Skip to main content

Flight 370's resting place is best clue

By Robert Goyer
updated 4:26 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8. A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8.
HIDE CAPTION
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Goyer: Flight 370 may be remembered as one of the biggest aviation mysteries
  • Goyer: Presumed location of the plane wreckage rules out certain scenarios
  • He says the best explanation is still a botched hijacking or failed pilot takeover of plane
  • Goyer: Mechanical or electrical failure cannot alone account for what we know

Editor's note: Robert Goyer is the editor-in-chief of Flying magazine and a commercial jet-rated pilot.

(CNN) -- Flight MH-370 may go down in history as one of most incredible aviation mysteries. The cruel reality is that even though we have a fair amount of information now, we still know so little.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak informed the families of the victims that the plane had crashed into the remote south Indian Ocean, and all 239 people onboard are presumed dead.

That tragic but not unexpected conclusion was based on data analysis by satellite company Inmarsat, which Malaysia now says was able to track Flight 370 until the signal ended very near where searchers are now hunting for plane wreckage.

Robert Goyer
Robert Goyer

The location tells a lot about what might have happened to the doomed flight while telling us not a single detail about why it crashed.

The presumed location of the wreckage makes it all but impossible for certain scenarios to have played out as many observers insisted they must have.

The first thing to understand is altitude is everything. A turbofan powered jet like the Boeing 777-200ER relies on altitude to make good on its ultra long-range capabilities. At its normal cruising altitudes from around 35,000 to 40,000 feet, the 777 can fly very long distances, in excess of 11,000 miles. But it seldom flies long routes.

Flight 370 search unites global community

On its trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the plane would have had, according to investigators' projections, around seven hours of total endurance at a normal cruising speed of around 600 mph -- just enough to have flown its suspected flight path north for 40 minutes, west for around that much time again, and then south for many hours.

Listening for MH370 'pings' underwater
Search area is a 'giant washing machine'

At lower altitudes, turbofan engines like the Rolls-Royce engines on the Malaysia Airlines airplane, burn substantially more fuel than they do at typical cruise altitudes -- as much as twice depending on the altitudes one uses for comparison.

The increase in fuel burn will greatly reduce range, making it impossible for Flight MH-370 to have reached the southern Indian Ocean at a low altitude. It would need to have flown at a much higher optimum altitude in order to make it that far.

Pilots can reduce the power to cut back on fuel flow, of course, but that also reduces airspeed, which again reduces range.

There's no winning when it comes to flying a turbofan-powered airplane: If you want to fly far, you need to fly high.

So the fuel required for MH-370 to have reached the presumed crash location around 1500 miles west of Perth, Australia, means that the airplane did not do a lot of climbing or descending after it deviated from its original planned route to Beijing while it was still an hour or so north of Kuala Lumpur.

So if there was a struggle for control of the flight -- whether it was mechanical issues or a hijacker -- it could not have lasted long or involved great altitude deviations.

This means it's hard, though not impossible, to explain the disappearance as being the result of a mechanical or electrical failure. Such a scenario, as I've been saying since the beginning of the mystery, would require a kind of mechanical magic bullet, an event that would have taken out the transponder and ACARS radio, as well as the voice communications radios. Why else would they not have communicated the emergency?

Pilot: How mechanical problem could have downed Flight 370

Then one must accept that such a failure chain could then allow the crew -- or skilled intruder-- to be able to drive the airplane around the sky for a protracted period of time, eventually pointing it south, in the opposite direction from where the airplane was originally headed.

Let's remember, too, that the airplane would have to maintain an altitude sufficient to allow it to reach the southern Indian Ocean. All this must also have left the 777 in good enough shape to fly for another six hours or so before crashing.

A failure of the pressurization system might account for the scenario, but only if the pilots completely mismanaged their response to the emergency. The 777's backup and emergency oxygen systems are just as intelligently designed as the rest of the jet's redundant systems.

It's also difficult, if not impossible, to explain how the jet could have made the turns it did if the crew were unconscious during that time. Were they desperately trying to find an airport before time ran out? If so, they would have done two things they didn't do: They would have communicated the emergency and they would have descended. Neither of those things happened.

While it's horrific to imagine, a botched hijacking or failed pilot commandeering of the airplane are still the most likely scenarios.

Only when searchers have located and recovered the wreckage, as we all desperately hope they do, will we have our first good clues to what have might have unfolded on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-370.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Goyer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT