After 16 days of trying to give their own spin to the few facts available about the pilots of Flight MH370, the authorities in Kuala Lumpur have changed the narrative in a significant way.
First came the statement by officials Sunday that the Boeing 777’s change of course was programmed into its computers after, and not before, the last voice message from the cockpit was received. Now a later development, first reported by CNN, indicates that after the course change the airplane descended to 12,000 feet.
The sourcing of these statements remains obscure, but the fact that they were made public suggests an acknowledgement that the timeline no longer supports the implied complicity of the pilots in some kind of criminal act. On the contrary, a picture is emerging of the pilots not only struggling to save the 777 but going through precisely the steps they should in an emergency….
First, change to a heading that would take them to the nearest available runway in Vietnam and Malaysia able to handle the airplane.
Second, precipitate fall in altitude from the cruise height of 36,000 feet that would be consistent with the pilots responding to the effects of either a loss of cabin pressure or the consequences of smoke or toxic fumes in the cabin—in those circumstances it would be essential to get down to below 10,000 feet. In the case of cabin pressure, it would be done to stabilize the cabin atmosphere and in the case of smoke, it would be urgent to get on the ground as fast as possible.
Let us recall the original picture carefully assembled by a series of statements by the Malaysian authorities:
It began with assertions that the two systems the airplane depended on to maintain its contact with the ground—the transponder that received and transmitted its position and the system called ACARS that sent bursts of data every 30 minutes about its vital functions—had been switched off.
Suggesting that there was something sinister about disabling the ACARS made no sense. It was not a surveillance device that could betray intrusion or malpractice on the flight deck. Disabling the transponder, on the other hand, would be consistent with deliberately wanting to render the 777 untraceable, but it would not have made it invisible to the radar coverage of the area, civilian and military.
Something more than semantics was involved in the way the Malaysians set up this picture—“switched off” unambiguously implies direct action, “disabled”—another term used—is more of a weasel word that can leave you wondering whether the action was accidental or by design.
Then came stories about the 777 taking a bizarre and erratic course—beginning with a sudden ascent to 45,000 feet and then a rapid descent—no matter that because the 777 was still heavy with fuel it would have struggled to reach even 38,000 feet and that at 45,000 feet, well outside its safe flight envelope, it would have been uncontrollable. All of this was part of planting the idea that such a bizarre trajectory was designed to evade radar—as if the 777 had suddenly gained the agility of a fighter rather than an airliner weighing 330 tons. Even a rapid descent has been painted, absurdly, as a “low and quiet” run under the radar.
Then there were the more personal inferences. The captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was an active supporter of the Malaysian political opposition. True. So you make a convincing political statement on behalf of more liberal causes by disappearing an airplane full of people? Sinister, right?
The captain had a home-built flight simulator. True. Home simulators vary from being basically a video game to replay great air battles of World War II to far more sophisticated equipment able to give a fairly realistic test of flying skills (the simulators used for airline pilot training and refresher courses are far more formidable and include motion and aural emergencies). Captain Shah, like other dedicated professionals, was known as a guy who liked to promote the skills of his craft.
The Malaysians staged very public raids on Captain Shah’s home and took away the simulator, sustaining their narrative that something damning had been hidden. Then it turned out that some items had been deleted from the hard drive and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been called in to investigate. Even fishier was the implication. Reaching a risible height of paranoia, one commentator actually suggested that, given the 777’s erratic course, Captain Shah—with more than 18,000 hours flying airliners—had been practicing left turns on his simulator.
What has come of all of this? Zilch.
Here’s another perspective—the story of what happened on the flight deck of Air France 447 before it disappeared into the ocean in 2009.
French air crash investigators were able to reconstruct the final minutes in the cockpit of the Airbus A330. There were three pilots on that flight: Captain Marc Dubois, First Officer David Robert, and a far less experienced pilot, Pierre-Cedric Bonin. Bonin was flying the airplane at the time when its flight control computers suddenly quit, requiring him to take over.
Captain Dubois was in the cabin, not on the flight deck, even though he knew that the A330 was flying through a band of severe thunder storms generating a great deal of turbulence. Nonetheless, first officer Robert had the most hours flying an A330, 4,479 (Captain Dubois had 1,700 hours) and Robert was sitting alongside the rookie Bonin who had only 807 hours on A330s.
By the time Dubois got back into the cockpit it was too late to save the airplane—neither Robert nor Bonin had taken the steps necessary to avoid a high-speed stall. They could have saved the airplane but they didn’t.
Imagine where the speculation could have taken this scenario—a captain not in the cockpit at the time of an emergency, French no less! Back in first class! Champagne! Flight attendants!
Yet there is an important difference here—Malaysia Flight MH370 was less than an hour out of Kuala Lumpur and just beginning its cruise when whatever happened caused it to change course. Air France Flight 447 was already three hours out over the Atlantic and it was perfectly normal for a captain to have left the cockpit by that time, greet some VIP passengers and to trust his very experienced first officer to handle the airplane. (First officers do most of the flying anyway).
Captain Shah and his much younger and far less experienced first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, will never be able personally to answer for the fate of their airplane. Dead men cannot defend themselves. But right now none of the scant facts (frequently contradictory, sometimes withdrawn, often suspect) released justify the way they have been traduced.