Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Was MH370 a Ghost Flight?

Did MH370 Fly on autopilot until its fuel ran out?

Theories abound about what happened to MH370 and why it (probably at this stage) ended up in the drink. Having discussed the situation with experienced pilots and ATC crew, I started wondering if sudden incapacitation had overcome the pilots while they were still entering co-ordinates for a return to the closest Malaysian Airport capable of allowing a 777 to land (Langkawi Island)

My theory (and that of others, by the look of things) was that some catastrophic event rendered both pilots and crew unconscious or dead, (likely the same fate for the passangers) and the plane simply flew on on the programmed heading, on autopilot, until the fuel simply ran out. Pilot suicide in this fashion simply makes no sense to me. I think it was a ghost flight:

It would have taken less than a minute for the pilots, passengers and crew aboard MH370 to lose consciousness and have their fate sealed if the cabin experienced a catastrophic loss of pressure and became what is known as a "ghost flight".

It would not be the first time that a flight has flown for hours with all those on board unconscious before crashing. Opinion from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Payne Stewart :

In 1999, American golfer Payne Stewart was among six people on a Learjet that took off from Orlando, Florida bound for Dallas, Texas who died after a sudden loss of cabin pressure deprived them of oxygen.

Despite the pilots being incapacitated, the plane flew on auto-pilot for a further four hours before running out of fuel and crashing into a field in South Dakota, more than 2250 kilometres off-course.

Six minutes into the flight, the alarm was raised and the Learjet was monitored by two F16- fighters but nothing could be done to save the plane.

Helios Airways Flight 522

Flight 522, a Boeing 737, was initially feared hijacked in 2005 when it crashed into a mountain in Greece leaving 121 dead. A crash investigation revealed that the pilots had succumbed to hypoxia and had mistaken a pressure warning signal and lights for other safety alerts.

A flight attendant who had pilot training and was able to stay conscious, tried unsuccessfully to control the plane before also passing out. The plane stayed in the air for two more hours before running out of fuel and crashing. Autopsies found that the passengers had been alive but could not establish whether they were conscious at the time of the crash.

WA mine workers

Five years earlier, in 2000, a Beechcraft King Air 200 took off from Perth to transport workers to a mine in Leonora but after less than 30 minutes began to climb too high, setting off alarms with air traffic controllers. The pilot asked the control room to "stand by" and then, it was later concluded, promptly passed out from hypoxia.

Air traffic controllers could do nothing but watch as the plane, transporting mine workers, flew across the country on auto-pilot for about five hours before running out of fuel and crashing in Queensland, killing all eight people on the plane.

Bo Rein

In 1980, a football coach Bo Rein and pilot Louis Benscotter were aboard a twin-engine Cessna 441 in Louisiana when it inexplicably began climbing above its planned flight path's altitude and lost all contact.

The plane flew on for more than 1600 kilometres, apparently on auto-pilot, before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. Investigators believed a problem with the plane's oxygen supply had rendered the pair unconscious.


1. How long would someone have to put on an oxygen mask before passing out?

University of New South Wales head of School of Aviation Jason Middleton said that at 35,000 feet a person would have a minute or less to put on an oxygen mask before becoming unconscious.

2. How much oxygen would be available?

Passenger oxygen masks automatically drop if there is a loss of cabin pressure. Professor Middleton said passengers would have about 10 minutes supply of oxygen while the pilots descended to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible, at which point it is safe to breathe without an oxygen supply.

Professor Middleton said MH370s' pilots would have had enough oxygen for about 30 minutes. But he said it had been shown that stress could make people consume oxygen four to five times faster than if they were calm. Crew also have access to portable oxygen tanks that allow them to move within the cabin and help passengers.

3. How long can auto-pilot work for?

An Australian commercial pilot, who did not want to be named, said the auto-pilot system would work until a plane's fuel ran out. The pilot said when the engines began to fail from lack of fuel, a system that is powered by air would keep the plane going for a short time longer before finally crashing.

4. Would those on board have known if there was a loss of cabin pressure?

The commercial pilot said if there was a loss of pressure in the plane the first thing a pilot would do would be to don their oxygen masks, which would take three to four seconds.

They dismissed some MH370 theories that had suggested the pilots may not have put on their oxygen masks to ensure they could see if there was smoke from a fire, as pilots' oxygen masks have smoke hoods and can be purged to ensure their vision is kept clear.

The pilot said if there was a slow leak there would be numerous warning signs, including a loud siren if the plane got to 10,000 feet without enough pressure. They said there was no way the pilots could have flown without being aware that there had been a loss of pressure and even if there was an explosion of some sort, the pilots could hold their breath while making a rapid descent.

Professor Middleton said making an emergency descent due to depressurisation was part of standard training for commercial pilots. Checking oxygen supplies is also a mandatory part of pre-flight safety checks.

But wait, it gets worse:

Of all the various theories to have emerged about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, this could be the most terrifying yet: 

Aviation experts have raised the possibility that, if the flight's pilots had become incapacitated, the passengers and cabin crew may have flown for seven hours aware that there was a problem but unable to raise the alarm .

That's because the reinforced cockpit door, designed for maximum security, would have stopped staff or passengers from getting into the cockpit to make contact with the outside world. 

No emergency communication system existed in the cabin of the plane, Fairfax Media has been told. Mobile phones may have been out of range, and the satellite phones which existed in business class could have been disabled, either purposefully or accidentally, by the same incident that eliminated the plane's tracking systems.

''There are no communications available from the cabin to the ground ... only from the cockpit," said Professor Jason Middleton, head of University of New South Wales School of Aviation.

Professor Middleton said post 9-11 security measures meant passengers and crew were isolated from the outside world if a plane's pilots were out of action, whether by their own or someone else's intention or through some sort of emergency.

''It's the modern world [that says] the only way to protect against illegal activities and hijacking is for the pilots to be safely ensconced so no one can get at them and no one can get at the systems.''

Professor Middleton said the approach usually worked but that so far flight MH370 had proved to be an "unprecedented case".

The flight path of the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet, established by British satellite company Inmarsat through the plane's "ping" data, has shown that it flew for more than seven hours after it turned back from its scheduled flight path over the South China Sea on March 8.

An Australian commercial pilot, who did not want to be named, said flight MH370 would have had a reinforced cockpit door for security reasons. If the crew could not access the cockpit they would have been helpless without the pilots. "There is no way they could raise the alarm," he said.

American airline pilot and aviation author and blogger Patrick Smith also told Fairfax Media that if for any reason the pilots were unconscious or incommunicado, there would have been no way the for the crew to tell anyone.

There has been much speculation as to why no phone calls or messages were received from passengers or crew on the missing flight. But Smith said the lack of calls did not necessarily support the theory because unless a plane was flying low and within range of a mobile phone tower, mobile phones would not work.

Vincent Lau, an electronics professor specialising in wireless communications at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, also told the New York Times that the altitude of the plane might have meant mobile phones could not connect with ground stations.

According to the Malaysia Airlines website, in-flight entertainment systems in business class on a Boeing 777-200, the model of flight MH370, are equipped with satellite phones.

Smith said that this entertainment system could, however, be disabled as was the jet's transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). No one yet knows how and why these systems were not working.

Monday, 10 March 2014

RNZAF P3 Orion Joins search for Malaysia Aircraft

RNZAF Joins search for Malaysian Aircraft

A New Zealand Air Force P3 - K Orion is joining the international effort to find a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lost over the South China Sea.

The maritime surveillance aircraft left Auckland last night and is now heading to Butterworth near Penang in Malaysia.
Prime Minister John Key said it would work with two Australian Orions and search the sea north of Malaysia.
"Much remains unclear about what has happened to the flight," he said.
"New Zealand wants to do its part in the search and rescue effort to locate the aircraft.
"While we are aware the hope for positive news is fading, our thoughts remain with the family members of those who were on the flight, particularly the families of New Zealanders Paul Weeks and Ximin Wang."
Meanwhile Auckland International Airport said it had increased security checks around the daily Malaysian Airlines' flights.
A spokesman said the airline ordered extra security for their passengers.
It includes an additional screening of all passengers after check-in and just prior to boarding.
It is one step up on the procedures adopted for flights to the United States which involves only random screening at the boarding gate.
An airport spokesman said the new checks had not caused any delays or additional time for passengers.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) has accepted the first of six upgraded P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft into service with No 5 Squadron. 
I suspect making this aircraft available is also a test of its operational capability: 
The RNZAF operates 6 Orions, upgraded to the K2 standard: 

Formal Introduction into service ceremony was conducted at Whenuapai Air Force Base in Auckland on 2 May 2011. 



Orion NZ 4204 (the prototype P-3K2) returned to New Zealand in late April 2011, after being in Texas, United States, since 2005 for the P-3 Mission Systems Upgrade Project. The project will see all six New Zealand Orions re-equipped with an airborne surveillance and Response Capability. According to the chief of the air force Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell, this capability is “up with the very best”.

The scope of this project includes the replacement of the data management system, sensors, communications and navigation systems, and the provision of associated ground systems.

According to the RNZAF, the upgraded P-3K2 Orion introduced a fundamental change to the operation of the Orions as they transition from a Maritime Patrol Force to an airborne Surveillance and Response Force. This change is significant because the focus of the operations will include overland operations as well as traditional maritime operations.

The production phase of the project saw the five remaining Orions cycle through Safe Air’s facilities at Blenheim, New Zealand, to be stripped internally, re-wired and re-equipped with new mission systems.

Orion NZ 4201 was in Blenheim at the time, and the upgrade of that aircraft was well advanced. At the rate of about one every six months, by 2014 the RNZAF will have a fleet of six P-3K2 Orions all newly equipped with 21st century surveillance and communications systems, the RNZAF says.

Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell foresees a very exciting time for the RNZAF, as operational testing and evaluation begins. “Our goal now is the delivery of the capability as rapidly as possible. I believe our P-3K2 Orions will be better equipped than ever to support Defence Force operations world-wide and other government agencies closer to home.”

The project’s origins lay with the 2001 Maritime Patrol Review. At that time the P-3s had a mix of 1960s and 1980s equipment. Built new as P-3Bs in 1966 (New Zealand was then was the first country outside of the USA to operate Orions), the fleet had already been modernised in 1982 under Project Rigel, which saw some of the mission systems replaced and upgraded.

In 2000, Project Kestrel saw the fleet structurally renewed to extend their life. But the aircrafts’ tactical capability was limited, and affected by hard-to-support older systems. As well, international air traffic control standards were changing and there was the continual need to remain interoperable with New Zealand’s partners, particularly Australia.

In October 2004 the Crown signed a contract with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems to upgrade the aircraft at a cost of NZ$373 million.

The aircraft had been due to return to New Zealand in late 2008, but the programme encountered delays due to concerns over stall performance, issues with its digital indicated airspeed display during take-offs and a periodic yaw problem. Furthermore, the prototype was not allowed to fly for six months last year after loose fasteners were discovered on its wing straps, Flight International reports.

Under the original plans, work on all six aircraft was to have been completed by September 2010. 

Following its arrival back in New Zealand the prototype aircraft underwent a period of scheduled Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) before returning to 5 Squadron at RNZAF Base Auckland in September 2011. In Blenheim, the first production airframe, NZ4201, commenced its modification with SAL in June 2009 and was delivered back to the Crown in March 2012. The second production aircraft, NZ4205, joined the programme with SAL in April 2011 and was delivered to the Crown in September 2012. The third production aircraft, NZ4203, inducted into upgrade in March 2012, was delivered to the Crown in May 2013. The four delivered upgraded aircraft (NZ4201, NZ4203, NZ4204 and NZ4205) are based at RNZAF Base Auckland on 5 Squadron. 

Initially these airframes were utilised to conduct Operational Testing and Evaluation (OT&E) and ground and aircrew training. In the second quarter of 2012 the first of two P-3K2 transition courses commenced to train the P-3K aircrews onto the P-3K2. Transition training of all No. 5 Squadron air and ground crews is now complete and following the achievement of operational and technical airworthiness requirements, a release of an initial operational capability was declared in the first quarter of 2013. This initial capability focuses on Search and Rescue response and surveillance of New Zealand’s EEZ and territorial waters.

New Zealand industry participation was always intended for the project and Safe Air of Blenheim is the key sub-contractor in the production phase. Modifications were made to the P-3’s communications, navigation, surveillance, flight planning and data management systems while the flight deck was improved.

The RNZAF is also upgrading its five C-130 Hercules transports. A contract was signed with with L3 Communications to complete the air force's C130 life extension program. The latter includes the refurbishment of the aircrafts' centre wings, refurbishment or replacement of other structural components, a major rewire, replacement of avionics systems, flight management, autopilot and navigation and communication suites. This will ensure that the aircraft continue to comply with evolving air traffic control regulations worldwide.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force welcomed the return of the first of its modernised C-130s in 2010 last year. 

No. 40 Squadron who operates the C-130s, will be able to utilise the aircraft in the many roles undertaken for the government and New Zealand, including tactical air transport, disaster relief and civil defence support, aeromedical transport and support to the New Zealand Antarctic program.

The RNZAF also recently unveiled the first of its new Agusta Westland A109 LUH Light Utility Helicopters. 

Agusta Westland A109 LUH  - photo RNZAF

The new helicopters represent the start of a significant leap in technology for the Air Force's Rotary Wing. "The three helicopters are the first of five A109LUH to replace the Bell 47 Sioux,” he said. "The A109LUH is part of a Defence Force helicopter training system that includes computer based training, a procedural trainer and simulator. This provides a cost effective means of training aircrew prior to operational conversion onto the NH90 or SH2G helicopters.”

Five A109s were ordered in 2008 and are scheduled to be in service before the end of the year. The government announced last year it was ordering another three. The new A109s will be used for training, light utility tasks in support of the other services and government agencies.

NH90 photo - RNZAF

Number 3 Squadron operate  the A109LUH and NH90 helicopters. The RNZAF has eight NH90s on order in total.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Air Malaysia MH370 Disappears

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Disappears

Theories abound, and possible traces,possibly a door ? is found
Original Article Scott Mayerowitz, with my own comments

Having just recently been bumped off a Malysian airlines Boeing 777  flight for my daughter not having a  passport with 6 months' validity, I find it bizarre that 2 false or stolen passports were used to gain entrance onto flight MH370. Malaysia seemed so inflexible on passport issues! Was this oversight the undoing of MH370?

I today had a discussion about this with one of my patients, a retired military (A6 Skyhawk) pilot and ATC expert. His opinion is that a sudden calamity overtook the plane. Either an explosion or a massive structural failure. The other options should have triggered a mayday response, which, as he says: " Is just the flick of a thumb away."

The most dangerous parts of a flight are takeoff and landing. Rarely do incidents happen when a plane is cruising 11 kilometres above the earth.

So the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet well into its flight on Saturday morning over the South China Sea has led aviation experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to place a distress call.

It could take investigators months, if not years, to determine what happened to the Boeing 777 flying from Malaysia's largest city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (If at all)

"At this early stage, we're focusing on the facts that we don't know," said Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on its 777 wide-body jets and is now director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back before vanishing, Malaysia's air force chief said Sunday as authorities were investigating up to four passengers with suspicious identifications. The revelations add to the mystery surrounding the final minutes of the flight. Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn't say which direction the plane veered when it apparently went off course, or how long it flew in that direction, Some of the information it had was also corroborated by civilian radar, he said.

If the information about the U-turn is accurate, that lessens the probability that the plane suffered a catastrophic explosion but raises further questions about why the pilots didn't signal for help. If there was a minor mechanical failure - or even something more serious like the shutdown of both of the plane's engines - the pilots likely would have had time to radio for help. The lack of a call "suggests something very sudden and very violent happened", said William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

It's possible that there was either an abrupt breakup of the plane or something that led it into a quick, steep dive. Some experts even suggested an act of terrorism or a pilot purposely crashing the jet.

"Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the airplane apart, or you had a criminal act," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co. "It was so quick and they didn't radio."

No matter how unlikely a scenario, it's too early to rule out any possibilities, experts warn. The best clues will come with the recovery of the flight data and voice recorders and an examination of the wreckage. US investigators from the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration and experts from Boeing were heading to Asia to assist in the investigation.

A massive international sea search has so far turned up no confirmed trace of the jet, though Vietnamese authorities said late Sunday that a low-flying plane had spotted a rectangular object in waters about 90 kilometres south of Tho Chu island, in the same area where oil slicks were spotted Saturday. The state-run Thanh Nien newspaper said, citing the deputy chief of staff of Vietnam's army that searchers had spotted what appeared to be one of the plane's doors.

Airplane crashes typically occur during takeoff and the climb away from an airport, or while coming in for a landing, as in last year's fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco. Just 9 per cent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet airplane accidents done by Boeing.

Captain John M Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, said that whatever happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough, he said, to stop the plane's transponder from broadcasting its location, although the transponder can be purposely shut off from the cockpit.

One of the first indicators of what happened will be the size of the debris field. If it is large and spread out over tens of miles, then the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation. That could signal a bomb or a massive airframe failure. If it is a smaller field, the plane probably fell from 35,000 feet (10,500 metres) intact, breaking up upon contact with the water.

"We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don't know a whole lot," Cox said.

The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records in aviation history. It first carried passengers in June 1995 and went 18 years without a fatal accident. That streak came to an end with the July 2013 Asiana crash. Three of the 307 people aboard that flight died. Saturday's Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 passengers and crew would only be the second fatal incident for the aircraft type.

"It's one of the most reliable airplanes ever built," said John Goglia, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board.


An object, possibly a door is found by search aircraft

Some of the possible causes for the plane disappearing include:


Most aircraft are made of aluminium which is susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in areas of high humidity. But given the plane's long history and impressive safety record, experts suggest that a failure of the airframe, or the plane's Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines, is unlikely.

More of a threat to the plane's integrity is the constant pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin for takeoff and landing. In April 2011, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff from Phoenix after the plane's fuselage ruptured, causing a 1.5m tear. The plane, with 118 people on board, landed safely. But such a rupture is less likely in this case. Airlines fly the 777 on longer distances, with many fewer takeoffs and landings, putting less stress on the airframe.

"It's not like this was Southwest Airlines doing 10 flights a day," Hamilton said. "There's nothing to suggest there would be any fatigue issues."


Planes are designed to fly through most severe storms. However, in June 2009, an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed during a bad storm over the Atlantic Ocean. Ice built up on the Airbus A330's airspeed indicators, giving false readings. That, and bad decisions by the pilots, led the plane into a stall causing it to plummet into the sea. All 228 passengers and crew aboard died. The pilots never radioed for help.

In the case of Saturday's Malaysia Airlines flight, all indications show that there were clear skies.


Curtis said that the pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow went off course and didn't realise it until it was too late. The plane could have flown for another five or six hours from its point of last contact, putting it up to 4800km away. This is unlikely given that the plane probably would have been picked up by radar somewhere. But it's too early to eliminate it as a possibility.


In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 300m short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport. As the plane was coming in to land, the engines lost thrust because of ice buildup in the fuel system. There were no fatalities.

Loss of both engines is possible in this case, but Hamilton said the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call. When a US Airways A320 lost both of its engines in January 2009 after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York it was at a much lower elevation. But Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger still had plenty of communications with air traffic controllers before ending the six-minute flight in the Hudson River.


Several planes have been brought down including Pan Am Flight 103 between London and New York in December 1988. There was also an Air India flight in June 1985 between Montreal and London and a plane in September 1989 flown by French airline Union des Transports Ariens which blew up over the Sahara.


A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane's captors typically land at an airport and have some type of demand. But a 9/11-like hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.


There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s - a SilkAir flight and an EgyptAir flight- that are believed to have been caused by pilots deliberately crashing the planes. Government crash investigators never formally declared the crashes suicides but both are widely acknowledged by crash experts to have been caused by deliberate pilot actions.


There have been incidents when a country's military unintentionally shot down civilian aircraft. In July 1988, the United States Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iran Air flight, killing all 290 passengers and crew. In September 1983, a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down by a Russian fighter jet.

Amelia Earhart's sad demise

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