March 13th, 2014

The wandering airplane

[UPDATE: Malaysia's acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, has said the report linked below from the WSJ is "inaccurate." He didn't say how inaccurate, though. He also said that the area where the Chinese claim to have spotted debris was searched and that there is "nothing."]

It’s becoming more apparent, if this WSJ article is correct, that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did not suffer a sudden catastrophic event that caused it to explode or crash quickly. Information from its Rolls Royce engines was sent to the ground periodically and automatically, and that data indicates the plane flew for four hours after the transponder was turned off or became inactive.

This is beyond disturbing, although it does raise the possibility that some of the wilder-sounding conspiracy theories that envisioned the passengers alive and held hostage in some remote area could actually be true. That would be disturbing, too, albeit in a very different way than imagining them dead at the bottom of the sea. The unspeakable torment the families are enduring is something one doesn’t even want to contemplate.

And the wild and changing reports from the varied authorities don’t help matters.

This is what we know so far—maybe, perhaps:

(1) The transponder stopped working, either through purposeful pilot action or by other means.
(2) The plane continued to fly for four hours, across an area that theoretically could have been well over 2,000 miles.
(3) There is some radar record of something that might be the plane, turning around and flying elsewhere, although we don’t know exactly where, or whether it actually was Flight 370.
(4) No debris has been found, despite reports of debris.

If anyone can think of a greater aviation mystery involving a large commercial flight, I’d like to know what it is. Sometimes we have a crash site and no apparent reason for the disaster, but in those cases we know we’ll gather information from the wreckage and the recorders. Sometimes, as with Air France 447, we know very little, but we still knew a lot more about that flight from the outset than we know about 370 today.

For example, Air France 447 had sent a series of automated messages right before crashing that indicated cockpit warnings and systems failures. Within a day after the crash, debris was spotted and identified as coming from an airplane; it included an aircraft seat. Five days after the crash, two bodies were recovered, along with a briefcase that contained a boarding pass for the flight. In other words, the location was known fairly quickly; what remained to be done was the recovery of the black boxes (which took a long time) and figuring out the why of the crash, which turned out to be a weather and equipment issue compounded mightily by pilot error.

Instead, with Malaysia Airlines 370 we have a unique situation. No transponder. No debris. A wandering plane. No knowledge of much of anything, really, including whether the plane actually crashed. Horrible.

46 Responses to “The wandering airplane”

  1. physicsguy Says:

    Early morning check in.

    The greater prior aviation mystery is probably Amelia Earhart, and it looks like only within the last two years that one may be solved. But the major impediment to the Earhart mystery was the fact that she disappeared during the 1930′s with very limited radio capability, and the lack of radar, etc. Given the current technology, this one holds out for the time being to be even more strange.

  2. neo-neocon Says:


    Yes, I thought of Earhart too. Small plane, relatively primitive technology and tracking capabilities—really no comparison, except that Earhart’s fame made it a very famous disappearance. And she was doing an inherently risky thing.

    This is utterly different.

  3. wtd Says:

    After several days of reporting, if this plane was hijacked, those involved now have a much clearer idea of bargaining value of each ‘hostage’ in their grasp. MSM and online reports reveal extensive details (social/familial/business/religious/nationality)of passengers listed on the manifest of that flight.
    Consider the possibility they would use the children who boarded that flight as bargaining chips .

  4. Steve57 Says:

    The WSJ article is interesting. When I first saw the articles wondering how such a large aircraft could simply disappear it occurred to me that the region was known for large objects that would simply disappear. Such as whole container ships. I dismissed the thought as soon as it occurred to me as just a crazy notion. But then I saw this, and maybe it’s not so crazy.

    “officials were told investigators are actively pursuing the notion that the plane was diverted ‘with the intention of using it later for another purpose.’”

    If investigators are entertaining this idea, then that’s bad news for the passengers and crew. Because when pirates would hijack ships for that purpose they’d typically kill the crew and dump the bodies. Not what they’d do when they were simply stealing valuables, the cargo, or taking hostages for ransom.

    Still it’s an outlandish thought. First you’d have to find an airport that could handle such a big heavy aircraft. Both in terms of runway length and pavement requirements. Then fuel. I just don’t see this happening because I don’t think there are many airfields that could handle the plane and I don’t see how you could go without being noticed.

  5. Mike Says:

    The Pilot’s name was Fariq Abdul Hamid.

  6. Waidmann Says:

    Since people are doing their speculations, here’s mine.

    The flight was hijacked as an act of terrorism, either by the pilot or someone who knew how to fly. The idea was that the plane never be found. So, it was flown to the Mariana Trench, and dove into the deepest part. If the plane had enough fuel to reach China, it could certainly have reached the Trence without problems. Be interesting to know if it’s a 4 hour flight from where it turned off the transponders to over the Trench.

    Just speculating. It’s what I would consider if I wanted to disappear a plane.


  7. JohnT Says:

    Yes, very strange and disturbingly fascinating story here. But in this day and age where virtually everyone carries some sort of electronic communication device how could it be that no one on the plane sent a message, placed a call, etc? Would they have no connectivity over the ocean?

  8. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    The comments on the WSJ article are full of conspiratorial speculation in what would ordinarily look like full-crazy mode — except that this is beginning to be a situation where full-crazy solutions are the only ones left. Some commenters there say it could have been sudden cabin decompression, causing everyone in the plane to pass out while it kept flying on autopilot, lower and lower until it hit the sea. That would explain the absence of any calls for help. But the trouble with that theory is that the transponders stopped at the same time — which doesn’t look accidental.

    Others say there ARE places where a 777 could land undetected in a hostage/hijack/terrorism situation — somebody mentioned dry hardpan lake beds in China — and that it would be possible to avoid radar signals in between by knowing where the local radar networks are, and flying close to the terrain. I don’t know what to think, except, as Neo said: Horrible.

  9. H Bruce Says:

    The Air France flight disaster was not caused by equipment failure or weather. There was an iced pitot tube to be sure that caused the autopilot to quit. But the flight crew quite adeptly demonstrated exactly what not to do when an incident occurs on an aircraft. They flew a perfectly operable aircraft into the water due to panic, lack of command by the captain, lack of situational awareness, etc. Not to mention the Airbus strange flight controls. This probably would not have happened had they been flying a Boeing craft due to the forced coordinated flight controls.

  10. Deekaman Says:

    If this was an act of terror, why has no one claimed responsibility? That is the whole idea with terror. Let everyone know who did it and why. I suppose I can see why no one has claimed if the plane is to be used later. Too much speculation and not enough evidence.

  11. reliapundit Says:

    maybe the plane lost power as it was ditched and floated for 4 hours and then sank?

  12. G Joubert Says:

    I like best the part about how two Iranians, traveling with passports separately stolen in Europe months earlier, just happened coincidentally to both be on board, but, … “nothing to see here, move along folks, move along.”

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Possible scenario for hijacking without passenger messages:
    Pilots go on oxygen. Decompress the cabin without dropping passenger oxy masks. Pilots remain alive, nobody else does.
    Question: Can you decompress the cabin from the cockpit? If the cabin decompresses, does the passenger oxy system automatically open?
    If no and yes, then some serious rejiggering of controls would be necessary with nobody finding out. Unlikely.
    How many terrs would have to be aboard to control the passengers so suddenly that none of them had time, or were too terrified, to call? Ten? Twenty?
    WRT taking credit: More fear if nothing ever shows up, especially if the powers that be can’t concoct some anodyne story about pilot error.

  14. Don Carlos Says:

    It does not help one’s confidence in the Malays and their search when the Malaysian govt spokesman says, basically, “Don’t trust Rolls Royce or Boeing.”

  15. David Lentz Says:

    I have not been attempting to figure what did happen, only what could have happened. There seems to be no simple scenarios. Where is 007 when you need him?

  16. T Says:

    “Earhart’s fame made it a very famous disappearance. And she was doing an inherently risky thing.

    This is utterly different.”

    The first reports of the Malaysian airliner disappearance put me to mind of a James Bond movie. You know, space capsules suddenly disappearing and submarines being “eaten” by supertankers. We watch those films and somehow understand that they are movies, that something like this can’t happen in “real” life . . . .

  17. Lurch Says:

    Catastrophic loss of cabin pressure followed by the quick deaths of all aboard. Aircraft proceeds on autopilot until fuel is depleted, then down she goes. Happened with a pro golfer’s plane a few years back, as I recall.

  18. physicsguy Says:


    The only problem with that scenario is that the transponder would have remained on. In the case pf Payne Stewart’s plane, the Air Force even scrambled a fighter to track the plane as its transponder was operating. The fighter helplessly flew along side the bizjet until it ran out of fuel and spiraled in.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Every scenario has to account for the transponder being turned off. Anything to do with pressurization, etc., does not cover this all-important fact, unless it accounts for a human being turning them off (which I’ve heard is not a simple or easy task; not a matter of simply throwing a switch).

    So for the transponder to not be working and the event not immediately catastrophic, a human agent must be involved, either pilot or knowledgeable other person who gets into the cockpit and incapacitates the pilots.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    G. Jourbet:

    No one is saying the two Iranians being on a plane together was a coincidence. They were booked by the same shady immigration-middleman at the same time. My guess is they both got the passports from him, also. But the evidence on them points to the fact that they were trying to escape Iran (one was being met by his mother at the airport in Hamburg, where she lives). They had no known terrorist associations.

  21. neo-neocon Says:


    No, that is NOT the whole idea with terror. In recent years many huge and deadly acts of terror have not been claimed.

    A huge part of the idea is to sow fear and confusion, and to use up resources of the country or countries that have been attacked.

    That said, it is not clear that this crash was due to terror. But that is still a good possibility.

  22. artfldgr Says:

    Secret Negotiation with Hijackers Theory Bolsters: Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Revealed

    Last words:
    Before the flight disappeared from radar screens, the Malaysia’s civil aviation heard the words, “All right, good night”
    The BBC says that the last heard reply from flight MH370 was “All right, roger that”.
    the disappearance from radar screens could be a result of a hijacking and hijackers turning off signals. But the officials added that if such was the case, the pilot should have sent what they called a ‘secret mayday code’.

    that is unless they know about that, and anticipated it.

    officials added that there was no reason to suspect the pilots. They were experienced and had passed all the checks that the ministry applies to the pilots.

    same with egypt air…

    The family members reportedly asked the official present during the meeting if military-grade radar had picked up the plane.
    When the family members repeatedly asked the male official present, he reportedly only said “now is not the time to reveal it.”

    the reason AQ moved to doing dual and triple events (which we pretend was a signature) was that when they did a single event, the news always reported something that sounded reasonable.

    ie. bomb levels a building… its a gas explosion

    now. what they did is erased, and neutered in terms of their intended effect.

    ie. three bombs go off within 3 minutes of each other, taking down three locations.

    hard now to claim a gas leak at the same time at three places, no?

    if one plane struck the towers, you can be sure that for a long while it would be seen as some bizarre accident and a wacky story as to navigation equipment failing or something.

    just look what they did with the missile launch off the west coast… after over 50 years of modern flight… we supposedly mistake airplane contrails for a missile. but i remember the first videos, which never appeared again…it was a missile… plane dont make corrections like that unless you want to kill passengers. weeks later it was admitted, but way after everyone paying attention to it were now talking about jello or something as relevant.

    i would sugges you guys list out the points
    becaue if you look at each thing in isolation, you cant work out a trend, a common thread, or anything like that.

    which is why we always talk in isolation…
    neo makes sure of it!!!!!!!!!!!
    (no way to get to an answer that way)

    the idea of a collection of moves creating preponderance enough to accept a case is not possible in our discussion methods.

    if we talke planned parenthood without welth redistribution and protected clases, its easy to hide that its eugenics, and that their classes and speeches and materials still discuss eugencis, including post birth abortions (infanticide).

    if you talk about obamas actions in categories or alone, you wont get a preponderance.
    [edited for length by n-n]

  23. artfldgr Says:

    The greater prior aviation mystery is probably Amelia Earhart

    Yes, the only woman to fly alone with a man named noonan… who we conveniently forget for the progressivs, just as we forget the other 6 million, the 50 million in the US, and tons of other history and facts.

  24. neo-neocon Says:

    H Bruce,

    Yes, that’s why I wrote “a weather and equipment issue compounded mightily by pilot error.”

    The “issue” was weather/equipment that started the whole thing. It was by no means a fatal issue/situation, if the pilots had responded properly. But it was “compounded mightily” by pilot error, of a particularly egregious type.

    A lot of effort has gone into why the pilots did not recognize their error in time, and the conclusions are that, for example (among other things) it would have helped had that particular plane given feedback to the second pilot when one pilot was doing the wrong thing to the controls.

  25. artfldgr Says:

    If this was an act of terror, why has no one claimed responsibility?

    they did, we just didnt believe them as we never heard of the group…

  26. Waidmann Says:

    Maybe nobody’s claiming credit because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of a AGM-114 Hellfire missile. The list of terrorists we’ve smoked with them is long and distinguished. Go to the Long War Journal just about any day and have a look.

    “The US killed a local al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula commander and his bodyguard in the fourth recorded strike in Yemen so far this month.

    “Today’s airstrike, which was carried out by the remotely piloted Predators or Reapers, targeted a vehicle as it traveled in the Jebel Jame area in the northern province of Al Jawf. The strike killed a local AQAP military commander known as Moajab bin Aziz, as well as his bodyguard, according to reports.”

    This was posted yesterday.


  27. vanderleun Says:

    “If this was an act of terror, why has no one claimed responsibility?”

    More terrible that way. And keeps those responsible from being hounded to death like Bin Laden.

  28. vanderleun Says:

    “You unlock this door with the key of imagination…”

  29. expat Says:

    I read somewhere that they are also checking the background of a Uyghur passanger who had taken flight simulation courses.

  30. vanderleun Says:

    Pilot had a flight simulator in his home. Just practicing.

    “Malaysian officials denied [claims the plane flew on] today. But Pasztor also claims that American investigators are debating whether “something weird and bizarre” and still unexplained happened in the cockpit, and that the Boeing 777 did not crash when it dropped off the radar, but may have landed.”

    WSJ Reporter: Missing Flight 370 Could Have Landed

  31. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Now the WSJ is reporting that US authorities say that satellites received “pings” for about four hours after the plane dropped out of contact, suggesting that it was still intact and maybe flying. I can’t quite make out whether these pings are the same as the Rolls Royce engine data signals described earlier today. I can’t imagine what the families of the passengers and crew are going through.

  32. Steve57 Says:

    If you go back and look at the WSJ article at the link you’ll see it’s updated and contains more details than originally reported.

  33. Steve57 Says:

    I meant to say that the WSJ is apparently agreeing with the Malaysians that the investigators aren’t relying on on signals from the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which is the Rollls Royce engine data reporting system.

  34. Steve57 Says:

    If this is a hijacking it’s the strangest and has to be the most sophisticated hijacking ever. I’ve never heard of terrorists hijacking an aircraft and taking anywhere else other than an airport equipped to handle the plane. It’s beyond their capabilities to do otherwise. Since it was a red eye flight that may have flown 4 hours after controllers lost contact at 1:20am it would have been dark. I don’t believe even a skilled pilot would or could land a 777 on an unimproved runway like a dry lake bed in the dark. And would snow removal be required this time of year?

    When I think of the logistics involved in turning the plane around (assuming the hijackers intended to use it again), keeping the hostages alive, and trying to do it at a location remote enough to escape attention it’s staggering. It would be a huge operation approaching the complexity of Operation Eagle Claw. Which if you recall we failed to pull off. It’s especially mind-boggling to imagine how you could organize it in a police state like China. Unless of course it was a Chinese government operation.

    But that’s too conspiratorial even for me.

  35. Oldflyer Says:

    A couple of follow-ups. Although I do not know the 777 systems specifically, generally speaking the cockpit and cabin O2 systems are activated separately. I would be surprised if the 777 system does not conform to this universal configuration. So, I surmise that it is possible to deactivate the cabin system, while using the cockpit system, if someone in the cockpit chose to do so.

    I also surmise that Rolls Royce and Boeing knew fairly early that the data retrieval system was pinging the satellite for another four hours. I do not believe that either company would sit on the information, given that there has been much speculation about catastrophic failure of their products. So, I further surmise that a government agency–and not Malaysian–told them to keep quiet. For reasons that we are not privy to. My opinion is only mitigated by the fact that Malaysian Airlines did not subscribe to the data collection service, so someone probably had to do a search to see if the airplane was in contact with the satellite. Apparently, that was done. Surely it was done fairly soon after the search was proving fruitless; and the ambiguous locating information came to light. The timing of the discovery of the continuing communication would be a valid question for some of the TV Anchors who are indulging in non-stop speculation to ask.

    Right now, I am strongly inclined to believe, and currently working airline pilot friends agree, that we have been kept in the dark for a week about aspects of this mystery. The big question is–why?

  36. Harry the "Extremist" Says:

    “If this was an act of terror, why has no one claimed responsibility?”

    “More terrible that way. And keeps those responsible from being hounded to death like Bin Laden.”

    Maybe but probably limited to those countries that dont have the same security or aircraft tracking capabilities I think. I am also confused to how terrorism for terrorism sakes is effective for any goal orientated objective. Keep people frightened? To what end?

  37. vanderleun Says:

    Curiouser and curiouser….. This one is going straight down the rabbit hole. Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.

  38. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." Says:

    Aliens kidnapped ‘em.

  39. FOAF Says:

    Mrs. Whatsit:

    “this is beginning to be a situation where full-crazy solutions are the only ones left”

    Yep. It’s hard to come up with a scenario, terrorist or non-terrorist, that doesn’t require some suspension of disbelief. This may tend to support Oldflyer: “… we have been kept in the dark for a week about aspects of this mystery. The big question is–why?”

  40. Beverly Says:

  41. Steve57 Says:

    FOAF, the answer to the big question normally would be US investigators don’t want these hijackers/terrorists to know how we’re detecting their movements.

    But then that answer would normally be at odds with these leaks to the press. If you want to keep your sources and methods secret, don’t say anything.

    “U.S. Investigators Suspect Missing Malaysia Airlines Plane Flew On for Hours
    Investigators Believe Plane Flew On for Total of Up to Five Hours”

    “Investigators Think Missing Plane Might Have Been Stolen To Use Later”

    That second article is especially mind blowing, if true. That investigators are actively pursuing the possibility the plane was hijacked to be used later for some purpose. Mrs. Whatsit’s instincts may prove essentially correct, although I still don’t see this plane going to China. The Uighurs have launched another deadly knife attack in China, this time only killing 3 as opposed to 28. And apparently the authorities are focusing on two Uighurs who were on the plane. But if the only acts of terrorism Uiighur separatists can pull off in that police state with the only weapons they can obtain are random knife attacks, I don’t see them disappearing for later use a 777 into the PRC.

    Since we are already into territory where the only theories that make sense, based on the reporting, are wildly crazy then I have one more piece of speculation to offer. If this plane was hijacked with the intent of using it later, then given the logistics involved this has to be a state-sponsored act of terrorism. I don’t believe for an instant that any terrorist group could pull it off all on its own.

    Perhaps the US investigators are putting out misinformation to create a plausible but false public narrative. They may suspect that Malaysian officials are involved somehow with the hijackers and are leaking inside investigative information. And they’re trying to discredit that information with these competing leaks. I dunno; this is an incredibly weird story and I’m only really good at sanity.

  42. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Suppose it was hijacked for later use and then crashed for some reason–lack of fuel possibly.
    Calculating range has to figure wind and if you are going to the edge of the range anyway and you are flying into a, say, 50mph headwind, you’ll come up short.
    There was a report that the director of FBI said, late on 9-11, “I hope it wasn’t those guys in the Midwestern flight schools.”
    If there’s a possibility that somebody important knew something which should have been acted on, we’ll play hell finding it out and the cover story will be as nutty as necessary.

  43. physicsguy Says:

    Oldflyer says what I said two days ago. With the sophisticated electronics (ground, space, and plane based) employed in all aspects of aviation today, the only thing that makes sense is that someone is sitting on the data. Whether that is to keep surveillance capabilities secret, or to not let the bad guys know we are on to them, is an open question.

  44. Mn Jack Says:

    Apparently it’s not on youtube…,p52,d0

  45. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    The latest from the WSJ. Curiouser and curiouser is actually an understatement.

  46. Steve57 Says:

    A Boeing 777-200ER could have easily made it to the east coast of Africa even with the jog toward Vietnam.

    The aircraft’s range would depend on a number of factors besides wind, such as flight profile and whether or not it had a full bag of gas. Of course if the plane landed, as some investigators suggest it may have according to the reports, then all bets are off when it comes to determining range. Because I can’t think of a reason why anyone would land the thing after shutting off the transponder and without declaring an emergency but to refuel. Or why they’d take off again if the equipment was malfunctioning so badly that they couldn’t use the radio and the transponder hadn’t been deliberately shut off.

    This is either the Bojinka plot on steroids, some sort of misinformation campaign, or just the mass confusion it appears to be.

    Also, given the fact this administration has compromised classified information following the Bin Laden raid and promised Putin to be “more flexible” when it came to compromising our anti-ballistic missile data following reelection, I wouldn’t put it past them that they’re deliberately informing the world how we can actually track commercial aircraft. President Obama has used the levers of power for his own personal ends, but he’s also used his office to degrade those same capabilities to make sure future Presidents don’t have the same tools he did.

    Never let a crisis go to waste.

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