Lost MH370 flight could’ve been shot down by missile - aviation expert Col. J. Joseph
We live in a world where your every step can be tracked. Your own phone has GPS, and the Orbit of Earth itself is covered with numerous satellites, watching. It is no age of mystery disappearances - but a whole plane has been lost, with all passengers onboard – despite the efforts of several nations fail to find it. What happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370? Is there any hope? Why is there still no trace of the aircraft? Today on SophieCo we ask these questions to Colonel J. Joseph, aviation expert and former pilot.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Colonel J. Joseph, former pilot and expert from Joseph Aviation Consulting.
The Malaysian prime minister says flight MH370 ended in the middle of the Indian Ocean and there are no survivors. Families of the victims refuse to believe this. Are you satisfied with that conclusion?
Col. J. Joseph: Well, I am…I’ll tell you quite honestly, at this point we probably know far less that we think we do, but I think the conclusion is that the mishap did arrive somewhere in the Indian ocean, and unfortunately I don’t anticipate there would be any survivors.
SS:I understand that for a pilot the priority is dealing with any catastrophic situation on board prior to communicating the emergency to the ground, but why not give out any distress signal at all?
JJ: It may simply be a case where the mechanical constraints aboard the aircraft precluded any kind of radio transmission at all, that is not to say that they did not attempt to make some type of communication, either with a transponder, by putting an emergency into the transponder or even attempting to transmit over the VHF-radios, or the high-frequency radios. We simply don’t know that. If, for example, wiring harnesses have been destroyed by fire, something that would have precluded the mechanical aspect of radios operating normally, they may have attempted to transmit and to their knowledge they were transmitting, but those transmissions did not get out, so…if that was something catastrophic and something that happened very, very quickly, despite their efforts to transmit, it may have been impossible.
SS: But once the plane’s transponder signal went off, why was there no action taken on the ground? Did nobody notice?
JJ: Well that’s another very, very good question. It appears that the loss of the transponder signal happened as the aircraft was transitioning from one air-traffic control sector to another, and whether or not radar contact would have been continued from Malaysian airspace into the subsequent airspace is something we don’t know. Certainly had that radar contact been anticipated by the follow-on sector, and the absence of a transponder signal would have been something that air traffic would have been concerned about, they would have called the Malaysian 370 flight crew and ask to check their transponder and squawked the appropriate code. Obviously, the aircraft never transgressed from one piece of airspace to the next, so that never became an issue.
It is curious though, however, that the hand-off from Malaysian controllers to the subsequent air-traffic controllers did not say anything or annotate anything that would have indicated that there is a problem, loss of communication, and certainly the loss of the transponder signal itself.
SS:Earlier on, there were a lot of theories about hijacking. Could the lack of the communication suggest a hijacking, do you think?
JJ: It is certainly is a plausible scenario. I tend to be somewhat more pragmatic in terms of reconstructive measures with the aircraft, because there is really nothing that we’ve seen in terms of factual data that really supports conclusively that there was something sinister, for example a hijacking. We simply don’t know.
The problem is that the radar data that we have available is so limited that there is really nothing at this point that you’d be able to put your finger on to say “Yes, that was most definitely an intrusive act aboard the aircraft, a hostile takeover the aircraft.” We simply don’t see that. Again, the absence of the radar data is really what’s driving us to the inconclusive position at this point.
Certainly, if we finally do get access to the black box, the cockpit voice recorder, that will tell us empirically exactly what transpired aboard the aircraft for a period of time. Now, remember, that the cockpit voice recorder - that tape – they are on a loop system, they may last for half-hour, in some cases two hours. So that data that would be recorded on the cockpit voice recorder would be up from a point half-hour or two hours prior to the end of the tape itself. So if, for example, there were no survivors, or no cockpit conversation for the last 30 minutes or the last two hours of that flight, there’ll be nothing but crickets in the back and you wouldn’t hear any noise whatsoever except for aircraft noises, there would be no voice transmission.
SS: Minutes before the flight transponder shut off, the co-pilot was heard to say “All right, good night.” Is there anything unusual in that?
JJ: No, there’s really not. I’ve looked into the transcripts and though it is not what we consider ICAO – International Civil Aviation Organization-specific verbiage that would be used. It was rather cavalier and casual, there is certainly nothing that you can draw from that that you would think that something sinister was going on in the background. More often than not, late at night, transoceanic traffic, and even during the daytime, just routine transmissions, as long as operations are normal, there tends to be some of the cavalier in causal conduct of voice transmission, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary with that transmission by the first officer that would make me think that there is anything sinister going on at the time.
SS: There’s also a change of course: I want to show a map to that of our viewers that haven’t seen it. The plane left Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing, heading north-east, and as it was going over the gulf of Thailand, it suddenly changed from its course and made a sharp turn west – what’s the reason for this?
JJ: That’s perhaps the most compelling data that we have, that the aircraft actually took something in excess of 90 degree turn to the left, or to the west-south-west. It’s interesting to know and investigators, once they’ll have a little more data I think, will be able to support whether or not the aircraft actually turned to, what we call “waypoints” – that is a specific latitude-longitude point - and if the aircraft was actually heading to specific waypoint and it continued on to a subsequent waypoint. In other words, the waypoints were perhaps not actually aligned with themselves. That would certainly be an indicative of manual input, or intentional input to the flight management system.
If all of that were just a continuous heading change - the aircraft for one reason or another may have just simply turned to that heading – it could have been a reversion due to loss of electrical power or previous heading that was assigned to the aircraft and the aircraft just simply turned in that direction. Or it could have been as a result that the aircraft in the flight could experience some type of incapacitation; smoke fumes, a possible fire on board the aircraft, and they were trying to get the aircraft back to land.
If we were able to really validate and verify the altitude changes, and we’ve heard several versions of this, then it would indicate the aircraft initially at 35,000 feet, and then subsequently and rapidly descending to 10 or 12,000 feet – that is, in fact, a profile, that somebody would fly, that a flight crew would fly and implement if they had loss of pressurization, were trying to remove smoke fumes from the cab, and depressurizing the aircraft, or for some type of catastrophic failure was such that the pressure vessel of the aircraft itself could no longer support pressurization.
If, that were the case, then there could a simple case where the aircraft, the flight crew canceling way back toward Malaysia to get them off busy airways, where there was conflicting traffic down to the lower altitude where they would be supported by ambient oxygen if you juxtapose that to the requirement of supplemental oxygen, or a pressurized aircraft at higher altitudes.
SS:Right now the Malaysians are saying the plane crashed in the southern Indian Ocean – that’s near Australia, and that’s really quite far away from Kuala Lumpur. How did it end up all the way there, really nowhere near its destination in Beijing?
JJ: Well, we simply don’t know where the aircraft ended up. I understand that some of the companies out there have expressed that they’ve received some uplink from the aircraft, on a particular track, and they refined it using Doppler. I think this scientific basis is very sound for what they’ve got. However, if the aircraft continued on a specific heading for a certain duration of time at a given speed it would be driven in terms of range, based on the fuel flow in the aircraft.
At the lower altitudes – say, anything less than 30000 feet - if you descend the aircraft down to 12000 feet, the fuels flows, in other words the amount of fuel that the engines burn, is considerably higher, which would greatly diminish the range of the aircraft itself, as opposed if the aircraft stated at 35000 feet – the engines there are much more efficient and they burn less fuel, which would extend the range.
Because we simply don’t have any hard radar altitude with regard to the aircraft’s altitude itself, we don’t know if it operated at a higher or lower altitude sector. And then, based upon that, the fuel burn per hour would increase or decrease the range of the aircraft. So if you plot the aircraft’s position on a known heading for a pre-determined speed for a pre-determined amount of time, which would be predicated on the range of the aircraft, there’ll be several plots along the outline where the aircraft would have exhausted its fuel and would have impacted with water.
SS:Does this look anything like a terror attack to you? Do you think the fact that some passengers were flying with stolen passports is significant?
JJ: Well we certainly don’t know: I think ultimately, until we can get a hold on some of the accident wreckage, in particular the black box, the cockpit voice recorder, that would be able to tell us exactly what has transpired inside the cockpit we won’t know. Now, if we do find wreckage, and the wreckage would indicate that there it was….a specific test that would be accomplished on the airframe – if we see that metal, perhaps, was bent on a few sides in a certain way, if they detect that perhaps there was some type of explosive residue, things like that. We are very, very good at detecting things like that. However, if wreckage is submerged in salt water for a lengthy period of time, that may make much more difficult for investigators to be able to determine that.
The missing passports, the sinister side of these things, that the aircraft was perhaps hijacked, although I think it’s very plausible, it also would fall in line with if somebody really was intent on destroying the aircraft, or at least disabling the flight crew – the scenario does follow suit. But, again, the factual data that we have so far I think is very slim in that regard.
SS:So could the plane be taken down by something like a missile for example?
JJ: Unfortunately, yes. It could happen, and I think we all know that within the last 20 years, there have been several incidents of accidental shoot down. The most recent was in the Mediterranean with an Iranian airliner. So it does happen. I will tell you that one of my first thoughts when this mishap was first reported was a possibility of an unintentional or even intentional shoot down. It is conceivable, loss of radar data certainly add to that.
I would be very surprised at this point, however, if the intelligence communities throughout the world were not a little more aggressive in pointing something like that out. Most of the world is under this surveillance in some way, shape, form or another, and certainly satellite imagery would be something that would pick up a bright flash like that had that occurred in the night sky over a dark ocean. So I think we would have seen some preliminary intelligence data at least pointing us in that direction, had that been the occurrence.
SS: You are a pilot. You have over 40 years of flight experience. Based on what you think is the most likely cause of this tragedy, what would you have done in the same situation?
JJ: Well again, if I think that it was something obviously catastrophic, and I want to assume because we have nothing to really infer us in any other direction, that something, perhaps mechanically, catastrophic took place aboard the aircraft. Something like a fire in the cargo hold, which would have caused wiring harnesses to be burnt trough, precluding radio transmissions, transponder from sending the signal, which would have caused smoke, perhaps, to engulf the cabin of the aircraft, and ultimately the cockpit crew. Fighting a fire aboard the aircraft, at night, over the ocean, with no visible horizon and probably at loss of electrical power and loss of redundant navigation systems, perhaps - extremely difficult scenario.
Over the years there has been a number of aircraft onboard fires, and with that exception, the people did survive those accidents, the pilots were able to get the aircraft on the ground very, very quickly. The most recent disaster that I can think of was the Swiss Air flight back in the late ’90s, where they somewhat procrastinated with running the checks, so there was fire on board the aircraft and subsequently the loss of aircraft. In most other cases where there have been survivors, the flight crew was able to get the aircraft on the ground as quick as it possibly could – a succinct difference.
SS:You’d think that after 9/11 there would be system in place that could easily track down planes and monitor them. Is there no such equipment that allows any plane to be swiftly tracked down, if necessary?
JJ: Well I know…in fact I had worked on a project that was attempted to be sold to the airlines and mandated here in the US by the Federal Aviation Administration, and what it actually was, was a system sets that the cabins and the cockpits of the aircraft could be viewed, real-time, with pan, tilt and zoom, photography and camera operation in the aircraft, so that people on the ground, National Security folks, can actually observe what was going on in the aircraft should something sinister take place. As it turns out, it was extremely cost-prohibitive, it worked very well, it was tested and IFA did test it and the results were exceptional.
So the technology was out there, but like everything else in aviation, it has got a price. And in some cases privacy, expectations of privacy, preclude groups from embracing such technology, and I think that’s the case, certainly, with the system that I worked on for a number of years ago. But from a technological perspective, the systems are out there, they are available, but they are expensive.
SS:What about the military satellites? Could they have used military satellites to track the plane down?
JJ: I, quite honestly, would be very surprised, if they didn’t. I don’t think that any of the intelligence communities are fully disclosing what their capacities or capabilities are for obvious reasons. I would that say that if any of the intelligence agencies thought that there was a chance that there were survivors, that they would not have at least given some breadcrumbs towards search activities might be concentrated. However I don’t think that was the case. And again, I would not be surprised if the intelligence communities didn’t have a better idea, perhaps not on exact latitude-longitude, but a better idea where 370 might have gone in the Indian Ocean.
SS:But you’re saying it is possible that government agencies are actually withholding information, perhaps in fear of disclosing exactly what kind of satellites they have available…
JJ: I certainly think that’s possible, and again, I think, from the intelligence communities’ side of the house, people that do know simply aren’t saying anything, and the antithesis for that would be that folks don’t know or are saying anything. So I don’t know, but I certainly would think that given the extent of our satellite observation systems, surveillance systems throughout the world, I would just say I will be very surprised if somebody wasn’t watching that aircraft, or at least in the time-lapsed evolution would be able to go back and find out where that aircraft had actually ended up in the water.
SS:Searching the vast surface of the ocean could take years. Does wreckage always stay afloat if the plane has crashed in the ocean?
JJ: Well, no they don’t. I was involved as an expert on Air France 447 mishap a number of years ago. We were, first of all, very fortunate that the aircraft was transmitting its position and the faults that were occurring aboard the aircraft, essentially all the way down to where the aircraft impacted the water. It was also on a pretty well-traveled route, it was at night, another aircraft did report seeing fire in the water. So we had a much, much better idea of where the wreckage might be in terms of the debris field. And within four or five days the debris field was located and we saw large structure floating in the water.
Many of these components are made of composites, large sections of the wings, tails, vertical stabilizers, the horizontal stabilizers. These components are usually sealed in cells, so to speak, and they will float for a period of time. In fact, I will tell you, there was a military C-130 that one of the South American countries actually ditched in the ocean a number of years ago, and the aircraft floated for such a long time that it had to be sunk, because it did become a hazard in navigation.
So some aspects of the aircraft will float. Now, in terms of finding the actual debris field, that could be a much more difficult task.
SS:Give me an approximate number: how much time do the search parties have left until the search becomes futile?
JJ: Well, I hate to say this, but I think they are probably rapidly approaching that. The first debris that we may not have seen, may not occur until it washes up on a shore somewhere, and certainly oceanographers would be the smartest people in the room in terms of where we can look for this. But that’s based and predicated on-drift, and I’ve hear estimates as high as one meter a second on-drift with currents. So not knowing first of all where the impact occurred, to be able to project where that drift might over a certain period of time makes that much, much more difficult.
I will tell you, I participated in number of search-and-rescue missions over the ocean, and even if you are in proper latitude and longitude, trying to detect floating objects on the surface of the sea is extremely difficult. Sea state, time of day, ambient conditions, any number of components factor into what your probability of detection is, and adverse environmental conditions make it worse. So the best I can say that even if you’re on top of a known debris field it’s very difficult to find something.