Commercial aviation is safe, ridiculously safe, which means the probability of a catastrophic mechanical failure in the Malaysian Airlines jet is miniscule. There are millions of take offs and landings each year around the world and in 2012 there were only 475 fatalities. MIT research indicated the average passenger could fly once every day on a commercial jet for 123,000 years before being involved in a crash.
The Boeing 777 has had one fatal crash in its 19-year history when it landed short of the runway at San Francisco International last July and killed three people. The tragedy was clearly the result of pilot error when a less experienced co-pilot was given landing control of the aircraft.
The missing 777 did not fall apart at cruising speed and altitude. The plane is made of composite materials and has a swept wing design to increase cruising speed to around Mach .84 at altitude. The two turbo fan engines are the largest ever manufactured and allow the 777 to fly halfway around the planet without refueling. Although the plane has been in operation since 1995, it is used primarily on long distance routes and is subjected to fewer take off and landings and pressurization cycles.
The life of most commercial aircraft, prior to the fly-by-wire and composite design of the 777, was considered 51,000 flight hours and 75,000 pressurization cycles. Increasing and lowering the pressure in a cabin has tended, historically, to be a cause of stress on a fuselage and it can lead to cracks and possible critical failures, which is what happened when a top section peeled back on a Hawaiian Airlines jet several years ago. That aircraft was a 737 and was more than thirty years old and operated in a corrosive tropical ocean environment. The missing Malaysian triple seven also operates in a marine environment but corrosion seems an unlikely cause of failure on composite materials and an aircraft of modern design and advance components.
So what in the hell happened?
If the radar data is correct, and the captain did attempt to turn the aircraft, there is a chance he knew something was wrong, either mechanical or with someone onboard the aircraft making threats. He might have refused to respond to a demand to be let into the cockpit and was changing course when someone got angry and triggered an explosive device. But getting a bomb into the passenger cabin of a commercial jet, even in less secure airports, is still very problematic. There is also the possibility he was informed at some point that there was an explosive device in the cargo hold and he was rerouting to return to the nearest airport when an explosion destroyed the aircraft.
But simply breaking up catastrophically while at 540 mph and 35,000 feet remains the least likely cause of the plane’s disappearance.
Official sources refuse to speculate on cause but the investigation is almost certain to lead back to the stolen Austrian and Italian passports. Neither of the named individuals on the passports were on the plane but they were used to purchase two tickets together on the same account. Unfortunately, as has been widely reported, Malaysian authorities did not run passports through an Interpol database to check if they had been stolen, which tends to be a standard operation by U.S. air carriers and many others around the world. A couple of terrorists may have slipped through a security gap.
There has been some speculation that the plane was the victim of a missile strike by North Korea or even terrorists. A Chinese airline reportedly came close to a North Korean missile some time last week after it had taken off from Tokyo with 220 passengers. The Chinese foreign minister complained formally to North Korea and told reporters that the plane was flying at 32,000 feet and that the missile could have hit the plane as it descended. What’s not clear is the level of technology on North Korean missiles and their accuracy on target, especially when that target is moving at great speeds.
If terrorism is suspected as a cause, it may be related to the incident at the Chinese railway station where knife-wielding madmen killed 29 people. Intelligence officials have already begun to refer to the massacre as the “Chinese 911” and suspect possible Islamic organizations or other separatist groups. The killings occurred on March 1, however, and it seems that it would have been logistically difficult to plan and carry out a bombing of a civilian airliner in such a short period after the attack, which was in the Chinese city of Kunming.
Former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus expressed a larger concern on commercial aviation during an appearance in Israel in January. He fretted publicly about missiles becoming increasingly available to terrorist groups and that such a proliferation would launch a new age of terror around the world. The biggest source of weaponry to fuel terrorism has been the stockpiles looted in Libya after the overthrow of the country’s dictator. The United Nations recently issued a report indicating that those weapons are increasing the level of conflict and danger in places like Syria, Gaza, and Mali.
The most dangerous weapon to disappear by the thousands from Libya has been the Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) rocket. They are designed to be capable of shooting down low-flying aircraft and are not considered capable of hitting a jetliner cruising at altitude but U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly have tracked hundreds of the MANPADS to the al-Qaida organization in Algeria, which is generally viewed as the most dangerous group presently being confronted by America.
Consequently, there are a number of frightening but plausible scenarios for what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, but technical failure of the aircraft, at least for now, seems the least likely.