The latest speculation over the whereabouts of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 – from an experienced pilot – is easily the most plausible, and a far step away from hijacking, terrorism, or meteors.
Chris Goodfellow, a pilot with more than 20 years of experience on multi-engine planes, wrote on Google+ that a fire aboard the plane – and a pilot’s standard operating procedure in such a scenario – could account for almost all of the evidence surrounding the missing plane.
After the Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur en-route to Beijing around midnight March 8, the plane lost communication with air traffic control and disappeared from radar along with its transponder tracking ping. Radar evidence from the Malaysian military discovered days later picked up what could possibly have been Flight 370 turning around and heading back toward the western coast of Malaysia, specifically the Strait of Malacca.
“When I heard this I immediately brought up Google Earth and searched for airports in proximity to the track toward the southwest,” Goodfellow said.
According to the former pilot, the necessary left turn to head back toward Malaysia by pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah – a captain with 18,000 hours of flight time – is strongly indicative of a pilot’s instinct in an emergency situation.
“We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always,” Goodfellow said. “If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do – you already know what you are going to do.”
The most likely explanation for the turn was to make an emergency landing at a nearby airport – in this case, Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip approachable by water and free of obstacles. Shah would have avoided heading back to Kuala Lumpur with a damaged plane due to the 8,000-foot ridges crossed on approach.
“The pilot did all the right things,” Goodfellow said. “He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make an immediate turn to the closest, safest airport.”
Losing transponder and communications could easily have occurred from an electrical fire, after which a pilot would shut off all electrical buses and turn them back on one at a time in order to isolate the troubled circuit.
“It probably was a serious event and the flight crew was occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire,” Goodfellow said. “Aviate, navigate, and lastly, communicate is the mantra in such situations.”
A landing gear fire is also entirely possible, especially on under-inflated tires (common on large airliners) during a hot night on a long runway. If the blowout occurred during takeoff, the resulting fire would burn slowly but eventually produce “horrific, incapacitating smoke.”
“What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed,” Goodfellow said. “You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.”