Satellite imagery might yet locate Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing during a nighttime flight on March 8. Over the weekend, the governments of France and China said they had identified debris, possibly from the civilian airliner, in the southern Indian Ocean. Australian officials issued a similarly hopeful statement Thursday, but despite the best efforts of search teams, no confirmed wreckage has been found so far (although the Malaysian government certainly believes that MH370 went down in the area).
The seeming disappearance of a 64-meter-long Boeing 777-200ER in midair has encouraged speculation from the conspiratorial to the fantastical regarding MH370’s fate. None of these elaborate theories, however, adequately explains how a commercial airliner could simply vanish.
Flying below the radar
It’s no secret that radar works line-of-sight, so if a plane flies low enough, it can put geographic obstacles between itself and a dish, rendering the aircraft undetectable. And, in fact, a week after MH370 first went missing, Slate writer Jeff Wise suggested that someone—either the pilot or a hijacker—might have diverted the plane to a landing strip in central Asia. Wise theorized that the commercial jet could have slipped past Chinese military radar by flying close to the ground and hiding behind hills. Similarly, former assistant FBI director, James Kallstrom, was among those who early on did not rule out the possibility that the Malaysian flight was hijacked and secretly landed somewhere. Some commentators have even mapped out all available runways in the region.
Aviation experts doubt, however, that a commercial airliner could pull off the kind of very low-altitude, nap-of-the-Earth (NOE) flying that military pilots use to avoid line-of-sight radar. It’s one thing for a crackerjack captain to buzz the ground on a nice sunny day, “but at night, in unfamiliar terrain, it’s very, very dicey,” says Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Codron, a former B-52 squadron commander.
Military jets carry special equipment to help pilots fly low without crashing. The B-52, for example, employs terrain-avoidance radar, a forward-looking infrared pod and a steerable TV window. Passenger planes like the Boeing 777-200ER have none of that—and for good reason: They were not meant to ferry nuclear weapons over the North Pole and evade Soviet air defenses.
Civilian jets are also not designed for the turbulence associated with NOE flight, and they lack the warning equipment needed to detect the very radar systems a pilot would want to avoid. And as for the radar altimeter and ground proximity warning system onboard the 777-200ER, Charlie Morris, a retired pilot who knows the plane well, admits he “wouldn’t feel comfortable” relying on them to fly down canyons.
Jamming, spoofing and cyber attack
Other theories imply that electronic warfare techniques—jamming, spoofing or degrading signals—might be involved in MH370’s disappearance. Such technologies can prevent enemy fire control radars from getting a fatal lock on aircraft, but they are not a David Copperfield magic trick. They don’t make planes disappear, especially not large commercial airliners, from the screens of air traffic control systems.
The U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler aircraft carries the necessary equipment to jam the military radar that could be used to track a 777, says Joe Hulsey, an electronic warfare technology specialist and director of strategic initiatives at Northrop Grumman. Such a scenario is unlikely, given the lack of access that any potential hijackers might have to a single Growler, let alone the multiple electronic warfare aircraft needed to jam radar along the 777’s path. And ground air traffic controllers would likely recognize they were being jammed or encountering some sort of electromagnetic interference.
Likewise, trying to spoof an airliner’s position on radar would alert controllers that something unusual is happening. “You’re not giving them zero targets,” explains Chris Carlson, former director of business development of defense contractor Exelis’ Electronic Systems division. “You’re giving them more targets so you confuse the operator or the computer that’s driving the radar.”
Not to be outdone, Sally Leivesley, a former scientific adviser to the U.K.’s Home Office, recently told the Express that the plane might have been remotely hijacked by computer hackers. But to completely scrub an airliner from a radar screen would require a cyber attack of epic proportions, Hulsey says. Think multiple computer penetrations of all the national air traffic control systems in the Asia-Pacific region. “I don't see it happening, except in a Tom Clancy novel,” he adds.
Others have posited that an airline pilot could physically hide a plane in the radar signature of another. But once again, such speculation falls apart with the details. “[The pilot] has to join up with that other plane to fly close enough that it would almost be like the [U.S. Air Force] Thunderbirds—in the middle of the night, with a plane that’s not meant to fly in formation,” says Col. (Ret.) William McCabe, president of the McCabe Group LLC, an aviation safety consultancy. And assuming no broader collaboration, this would have to occur without talking to the other pilot or knowing his air speed and altitude—oh, and while being buffeted by the engines of the other plane. “That gets you going down the silly path,” McCabe concludes.
Turning off the “lights”
Although it still unknown as to what happened onboard MH370 or why it made an unscheduled westward turn after the co-pilot’s last communication with air traffic control, military radars in Thailand and Malaysia did pick up the plane before its final ping with an Inmarsat satellite at 8:10 AM local time. This happened only after someone on MH370 had switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which broadcasts its flight number, altitude and speed. Once the 777 effectively went dark, it was able to effectively slip past civilian air traffic control in so-called radar “dead zones” out at sea. “When you go to the Asia-Pacific area, and you’re out around the oceans, the radar coverage is not as good—and if the transponder turns off, they are going to have a hard time knowing what altitude you’re at and maybe even seeing the plane at all,” McCabe says.
As the search for MH370 stretches into a third week, investigators continue to comb the ocean for clues, finding little to explain how such a massive aircraft could disappear without a trace.