During the three weeks since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared, “talking heads” (including our own) have become a staple on the news and cable
Source: Aviation Week
shows. The trouble with talking heads is that short sound bites don’t really allow us to take a deep dive into the issues.
We arranged to have an extended interview with Greg Feith, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and today a consultant for private industry and another of the talking heads. Feith investigated two accidents that may have particular relevance to MH370: the pilot-suicide crashes of Egyptair 990 and a Silk Air 737 in Indonesia. He’s familiar with the national cultures involved and events leading to conclusions of these two previous incidents. Feith early in the MH370 events concluded this incident has its roots in the cockpit of the Boeing 777.
He’s appeared throughout the MH370 search on CNN and NBC, among other places. Here is our interview with Feith.
A former lead crash investigator for the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) doesn’t believe the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 will ever be found—and with it, the data recorded on the black boxes will be lost to the investigation.
“I hope I am wrong but I personally don’t believe we will ever find the wreckage. I think we will find pieces that drifted,” Greg Feith, the investigator, said in an exclusive interview with Leeham News and Comment.
“I don’t believe the information that’s available right now, as I know it and has been publicized, will be enough to come up with a single cause or probable cause,” he said in an interview March 31.
Feith believes there will be several plausible theories that all will point to a deliberate act by someone with intimate knowledge of flying the Boeing 777, most likely one of the pilots. Too many deliberate actions maneuvering the airplane and turning off communications systems occurred to have any plausible mechanical failure explanation. He completely discounts theories that a fire, either in the electronics bay or involving lithium-ion batteries being transported in a cargo bay, disabled the airplane. He also discounts a theory that there was a depressurization that incapacitated the pilots and allowed the 777 to meander over the skies of the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia and the Strait of Malacca before turning south 3,000 miles over the Indian Ocean before running out of fuel.
“When you look at the way the systems shut down just prior to the last communications—the transponder, then ACARS…” and the fact that ACARS had “pinging” communication with satellites after the transmission of data stopped, tells this veteran investigator that human intervention was responsible.
Some hypothesized that the airplane flew on auto pilot on its diverse flight path after pilots were disabled by fire. Feith discounted this as well.
“The transponder is turned off with a switch of a switch. ACARS goes off line with a few key strokes,” Feith told us. “If there was a fire, the auto pilot would have gone off line.”
Fire could not have disabled the transponder, he said. There are different wire bundles for the five radios, the two transponders and the ACARS precisely to avoid a single-source fire capable of disrupting these eight communications devices.
“There is no centralized area where a fire could take all these out at the same time,” he said.
As for the related theory that the auto pilot took over after the crew was disabled by hypoxia, the series of left and right hand turns belies this, he said. If the crew were overcome, the airplane would have continued on its original course to Beijing. Instead, it made a “shallow” left turn after its last radio communication with Malaysian Air Traffic Control to a new course almost behind its original course. Then, over the Strait of Malacca, it made a right turn, a left turn and another left turn going south over the Indian Ocean.
Citing his sources familiar with the investigation, Feith said these were shallow banks of perhaps 20 degrees, normal turns that would not have alerted passengers that anything was out of the ordinary.
“The auto pilot isn’t smart enough [on its own] to make the maneuvers the airplane did,” Feith said.
All the altitude changes that have been reported in the media are incorrect, he said, citing his sources. The airplane never left its cruising altitude of 35,000 ft.
Feith believes that all the turns were part of a deception plan by whoever was in control of the airplane. He doubts this person was a hijacker, who wouldn’t have the knowledge or the skill level of all the systems of the 777, nor a hijacker holding a gun to the head of the pilots.
If a hijacker intruded into the cockpit and commanded the pilots to shut down communications, a savvy pilot would have surreptitiously found a way to alert authorities, Feith said. When switching off the transponder, the pilot could have easily switched to 7700 (an Emergency code) or 7500 (hijacking), or easily depressed the radio button on the control wheel to transmit in the blind. “None of this happened.”
A fire of any kind in the electronics bay or the cargo hold where the lithium-ion batteries were stored is improbable, he said. The 777 has ample smoke and fire detectors to alert the crew, which then would have radioed an emergency and a return to Kuala Lumpur, where fire equipment is prepared for these emergencies. “None of this happened.”
The batteries were properly packaged and placed in a Class D, air-tight cargo compartment that also has smoke vents. Aside from the warning devices in the event of smoke or fire, there is a standard procedure for an airborne 777 to deal with such an emergency to further rob the compartment of any oxygen, should any develop. This is similar to the system we all read so much about that Boeing design to snuff a battery smoke or fire event in the 787 following the highly publicized lithium-ion battery fire and smoke event on two 787s early last year.
Should MH370’s wreckage be found and along with it the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder, the question remains of what useful data will be retrieved. We noted previously that the FDR has 25 hours of recording capability but the CVR has only two before its data is overwritten. There has also been concern that these were disabled before or shortly after the event began.
Two 777 pilots we talked to believe it’s not possible to disable the recorders from the cockpit, unlike earlier Boeing airplanes (Boeing declined comment). Feith said that disabling the FDR would require a pilot to go into the electronics bay, with access only through a hatch in the passenger cabin near the cockpit. It is possible to pull the circuit breaker on the CVR in the cockpit, he said.
Since access to the electronics bay is via the passenger cabin where anyone could see this, we asked Feith how this could be accomplished. Noting that he doesn’t normally engage in speculation, Feith provided this hypothesis:
“The pilot could have ‘dumped the cabin’ and induced hypoxia, and could have gone into the bay to disable” the recorder while on his walk-around oxygen, Feith said. Nonetheless, all data retained up to any disabling would be available for analysis and this could yield useful information from which to draw certain conclusions.