Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Mystery of Flight MH370: A Possible Answer?

Much has already been written about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and even more speculated on. It's been the leading news since the Boeing 777-2000ER left shortly after midnight from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 for Beijing China. Originally thought to have crashed, either off the coast of Vietnam or the Indian Ocean, following dramatic mid air turn, it now appears to be a very clever and well planned hijacking. Naturally, several questions arise such as who, why, and of course, where?

I thought it interesting when the nationalities of the passengers were recently published. Of the 239 passengers, 153 are Chinese, with ages ranging from 2 to 79. Next are Malaysian, of which there are 38, who range in age from 19 to 66. There are seven Indonesians, ages 25 to 57 and six Australians, 31 to 59. There are five individuals from India, ages 23 to 59 and four from France, 14 to 52. The US has three passengers, two toddlers and one 51 year old. The Ukraine has two, both 45 years of age, as does New Zealand, one 39 and the other 50 and Canada, 37 and 42. Russia, Taiwan, Austria, Italy, Holland had one each, ranging in age from 30 to 45.

Investigators have thus far found nothing especially unusual, except of course the two Iranians with stolen passports who reportedly seeking asylum for unknown reasons. As for the two pilots, Capt. Zaharie Ahmed Shah and 1st Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, there appeared to be little suspicious about either man. Captain Shah. 53, is very experienced with some 18,000 hours logged and an avid aviation enthusiast, joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981. Hamid appears to be quite competent with around 2700 flight hours, though perhaps something of a showoff given that it's been reported that he's allowed young girls into the cockpit and occasionally smokes onboard. But, still, nothing out of the ordinary for a single 27 year old guy. He started flying for the airline in 2007.

We know that about 45 minutes in, a final message was exchanged with Malaysian air traffic controllers during the pass off to the Vietnamese. At about the same time, communications and monitoring equipment (ASCARS) was already in the process of being shut down. Moments after the last exchange, the transponder was disconnected and the plane made a hard left-hand turn. The plane then appears to have altered altitude from a normal cruising level of 35,000 feet to 45,000 feet; some 2000 feet above the 777's ceiling. One reported speculation by a pilot familiar with the 777 thought this move was intended to depressurize the plane, rendering everyone unconscious. Later, the plane dropped to 23,000 feet and began some erratic moves. Its last radar "ping" appears to have been off the Straits of Malacca, which is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. The plane, we're now told, continued to send pings from the engine monitoring systems to satellites for approximately 4 to 5 hours.

The public has also been told that they were unable to track the plane using the engine's monitoring system because Malaysia Airlines opted not to purchase the full program package, so the data couldn't be downloaded. As for the passenger's cell phones, 19 families signed statements saying the phones appears to working, albeit ringing only. Given the altitude as well as the cell phone range, it's likely no communications could be established anyway, but it does appear to indicate the phones are or were working. Finally, another redundant transponder appears to have indicated an additional two hours of possible flight before it mysteriously stopped transmitting; likely destroyed. So, this brings us to the "who" part of the question.

Pilot suicide? Unlikely. There doesn't appear to be anything to indicate depression, financial or professional troubles by either pilot. Also, the lack of debris seems to rule out an intentional ditching of the plane, plus it could have more easily accomplished had the plane stayed on its original flight path. But there may be something else. Captain Shah was reputed to be a devoted family man, a very religious Moslem, and an outspoken political activist. The day before the flight, Shah attended the trial of Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to five years in jail. Shah, an avid supporter of Ibrahim, left the trial, reportedly "desponded" and headed to the airport and doomed flight according to the UK's Daily Mail. The interesting thing about Ibrahim, a devout Sunni Moslem and leader of the multiracial centrist PKR political party, is that while he's known to be a proponent of democracy, he also anti-American and anti-Israeli and often voiced his support for the plight of the Palestinians and a politically active Islam.

Now here's where it gets fun. While Sunni is the dominant form of Islam, the most prominent sect is Shafi'i, which is mainly found in just a few countries, notably Malaysia, South Yemen, and Ethiopia. South Yemen has a strong and active al Qaeda faction and where the US has made numerous successful drone attacks in recent past, taking out a number of terrorist leaders. In addition, al Qaeda in South Yemen has made attempts at acquiring airplanes as flying bombs (all thwarted). Ethiopia also has a very strong terrorist network, al Shabaab, an affiliate of al Qaeda, which originates from Somalia (think pirates and hijacked oil tankers and cargo ships).

A northern flight route would take the plane over highly populated areas with very advanced radar systems with a lot of active military flights. There's no way a plane---any plane---is going to go unnoticed. But a southern flight over the Indian Ocean could easily take the plane to either country largely undetected. Given that al Qaeda controls large swaths of territory, it's at least conceivable that a Boeing 777 could land there. It certainly would be within its fuel range.

The obvious question then is "what next"? Use the passengers as hostages? Maybe. There is a growing conflict between China and Sunni Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang Province and the majority passengers are Chinese. Another 9/11 attack? Israel isn't that far away, nor are several American allies including the oil fields of Saudi Arabia (al Qaeda has long vowed to overthrow the Saudi government) or for that matter, the key shipping channel of Suez. Freeing Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Abu Ghaith? He is currently on trial in New York, and, ironically, previously reveal discussions about "activating" a Malaysian al Qaeda cell and attempting another 9/11 type attack.

Chilling possibilities to be sure. But one thing is for sure, whoever planned and executed this probable hijacking did a very good job of it and here we are again playing catch up.

Malaysia Airlines: Pilots of Missing Plane

Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370: Pilot and first officer's role under scrutiny

Doomed airliner pilot political fanatic

Malaysia Airline MH370: 911style terror allegations

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