MH370 - what happened...
Summary: It's plausible that a fuselage section near the SATCOM antenna adapter failed, disabling satellite based - GPS, ACARS, and ADS-B/C - communications, and leading to a slow decompression that left all occupants unconscious. If such decompression left the aircraft intact, then the autopilot would have flown the planned route or otherwise maintained its heading/altitude until fuel exhaustion.
A slow decompression (e.g. from a golfball-sized hole) would have gradually impaired and confused the pilots before cabin altitude (pressure) warnings sounded.
Chain of events:
- Likely fuselage failure near SATCOM antenna adapter, disabling some or all of GPS, ACARS, ADS-B, and ADS-C antennas and systems.
- Thus, only primary radars would detect the plane. Primary radar range is usually less than 100nm, and is generally ineffective at high altitudes.
If the decompression was slow enough, it's possible the pilots did not realize to put on oxygen masks until it was too late. (See Helios 522)
With incapacitated pilots, the 777 could continue to fly on Autopilot
- programmed to maintain cruise altitude and follow the programmed route. Using the Inertial Reference System (gyroscope based), the plane could navigate without needing GPS.
- The plane was equipped with cellular communication hardware, supplied by AeroMobile, to provide GSM services via satellite. However this is an aftermarket product; it's not connected through SATCOM (as far as I know).
- This explains why 19 families signed a statement alleging they were able to call the MH370 passengers and get their phones to ring, but with no response.
- When Malaysian Airlines tried to call the phone numbers a day later, the phones did not ring. By this time, fuel would have been exhausted.
Note: 777 Passenger Oxygen masks do not deploy until cabin altitude reaches 13,500. Passengers were likely already unconscious by then, if it was a slow decompression. Also remember that this flight was a red-eye, most passengers would be trying to sleep, masking alarming effects of oxygen deprivation. No confirmed debris has been found anywhere near the search area, consistent with the plane having flown for hours after it lost radar contact.
This was likely not an "explosive decompression" or "inflight disintegration." This was likely a slow decompression that gradually deprived all crew/passengers of oxygen, leaving the autopilot to continue along the route autonomously.
The aircraft may be at the floor of the East China Sea, Sea of Japan, or the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles northeast from the current search zone. [UPDATE: Basically, it could be "anywhere", and we need to use any available radar records to help figure it out. It could have turned in any direction and continued on for hours. This is where the Vietnamese/Malaysia civilian and military radars will help.]
Investigators should obtain data logs from primary radars throughout mainland China that would have been along the planned route. They may be the best clue as to the trajectory of the aircraft.
Investigators should obtain all passengers' cell phone log and location data. The timing of the last successful cellular connection (ring/SMS/data-packet) can predict how long the plane was in the air. iPhone/iOS location (GPS) datamay be available from Apple if subpoenaed. Android location data may be available from Google.
Add a secondary search space to include a 300nm+ radius around Beijing, focusing on surrounding bodies of water. Using planned routing trajectory, known autopilot logics, fuel quantities, and weather patterns, it may be possible to define a smaller 50nm * 50nm search space. Consider running the above scenario in MH's 777-200ER full flight simulator.
Boeing should provide expertise about the SATCOM antenna schematics and autopilot/navigation logic, so as to help plot this second search space.
Edited by Vinzy - 12 March 2014 at 2:30am