A Pilot’s Perspective on the Mysterious Disappearance of MH370
Credit: Chris Finney
In the past 24 hours, wildly different theories continue to surface and be debunked regarding Malaysia Airlines 370. But often absent from the conversation is a pilot’s perspective. Captain Tom Bunn, author of SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, shares his understanding of the incident, separates fact from speculation, and explains why fliers can find reassurance from this atypical situation.
1. What is your instinct about the crash/disappearance of MH370?
First, whatever happened, it happened quickly. The crew could not handle the problem—or they could not handle it quickly enough. If they had been able to stabilize the situation, they would have told air traffic control the nature of the difficulty, and whether they would continue or turn back.
Second, an air traffic control radar transmitter sends out a signal which bounces off the airplane, comes back, and is picked up by the radar receiver. This is called a “skin paint.” But airliners are equipped with a beacon called a transponder that sends a much stronger signal back to the radar receiver. The transponder makes the plane show up clearly on air traffic control radar screens. We are told that the transponder signal was lost. That could mean that electrical power to the transponder was interrupted, or that the plane was destroyed.
We have heard nothing about a skin paint. If the plane could still be seen on radar after the transponder signal disappeared, that would tell us something about the condition of the plane. If the skin paint showed a widening or multiple skin paints, that would indicate the plane had come apart. But, air traffic control often adjusts its radar so skin paints do not show up. If the plane had come apart, we would expect scattered debris to be found floating on the surface of the water.
2. Would you suspect pilot error or pilot suicide?
It’s hard to imagine what pilot error might cause a plane to disappear suddenly during cruise. As to suicide, I would want some evidence to support that theory before taking it seriously.
3. The majority of crashes occur during the first 3 minutes of takeoff, or the last 8 minutes of landing, so how typical/atypical is this incident?
It is very atypical. Airlines train pilots to respond slowly and deliberately to abnormal or emergency situations. This is because, on an airliner, problems rarely require quick action. This crash is atypical, as it appears the situation deteriorated quickly.
4. What issues does this raise about security? Are the stolen passports a red flag or unrelated in your opinion?
The stolen passport issue deserves investigation. A terrorist might more easily board an airliner with a stolen passport, rather than his own. The little we know about this crash is consistent with a hijacking gone wrong. But, if this were the result of terrorism, would we not expect to have heard some organization claim responsibility?
5. For travelers afraid to fly after this incident, what advice would you offer?
Since planes are so remarkably safe, the things that could cause a plane to disappear are so unlikely that it is unreasonable to speculate. Rather than speculation, we need answers. We need to find the plane and retrieve the black boxes. Until that is done, we have nothing to go on, and no good reason to guess.
We want to know. Since we have very little information, so-called experts are asked what might cause a plane to disappear. This is not a good path to go down; speculation leads to fabrication. Following the disappearance of the Air France flight from Rio to Paris, speculation led the media to fabricate a story that was completely false—a story that fits a fearful flier’s worst fears. People today still believe the Air France plane “fell out of the sky” due to turbulence. This has led people to fear turbulence. That is unfortunate, because there is no truth to the story, and turbulence cannot make a plane fall out of the sky.
6. There is some speculation of suicide or the pilot intentionally being involved. What is the likelihood of this theory?
Speculation by the media, like the imagination of fearful fliers, knows no bounds. We can imagine—and speculate about—anything. But, at this point, the evidence is not yet sufficient for meaningful speculation.