The news that missing Malaysia Flight 370 was transporting 200 kilogrammes of lithium-ion batteries in its cargo hold will come as little surprise to the former head of security for the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration, writes Aimée Turner.
Billie Vincent who served as the FAA’s civil aviation security chief insisted from the outset that rather than portraying the crew of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as saboteurs, the pilots struggled heroically to save the aircraft until overcome by smoke from a catastrophic cargo fire caused – or exacerbated – by its highly flammable lithium battery cargo.
Vincent 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 after a final radio transmission made at 1.19 am.
Officials in Malaysia said they suspected that someone on board the aircraft first disabled the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) shortly after takeoff before switching off the aircraft’s transponder in a systematic effort to render the aircraft invisible to air traffic surveillance. ‘Pings’ sent from the aircraft to an Inmarsat satellite, indicated that Flight 370 may have then been deliberately diverted and flown as far north as Central Asia or south over the Indian Ocean.
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 series of ‘pings’ would indicate that Flight 370 flew for up to seven more hours. That would not have been possible if its aerostructure had been compromised. If, building from the aircraft’s final ‘ping’ satellite signals, debris is indeed found in the predicted area 1,550 miles south west of Perth, many now believe that the aircraft may not have been under active pilot control.
“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.
Malaysian authorities on Friday confirmed that the missing flight was carrying lithium batteries in its cargo hold but said they did not regard them as endangering safety as standard rules had been observed in packing. “These are not regarded as dangerous goods and were packed as recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation,” Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told a media briefing. Until now details of the cargo manifest have been limited to four tonnes of mangosteens.
Vincent remains convinced however that 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 either Kuala Lumpur or Pulau Langkawi.
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.
Vincent guesses that control could have been regained and the aircraft sent back to a lower altitude of around 25,000 ft – which is a diversion altitude set by aircraft manufacturers to prevent a fire taking further hold and which both allows better survivability while venting 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 by descendign to 10,000 ft to slow down the fire 30 seconds after the loss of aircraft systems and flight controls. In that accident in which there were no survivors, the time interval between fire detection and the onset of aircraft system failures was around two and a half minutes.
The aircraft was found to be carrying at least three shipments of lithium batteries which should have been declared as hazardous materials – but were not. Testing conducted by the FAA Tech Center in the United States after the crash indicated that even overheating caused by an unrelated fire in the cargo hold could have caused a chain reaction: “For this reason, batteries that are not involved in an initial fire may ignite and propagate, creating a risk of a catastrophic event,” stated the investigators in their final report.
With this in mind those investigating Flight 370 will no doubt want to know the location of the battery cargo on the aircraft. It will also be vital to know how they were packaged and manufactured as well as the shipping history of this type of cargo by both Malaysia Airlines and the manufacturer.
Investigators of the Dubai accident also found that cockpit voice recordings indicated that the captain’s oxygen mask had stopped delivering oxygen around six minutes after the fire alarm was sounded. This resulted in the captain leaving his position due to incapacitation from toxic gases. The first officer who had to take control of the aircraft could not see outside the cockpit, the primary flight displays or the audio control panel to retune to the required frequencies.
Authorities have said that the last verbal communication from Malaysia Flight 370 was issued two minutes before the aircraft disappeared from air traffic controllers’ screens while 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.”
Several air accident investigators tell Air Traffic Management that there are still some anomalies in such a scenario such as the complete radio silence of MH370.
“In every inflight fire where the aircraft crashed, the situation deteriorated rapidly, ultimately overcoming the aircraft’s ability to fly such as the UPS 747-400 lithium-ion battery fire in Dubai; the Valujet 594 chemical oxygen generators in the forward cargo hold; SwissAir 111 electrical system fire in overhead void space and the South African Airways Boeing 747 cargo fire in 1987,” says one expert.
In each case, he points out that the crew had sufficient time to communicate with air traffic control before the aircraft crashed even though the fire intensified rapidly, igniting nearby materials. In each case the fire also rendered the aircraft unflyable, with the exception of SwissAir which stayed airborne longer as the crew attempted to burn off fuel.
A second reason that throws doubt on a cargo fire scenario is that the pilots of Flight 370, if they followed proper emergency procedure, would have both been using emergency oxygen masks, protecting them from toxic gas. “There are microphones in the masks, so they would have advised air traffic control of their intentions as they attempted an emergency return,” he says.
Finally, there remain doubts as to whether – even if the autopilot remained engaged – an aircraft would be capable of flying for seven hours. “A catastrophic end should have happened much sooner, even if they tried to depressurise the cabin to reduce the fire.”