With few clues about what happened to a missing Malaysian wide-body plane or even where it is, aviation investigators and security analysts are left with one conclusion: almost no theory can be considered off the table.
Hijacking, terrorist attack, pilot suicide, mechanical failure, a flight-crew miscue or another unforeseen issue all may have brought down the Boeing Co. (BA:US) 777-200 somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam, five experts said in interviews.
Because it’s so improbable a plane the size of a 777, Boeing’s biggest twin-engine jet, would just disappear or land somewhere undetected by modern technology, searchers probably are looking in the wrong places, said Michael Barr, who teaches aviation accident investigation at the University of Southern California.
“That’s what’s surprising to me,” Barr said. “Everybody is chasing their tail. There isn’t a lack of debris. There’s a lack of knowledge where the debris field is.”
Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 370 went missing March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur with 239 people aboard. So far, searchers haven’t turned up any confirmed wreckage and even information on its last known position has been vague.
Airliners that have gone missing or crashed from higher altitudes since the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s can be grouped into a handful of categories, Steve Wallace, former head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s accident investigation arm, said in an interview.
They include structural failures, criminal or terrorist acts, a fuel tank explosion and pilot errors, often in combination with malfunctions, Wallace said.
“At the outset of the investigation, everything is on the table,” he said.
A hijacking scenario could explain why the 777’s remains haven’t been found, he said. If terrorists or criminals were able to get past the hardened cockpit doors adopted internationally after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, they may have forced pilots to change course or to switch off the transponder beacon that makes the plane easier to track by radar.
Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said he was concerned that terrorists may have smuggled explosives onto the flight in their shoes.
Airlines were warned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in mid-February of credible threats about shoe bombs, which Richard C. Reid, a self-declared al-Qaeda member, used in an unsuccessful attempt to blow up an American Airlines jet en route to Miami from Paris in 2001.
Such a device, depending on its components and power, could bring down a large plane, Hawley said in an interview.
The North American Air Defense Command’s early warning system detected no anomalies relating to the Malaysian airline incident, said a command official in Colorado Springs, Colorado, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence activities.
U.S. intelligence agencies have detected no burst of chatter on airwaves or online that’s characteristic of what often follows a terrorist attack, a U.S. intelligence official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Increases in calls and messages to and from Malaysia and countries that had passengers on the flight can be attributed to communications involving people seeking news of the fate of their loved ones, the official said.
Still, the fact that two passengers were carrying stolen passports raises a red flag, John Magaw, a former administrator of TSA and a former director of the U.S. Secret Service, said in an interview. Austria and Italy said the passports were stolen from their nationals.
Authorities have almost certainly begun a terror investigation in the event that’s what brought down the plane, Richard Marquise, a former FBI agent who was the lead criminal investigator on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, said in an interview.
They are probably checking the backgrounds of passengers, crew members and anyone else who may have come in contact with the aircraft to see if they have any connections to terrorism, Marquise said. Even if the plane isn’t recovered, they may be able to trace someone to a terror network or to explosives, he said.
“At this stage of the investigation, when you have absolutely zero evidence of anything, you have to make an assumption that it was catastrophic and it could well have been terrorism or a criminal act,” he said.
A mid-air explosion that destroyed a jetliner would create a large debris field, John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview.
“If it was a bomb, why aren’t you finding pieces of the plane scattered all over the place?” Hansman said.
The size and visibility of any wreckage may vary widely depending on factors including wind speed and direction at multiple altitudes, the weight and shape of objects, the type and location of the explosive, whether debris fell on land or in water and, if the latter, the direction of currents and force of waves.
In previous accident investigations, agencies such as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board performed analyses to estimate where debris will fall.
One explanation for the plane’s loss is a failure no one has seen before, Thomas Haueter, former chief aviation investigator at NTSB, said in an interview. As causes of accidents have been gradually eliminated by safety improvements, such crashes have become the norm, he said.
That was the case in the loss of Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 aboard, Haueter said. The plane encountered a high-altitude storm that caused the pilots’ airspeed indicators to malfunction after ice formed in them.
The pilots, in the resulting confusion, let the jetliner slow to the point it went into an aerodynamic stall and crashed in water about 3,900 meters deep. It took searchers almost two years to find the wreckage on the ocean floor.
One issue that hasn’t been answered about the Malaysian plane is what kind of communication equipment it had aboard that would help find the wreckage.
Some 777s are programmed to automatically radio data about the engines and other equipment during flight. Those telemetry broadcasts include a plane’s location and that information was used to help find the Air France Airbus Group NV A330 in the Atlantic. Officials from Malaysian and Boeing haven’t said whether the plane had such equipment.
“In cases like this, where you have an airplane go down in the water, it’s not unusual to have a period where you are searching and don’t know where it is yet,” Hansman said. “This is the normal phase of this process. Everybody wants to have an answer right away. It takes a while to find the evidence.”
“I’m convinced something will turn up in the next few days,” he said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at email@example.com; Del Quentin Wilber in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at email@example.com Ed Dufner