AS blazing sunlight penetrated the cabin of MH370 shortly after 6am on Saturday March 8 — as the missing plane sped towards the southern Indian Ocean — were its passengers and crew wide awake, incommunicado and confused?
We might never know the definite fate of the Malaysia Airlines flight which disappeared more than three weeks ago with 239 people on board.
But in a case surrounded by mystery, this is one of two terrifying scenarios experts suspect transpired that Saturday morning.
Central to both scenarios is the Boeing 777’s pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who experts say was either on a suicide mission or struggling to save a compromised aircraft.
AS daylight flooded the cabin, placid passengers probably sorted their things and prepared themselves for seeing the faces of loved ones waiting at the gate — where they expected to be shortly.
Would any have noticed the sun was rising on the wrong side of the plane?
They would certainly have watched as their six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing stretched into seven, then eight, and then, who knows?
Without access to the flight map, confusion would have set in.
If still conscious, those on board conceivably sensed something was wrong but by then it was too late to make a desperate call, send a text or tweet.
What would have happened next had they still been alive, God only knows, but all can imagine. Panicked passengers probably screamed, cried, prayed.
While it would have been beyond imagining at that point that they were about to be murdered as part of a pilot suicide plot, they might have tried in vain to break down the bulletproof cockpit door or turned on the clueless cabin crew. We just don’t know.
But one thing you can bet on is — if they were still conscious — their frantic final moments, as the Boeing 777 stalled and spiralled or slowly descended into the sea, would have been filled with fear.
DISTURBINGLY, an Australian commercial pilot who did not want to be named, told News Corp that turning the plane towards the southern Indian Ocean would have been easy.
“I could do it in less than 30 seconds. You could just punch in a waypoint for somewhere down there in the top of the leg stage in the flight management computer and execute that as a flight plan and the aeroplane would fly there,” he said.
“You can turn off the moving map display. You can disable the in-flight entertainment completely. You could just tell the passengers it’s broken.
“Passengers might have (asked questions) but you can lock the flight deck door and no one’s getting in. They could bang on the door for the next two hours if they wanted but they’re not going to break down a bulletproof door.”
LESS perplexing, but just as painful, is the possibility that all on board passed out due to difficutly processing oxygen as the plane ascended rapidly to 45,000 feet above the South China Sea, perhaps in response to some unknown catastrophe.
They would have died minutes later.
This is the theory pilots support. Many in the profession think MH370’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has been prematurely pilloried.
Australian and International Pilots Association president Nathan Safe shuns speculation, saying there’s not enough publicly available evidence to suggest sinister motives.
“I’d hope that they were just trying to deal with some nasty situation and they’ve ended up selecting a heading through the autopilot to fly in that direction and they’ve died somehow through a fire or something and then the plane has just flown on until it’s run out of fuel,” he said.
“They could have been trying to direct the plane somehow towards an airport to land at, depending on what was going on on-board.
“They might have set the heading control component of the autopilot system to fly in that direction, south basically, and they became incapacitated after that and the plane just kept flying on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. Then the airspeed would have started to bleed back and the plane would have essentially flown itself into the sea.”
THE day after MH370 went missing Malaysia’s air force chief said the plane may have turned back towards Kuala Lumpur for no apparent reason, citing radar data. Then on March 15, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the plane appeared to have been flown deliberately for hours, veering sharply off-route at roughly the same time that its communications system and transponder were manually switched off.
TechSafe Aviation Director Rob Collins said neither crew nor passengers would have felt the aircraft make that sharp turn back towards Malaysia peninsula just before it should have entered Vietnamese airspace.
“The initial turn might not have been noticed by anyone because once the aircraft gets up at that time of night, and there’d be a light evening snack and the lights go out, you wouldn’t know where you’re going. I’d be very surprised (if they felt it) unless there was a sudden descent. But once the meal service has been completed, the lights go out and really you don’t know where you’re going,” he said.
However the pilot not flying certainly would have noticed.
“In fact it’s his job to monitor the flight path and load the navigation waypoints and stuff like that so it’s almost impossible (for him to not notice).”
Mr Collins said the baffling deviation from the flight path indicated to him that the pilots were seeking somewhere safe to land, which is precisely what they should have done in an emergency.
INVESTIGATORS have been examining whether Zaharie deliberately sabotaged the aircraft in a carefully-planned suicide bid after the jet was tracked by military radar flying at between 43,000ft and 45,000ft shortly after the last communication from the cockpit.
But Mr Collins said the erratic ascension and descent were consistent with how a pilot would respond to the effects of a loss of cabin pressure or smoke or toxic fumes in the cabin.
It has been reported that military radar tracked the plane flying at 45,000ft — its ceiling for safe flying — for 23 minutes shortly after the last communication with the cockpit. Oxygen would have run out in 12 minutes in a depressurised cabin, rendering the passengers unconscious, according to one expert.
WHILE not impossible, there would have been significant obstacles to committing suicide with a full crew and plane-load of passengers. For starters, there was a copilot.
“The other thing that would make it difficult to pull that off would be that whoever it was, the captain or the first officer, would have had to overcome the other guy. It’s very unlikely (they’d be complicit), particularly in airline flying where you’re almost randomly crewed together,” Mr Collins said.
“I got to fly with the same captain maybe three times in five years and that airline wasn’t as big as this one.
“I’d assume you certainly wouldn’t be able to convince (your colleague), with logic, to do this together.”
Another pilot, who did not want to be named, told News Corp any such solo attempt would have sparked a scuffle at the controls. “If there were two pilots, how does one person do this without taking care of the other guy? He might have. He might have knocked him in the head with the crash axe (kept in the cockpit). Who knows?”
Mr Collins, who has over 35 years in aviation with roles from line flying to executive management, said cabin crew would have also grown suspicious if the cockpit fell silent.
“I wouldn’t say communication between the cockpit and cabin crew is regular, but it’s periodic. There are definite places throughout the flight where there would be communication with the cabin crew as part of the standard operating procedures,” he said.
“There’s normally contact before and immediately after takeoff. Once the aircraft is up into a climb and there is an estimated time of arrival into Beijing there would be some communication with the chief steward to alert them as to the approximate time of landing so they can organise their services.
“Usually then the pilots will also say ‘by the way, we want a white coffee’ and they’d come up for that. There would have been communications between the two, even if it’s just ‘I need a cup of coffee or a glass of water’.”
THERE would have been “absolutely no chance” of anyone on board communicating to anyone on the ground at that position, speed or altitude.
There must also be a contact between the handset and the network for mobile phones to work. This requires a strong enough signal from both a transmission tower and the phone — which does not happen on most flights.
“Unless you happen to be carrying a satellite phone which no one would have been,” a pilot told News Corp.
CAPTAIN Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s background is now under intense investigation as police continue to interview his estranged wife.
It has been claimed that Zaharie received a two-minute phone call shortly before takeoff from a mystery woman, using a mobile phone number obtained under a false name. The discovery raised alarm bells with investigators because anyone buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card in Malaysia must produce identity documents.
Technical experts in the US are also working around the clock to recover deleted information from a sophisticated flight simulator he set up on a home computer.
On Wednesday Malaysian police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar said “all options remain open and nothing has been confirmed or ruled out”. He repeated that the areas his team is investigating are hijacking, sabotage and personal or psychological problems by those on board.