The case for pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s hijack of flight MH370 - The Australian


Twenty-two months ago, on March 8, 2014, at 1am, an ultra-modern Boeing 777 of Malaysia Airlines suddenly and without warning disappeared from radar over the South China Sea en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Flight MH370 had 239 people on board and the pilot in command was captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a highly respected and very experienced aviator.

The B777 is state of the art; probably the safest aircraft flying today. I know — I have many thousands of hours as captain on B777. How then could it disappear?

Many theories surfaced but all of these can be explained away by the superb protection devices and warning systems of the B777. Emergencies such as engine fire or explosive decompression are easily handled by well-trained pilots who practise these scenarios in simulators every six months.

Malaysia Airlines is not some cut-price operator with poorly trained pilots. It is a world-class airline with well-trained pilots who can easily handle any emergency, as they are trained to do with Boeing best practice immediate action drills.

At first I thought it was a bomb, as only a sudden massive event (such as MH17 being shot down over Ukraine) could have prevented a well-trained crew from reacting according to their training.

But then a method of tracking the plane via hourly satellite handshakes revealed the aircraft had flown for more than seven hours and was most likely in the southern Indian Ocean. I, and every B777 pilot I questioned, did not know about these satellite handshakes. Then the penny dropped. The flight management system computer must have been reprogrammed. Otherwise the aircraft would have flown itself to Beijing if the pilots were incapacitated and the damage of any event was not so severe as to cause autopilot disconnect — which would have resulted in a uncontrolled crash.

An aircraft can be flown only in two ways. First is manual hand flying. This normally is done only on takeoff and landing. In a typical eight-hour flight the pilot would touch the controls only for several minutes. The second method of control is by autopilot, which red­uces human error to a minimum. This is normal for climb, cruise and descent.

The B777 has three autopilots, all of which are linked — if one plays up, the other two automatically reject it. The autopilot is controlled by an FMS computer. The B777 has three — all linked — and it uses information fed in by the managing pilot to command the autopilot how and where to fly. There is no third way. It cannot meander by itself, uncontrolled across the sky, as it would crash.

Say I were to fly a jet from Sydney to Auckland. I enter the departure airfield YSSY and the destination NZAA, and the FMS responds with a selection of suitable airways. I choose Airway L521. Immediately after takeoff I engage autopilot, knowing the aircraft will now fly itself to Auckland unless I delete the destination and select a new destination and airway. The savants of the Australian Transport Safety Board surely know this.

Examples abound. Take the Helios B737 flight from Larnaca in Cyprus to Athens in August 2005, the victim of a failure to pressurise due to incorrect switch selection by poorly trained pilots who were rendered unconscious because of hypoxia. Autopilot flew the aircraft to the FMS programmed destination, Athens, and went into a holding pattern waiting for landing instructions to be entered in the FMS, until fuel exhaustion caused a crash.

So, who changed the destination in MH370’s FMS?

Soon after the revelation that MH370 flew for more than seven hours to the southern Indian Ocean, I realised only an accomplished pilot could have managed this feat. The ATSB has ignored information coming from sources that should be considered expert.

Simon Hardy, a former British Airways B777 captain, wrote a book that almost conclusively identifies Zaharie as responsible for the hijack of MH370 and its flight to the southern Indian Ocean, which likely ended as a controlled ditching as per Boeing flight manual procedures.

Hardy calculated a likely ditching area based on known fuel on board and the fuel burn figures from the B777 flight manual, and allowing for known upper winds. This is well to the south and west of the area so far searched. Such calculations produce a much more accurate probable position than the very broad one indicated by the satellite handshakes and the ATSB’s mathematical modelling.

It was apparent from the start the ATSB was pushing a flame-out theory that negates any pilot involvement. Since November 2014 I have pointed out the impossibility of some of the strange stuff put out by the ATSB. Why did it never consider pilot involvement? The aircraft suddenly turned westward over the South China Sea and flew a precise track — revealed by analysis of Malaysian military radar — across northern Malaysia. It avoided Thai military radar, then turned, after circling Zaharie’s home island of Penang, to the northwest up the Straits of Malacca and around the northern tip of Sumatra, avoiding Indonesian military radar, and eventually headed south. This shows precise control of the aircraft.

Why no debris? In 2004, a Flash Airlines B737 crashed after taking off at night from Sharm el-Sheikh because of pilot disorientation. It came in from 2500 feet at about 500km/h. Masses of debris floated for a long time. A much bigger B777 hitting the sea from 37,000ft at 1200km/h would produce a huge amount of debris that would float for months. Conclusion: it did not crash and was flying under control.

The B777 has three VHF radios; two HF radios; two transponders that supply secondary radar information to air traffic control of call sign, altitude and position; ACARS (aircraft communications addressing and reporting system); a satellite phone; and even a fax machine. To disable all these systems, which are on separate electrical buses to provide fail-safe redundancy, the pilot would have to turn off everything within reach, then leave his seat to pull circuit-breakers on a panel on the rear cockpit bulkhead.

An event to disable all these systems would have to be so serious, it is extremely doubtful the aircraft could still be flying, let alone continue for seven hours.

Analysis of Malaysian military radar revealed the aircraft had climbed to 45,000ft as it tracked across northern Malaysia. The only reason for doing this would be to incapacitate passengers and cabin crew by hypoxia. Only pilots’ masks have selectable pressure breathing capacity.

Hardy’s book is quite detailed about the rogue pilot theory and draws attention to the fact the aircraft circled Penang as if in a farewell to Zaharie’s home island. Former Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has confirmed Zaharie was a card-carrying member of his party (and an very distant relative) but has dismissed suggestions he may have diverted the plane as a political act. Hours before the flight vanished, Anwar, de facto leader of the People’s Justice Party, was sentenced to five years in jail after a court overturned his 2012 acquittal on a sodomy charge. Zaharie reportedly attended the hearing.

Several months after the MH370 disappearance I was told by a government source that the FBI had recovered from Zaharie’s home computer deleted information showing flight plan waypoints. Here, I assumed, was the smoking gun. To fly to the southern Indian Ocean, which has no airway leading from north of Sumatra to the south, the pilot would need to define flight plan waypoints via latitude and longitude for insertion in the FMC.

When nothing about this emerged from ATSB I rang my source. He confirmed what he had told me and left me with the impression that the FBI were of the opinion that Zaharie was responsible for the crash.

The flaperon found on a Reunion Island beach was definitely from MH370. The flaperon sits immediately behind the engines on a B777. The engines sit well below the fuse­lage and in a controlled ditching would contact the water first. The engines are held on by shear bolts and are expected to rip off (taking the flaperon with them) on contact with water.

Ditching procedure is covered in every aircraft flight manual and training is given by airlines every year for pilots and cabin crew. Common sense suggests when Zaharie got a low fuel warning he initiated descent while still heading south and performed a controlled ditching under engine power before the engines flamed out because of fuel starvation. The aircraft would sink rapidly.

When the flaperon was analysed by Boeing, the manufacturer said, along with US aviation safety consultant John Cox, that it had been broken off in a lowered position, consistent with the theory MH70 had made a controlled ditching into the sea. The ATSB initially said damage to the flaperon was consistent with a high-speed dive after flame-out. Later the ATSB changed tack to say damage to the flaperon still supported the flame-out theory but showed the aircraft glided uncontrolled to a soft landing on the sea (hence no debris). Really? Who lowered the flap?

Last month it was revealed the search for MH370 had been adjusted after Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss released a new report indicating efforts should focus on the southern end of the search area and go farther west. The wider search area was considered the most “prospective”, and the search of the northern end of the arc was to be abandoned. Only now is the search operation probably moving to the correct area. Since March 2014, they have been searching in the wrong area. All the projections assuming no pilot involvement and “flame-out theory” have placed the search area too far north and east.

If they had followed Hardy’s and my reasoning of pilot involvement they would have calculated a position much farther south and west. A B777 in cruise covers 900km in an hour and probably flew more than 7000km after the hijack event.

Two weeks ago I flew to Dubai for simulator training. On December 29, I and another senior B777 pilot put the ATSB flame-out theories to the test in a B777 simulator. The results revealed the ATSB’s theories are completely wrong. It claimed that most of the analysis from an estimated flame-out involved the aircraft making a left turn. But when we flamed out an engine at 37,000ft to simulate fuel starvation of the first engine, the autopilots remained on the commanded track.

The ATSB, under the heading “Search Area Width”, said “glide distance under active control after second engine flame-out was 125nm (230km) which favours a no active control scenario”. To a pilot this is very confusing because I don’t understand what they mean. (Boeing would be gobsmacked a B777 with both engines flamed out could glide so far while in a practically stalled condition.)

Last month’s ATSB report had me deeply troubled. It bases search area calculations of projected flight paths on grossly incorrect assumptions. A B777 cannot fly level at 37,000ft on one engine after a flame-out because of fuel starvation. The only thing I can agree on with the ATSB is that MH370 would probably not be under active — hand-flown — control. Right from the start the ATSB has assumed no pilot involvement. But only an expert B777 pilot could have disabled the extensive communications-avionics suite when the aircraft disappeared electronically. Only an expert pilot could have reprogrammed the FMS to fly to the southern Indian Ocean, otherwise the B777 would have flown on to Beijing. Only a pilot could have lowered the flap for the controlled ditching.

The only logical conclusion I can draw is that Zaharie carefully planned and executed this very clever hijack scenario to end up in perhaps the world’s most unsurveyed deep-sea mountainous terrain, 6.5km deep in a cold, dark hell that would not be found — an area not that far north of Antarctica.


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