A SPECIAL REPORT
MH 370: a “deliberate act” but how and by whom?
BY PHILIP BAUM
EDITOR, AVIATION SECURITY INTERNATIONAL & MANAGING DIRECTOR, GREEN LIGHT LTD.
The loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 has left the entire world, including the aviation community, perplexed. Industry professionals simply have no answer to the question every media outlet is posing: how could a Boeing 777 simply disappear without a trace and remain undetected for a week?
The result: speculation. Speculation which must be agonising for the families and friends of the passengers and crew on board the ill-fated flight as they cling on to that faintest of possibilities that their loved ones may indeed be alive. Speculation which calls into question the integrity of crewmembers who, rather than being the villains of the piece, may have actually been performing heroic acts as they desperately tried to retain control of the aircraft. Speculation which is fuelling many a bloggers addiction to conspiracy theories or the desire to make banal and abusive comments. But such is the bizarre nature of this incident, we have little alternative but to speculate. A week ago, many would have argued that the scenario we are witnessing would have been an impossibility…but it is happening and we don’t know how or why. As a result, even the seemingly far-fetched options must be considered. So, given the fact that the Malaysian Prime Minister has now confirmed that the loss of MH 370 was almost certainly a “deliberate act”, as opposed to a mechanical or structural malfunction, what could have happened?
The list of options has certainly been reduced. It is highly unlikely that pilot suicide was, as thought by many, the cause. Had that been one of the crew’s intents, one would have expected them to have simply crashed the aircraft in the same manner that previous suicidal pilots have done. The chances of an improvised explosive device detonating on board have also been all but eradicated by the announcement that the flight in question had continued to fly and that the transponder had been intentionally switched off. Given the fact that we now know that whoever was at the controls also intentionally changed direction, we can also rule out any missile attack against the aircraft, albeit that the possibility still exists of another State having identified MH 370 as a rogue aircraft entering its air space and then shooting it down when it failed to identify itself…
It would not be the first time that has happened. The Israeli Air Force shot down Libyan Arab Airlines flight 114 on 21 February 1973, after the aircraft had lost its way in bad weather and had experienced instruments failure; the crew had, allegedly, refused to comply with Israeli requests for the aircraft to land resulting in the Israelis opening fire fearing that the aircraft might be heading towards Tel Aviv. The Soviet Union also shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 on 1 September 1983 when it strayed off course as the result of pilot error. How quickly would a state admit responsibility for such an error today?
The more likely scenarios however remain associated with the mindset of whoever turned off the transponder. A pilot can certainly hijack their own aircraft. Only last month, the co-pilot of an Ethiopian Airlines flight en route from Addis Ababa to Rome decided to hijack his flight to Geneva; he waited for the Captain to exit the flight deck to use the toilets and then locked himself in the cockpit and continued to fly the aircraft to Switzerland where he claimed asylum. But then why turn off the transponder?
The only time that hijackers have seized control of an aircraft, neutralised the flight deck crew and continued to fly the aircraft was on 11th September 2001…four times over. It was that event which brought about the decision to deploy the enhanced flight deck door – a lockable, bullet proof protective shield which could, allegedly, prevent a hijacker gaining access to the cockpit. However, as with X-ray technology for screening baggage, this is actually far more about deterrent than being an effective security solution. Cockpit doors open numerous times on long haul flights and aircrew are notoriously complacent about adhering to the guidelines for operating them. The advice is that the door should be open for no more than three seconds and then only after the cabin has been checked to ensure that all passengers are seated. In the real world this doesn’t happen.
Both Indian Airlines flight IC 814 (24 December 1999) and Turkish Airlines flight 1476 (3 October 2006) were hijacked when their cockpit doors were opened in order for their respective flight attendants to give the pilots coffee shortly after take-off.
The other concern about the post-9/11 flight deck door is that, whilst it may keep the bad guys out of the cockpit, it can also keep the good guys out too. Once a hijacker is ensconced in the flight deck alone, the door can be bolted to ensure that nobody gains access. This worked to the industry’s benefit when a JetBlue pilot locked his colleague, Clayton Osbon, outside the flight deck whilst he was experiencing mental health problems. On the other hand, the aforementioned Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot found the door aided his plan.
Whilst I am loathe to criticise a pilot who is currently missing and, we must presume, innocent, the images that have appeared of MH 370’s First Officer in the media do little to enhance confidence in his respect of Malaysian Airlines own internal procedures. Jonti Roos, a South African girl, has provided the media with photographs of herself and a friend inside the flight deck of a Malaysian Airlines flight en route from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur; she claims that the pilots invited them into the cockpit for the entire flight, including take-off and landing, having seen them queuing up to board. As it happens, as a passionate believer in behavioural analysis and common sense security, I have no problem with pilots inviting guests to visit them in the cockpit. Quite the opposite; I think the fact that we can no longer take our kids to visit the Captain just demonstrates that we have no faith in our crews to make intelligent decisions and, yet again, allows the enemy another mini success in their attempts to control our daily lives. That said, we can’t tolerate flagrant disregard of company rules.
So, might we be dealing with a passenger who was suicidal but who wished to die in a specific location? That was what David Mark Robinson wanted to do when, armed with wooden stakes in order to bypass airport archway metal detectors, he attempted to hijack Qantas flight 1737 on a domestic flight from Melbourne to Launceston on 29 May 2003. Robinson’s intent was to fly the aircraft into the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in north-west Tasmania in order to bring about Armageddon; he was later diagnosed as being schizophrenic. It was the actions of flight attendant Greg Khan which prevented Robinson gaining access to the flight deck. Khan, and fellow flight attendant Denise Hickson, were seriously lacerated in the incident. In aircrew training, I have always regarded this case as an excellent Case Study; it is on a domestic flight (strangely the international aviation community still regards domestic flights as lower risk than international flights, despite the fact that the majority of incidents have been on domestic flights), perpetrated by a passenger with mental health issues (the aviation community tends to see aviation security as counter-terrorism rather than as the means to prevent any unlawful attack against civil aviation), with no link to Islamic fundamentalism (thereby not matching any perceived stereotypical threat) and on a low risk route (and I write this whilst I am actually in Tasmania on a work assignment).
We then enter the murky realms of terrorism. The key argument against it seems to be, aside from the previously unheard of Chinese Martyrs Brigade, the lack of any claim of responsibility. But then again, previous attacks against aviation have not always been accompanied by a claim of responsibility; take Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie (where the plot’s author is still debateable) and Air India flight 182 off the coast of Ireland as examples. Part of the significance of the attacks of 11th September 2001 was the media spectacle created…the endlessly repeated footage of aircraft flying into buildings. Perhaps, once again, we are playing our roles in a script carefully drafted by a media-savvy branch of al Qaeda? In the same way that the post-9/11 media debate was not about the AQ agenda per se, and with their penchant for the spectacular, the ceaseless news reports of the missing aircraft, the angst of the family members, the wild speculation, the poor communication, the fallibility of the aviation security system may just be the sort of headlines they are aiming for?
If one does have to identify a potential terrorist group, the most likely is the one I cited in my Special Report on 9 March – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The very fact that the Malaysian authorities have now declared the Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan to northern Thailand air corridor a search zone does add a degree of credence to this possibility. It would mean that the aircraft had been flown into Chinese air space and roughly in the direction of Xinjiang Province and certainly towards the multi-national area considered by some to be “east Turkestan”.
Malaysia had previously deported ethnic Uighurs back to China. That would, to a limited extent, provide a reason for groups such as ETIM targeting a Malaysian carrier. Then again, on the question of deportees, I have yet to see the question posed as to whether there were any deportees on this flight?
But could an aircraft land and could the passengers and crew be taken hostage? Well it has happened before, albeit using a Fokker 50 aircraft and not a B-777. On 12 April 1999 an Avianca flight, operating a domestic route out of Bogota, was hijacked by members of the ELN and flown to a jungle landing strip where passengers were taken off the aircraft and put onto boats which took them up the Magdalena River. Some of the hostages were not released until 19 months later. Whether this would be possible nowadays with a much larger aircraft is not a question I can answer but, suffice it to say, the northern corridor referred to in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s statement does include vast swathes of flat, sparsely populated land. I have little doubt that the Chinese authorities are using every satellite, each technology and all human resources at their disposal to effect surveillance of the area in question even though it would be somewhat embarrassing for them if the aircraft were to be found in China itself one week after it had disappeared.
And flying undetected? Well, you can if you want to but just not for too long. In one of the most famous cases in aviation security history, Israeli commandos managed to rescue the hostages taken when an Air France flight was hijacked to Entebbe in 1976. Avoiding radar detection and bypassing some ‘hostile’ countries, the legendary mission (which has been turned into at least three films) resulted in aircraft landing at an international airport in Uganda undetected in the middle of the night having also refuelled en route. But that was 1976.
That still leaves the fundamental question as to who flew the aircraft? There are three options: a crewmember, a passenger or a stowaway.
A pilot could certainly disable the transponder and would already be inside the flight deck. As aforementioned, it would just be a case of waiting until the other pilot exited the flight deck for a routine break. Amazingly it appears that it is only today that the Malaysian authorities have decided to search the Captain’s home, despite the fact that the entire world has known that he has a commercial flight simulator there (having paraded it in a YouTube clip which he loaded up describing how to tune an air conditioning unit to make it more economical – see
the very nature of the subject he discusses will, no doubt, conjure up far more scenarios as to what might have happened on board and how passengers might have been controlled). Sadly, all the crew are now suspects whatever they may have done to save the aircraft.
As to passengers, one must trust that all nations are checking the backgrounds of each and every one on board MH 370.
But let’s not forget the stowaway…the passenger whose name does not appear on the flight manifest. This is a subject that I have spoken about at many symposia in recent months, in part because the body of a young man from Mozambique fell out of the wheel well of an aircraft and landed very close to my own home in East Sheen when the aircraft’s landing gear was lowered as it prepared to land at London Heathrow on 9 September 2012. The incident was one a series of worldwide incidents which demonstrated the porous nature of airport perimeter security. Whilst most such stowaways had clambered into wheel wheels, some had secreted themselves on board aircraft, often disguised as airport staff.
On 7 July 2012, two stowaways managed to penetrate the perimeter at Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport and then, dressed as airport staff, board an Icelandair aircraft; they were found by alert crewmembers prior to departure. The same cannot be said in the case of a China Airlines flight which landed in San Francisco on 22 October 2012; a passenger from Shanghai had flown from Shanghai to Taipei and on to the United States, where he claimed asylum, having boarded the aircraft wearing a cleaner’s uniform and avoided detection in Taipei by concealing himself in an electrical compartment on board.
The industry has long been concerned about the ‘insider threat’. At almost every major international airport in the world, criminal activity of one type or another takes place in what are supposed to be sterile zones. It is certainly a possibility that, in an airport the size of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, individuals, with or without the knowledge of the crew of MH 370, and with or without technical knowledge as to how to disable an aircraft’s communication systems, could have managed to secrete themselves on board. And, if the quality of staff screening is anything like the appalling standards demonstrated online http://media.theage.com.au/news/world-news/mh370-pilots-boarding-5251230.html
– and if the CCTV footage is genuine – then they could quite easily be armed as well. One would hope that every employer at KLIA is now being asked to identify any staff member who has, since last week, failed to report for duty.
But for now, it’s all speculation. Until we find the wreckage or, by some miracle, see the hostages emerging from some remote location, it’s all we can do.