Transportation

To Make a Plane Disappear, Start by Getting Through the Cockpit Door


Flight deck of a Boeing 777

Courtesy Boeing

Flight deck of a Boeing 777

The story of the disappearing Malaysia Airlines (MAS:MK) Flight 370 only gets more mysterious. Let’s walk through exactly how complicated it is to steal an airplane midflight and why suspicion is increasingly falling on the two pilots.

First, there’s the matter of the cockpit door. The pilots in a commercial jet are locked in behind a steel barrier that costs about $40,000, according to Kenneth Button, director of the Center for Transportation, Policy, Operations and Logistics at George Mason University. Pilots are instructed to only let someone else into the cockpit after performing a visual check through the peephole.

Second, you would need to know what Acars is, how to deactivate it, and when to turn it off. Acars, or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, is a way for airlines to automatically monitor things such as engine function while a plane is airborne. Shutting it off stops the flow of information that investigators often use to reconstruct events in the air. Someone turned off Flight 370’s system between 1:07 a.m. local time and when it was next supposed to transmit, 30 minutes later, according to Malaysia Airlines.

Third, you would need to know when to pull your disappearing act so as not to set off alarms with air traffic control. The pilots’ last communication came at 1:19 a.m. on March 8, as Flight 370 passed from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace. Malaysia Airlines said the flight’s co-pilot appears to be the one who signed off with Malaysian air traffic control with an “Alright, good night.” Under normal circumstances, one of the pilots would then check in with Vietnamese air traffic controllers. But they didn’t.

Fourth, to avoid detection you’ve got to know with a large degree of sophistication how to fly a plane. After Flight 370 diverted from its Beijing-bound course, it dropped to low altitudes of 5,000 feet, says Button, likely to avoid military radar systems in the area. Flying that low requires a number of adjustments to the aircraft and a lot of experience, he says, including figuring out how long your fuel will last.

And last but not least, try finding an airfield large enough for a plane of that size to land. Button says you’d need a runway the size of one at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

Lawrence is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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