Ben Sandilands, who pilots Crikey‘s Plane Talking blog, has been a leading global voice on the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. As the case took another dramatic turn over the weekend, we quizzed the veteran aviation reporter on what has now been confirmed, what his sources are telling him, and why there are so many mixed messages from authorities and governments …

So what’s happened here, in your opinion?

MH370 was seized by criminal actions for motives unknown by persons who knew how to fly a 777 and had an intimate knowledge of its electronic systems. It was flown for at least two hours with the intent of remaining dark and not being easy to find.

However, a review of the known facts with airline insider sources on the weekend showed that not all believe the jet remained under conscious control in the latter stages of its flight, and might — intentionally or not — have been given a heading that took it deep into the Indian Ocean, where it is possible it will never be found.

How did the Malaysian government figure out the aircraft flew for another seven hours — and why did it take the government so long to figure it out? 

The circumstantial evidence is the authorities knew precisely how much fuel was on board within hours of the plane’s disappearance on March 8.

It has now been confirmed it took on board the normal fuel load for the time of year, allowing for late winter diversions in northern China, and could have flown for almost eight hours. However, changes in altitude and a period at lower altitude make it likely that the last electronic trace from the jet — at seven hours 31 minutes after take off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing — would have been close to fuel exhaustion.

How much training do pilots in major airlines have in dealing with potential hijacking?

Unknown with any precision. The mandatory fitting of more secure cockpit doors and other screening measures is used as an excuse by many managers to do not very much at all about this. It becomes a policing problem for which the airlines are charged a security-related fee per passengers at most airports, including in Australia. Fee paid, problem out of mind!

There are suggestions that a passenger carried a small bomb in his shoe onto the flight, then used it to destroy the door to the cockpit. Is this feasible?

Feasible but incredibly stupid and counter-productive, as I wrote on Plane Talking yesterday.

The references to a terrorist court case in the United Kingdom is not in dispute. The assumptions based on that report, and its linking to MH370, were reasonable, but the conclusions were infantile.

If it was a hijack, which airstrips within the airline’s fuel range could accommodate a 777? And which of those is obscure enough to pull off a landing in secret?

Much fewer than the 634 being quoted today by the gullible media quoting this source and its superficially impressive graphic

The real number allowing for pavement strength, width and at least 6500 feet (similar to Richmond, which has been used by 777s, and Essendon) is around 100 in total. Those that are at high elevations, which is true of many of the possibilities in central Asia, would need to be somewhat longer.

This bogus report includes dozens of sites in Australia, some of them with grass or gravel surfaces, some that don’t actually correspond to listed runways of any description, and some which are mine strips like Nifty in Western Australia, which is regularly tested by regional turbo-props.

What’s behind the reported tensions between the Malaysian and Chinese governments over this issue? 

The short but non-PC answer is that denigrating or belittling or demonising ethnic Chinese in Malaysia politics is that country’s longer-running version of boat people hysteria in Australia. It’s part of the ruling party DNA. On at least one occasion the ambassador for China made a point of sitting directly in front of, and in the face of, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

What are the parallels with 9/11 — and what lessons emerged from 9/11 that were implemented to mitigate against future airline terrorism and hijacking? 

The parallels are speculative. Had the Petronas Towers in KL been the target, as popularly proposed, the jet would have flown to them unopposed, not flown across the Malaysia Peninsula mostly over Thailand territory, then to Pulau Perak (Silver Island) in the northern approach to the Straits of Malacca and then north-west into history and myth.

Could the passengers have survived if the aircraft ascended to 45,000 feet, as is being speculated?

It depends on how quickly any depressurisation took. But there is no doubt it would have at the very least put them in a coma in the immediate term. Note the technical challenges of such a high altitude excursion in this Plane Talking post.

The appetite for this story has been voracious. Has there ever been a bigger aviation mystery than this one?

No. This is the 21st-century upscaling of the Amelia Earhart disappearance and exceeds the controversy of the Air France crash into the mid-Atlantic in 2009.

The question that matters is whether or not this will be one of the greatest airliner mysteries of its nature of our times, or the only one.

Peter Fray

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