Takes the Cake: The Most Plausible Theory About the Missing Malaysian Flight

Screenshot 2014-03-18 at 9.14.35 AMOver the past 10 days, investigators and observers have come up with ever-more elaborate theories for what might have happened to Malaysia Airways Flight 370.

What was originally assumed to have been a tragic mid-air explosion or mechanical problem soon bloomed into a criminal investigation of a meticulously planned hijacking, commandeering, or otherwise stealing of a fully loaded commercial 777 in mid-air.

The perpetrator(s) knew the plane so well, one of the latest theories goes, that they climbed through a trap door outside the cockpit to reach circuit breakers necessary to shut down one of the communication’s systems. They shut down the transponder. They made the plane disappear and fooled the world into thinking it had crashed. They flew one of two “arcs” for 7 hours — a “southern route” over the Indian Ocean on which, eventually, they crashed the plane in the ocean in a complicated suicide, and a “northern route” in which, perhaps, they slipped past land-based radar, flew to a destination in central Asia, and landed, perhaps preparing to use the plane again soon for a terrorist attack or other mission. This latter plan was executed so flawlessly, one observer theorized, that Flight 370 slipped in behind another commercial airliner for much of the route so as not to be noticed on radar.

The pilots’ houses have been searched. Terrorist connections have been probed. Passenger backgrounds and possible motives have been scrutinized. And still, 10 days after the plane disappeared, we know nothing.

Perhaps that’s because we’re overthinking it.

A few days ago, a former pilot named Chris Goodfellow articulated an entirely different theory on Google+.

This theory fits the facts.

And it’s one of the most plausible yet:

  • Shortly after takeoff, as Malaysia 370 was flying out over the ocean, just after the co-pilot gave his final “Good night” sign-off to Malaysia air traffic control, smoke began filling the cockpit, perhaps from a tire on the front landing gear that had ignited on takeoff
  • The captain immediately did exactly what he had been trained to do: Turn the plane toward the closest airport so he could land.
  • The closest appropriate airport was called Pulau Langkawi. It had a massive 13,000-foot runway. The captain programmed the destination into the flight computer. The auto-pilot turned the plane west and put it on a course right for the runway (the same heading the plane turned to)
  • The captain and co-pilot tried to find the source of the smoke and fire. They switched off electrical “busses” to try to isolate it, in the process turning off systems like the transponder and ACARs automated update system (but not, presumably, the auto-pilot, which was flying the plane). They did not issue a distress call, because in a mid-air emergency your priorities are “aviate, navigate, communicate” — in that order. But smoke soon filled the cockpit and overwhelmed them (a tire fire could do this). The pilots passed out or died.
  • Smoke filled the cabin and overwhelmed and distracted the passengers and cabin crew… or the cockpit door was locked and/or the cockpit was filled with smoke, so no one could enter the cockpit to try to figure out where the plane was, how the pilots were, or how the plane might be successfully landed. (This would be a complicated task, even if one knew the pilots were unconscious and had access to the cockpit, especially if most of the plane’s electrical systems were switched off or damaged)
  • With no one awake to instruct the auto-pilot to land, the plane kept flying on its last programmed course… right over Pulau Langkawi and out over the Indian Ocean. The engine-update system kept “pinging” the satellite. Eventually, 6 or 7 hours after the incident, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.

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