EXCLUSIVE: Did MH370 crew succumb to fire catastrophe?

The former head of security for the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration insists that rather than portraying the crew of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as saboteurs, the pilots struggled heroically to save their aircraft until overcome by smoke from a catastrophic cargo fire.

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Billie Vincent who served as the FAA’s civil aviation security chief played a key policy and crisis management role in the handling of all hijackings of US aircraft in the 1980s. He was also in charge of the agency’s armed Federal Air Marshals and served as an expert witness in the trial of the Pan Am 103 terrorist bombing.
After leaving the FAA he led an international consulting firm which was contracted in the 1990s to design and implement the security system of Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport where Flight 370, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew, started its journey at 12.41 am on March 8 before disappearing from civilian radar en route to Beijing at 1.21 am.
Officials in Malaysia claim that, based on ‘pings’ sent from the aircraft to an Inmarsat satellite, the aircraft was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia or south over the Indian Ocean. They suspect that someone on board the aircraft first disabled one of its communications systems – the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) around 40 minutes after takeoff before switching off the aircraft’s transponder in a systematic effort to render the aircraft invisible to air traffic surveillance.
Speaking exclusively to Air Traffic Management, Vincent dismisses the likelihood of a bomb being detonated on board which would have ruptured the pressure hull of the aircraft citing the fact that the aircraft was tracked by a series of satellite ‘pings’. That would indicate that Flight MH370 flew for up to seven more hours which would not have been possible if it had been compromised.
“The data released thus far most likely points to a problem with hazardous materials. This scenario begins with the eruption of hazardous materials within the cargo hold – either improperly packaged or illegally shipped – or both,” says Vincent.
In his view, a fire which started in the cargo hold progressively and serially destroyed the aircraft’s communications systems; toxic fumes quickly overwhelmed the passenger cabin and the cockpit where at least one of the flight crew managed to don an oxygen mask allowing them to turn the aircraft back to Kuala Lumpur.
Flight 370 is reported to have climbed to 45,000ft which Vincent believes could have been due simply to the inability of the flight crew to clearly see and set the controls for a return to Kuala Lumpur.
Vincent guesses that control could have been regained and the aircraft sent back to a lower altitude of around 23,000 ft – which is a diversion altitude set by manufacturers of large transport aircraft to prevent a fire taking further hold and which both allows better survivability for those on board and vents the avionics bays.
The final report of a UPS B747 crash in Dubai in 2010, details how that crew similarly attempted to depressurise the freighter aircraft to slow down the fire 30 seconds after the loss of aircraft systems and flight controls. In that accident, the time interval between fire detection and the onset of aircraft system failures was around two and a half minutes.
The last verbal communication from Flight 370 was issued at 1.19 am as the aircraft left Malaysian airspace. It then disappeared from air traffic controllers’ screens at 1.21 am whilst flying over the South China Sea.
Vincent guesses that the crew did manage to stabilise the aircraft and set it on a new course before once again succumbing to either a loss of oxygen or the remaining toxic fumes.
“The airplane then continues flying until no fuel remains and crashes – most likely into the ocean as there has been no report of any Emergency Locater Transmitter (ELT) signal which can be received by satellite if the crash were on land,” says Vincent.
Vincent insists other scenarios involving hijacking and sabotage are improbable. “For instance, there is no indication that either of the pilots was criminally involved in the disappearance of this airplane. Neither has Malaysia released any data indicating anything amiss in the security clearance of the passengers for this flight. The one question raised about the two passengers travelling on stolen passports has been cleared indicating that they were planning on illegally claiming refugee status in another country, probably Germany.”
“I have yet to see anything released about the nature and content of the cargo carried in the cargo hold of Flight 370. Hazardous cargo can be legally carried on passenger aircraft. However, the amount and type of such hazardous materials are strictly controlled,” says Vincent.
While all hazardous materials must be properly contained and labelled – and declared to the airline transporting it, Vincent notes that hazardous materials have been – knowingly and unknowingly – labelled improperly for carriage on passenger aircraft in addition to having been carried on board unlawfully by passengers.
Though entirely within the law, a 2013 report by the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society warned that passengers flying on a typical single aisle jet could be bringing more than 500 potentially lethal batteries on board – both in the cabin and the hold – to power personal gadgets.
The report documents how a fire occurred in April 2012 on a flight from Toronto to Minneapolis at 28,000ft when the battery from a passenger’s air purifier device combusted. A cabin crew member wet paper towels to put out the fire before submerging the smouldering battery in a cup of water. On the flight deck, meanwhile, the captain, smelling a strong burning electrical odour, declared an emergency and diverted to Michigan.

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  1. I have repeatedly asked about the cargo, but the question has not been taken seriously. I’ve wondered if a) there was possibly something of extreme value to a hijacker/s, or b) there was something that could have compromised the flight. It’s shocking that correspondents, aviation ‘experts’, etc. have not treated this as a realistic theory. I’ve heard one reporter ask about the cargo in the news conference but it got a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Thank your for this story. Every possibility must be considered.

    • They say it was 4 tons of mangosteens. This aircraft can carry more than that. They should show the manifest.

  2. This is a possible scenario but the total absence of a distress call is a problem. In 1987 SA295 B747 “Heldeberg” which was lost from a cargo bay fire made multiple calls to Mauritius ATC before the aircraft became unflyable and crashed. Additionally, fires tend to be progressive and it’s hard to imagine how it would allow MH370 to continue to fly for hours after it had overcome the crew. It’s conceivable that a fire could quickly destroy radio equipment and kill the crew but why would it then stop and leave the flying aircraft on autopilot for hours?
    It did occur to me earlier that an explosive decompression of the cockpit area might immediately incapacitate the crew and destroy some of the radio equipment (transponder ACARS encoder etc.) and leave the aircraft on autopilot but that does not explain how the aircraft could have subsequently climbed and/or descended or made waypoint turns and continued to fly, all of which have been reported at various times by Malaysian authorities. On my scenario the aircraft would fly a heading and height hold track to fuel exhaustion. Of course it’s debatable how reliable the Malaysian reports (coming mostly from politicians who don’t have technical knowledge) might be and it may turn out that the aircraft’s flight after the loss of comms was consistent with autopilot flying.
    You’d need to ask someone very familiar with the B777 systems if this scenario’s possible (my own expertise is in aviation Search and Rescue – and I must add that I’m retired and have no involvement in the MH370 SAR action)

    • @”This is a possible scenario but the total absence of a distress call is a problem”
      Not if a fire had damaged the comms equipment … fires are not exactly predictable, every fire is different, and planes are large and complex.
      @” it’s hard to imagine how it would allow MH370 to continue to fly for hours after it had overcome the crew”
      Decompression after flight course has been set, like Helios Airways Flight 522.
      @”that does not explain how the aircraft could have subsequently climbed and/or descended or made waypoint turns and continued to fly”
      It could if the pilot is holding an oxygen mask to his face long enough to set the new course.

    • Richard have you seen photos of the fire gutted cockpit in Egyptair Flight 667 of 2011?
      That Boeing 777 was totalled by an electrical fire in the avionics bay under the co-pilot’s seat fed by the pilot’s emergency oxygen supply. That explains almost sudden incapacitation accompanied by electrical failure and depressurisation.

  3. The only problem with this theory is that the aircraft would have succumbed very early in the flight. Yet it was positively identified some 7-8 hours later, still flying. The engines had also been “phoning home” every hour during that time (to Rolls Royce Asia).
    My pet theory is that insidious hypoxia is the underlying cause of all of the actions that have been seen. The cause was a relatively slow leak, probably precipitated by the collision during taxiiing in mid-2012 when a wing tip was seriously damaged, and the leverage effect would have transmitted the force of impact through the wing root and into the cabin.
    There’s more to it than that, obviously, but that’s the executive summary version.

  4. There have been apparently several course changes and altitude changes. I rather would use time to study satellite images from the northern route.

  5. Forget the cargo, if a generator was under-performing pilots may have run two generators in parallel. In that case current would naturally want to flow to the under-performing generator only prevented by a simple diode (one way gate). If the original generator was faulty however and a voltage difference of 12-15 volts or more developed the diode preventing current reversal would overheat and explode causing an electrical fire in the avionics bay beneath and behind the cockpit (a la Egyptair Flight 667) A fire would have burned through the pressure hull in minutes decompressing the aircraft. The oil worker reported an explosion followed by a fire which went out by itself.

  6. Billie Vincent of the FAA is NOT an airline pilot, for if he were he would know that a cargo fire would NOT switch the transponder into STANDBY. Human fingers had turned the knob four (4) clicks counterclockwise from TA/RA position to STBY. A cargo fire/smoke would first sound an alarm in the cockpit and not instantly cut electric power to the radios for pilots to be unable to transmit an emergency message. There are five (5) independent sources of electrical power to VHF-1 (the captain’s radio) Two engine driven generators, Ram Air Turbine, APU generator (when running) and battery. There is no way for a cargo fire to INSTANTLY cut all sources of electrical power and making the crew incapable of reporting to ATC a turn-back. Besides, the autopilot remained powered to steer the jet for another 6 hours. …but somehow there wasn’t any power to any of three (3) VHF radios and two (2) HF radios? Billie Vincent’s story is impractical reality.

  7. If the crew were aware of an on-going fire and trying to fight it, wouldn’t there have been an attempt at making some sort of Mayday call?

  8. Consider a fire in the E&E compartment that penetrates one of the pilot’s O2 lines. Major oxygen fire that quickly incapacitates the pilots, damages the radio rack and disables the transponder and com radios during the time while the crew is trying to fight the fire and head for a divert field. The first turn is accomplished and then the crew is disabled. The oxygen bottle is depleted, nothing else in the E&E compartment is particularly flammable, so the fire goes out before the FCCs are disabled. Now the airplane soldiers on, with maybe just basic FCC stability keeping it from crashing until the fuel is exhausted. end.
    (Remember – there is NO conclusive evidence that the transponder was “turned off” – just that it stopped transmitting/responding. The course change could just as easily have been accomplished with the Heading Bug rather than the FMC. A fire in the cockpit would require such intense action that a useless -at the time- radio call to ATC would have been far down the priority list.)
    Has anyone looked at the accident report from EgyptAir 667 in 2011?

  9. The Show-Off Theory
    The pilot was showing off to a new recruit. In the gap between stations he turned off the comms to show how you could programme a plane to fly anywhere i.e.,hey lets use the time to show you how to programme a plane (oops better turn off comms in case they hear me doing something illegal, we’ve got 15 mins to kill). Once programmed in, a disaster happens. either programming causes decompression or decompression happens by some accident or both pilots are suddenly taken out by heart attacks. The plane follows the new programme. No-one knows how to work the plane, mobiles dont work over sea. A death flight.

  10. There are only two 777s which have been lost due to failure of the aircraft systems. One was the Heathrow incident due to fuel icing, the other was a cockpit fire at Cairo. The loss at Cairo airport was due to a short in the cabling around the co-pilot’s oxygen mask. In this incident the crew evacuated the cockpit and only managed to call the Cairo Airport Fire Brigade from a ground crew’s walkie-talkie. They did not manage to get out a radio call before evacuating. I note that ground crews are not available at 39,000 feet!
    I also note that if something has happened once it is quite likely to happen again.
    If something similar happened to the Malaysian Airlines crew’s oxygen system in a similar manner to the Cairo incident the cockpit would be filled with flames and smoke far faster than any of the incidents quoted by other commentators above. The cockpit and its electronics would rapidly become a pile of junk and the plane would be left to fly on its aerodynamic stability, which isn’t too good in maintaining steady altitude, and wind shifts would affect direction. The crew would not have time to make radio calls but may have had 10 seconds to reset the direction towards the best airport for a forced landing.
    The Inmarsat radio system which continued to send ‘pings’ was apparently not in the cockpit, but was in the electronics bay under the cockpit, so it avoided the cockpit fire. The fact this radio system continued to work shows that the fire was not under the cockpit and therefore the fire cannot be blamed on the cargo.
    The cockpit fuselage wall would burn out rapidly (just like the Cairo fire) and the plane, now filled with smoke, would be rapidly decompressed, which in this case appears to have eventually blown out the fire or starved it of oxygen – after the crew’s oxygen system was depleted. The fire was seen by a New Zealand engineer on an oil-rig off the Vietnam coast burning in the sky for a some time, at a considerable distance – obviously not something from an internal smoke incident inside the plane
    No-one was conscious on the plane when it re-crossed over Malaya as is demonstrated by no cell-phone signals being received from the plane during that time.
    When the wreckage is recovered from the Indian Ocean I would expect signs of a major fire involving the crew’s oxygen system.
    I would like to know what the condition of the crew’s oxygen system was in the MH370 aircraft, and also what is the condition of the crew masks in all the other 777s flying right now.

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