so we will hold our views on that until they are sighted close-up.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had earlier told Parliament about the debris, and said Orion search aircraft were expected to arrive in the area this afternoon.

Young said visibility was poor and may hamper efforts to find the objects. He said they “are relatively indistinct on the imagery … but those who are experts indicate they are credible sightings. The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water, moving up and down over the surface.”

— The Associated Press

The missing plane left behind a vapor trail of scenarios, and they have grown increasingly elaborate in the absence of information. Aviation consultants sense that this could be a 9/11 plot gone awry. Or perhaps it is a 9/11 plot brilliantly executed and still operational. And yet an accident of some kind still hasn’t been ruled out.

The crucial evidence about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on March 8 may be 21⁄2 miles deep in the Indian Ocean.

One awful possibility: We’ll never know.

The lack of solid data has invited freewheeling speculation in the news media and around water coolers everywhere. Individually, the scenarios tend to lack strong factual foundations. Collectively, they may or may not hold the answer.

It is in the nature of disastrous events, whether accidental or intentional, that they can occur in ways not previously anticipated, involving technological failures or nefarious strategies that become clear only in hindsight.

“There’s still no clarity about what happened to that airplane other than the fact that it changed course and went off to points unknown,” said Sean Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines captain who is national safety coordinator for the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association.

After an initial period in which authorities presumed that the plane’s disappearance was an accident and that wreckage would be found at sea, the investigation pivoted last week toward scenarios involving an intentional diversion of the aircraft.

The search has increasingly focused on remote waters nearly 2,000 miles west of Australia. On Wednesday, U.S. officials said a U.S. Navy plane able to search underwater was repositioned to help look for the jet in that corner of the Indian Ocean.

In Malaysia, investigators disclosed Wednesday that data had been erased from a flight simulator that the plane’s pilot had kept at his home. The FBI has stepped in to help Malaysian authorities retrieve the deleted files in an effort to find out whether they reveal clues to the plane’s whereabouts. The data deletion is not necessarily suspicious, aviation experts say.

Malaysian officials have asked the public not to jump to conclusions. That thought was echoed by Cassidy.

“I understand why they’re going down the criminal road, because they have stuff they can still investigate — background checks, pulling the pilot’s computer, and looking at all the folks who were in the airplane or somehow touched the airplane,” Cassidy said. “The data points on how to pinpoint the airplane are kind of drying up. But that does not mean that they should not still give a lot of thought to the possibility that it was an accident. I don’t think they should be running to vilify the pilots.”

Aviation experts are discussing many possibilities, and they include:

Mechanical failure

The plane could have suffered some kind of electrical fire that caused a crisis and an emergency response. This was the hypothesis of a much-discussed article on Wired.com by a pilot who argued that the pilot of Flight MH370 must have turned the aircraft around in hopes of reaching an airport for an emergency landing, only to crash somewhere at sea.

Another possibility is catastrophic decompression. The crew could have lost consciousness and the plane could have kept flying — what people have been calling the “Payne Stewart scenario,” after the golfer who died in 1999 when a Learjet underwent decompression and kept flying for more than 1,000 miles before crashing in South Dakota.

If the Malaysian plane’s diversion was pre-programmed, as some reports suggest, that would pretty much rule out an accident. The pilot never radioed any distress, and the radios rely on batteries and would still operate after an electrical fire, said Hans Weber, a San Diego-based aviation consultant.

Moreover, a fire would presumably be progressive and would allow time to transmit a distress signal. Cassidy said the lack of radio transmission makes the fire scenario difficult to believe. But the lack of communication doesn’t prove anything, he said.

“Every single professional pilot is trained that, when you have an emergency, the first focus is on actually flying the plane, next is on navigating it, and the third priority is actually communicating,” Cassidy said. “The absence of a distress call does not imply that there was no distress in the airplane.”

Hijacking/commandeering

Technically, a hijacking comes with demands, whereas commandeering can be for a variety of malevolent or idiosyncratic purposes. But in both cases this would have been a plane intentionally diverted — for reasons unknown — from its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

“It had enough fuel to go many places, and, unfortunately, it had enough fuel to go into places where you don’t have civil radar systems, for example, and into a part of the world where terrorism and to some extent state-supported terrorism exists,” said George Hamlin, an aviation consultant based in Fairfax, Va.

He broached the possibility that this is part of an ongoing operation akin to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — including, perhaps, using the plane to deliver an explosive device somewhere.

“It suggests something else horrific is being planned, because no one is claiming credit or saying, ‘Ha ha, you have to deal with us.’ There have been no demands for the 200-something hostages on the aircraft,” Hamlin said.

Although this line of thinking has spawned a great deal of guessing, there is no hard evidence behind it. Investigators have not indicated that anyone on the plane has any affiliation with a terrorist organization or showed signs of a murderous mindset.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst in Fairfax, Va., said he doubts Hamlin’s scenario of the Boeing 777 being used to deliver a bomb.

“Jeez Louise, why mess around with a triple-7? Go and rent yourself a Cessna,” he said.

The plane landed

Hundreds of airfields were in range of the airliner, conceivably. It’s implausible that it landed at a major commercial airport. This leads to speculation that it reached an abandoned airstrip.

“There’s a lot of World War II airfields left over,” said Ron Carr, a former pilot and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. “These guys are not interested in protecting the airplane, so they’re going to use minimal airfields. They’re going to use one that’s fairly secluded. You’re not going to need landing lights; you certainly don’t want a tower.”

There is no evidence that the plane landed, however. It would have had to elude radar coverage, land and then hide. This scenario also requires additional layers of speculation about the perpetrator and the motive.

Terror attempt was aborted

If hijackers seized the plane, they conceivably could have been challenged by passengers or crew members, as happened on United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Many scenarios emerge from this one. It’s possible that hijackers intentionally crashed the plane in the remote Indian Ocean to cover the tracks of an ambitious operation that didn’t quite work, but one that could be attempted again someday.

“That’s the only thing that holds together with any logical consistency: that this is a failed 9/11,” Aboulafia said.

Said Weber, “I think the most likely scenario is these terrorists managed to commandeer the airplane, and they set a route, and at some point the pilots fought with the people who commandeered the airplane and somehow everybody got incapacitated and there was no one anymore who could fly the airplane.”

Said Hamlin, “I’m not taking bets on any of the scenarios. But you have to do some out-of-the-box thinking in terms of what could have happened here.”

But Cassidy is not pleased with the circus-like atmosphere of speculation in the media about what happened.

“Your guess is as good as anybody’s,” he said. “One of these people is bound to be right, but it’s going to be because they were lucky, not because they’re a mystic.”

Vincent Thian / The Associated Press A woman pushes her baby cart Wednesday in front of the messages board for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia.