Malaysian Air Theory...

March 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

       I normally don't want to get involved in politics or opinions in my photography site and blog, but I felt this was the quickest and easiest way to get a relatively large amount of information out there.  Many of my friends, knowing that my "day job" (and often "night job" as well...) involves flying airplanes, have asked my opinion about a theory on the missing Malaysian Air flight that was posted in Wired Magazine's site by a gentleman named Chris Goodfellow.  If you haven't seen it, here is a link to Goodfellow's article:  http://www.wired.com/autopia/2014/03/mh370-electrical-fire/.  In a nutshell, he suggests two possibilities:  An electrical fire that causes the crew to de-power the airplane inflight, thus eliminating power to the radios and transponder, or a situation in which an under-inflated nose landing gear tire catches fire and the smoke enters the cockpit, incapacitating the crew yet allowing the autopilot to continue to fly the aircraft.  He cites the case of a Douglas DC-8 that had a tire fire during takeoff.  For more information on that accident see: http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19910711-0.  Goodfellow also suggests that in a fire the cockpit crew would NOT want to go on oxygen, but would use a smoke hood--a device that goes over the head and provides oxygen for 12-20 minutes in order to fight the fire.  That is preposterous!

Here is my response to Mr. Goodfellow's article:

         Quite honestly, I'm not much in favor of Goodfellow's theories for a number of reasons.  The first being that every airplane I've flown has had the same memory item for smoke in the cockpit--Oxygen masks and regulators ON/100% (so you're breathing 100 % oxygen--the regulators also have a setting where you can mix ambient air to make the O2 in the bottle last longer, a definite no-no in a smoky environment).  Next item is "Crew Communication, establish." Then, if you don't have a full-face oxygen mask, you'd put on smoke goggles. They don't differentiate between smoke or fire in the checklist.  The smoke hood he refers to IS for fighting a fire in the cabin/cockpit area, but it is not meant to fly the airplane while it is burning.

 

         As far as the electrical fire scenario goes, the checklists have you take the electrical busses down in a sequential manner, starting with the high-load items.  The LAST bus you take down is the standby bus, especially in a Fly By Wire airplane.  The standby bus has, among other things, the captain's instruments, the number one communication radios (VHF and HF), the number one navigation radio, and emergency lighting.  These are the LAST items you would want to lose.  In the article Goodfellow mentions the mantra "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate" which is true. However in an emergency, communicating IS part of aviating.  Assuming the airplane was under control, one pilot would be flying and the other (along with flight attendants or whoever else) would be fighting the fire.  The flying pilot would definitely have time to make a mayday call.  Also, in an electrical fire situation (as he describes it), the autopilots and transponders would be inoperative, so the scenario where they were overcome and the airplane flew on would not necessarily hold true.

 

         Goodfellow's other scenario involves an overheated nose tire catching fire.  I don't agree with this on a number of levels.  First of all, the accident he references involved a main landing gear tire, not a nose wheel.  There is a lot more weight on the mains than the nose--that's why the main landing gear tires are bigger.  Secondly, if a nose gear tire was overheated during taxi/takeoff to the point of failure, it would be throwing rubber during takeoff and that would be immediately noticeable to the crew as pieces hit the lower fuselage during the roll.  My guess is, in that scenario, they would have probably continued the takeoff (depending on where during the roll it happened), gone out, NOT retracted the gear, dumped fuel, and returned for landing.  I cannot fathom a scenario where they would have continued on with a blown nose tire.  Not only do you have the issue of the tire, but there is a strong possibility that the tire would have thrown rubber into one or both of the engines.  Not a good thing when you're headed across the ocean.

 

         The airplane in Goodfellow's example crashed after only ten minutes (brake release was at 0828, they crashed at 0838).  They knew they had a problem immediately and were returning to land.   Within a very short time after gear retraction on the DC-8, they had pressurization and hydraulic failures, and the fire was fed by hydraulic fluid (still turning during retraction, the flailing tire tore up hydraulic lines in the wheel well).  In the Malaysia situation, I would expect much the same result--i.e. hydraulic system issues if the tire was retracted while burning and throwing rubber.  Now, if it didn't get any hydraulic lines, but was still burning when retracted and continued to burn in the enclosed wheel well, it would almost certainly have caught the remaining tire on fire, which would have created a small explosion when it burst due to the fire (we're talking 200 psi tires here).  They definitely would have heard that and said something.  Finally, if the tire(s) had burned enough to breach the pressure vessel of the airplane, which would have to happen to get smoke inside the cockpit, the structural integrity would have soon been compromised and there is no way the airplane would have flown several more hours.  I would have to say that the airplane probably would have been lost--as was the DC8 in his example and the Valujet DC9 at Miami in 1996 (though that was a cargo fire)--very soon after takeoff.

 

      I'm not a big conspiracy theorist, but the way this thing happened, I'm afraid this airplane landed somewhere safely and is being held by someone who doesn't want people to know where it is.  I hope I'm wrong, but my fear is that it is being modified for use as a weapon.  The pilot suicide scenario some are suggesting doesn't ring true with me either, because I don't see someone who is suicidal going to all the trouble to reprogram the computer to fly off course just to dive into the ocean.  I don't buy the mechanical failure argument for the reasons I've already stated--assuming the crew is not out to hurt themselves, there is no scenario I can picture where ALL communications would be lost so suddenly that they could not have called someone, yet the airplane was left intact enough to allow it to fly another 6 or 7 hours.  I'm afraid this airplane is going to pop up somewhere in the world in a very big way.  And, given the size and range of the airplane, it could appear ANYWHERE.  As it is, the airplane can carry passengers and cargo for around 18 hours.  A lighter airplane burns less fuel, so I think that range can possibly be stretched further in a terrorist scenario. By adding auxiliary fuel tanks, the thing could carry enough fuel to fly 24 hours or more and reach pretty much any point on the globe in one leg.  Scary thought.

 


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