WATCH: Author of Ask the Pilot Patrick Smith gives insight into the ongoing search for missing Malaysian airlines flight and goes through the possible reasons for its disappearance.
NEW YORK – The most dangerous parts of a flight are takeoff and landing. Rarely do incidents happen when a plane is cruising seven miles above the earth.
So the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet well into its flight Saturday morning over the South China Sea has led aviation experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to place a distress call.
It could take investigators months, if not years, to determine what happened to the Boeing 777 flying from Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Airplane crashes typically occur during takeoff and the climb away from an airport, or while coming in for a landing, as in last year’s fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco. Just 9 per cent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet airplane accidents done by Boeing.
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Capt. John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said that whatever happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough, he said, to stop the plane’s transponder from broadcasting its location.
“We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don’t know a whole lot,” Cox said.
Some of the possible causes for the plane disappearing include:
Catastrophic structural failure of the airframe or its Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines
Most aircraft are made of aluminum which is susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in areas of high humidity. But given the plane’s long history and impressive safety record, experts suggest this is unlikely.
More of a threat to the plane’s integrity is the constant pressurization and depressurization of the cabin for takeoff and landing. In April 2011, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 rapidly lost cabin pressure just after takeoff from Phoenix after the plane’s fuselage ruptured, causing a 5-foot tear. The plane, with 118 people on board, landed safely. But such a rupture is less likely in this case. Airlines fly the 777 on longer distances, with much fewer takeoffs and landings, putting less stress on the airframe.
Planes are designed to fly though most severe storms. However, in June 2009, an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed during a bad storm over the Atlantic Ocean. The Airbus A330’s airspeed indicators were giving false readings. That, and bad decisions by the pilots, led the plane into a stall causing it to plummet into the sea. All 228 passengers and crew aboard died. The pilots never radioed for help. But in the case of Saturday’s Malaysia Airlines flight, all indications show that there were clear skies.
Curtis said that the pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow went off course and didn’t realize it until it was too late. The plane could have flown for another five or six hours from its point of last contact, putting it up to 3,000 miles away. This is unlikely given that the plane probably would have been picked up by radar somewhere. But it’s too early to eliminate it as a possibility.
Failure of both engines
In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 1,000 feet short of the runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. As the plane was coming in to land, the engines lost thrust because of ice buildup in the fuel system. There were no fatalities. Such a scenario is possible, but Hamilton said the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call. When a US Airways A320 lost both of its engines in January 2009 after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York it was at a much lower elevation. But Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger still had plenty of communications with air traffic controllers before ending the six-minute flight in the Hudson River.
Several planes have been brought down including Pan Am Flight 103 between London and New York in December 1988. There was also an Air India flight in June 1985 between Montreal and London and a plane in September 1989 flown by French airline Union des Transports Aeriens which blew up over the Sahara Desert.
A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane’s captors typically land at an airport and have some type of demand. But a 9-11-like hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.
There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s that investigators suspected were caused by pilots deliberately crashing the planes.
In July 1988, the United States Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iran Air flight, killing all 290 passengers and crew. In September 1983, a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down by a Russian fighter jet.
AP writer Joan Lowy contributed from Washington.
© The Associated Press, 2014