The loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 three days ago with 239 people on board is fast becoming a tragedy of ever greater significance as Malaysian official responses flounder in what appears to be a mixture of incompetence and inertia. Despite praise from one US Commander in the area for the Malaysian Forces ability to organise the search areas in detail, both the government and airline are failing under international scrutiny.
The United States, Chinese and Vietnam Navies are applying intensive resources to seeking answers and, combined with other neighbouring countries, have more than forty vessels traversing the estimated crash area. In contrast, very little is being done by the Malaysian authorities to engage either with the mourning relatives – of which there are a great many – or provide more information.
Relatives of the 38 Malaysian passengers who have been waiting in Kuala Lumpur are now being told simply to ‘expect the worst’ – hardly a constructive or compassionate response and days too late to be expressed. Likewise, in Beijing, grieving relatives of the 153 Chinese nationals on the flight are complaining about being unable to find information from officials.
Malaysian airport security did not check the passports belonging to passengers boarding the flight against the InterPol ‘Lost and Stolen’ computer directory. Both of these passports which were stolen in Thailand and subsequently used by two people to board the flight had been listed there for the last year.
If Malaysian authorities are not checking the movement of suspicious people who pass through their airport hubs, then what exactly are they checking? Until the flight’s black box can be recovered, the suspicion that these two unknown passengers were terrorists remains. But with no terrorist group having so far come forward to claim responsibility, this line of reasoning fades with each passing hour.
But even with what little we know so far, Flight MH370 has more similarities with some previous airliner crashes than are immediately apparent. With the disappearance of the flight being currently so distressing it is not helpful to speculate without reason but below is a very short list of similar tragedies:
August 1947: BSAA Flight CS59 – Avro Lancastrian
In 2014, global weather patterns are now known to be partly driven by the Jet Stream – a band of super-fast winds that modern jet airliners ‘ride’ to get to their destinations sooner or avoid when going in the opposing direction. Back in 1947, a passenger airliner climbed above the cloud-covered Mount Tupungato on its way to Chile from Argentina. It was never seen again. Conspiracy theories abounded, aided by the mysterious and repeated final Morse signal sent by its navigator – “STENDAC”. Fifty years later, the plane’s wreckage was found in the mountains. It had flown into a snowy peak, causing an avalanche to fall on top of it, covering all wreckage. Not realising that they were flying into the Jet Stream’s strong winds, the crew’s mathematical calculation that they had passed over the mountain did not take into account the fact that, in reality, they were barely moving forward in relation to the ground. Their unforeseeable and tragic demise was unraveled by modern computing and the understanding we now have of the Jet Stream. “STENDAC”? This word puzzle has never been solved but one theory is that the Morse code operator in the Lancastrian was suffering from hypoxia (oxygen starvation – the plane was not pressurised) and believed that he was confirming his DESCENT.
January 1949: BSAA – Avro Tudor MkIVB
The Bermuda Triangle was a bewildering mystery throughout the 1940′s and ’50′s when entire ships and even whole groups of fighter planes disappeared without trace. On a fine day and with an experienced crew and a well serviced plane, this flight from Bermuda to Kingston was effectively an unremarkable and routine flight. The only note of doubt was caused by ten minute blackouts of radio signals that day across the area of sea which was being flown over by the Avro Tudor. Even so, its pilot’s clear messages to gound control were noted and served as confirmation that all was well on board. The plane never arrived at Kingston. Extensive searches found no wreckage. In the 21st century, we now know that the area of sea called the Bermuda Triangle is the location for occasional ferocious and random volcanic eruptions on the sea bed. Gases rise as bubbles to the surface in millions of cubic litres from the under-sea volcanos. If you are a boat or ship on that part of the ocean, you will sink immediately because the water you were floating on is suddenly filled with air bubbles and becomes ‘non-buoyant’. If you are flying above the area in question, the hydrogen and oxygen of the air may be replaced by other gases, either starving your engines or creating massive turbulence. Landing in the sea will give you the same problems as a ship or boat and you will sink without trace.
July 1988: Iran Air Flight 655 – Airbus A300B2
290 Iranians (including 66 children) and 38 souls from other countries had just left Bandar Abbas on a half hour flight to Dubai, having originated at Tehran. The Airbus was transmitting “IFF” signals (International Friend or Foe) and was expected to be where it was and it was flying its agreed route. Eight minutes into its flight, the Commander of the United States guided missile destroyer ‘Vincennes’ (nicknamed ‘Robocop’ by his fellow US Naval officers for his apparent lust for seeking conflict) decided that this particular A300 Airbus was instead an Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter, trying to attack him. He ordered the firing of two anti-aircraft missiles into it. The passenger jet disintegrated. Although its black box was never found, the Vincennes itself was loaded with all the data necessary to prove beyond doubt what had happened and the United States inquiry uncovered weak leadership, inexperienced crew and ignored warnings of the A300′s true identity to have conspired to create a ‘regrettable accident’. The United States denied guilt but payed millions of dollars in out of court settlements.
December 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 – Boeing 747-121
A few months later, on its way from Frankfurt to Detroit, American Pan Am flight 103 took on more passengers at London and departed for America. With its 259 occupants (189 American, the rest from other nations) settling in as they flew through the darkness above Scotland, a bomb in the luggage hold exploded and the airliner disintegrated. The inquiries and assertions of both British and United States investigators were widely doubted from the start. There were and still are deeply held beliefs of many relatives and political commentators that the tragedy was dishonestly blamed on one man – a Libyan Intelligence Officer put forward by Libyan Colonel Gaddafi as responsible. The man, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was arrested and jailed in Scotland. In 2003, Libya admitted responsibility but not guilt and settled multi-million dollar compensation claims to the relatives of those who died – in return for political and economic sanctions being lifted. Although this Boeing 747 flew in Pan Am’s colours, it in fact belonged to the United States Civil Reserve inventory of aircraft. One of the earliest Jumbos built, it had been completely overhauled and modified two years earlier to allow it to carry out diverse alternative roles such as freight carriage. The case has so many astonishing and unbelievable inconsistencies within it that a new inquiry is due to be set up in 2014.
June 2009: Air France Flight 447 – Airbus A330
228 souls passed on when this plane – an Airbus A330 - left just a few pieces of wreckage on the surface of the Atlantic when it crashed. The black box was not recovered until much later on but – almost immediately after the airliner ‘disappeared’ – Airbus confidently announced that blame lay with the crew: human error. How were Airbus so sure? Well, the A330 is the aviation equivelant of your friend who is always on their iPhone. Flight 447 sent a string of messages back to its manufacturers – Airbus - as it flew, alerting them to the fact that things were not going well on the flight.
The plane used ACARS – the Aircraft Communicating and Adressing System - to transmit data over the last three minutes before it crashed. Airbus certainly possessed that information three days after it had crashed.
Does the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200ER use the ACARS system?
Did it send messages to Boeing?
The amazing future of Asia’s growth needs flight security from today’s West.
Over the next 20 years, the Asia Pacific area is predicted to account for almost 50% of the world’s growth in air traffic. Both Airbus and Boeing are anticipating delivering nearly 13,000 new airliners to operators in this zone. Airbus is heavily investing in Indonesian refurbishment centres and cabin conversion operations.
This level of investment is truly staggering in its size and implications for mass transit. It also illustrates the shocking contrast in standards between the established manufacturers and operators’ commitment and the seemingly casual incompetence of Malaysian airport security.
Malaysian Airlines operates more than 100 modern jets and flies to over 80 worldwide destinations each day. It has a good safety record.