Flight 370 did not explode; it vanished – really? That is your scientific argument?

By Michelle Dickinson 11/03/2014


Its a terrible time in the aviation industry and for the families who are still waiting for news about the 239 loved ones who were aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

malaysia-airlines-boeing-777-200-640x353As I write this three days after the plane disappeared from radar and communication was lost, we still don’t know what happened.

With a personal interest in aircraft and a background in materials failure forensics (piecing back the pieces of broken engineering structures to try to figure out what caused it to break), I have been glued to every news media source I can find, looking for answers, trying to see if there is a clue out there that might explain what happened to the plane.
Sadly there have been many aircraft incidents in the recent past, however if any good can come from these tragedies it is the knowledge that we gain about what happens to planes when they crash.

Using previous historical information in addition to knowledge about the construction of Boeing 777′s, the materials that they are made from and how those materials can fail (break) we can use our engineering knowledge to try and figure out what might have happened, and at the very least rule out many possibilities to narrow down the most likely event that would have caused MH370 to vanish.

Understanding engineering principles and analysing data in a logical scientific manner is really important when it comes to engineering disasters to make sure that every tiny detail is covered and nothing is overlooked.

While I was trying to validate the sources for the information that I found floating around the internet, I stumbled across an article from Natural News which claims to be a “source of scientific discoveries”.

In their article entitled “Six important facts you’re not being told about lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370” they list what they claim to be facts and then finish up with the scientific conclusion that “Flight 370 did not explode, it vanished” and that “some entirely new, mysterious and powerful force is at work on our planet which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence”.

I’m always disappointed when I read a public article that claims to be scientific, yet seems to be stating facts that are just not true.
Claiming a “mysterious force” to be their scientific answer but having no scientific basis and no valid argument sadly misinforms the public.
I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert in everything, and I’ll lay on the table that I have a PhD in materials engineering, I teach aerospace engineering disasters at undergraduate and postgraduate level and I have a fascination with aircraft.  I’ll base my opinions in what I have learned through this experience.  Its quite hard to trace the background of the author of the article in question, but he does state to have a bachelor of science degree from an unnamed university in an unnamed subject, which doesn’t really help me understand where his argument is coming from.
In the article he states the fact that: All Boeing 777 commercial jets are equipped with black box recorders that can survive any on-board explosion.

Schematic of Flight Data Recorder (Black Box)

Schematic of Flight Data Recorder (Black Box)

The first part is true, the plane should have been fitted with a flight data recorder (commonly called a black box recorder) and these are designed to withstand an acceleration of 3400g (33 km/s²) for 6.5 milliseconds.  However there have been several incidents involving plane crashes where the black box was never found in water even more shallow than where we predict MH370 went down.  There have also been incidents where the black box was damaged and the recordings were not 100% recoverable.
If you are interested in flight data recorders and the testing that they are subjected to as well as their design, this is a great read (and where I took the schematic from).
Nothing is indestructible and so stating that it can withstand any on board explosion is inaccurate and also assumes that the device did not contain any pre-existing clacks or flaws which may have gone undetected and would have weakened the box.
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Their next stated fact claimed that: All black box recorders transmit locator signals for at least 30 days after falling into the ocean.
This isn’t quite a fact.  Yes, the flight data recorder, which is this case was made by Honeywell International Inc. is designed to set off an underwater location beacon once it detects that it is submerged, and the power supply is designed to last for 30 days.  However, to pick up this beacon signal (we call it pinging), you have to be within 4.5km of it.  Seeing that we still don’t really know where the plane impacted the water, we can make two assumptions.

  1. The first assumption is that the plane disintegrated due to an explosion while at cruise altitude scattering debris for several hundred kilometers.
  2. The second assumption is that the pilots tried to glide the plane suffering from engine failure down for an emergency landing.  Assuming a typical glide angle of 10:1 from a cruise height of 10 kilometres above sea level, the search area would be over 30,000 square kilometres – an area slightly smaller than the size of Taiwan!

Current news reports state that the search area is 50 nautical miles from the last known point of the aircraft, which is much less than the size of Taiwan.

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The final apparent fact that I want to tackle states that: Many parts of destroyed aircraft are naturally buoyant and will float in water..

Although this is true, we can not exclude the fact that the plane may have gone down intact which would have kept most the buoyant materials within the fuselage, or that the explosive fireball that may have engulfed the plane at altitude disintegrated much of the buoyant material and spread the rest over a large distance that has still not been covered by search teams, or that the search teams are searching in the wrong place.
So what do we know as a fact?
1 – We know that no distress call was made by the pilots.
Even if both engine generators went down, the 777 is equipped with emergency power systems which would allow the pilots to transmit a mayday call.  This implies that there may have been a catastrophic explosion while the plane was at cruise altitude which did not give the pilots the few seconds they would need to communicate.
I asked my commercial pilot friend Captain Vasavda (who flies Boeing 737′s) to comment on the procedure, and he stated that communication would be third in priority after aviating and navigating, and in his experience (which has not included any crashes) he believes that the pilots would have had time to send in a distress call.
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Option two is that an event took out all communications meaning that all radio systems and the separate ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) did not work or were turned off.
2 – The 777 is made up of about 12% composite materials and 50% aluminium with a design brief of being able to withstand an internal explosion from the cargo bay.  Although a cargo explosion might cause a hole to appear in the aircraft, it should still be able to glide with some control for an emergency ocean landing.
3 – We are only on day 3 post event, and so historically this is still early days.  It took two years to recover the flight data recorder from Air France Flight 447  and so its just a case of continuing to search for the plane shaped needle in an ocean haystack.
I'm going to keep on flying :)
What I do know, is that I do not believe that there is a “new, mysterious and powerful force…which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence”.
Hopefully as the story unfolds, we will find the shred of evidence we have been looking for.
In the meantime, I’m going to trust the engineering and keep on flying 🙂