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Assessing the theories about Flight 370’s disappearance

The missing plane left behind a vapor trail of scenarios, and they have grown increasingly elaborate in the absence of information. Aviation consultants sense that this could be a Sept. 11 plot gone awry. Or perhaps it is a Sept. 11 plot brilliantly executed and still operational. And yet an accident of some kind still hasn’t been ruled out.

The crucial evidence about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8 may be 2½ miles deep in the Indian Ocean.

One awful scenario: We’ll never know.

The lack of solid data has invited free-wheeling speculation in the media and around water coolers everywhere. Individually, the scenarios tend to lack strong factual foundations. Collectively, they may or may not hold the answer.

It is in the nature of disastrous events, whether accidental or intentional, that they can occur in ways not previously anticipated, involving technological failure modes that become clear only in hindsight or nefarious strategies that we never anticipated.

“There’s still no clarity about what happened to that airplane other than the fact that it changed course and went off to points unknown,” said Sean Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines captain who currently is serving as national safety coordinator for the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association.

After an initial period in which authorities presumed that the plane’s disappearance was an accident and that wreckage would be found at sea, the investigation pivoted last week toward scenarios involving an intentional diversion of the plane. Military radar on the ground showed the plane turning west after its transponder – the radar beacon that identifies the plane and its location – stopped transmitting for some unknown reason. The radar also shows the plane climbing to 45,000 feet and then dropping dramatically to a lower altitude, according to a U.S. official. Satellite data suggest the plane flew - or at least remained operational, possibly on the ground – for about seven hours after it vanished.

CNN reported that authorities believe that, at least 12 minutes prior to the co-pilot’s final communication of “All right, good night” to the air traffic controllers in Malaysia, someone programmed the plane to deviate from its scheduled flight path to Beijing. If this information holds up, it would indicate an intentional diversion by someone with aviation experience.

There is intense investigatory focus on the pilot and co-pilot, the other nine members of the crew and the 227 passengers. Malaysian authorities said yesterday that someone had deleted data Feb. 3 from a flight simulator that the airplane’s pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, kept in his home. That data deletion is not necessarily suspicious, aviation experts say. Investigators are studying the flight simulator and trying to retrieve the deleted data.

Malaysian officials have asked the public not to jump to conclusions. That thought was echoed by Cassidy.

“I understand why they’re going down the criminal road, because they have stuff they can still investigate – background checks, pulling the pilot’s computer, and looking at all the folks who were in the airplane or somehow touched the airplane,” Cassidy said. “The data points on how to pinpoint the airplane are kind of drying up. But that does not mean that they should not still give a lot of thought to the possibility that it was an accident. I don’t think they should be running to vilify the pilots.”

There are many scenarios being discussed by aviation experts, and they include:

Mechanical failure: The plane could have suffered some kind of electrical fire that caused a crisis and an emergency response. This was the hypothesis of a much-discussed article on Wired.com by an airline pilot who argued that the pilot of MH370 must have turned the plane around in hopes of reaching an airport for an emergency landing, only to crash somewhere at sea.

Another scenario is catastrophic decompression. The crew could have lost consciousness and the plane could have kept flying – what people have been calling the “Payne Stewart scenario,” after the golfer who died in 1999 when a Learjet underwent decompression and kept flying for more than 1,000 miles before crashing in South Dakota.

If the MH370 diversion was preprogrammed, however, that pretty much rules out an accident. The pilot never radioed any distress, and the radios rely on batteries and would still operate after an electrical fire, said Hans Weber, a San Diego-based aviation consultant.

Moreover, a fire would presumably be progressive and would allow time to transmit a distress signal. Cassidy said that the lack of radio transmission makes the fire scenario difficult to believe. But the lack of communication doesn’t prove anything, he said.

“Every single professional pilot is trained that, when you have an emergency, the first focus is on actually flying the plane, next is on navigating it and the third priority is actually communicating,” Cassidy said. “The absence of a distress call does not imply that there was no distress in the airplane.”

Hijacking/commandeering: Technically, a hijacking comes with demands, whereas commandeering can be for a variety of malevolent or idiosyncratic purposes. But in both cases, this would have been a plane intentionally diverted – for reasons unknown – from its flight to Beijing.

“It had enough fuel to go many places, and unfortunately it had enough fuel to go into places where you don’t have civil radar systems, for example, and into a part of the world where terrorism and to some extent state-supported terrorism exists,” said George Hamlin, a Virginia-based aviation consultant.

He broached the possibility that this is part of an ongoing operation akin to the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks – including, perhaps, using the plane to deliver an explosive weapon somewhere.

“It suggests something else horrific is being planned, because no one is claiming credit or saying ‘Ha ha, you have to deal with us.’ There have been no demands for the 200-something hostages on the aircraft,” Hamlin said.

Although this line of thinking has spawned a great deal of speculation, there is no hard evidence for it. Investigators have not indicated that anyone on the plane has any affiliation with a terrorist organization or showed signs of a murderous mind-set.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst in Fairfax, said he doubts Hamlin’s scenario of the Boeing 777 being used to deliver a bomb.

“Jeez Louise, why mess around with a triple-7? Go and rent yourself a Cessna,” Aboulafia said.

The plane landed: Hundreds of airfields were in range of the plane, conceivably. It’s implausible that it landed at a major commercial airport. This leads to speculation that it reached an abandoned airstrip.

“There’s a lot of World War II airfields left over,” said Ron Carr, a former pilot and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. “These guys are not interested in protecting the airplane, so they’re going to use minimal airfields. They’re going to use one that’s fairly secluded. You’re not going to need landing lights; you certainly don’t want a tower.”

There is no evidence that the plane landed, however. It would have had to elude radar coverage, land and then hide. This scenario also requires additional layers of speculation about perpetrator and motive.

The authorities know where the plane is: Authorities in charge of the investigation may know much more than they have revealed. They may have decided to withhold information in order to protect investigatory assets (such as satellite capabilities), to cover up a mistake or national security inadequacy (such as a lack of good radar coverage), or to avoid tipping off persons of interest.

“We’re dealing with military organizations, and they don’t want to tell you, and especially they don’t want to tell you if it looks like they really screwed up,” Weber said. “The military doesn’t want to look bad in their own country. I think there is a lot of incentive for the militaries there to not come clean.”

There is no evidence that anyone knows where the plane is, and there is enormous pressure from the public and grieving families in particular for an answer to this aviation mystery.

The Sept. 11-style operation was aborted: If the plane was seized by hijackers, they conceivably could have been challenged by passengers or crew, as happened on Flight 93, the hijacked jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Many scenarios emerge from this one. It’s possible that the hijackers intentionally crashed the plane in the remote Indian Ocean to cover the tracks of an ambitious operation that didn’t quite work out, but which could be repeated someday.

“That’s the only thing that holds together with any logical consistency: that this is a failed 9/11,” Aboulafia said.

“I think the most likely scenario is these terrorists managed to commandeer the airplane, and they set a route, and at some point the pilots fought with the people who commandeered the airplane and somehow everybody got incapacitated and there was no one anymore who could fly the airplane,” Weber said.

“I’m not taking bets on any of the scenarios. But you have to do some out-of-the-box thinking in terms of what could have happened here,” Hamlin said.

But Cassidy is not pleased with the circuslike atmosphere of speculation in the media about what happened to Flight 370.

“Your guess is as good as anybody’s,” Cassidy said. “One of these people is bound to be right, but it’s going to be because they were lucky, not because they’re a mystic.”

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