This is Opacity Zero, a show about challenging the unknown with curiosity. I am Melanie Heymans – welcome back to our forth and final episode on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 . . . Means, Motive and Opportunity.
As this is our last episode in this series I just want to take a quick second and say thank you, thank you to my family and friends for all your support, and for still listening. Thanks to all you strangers out there for joining me over the past 6 weeks and for letting me know how much you enjoy this show, I am deeply proud and grateful that you are spending some of your time with me.
Now as you are about to hear the last episode in this series I just want to quickly let you know that Opacity Zero it taking a little timeout to research and prep for our upcoming series, Natural Born Killers – coming to ear buds near you in October 2015.
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Thank you, now here’s the show:
On November 24th 1971 at 2:30pm a man in a dark suit, white collared shirt and a black necktie, carrying a black suitcase boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.
After taking a seat in the rear of the aircraft, he lit a cigarette, ordered a bourbon and soda and passed a note to Florence Schaffner, one of the flight attendants. Assuming the note contained the business traveler’s phone number Florence dropped it in her purse unopened. As the plane took off he leaned over to her and whispered: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The only unsolved hijacking in American aviation history starts like a good movie and finishes like a great one. About 5 hours after passing that note to Florence — and a pit stop in Seattle to allow the passengers to exit the aircraft, get some meals for the crew, and give the FBI some time to deliver four parachutes and 200,000 dollars ransom money — Dan Cooper paid his drink tab and jumped out of the flying Boeing 727 never to be seen again.
Unlike the case of Dan Cooper hijackings of aircraft are usually not committed for robbery or theft but to achieve political, propaganda or psychological goals.In the past 15 years 17 commercial passenger flights have been hijacked but with the exception of the four flights that were hijacked on the morning of September 11th 2001, none of them resulted in any passenger or crew fatalities.
As terrifying as hijackings are they generally have one thing in common, the hijackers want something but they are not willing to pay for it with their lives.
The most recent hijacking of a commercial passenger aircraft, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702, is a good example of that. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702, a scheduled international passenger flight from Addis Ababa to Rome, was hijacked by the co-pilot in the early hours of February 17th 2014.
Shortly after takeoff the pilot left the cockpit to use the restroom. When he came back he found the cockpit door locked by the co-pilot who had taken over the plane and began to send the international code for an aircraft hijacking to ground control. He then flew the aircraft to Geneva, in Switzerland, where he requested political asylum and an assurance that he would not be extradited to Ethiopia. When one of the engines flamed out, a few hours later, the co-pilot decided to land the aircraft at Geneva International Airport where he identified himself as the hijacker and was arrested. Fortunately none of the 202 people on board were injured.
Another example is Turkish Airlines Flight 1476, a scheduled international passenger flight from Tirana to Istanbul which was hijacked by a passenger on October 3rd 2006. The hijacker forced his way into the cockpit when the purser briefly opened the door to ask the flight crew if they needed anything, and demanded to be flown to Rome to speak with the Pope. After the pilot transmitted the international code for an aircraft hijacking and reported the demands to air traffic control fighter jets accompanied the plane and forced it to land at Brindisi Airport where the hijacker surrendered and apologized to the crew and passengers. None of the 113 people on board the aircraft were injured.
It has been almost 18 months since MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and even though new developments over the past few weeks might eventually shine some new light on this tragedy, most questions about MH370s whereabouts and what happened aboard the Boeing 777 that night remain unanswered.
We have spent the past few weeks ruling out catastrophic failure and human error as the most likely scenario but what about a hijacking? Could someone have hijacked MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew on board, just like Turkish Airlines Flight 1476 or Ethiopia Airlines Flight 702?
Let’s approach this question by asking a few more:
- Who would have hijacked the aircraft?
- Why would they have hijacked it?
- And if it was hijacked why would there have been no distress call from the cockpit?
So let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that MH370 was in fact hijacked. Who would have wanted to hijack a Boeing 777 with 239 people on board on its way from Malaysia to China? An individual, a group, an organization? Someone desperate? Someone mentally ill? Someone with a political or psychological agenda?
Well, either way, it would have to be:
- someone who didn’t want to share his demands for the past 18 months,
- someone who didn’t want to use the aircraft as a weapon, at least not right away, and
- someone who didn’t want to go somewhere urban or populated, cause it seems quite impossible to land a 250-ton aircraft undetected at an official airport. “Let’s quickly sneak in between that 747 and the A380”. . .that’s not going to happen.
So based on what we know about the disappearance of MH370 so far, the hijacker would have to be someone who would know about and would be able to utilize an extremely remote location that would allow someone to land a Boeing triple 777. It would also have to be someone who has the capacity to take 239 people hostage or the cold-bloodedness to kill them, and the influence and plan to actually do something with this triple seven he just got a hold of.
Call me unimaginative but that sounds quite unlikely to me. No one has claimed a hijacking or any other interference with the flight, no one has made any political or other requests or demands and no one in the cockpit made a distress call to indicate a hijacking, a task that can be completed very easily and undetected by any hijacker, and was actually done in more than 80% of all hijackings in the past 15 years.
On top of all that, what we know about the flight and the flight path itself doesn’t really speak for a hijacking. Sure, the transponder, which indicates where the aircraft is to air traffic control went silent shortly after ground control lost radio contact with the plane. This could most definitely indicate a hijacking — turning off specific communication systems is one of the first things the hijackers on 9/11 did once they gained control of the aircraft. Still, after the transponder went silent MH370 kept on flying for hours without ever establishing any contact or resurfacing again.
Another factor that speaks against a hijacking scenario is that the official investigation took a long and deep look at all the passengers on board and could not come up with any links to any terror organizations or any motives that would identify any of the passengers as possible hijackers.
And last but not least there is the question about how a hijacker would even make it into the cockpit? Since 9/11 all commercial aircraft are equipped with reinforced cockpit doors that are able to resist small fire arms and even grenades, and a complex system of locks and permissions in order to avoid unauthorized access to the cockpit. In addition to that every cabin crew will block the isles with their carts if the cockpit door needs to be opened for the flight crew to use the restroom or get some refreshments.
Unlawfully entering the cockpit of a commercial airliner has become increasingly difficult since 9/11. . .but what if the killer is already inside the cockpit?
Germanwings Flight 9525, a scheduled international passenger flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf, crashed in the French Alps due to deliberate action by the co-pilot killing all 150 people on board on March 24th 2015.
Flight 9525 left Barcelona at 10am that morning and was due to arrive at Duesseldorf about 90 minutes later. Approximately half an hour after take-off the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of 38000feet. About 3 minutes later, at 10:30am, the captain of flight 9525 confirmed some instructions from the French air traffic controllers, handed control over to the co-pilot and left the cockpit to go use the restroom.
As soon as the captain had left the flight deck the first officer locked the cockpit door and put a target altitude of 100feet into the autopilot. As the aircraft started to descend over the French Alps, the co-pilot increased the speed leading the plane into a steep and rapid descent.
At 10:34am, roughly four minutes after he had left the cockpit, the captain of Flight 9525 can be heard on the cockpit voice recorder requesting re-entry to the cockpit. At the same time, air traffic control realized that the plane had began a descent without approval and tried to reach the flight crew but received no answer.
A minute later, at 10:35am, the co-pilot increased the aircraft’s speed to its maximum while the captain could be heard shouting and banging at the cockpit door commanding the first officer to open it.
5 minutes later, at 10:40am, the ground proximity warning can be heard on the cockpit voice recorder together with the last desperate attempts of the captain to gain access to the cockpit.
At 10:41am Flight 9525 crashed into a mountain 62 miles northwest of Nice killing everyone on board.
The deeply tragic story of Germanwings Flight 9525 and its passengers and crew is a rare one, but not unheard of. Over the past 20 years there have been 5 declared or suspected pilot murder-suicides on commercial passenger flights:
And these cases have some eerie similarities:
- In four out of five cases communication with traffic control was stopped minutes after the aircraft had reached cruising altitude, about 30 minutes into the flight
- In three out of five cases one of the two pilots was purposefully locked out of the cockpit after a bathroom break, leaving the other pilot alone in the cockpit
Did one of the pilots of MH370 deliberately take the plane off course to take his own life and kill 238 people? Based on my research and the facts that are currently known and available that’s the most likely scenario and here is why:
As we established in the past few weeks catastrophic failure and human error do not really make any sense, neither does a shoot down or explosive device or a hijacking scenario. What makes sense is that someone deliberately stopped communicating with air traffic control, switched off several communication services — remember the transponder and ACARS from episode I — and took the aircraft off course on purpose. We know based on the flight path of MH370, provided by military radar and satellite data, that someone, not something, had to be flying and maneuvering the plane for at least another hour after air traffic control lost all radar contact.
So who was at the controls of MH370 and what was their motive? Here goes the most likely scenario of the disappearance of MH370:
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8th 2014 like planned and reached its cruising altitude of 35000 feet about 20 minutes later, at 1:01am. About 18 minutes later as MH370 was about to leave Malaysian airspace Captain Zaharie acknowledged instructions to contact Ho Chi Minh air traffic control with the final words from the cockpit of MH370. So far so good.
Now the next step would have been to check in with Ho Chi Minh and that should have happened within seconds of the last communication with Kuala Lumpur air traffic control. As that didn’t happen something must have gone wrong either in the 18 minutes between the two communications with air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur or in the moments following the last communication.
After a series of aviation accidents were caused by distracted flight crews in the late 70s and early 80s the FAA introduced the sterile cockpit rule, a regulation that requires pilots to refrain from any non-essential activities during critical phases of flight, like take-off and landing. In practice this rule means that pilots are generally solely focused on their flying duties till they reach cruising altitude, the safest part of a flight, then they have some time to relax, use the restroom, get a cup of coffee and monitor the aircraft till it is time for descent.
Now this rule might explain why in a majority of pilot murder-suicide cases, like Germanwings Flight 9525, communication ceased and one of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit shortly after the aircraft reached cruising altitude. Enforcing the sterile cockpit rule the pilots stayed highly focused on their flying duties till they reached cruising altitude at which point they relaxed and briefly stepped out of the cockpit, not knowing that they would never enter it again.
MH370 reached its cruising altitude at 1:01am, either at that point, or after the last communication with the ground at 1:19am, one of the pilots might have gotten up to take a restroom break, get some coffee or go for a quick chat with the cabin crew, leaving the other pilot in the cockpit by himself. As soon as the door was closed the pilot remaining in the cockpit locked it from the inside.
Now we know that MH370 was flying on for hours after the last communication at 1:19am – and we also know from other pilot murder-suicides that the locked out pilot would have most likely tried desperately to get back into the cockpit, so the pilot in control of the plane, knowing that he was flying on for quite a while, might have wanted to do something to incapacitate the passengers and crew in the cabin behind him.
The cabin pressurization system of the Boeing 777 allows a pilot to decompress the cabin with the push of a few buttons on the overhead panel. The pilot of MH370 might have used that feature to incapacitate the crew and passengers on board. What would a scenario like that have looked like?
Once he was alone in the cockpit the pilot in control of MH370 might have started to decompress the plane which would have, after reaching a critical level of cabin pressure, triggered an alarm in the cockpit and caused the automatic deployment of oxygen masks in the cabin.
Unfortunately these oxygen masks only provide oxygen for about 12 minutes, enough time for the pilots to descent to a safe altitude in an unplanned decompression incident, but not a lot of time to interfere with a deliberate decompression. After the passengers would have ran out of oxygen their time of useful consciousness at 35000feet would have been about 30-60 seconds, so within about 20 to 30 minutes or so, considering the portable oxygen tanks that some of the crew members might have grabbed, basically everyone in the back of the aircraft would have been unconscious.
Now, what about the pilot in the cockpit? We have established that someone deliberately flew the plane for quite a while after it disappeared from air traffic control so how did the pilot do it with only 12 minutes of oxygen? Well, the flight deck has its completely independent oxygen system which is capable of supplying the flight crew with at least 6,5 hours of supplemental oxygen.
So in our scenario the pilot most likely decompressed the cabin, put on his oxygen mask in the cockpit and was able to continue flying the aircraft for quite a while. Over the next few hours he completed the air turn back, flew back over the Malay Peninsula (a quick shout out to our hand map), took a right turn towards the small island of Pulau Perak, and some time after 2:22am took another sharp left turn toward the Southern Indian Ocean.
According to Inmarsat’s data — remember the handshakes from episode I — the aircraft most likely didn’t make any sharp turns anymore after that so we could assume That the pilot just continued flying the aircraft till it ran out of fuel or that after having maneuvered the aircraft to a quite remote area over the open sea he might have engaged the autopilot and took off his oxygen mask, becoming unconscious, and leaving the aircraft to fly on autopilot till it ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean around 8:19am.
Why 8:19am you ask? Remember the last satellite message the aircraft sent? It was a log-on request to SATCOM at 8:19am after having completed 5 handshakes with the ground station in the hours before, having sent the last one just 9 minutes earlier, at 8:10am.
Generally these handshakes are completed every hour and generally the aircraft doesn’t send a log-on request after having been logged on to the system for hours.
So here is what I assume happened:
Sometime around 8:00am the aircraft started running low on fuel, and at a certain point the engines flamed out. Now as you might remember from episode II, the engines are the main supply of electrical power for the aircraft, so at this point the emergency systems, like the small turbine that would automatically be deployed outside the plane and be powered by the airflow, would kick in. So maybe somewhere in these eerie minutes, the aircraft systems lost electrical power, but got it back due to the emergency systems taking over and therefore the aircraft restarted the SATCOM link and sent another log-on request to the ground station.
But at this point MH370 had not only ran out of fuel, but also out of time, and sometime after 8:19am the now unpowered aircraft would have gotten too slow, entered a Stall and crashed into the ocean.
Now this episode is called Means, Motive and Opportunity and both the captain and the first officer of MH370 had the means and the opportunity to take the Boeing 777 off course and crash it into the Southern Indian Ocean, but what about motive, did either one of them have a motive to kill himself and 238 people on board?
Well, that’s the one big hole in my theory cause, no I couldn’t find an obvious motive. Not for Captain Zaharie nor for first officer Fariq. Both were passionate about flying, well respected and integrated in their communities, both had a seemingly functional social and family network, neither of them seemed to have any financial problems, no known history of drug abuse or any other psychological problems, nothing. Nothing jumps out that would give any indication of a will to die, or to kill 238 people.
Were there rumors about secret affairs, family problems and some possible political motives, sure, but that’s all they have been so far, rumors. I wasn’t able to confirm any of them and even if, would they be a reason to commit mass murder? And then again what would be a valid reason?
People that commit mass murder do not always have preexisting risk factors, current or ongoing stressors, or never had a loving family or environment. Often enough they are highly functioning members of society that manage to deceive everyone around them, even those closest to them.
Did I offer you the most likely scenario based on what we know about MH370? Yes. Can I offer you a motive? No.
But for the sake of the families and friends of everyone on board MH370 I hope that one day someone will.