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MH370 CRASH: Four weeks on, still no dawn

Publication Date : 05-04-2014

 

This is the art of darkness.

A 270 tonne plane - recently checked by engineers and carrying comfortably less than a full load - leaps smoothly into an inky night and levels off, heading north to Beijing.

The conversation from the cockpit is relaxed and routine up until the final goodnight to Malaysian Air Traffic Control, as it hands over to Vietnam. Minutes later, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370's communications systems shut down and, without a word, it sharply reverses course, heading out to the Malacca Strait.

An hour later, the plane, with 239 people on board, drops off even Malaysia's sophisticated Marconi military radar to stay untraceable since.

What devilish hand could have contrived this outrage that took parent from child, sister from brother, and wife from husband? Somebody in the cockpit, an intruder who dashed in while a pilot stepped out for a toilet break? A sudden systems failure that the pilots valiantly sought to fight till the end? Did the high number of lithium ion batteries in the cargo hold catch fire or were explosives packed in among the cargo of mangosteens on board?

A week later, and a stunning revelation from the country's leader who had stayed on the sidelines, allowing his Defence and Acting Transport Minister to front press briefings, itself a rarity since it is airlines, not governments, that usually fulfil this responsibility. "Up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, these movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane," Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed.

The first and only credible suggestion yet that a human hand was responsible. But whose?

An aviation first

A month after Flight MH370 was lost, the world remains transfixed by the plane's saga. Newspapers around the globe continue to give it acres of space; television channels offer hourly updates.

Not surprising, perhaps.

From the time China invented kites more than 2,000 years ago, man has been fascinated by flight. In Greek mythology, Icarus grew wings and perished only because he flew too close to the sun. The Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci drew detailed plans for a flying machine as early as 1485. Hindus consider the mythical humanoid bird Garuda the mount of the god Vishnu, the Preserver. Garuda, Indonesia's national symbol, is also the mascot of its flag carrier.

But the thrill of flight has always come mixed with the fear of flying, and this perhaps explains our fascination with MH370, even as not even a pillow or blanket from the aircraft has been found so far.

The noted Sri Lankan journalist Rita Sebastian, who died 18 years ago this month, cheerfully dodged bullets from Tamil separatists in the north of the island and a Marxist insurgency in the south, over a long career. While she loved travel, she would never look down from the air, out of pure funk, she said. Often, she drank herself silly to calm the nerves.

But the airline industry has been so good at its trade that the fear had receded for most of us.

Indeed, its success can be measured by the fact that the vaunted Six Sigma in manufacturing - the techniques and tools for process improvement perfected by General Electric that reduces faults to 3.4 parts per million - is casually described as an aviation safety standard. In actual fact, airlines and airplane manufacturers strive for better - zero defect. This is why Boeing will go to any expense to recover MH370's flight data recorder, which could unlock the mystery - and perhaps absolve it of responsibility. How else to restore confidence in air travel?

"The aviation industry," Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said recently, "will never be the same again."

The irony is that Malaysia Airlines itself has contributed so much to aviation. In April 1997, an MH 777-200ER set the "great circle", or distance-without-landing flying record, by travelling eastward from Seattle in the United States to Kuala Lumpur, a distance of 20,000km, in a little over 21 hours.

The airline has had a good safety record and its cabin crew is generally regarded as professional.

But Najib's words focused attention on the pilots even if he did not specifically mention them. And that is scary for fliers.

Pilots draw their authority and self-esteem from the trust passengers and crew implicitly vest in their capability. Prime ministers and potentates straighten seats and tug seat belts tight at their command. In turn, it is assumed that passengers are protected even at the cost of crew life.

Five years ago, when a US Airways Airbus 320 leaving New York's La Guardia airport lost power after hitting a flock of geese, chief pilot Chesley Sullenberger calmly glided the plane to land on the Hudson River.

Then, as it floated on the water, the 40-year flying veteran supervised the evacuation of the 155 passengers, walking the aisles before being the last to leave.

Captain Sullenberger had logged 20,000 flight hours. MH370's Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was almost as experienced - 18,360 hours over 33 years in the cockpit. True, Capt Zaharie was probably upset by the court ruling convicting opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy. Perhaps he was disturbed over his deteriorating marriage. Even so, could a man so devoted to flying - he even had a private simulator at home - have done harm deliberately?

Or, should we focus on the 27-year-old co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid? Was he a modern-day Sundance Kid, a cowboy playfully inviting pretty women passengers to fly in the cockpit with him one day, another time violently taking control of the plane and flying it to his own extinction?

But then, why would a fun-loving man contemplating marriage want to end his life like this?

Could the pilot and co-pilot have conspired? Unlikely. The pilots of MH370 were not known to enjoy a special friendship - or harbour animosity. Neither had they asked to fly together. The rostering was done by computer.

The goodbye call from the cockpit was initially thought to be a too-casual "All right, goodnight". To many, including the airline, it suggested the words came from the co-pilot. Later, it was established that the final words were a standard "Goodnight, Malaysian Three Seven Zero". MH370 pilots had behaved like professionals to the last.
What of the passengers, particularly those in business class who would have been nearest to the cockpit? Malaysia's police chief says checks on the 227 passengers turned up nothing unusual. But then, a criminal investigation had been registered.

Aviation has a history of spinning bizarre theories for unexplained events. Some believe to this day that Amelia Earhart, the pioneering American woman pilot who went down over the Pacific in July 1937, faked her own disappearance in order to escape fame and live a quiet life.

With no smoking gun in sight, there has been no shortage of conjecture about MH370 as well.

While we can laugh at these theories, we also cannot escape feeling that there is more out there not shared with us.

After all, for years, intelligence agencies have had voice recognition technology that can pick their man from a million voices and satellites capable of peering inside buildings and listening in on conversations inside a car.

It somehow seems inconceivable that the world's most advanced agencies failed to locate a brightly painted flying machine that measures 64m from tip to tail, and has wings that span 61m.

For now, the answers lie in the tail section of the plane. But even if the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorders are one day collected, we may never have a complete answer. The cockpit voice recorder tapes only the final two hours of flight.

Why so? Because crash investigators have seldom needed details of anything more than the final 30 minutes of a doomed flight. MH370, radar and satellite evidence indicate, flew for more than six hours after its last communication. Never in history has a plane been out of contact for so long, and yet, apparently in the air.

Equipment is always designed to need, and we adapt as we learn. The reinforced cockpit doors and the air collision warning systems came from lessons learnt from hijackings and near-misses. Likewise, MH370 will also influence aircraft design, cabin and ground protocols.

Long, hard wait for facts

While we wait for answers, it is important that the world not prejudge anyone on the plane.

Take the case of the Air France Concorde that crashed in July 2000, killing all 109 passengers and crew. A probe revealed a concatenation of events.

The Concorde ran over a metal strip on the Paris runway left by an aircraft that had departed just before it. The plane's tyres exploded, and the explosion led to a fuel tank rupture, causing fuel to enter the engine and start a fire. Then, false alarms went off, and rather than shutting Engine 1, which was losing thrust, the pilots shut down Engine 2. The plane went down.

Burst tyres and fires are not uncommon in aviation and are routinely handled. It was the sequence of events that caused the catastrophe.

The MH370 saga has also told us something about ourselves.

Old suspicions sometimes kept Malaysia from sharing - in Hishammuddin's own words - information "too sensitive" to reveal. India would not let Chinese naval ships search in its waters. In Australia, some commentators are wondering aloud if it is a good idea to have Chinese icebreakers and other vessels in their backyard for weeks on end.

Yet it is cheering to note that at one stage, no less than 26 nations joined in the hunt for the plane, sometimes deploying their most sophisticated swords of war.
While it would be too much to suggest they were turned into ploughshares, the cooperative spirit bodes well for an Asia prone to natural disasters. It is heartening, too, that not one nation thought of presenting Kuala Lumpur with a bill for services.

Will there be another MH370?

Hard to tell, until you know what precisely happened. There has been no claim of responsibility or Internet chatter that suggests an outlaw group orchestrated the theft of the plane. Checks on passengers and pilots have revealed nothing. Until the plane - or its black box - is found, much remains conjecture.

The art of darkness.

 

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