Pilot: Was that Boeing 777 diverted deliberately? Not necessarily

Updated 7:36 AM EDT, Mon March 17, 2014

Story highlights

Bill Palmer: Deliberate acts are not the only possibility in disappearance of Malaysia flight

He says it's not clear what systems, such as ACARS, were turned off and when

Palmer: Descent reported might be from 777 adjusting to no autopilot, not deliberate act

Palmer: Much of 777 behavior could be from built-in systems reacting; guessing inadequate

Editor’s Note: Bill Palmer, an Airbus A330 captain for a major airline, is the author of “Understanding Air France 447,” an explanation of the details and lessons of the crash of that aircraft in June 2009.

CNN —  

Those trying to draw conclusions from the information trickling from the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 should go carefully.

It is plausible that, as Malaysia’s Prime Minister asserted, the plane’s flying for hours after losing contact with air traffic control was “consistent with deliberate action,” but it’s not the only logical explanation of the airplane’s bewildering trajectory.

Statements that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System was intentionally disabled, for example, leave out the fact that the ACARS is required to send the satellite contact requests (so-called “handshakes”) that, according to news reports, were reported to have occurred for hours after the flight’s disappearance.

The plane has multiple functions and channels connected to the ACARS and at least some of it must have still been working.

Bill Palmer
Courtesy Bill Palmer
Bill Palmer

For example, one part of this communications system is used for messages between the airplane and air traffic control (clearances, position reports, etc). Another is used to communicate, essentially with text messages, between the airplane and the airline. Messages can also be sent automatically for maintenance functions such as reporting faults and sending routine engine data. The range of functions that would have been available for someone to disable is not yet clear.

And at least one news report described altitude excursions between 45,000 feet and 23,000, which one pilot suggested might have been done willfully to render passengers unconscious. But this strikes me as behavior that would also be consistent with the airplane flying completely unattended with the autopilot off. Though these oscillations are larger than I might expect, it would be a natural behavior for the airplane to fly relatively large but gentle pitch oscillations.

This would be true especially if the airplane’s auto-throttles were also for some reason disabled. There have been statements made that such changes could only be made by a skilled aviator, but what “skilled aviator” cannot hold altitude within 20,000 feet?

Incapacitation or something else that could prevent the crew from controlling the plane – fire, collision, explosive depressurization – could also be indicated, which wouldn’t necessarily mean the cockpit was breached by anyone.

The airplane reportedly made “suspicious turns.” However, it is the nature of those turns that will reveal if it was deliberate “heading” (directional) changes or if nobody was flying the airplane at all. If the autopilot was off and the airplane was essentially flying on its own, I would expect a variety of heading changes. These changes could be initiated by turbulence during flight.

If the airplane’s routes were controlled intentionally by selecting the heading or by programming the flight management computer, the flight path would be very straight, then a turn that would last usually from 10 to 30 seconds, followed by more straight flight.

While a close-up analysis of the flight path would be required to determine the case, it seems that officials are not even sure if the flight path headed northwest toward Pakistan or southwest into the vast Indian Ocean.