The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Doug Herlihy
For The Sentinel 

County aviator working on missing plane

 

The World Post

TRIBUTE IN SAND: Inventive beachgoers in Malaysia constructed this message on honor of missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370. A Goldendale man is part of the team investigating the disappearance.

Doug Herlihy, a 10-year Klickitat County resident, is President of Aviation Forensics, LLC. A prolifically experienced aviator, Herlihy is in constant demand worldwide to assist with and testify on air disasters. He is a 20-year veteran of the US Coast Guard, retiring as Chief of Search and Rescue, Atlantic. He is former Operations Group Chairman with the National Transportation Safety Board and Investigator-in-Charge. He's investigated more than 500 crashes. He was recently in Beijing, China, assisting with the missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370. This is part one of his story on that episode.

The bizarre events began at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, March 7, this year, on a warm and humid night. The rains had passed. Just before 11 p.m. Captain Zaharie Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Hamid, 27, boarded the Boeing 777, behind 10 smartly-dressed Malaysia Airlines flight attendants, already on board preparing meals, pillows and blankets for the night flight. The flight planned in the early morning hours of March 8 to Beijing, China, would take less than six hours to cover the 2,700 miles, far less than the aircraft's 7,725 mile range. Two hundred and twenty seven passengers followed and settled in, expecting an on-time arrival in the morning in the Chinese capitol. Passengers, including 151 Chinese men, women, and children aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, could not imagine what was to follow.

First Officer Hamid copied the routine clearance to Beijing, for a planned level of 35,000 feet, and with routine tower communications, the 300 ton Boeing "triple seven" took off at 12:40 a.m. from Kuala Lumpur runway, climbing northwest across the Malaysia peninsula and out over the South China Sea. Its straight-line course, would take it into Vietnam airspace and then onto China.

Nineteen minutes later, at 1:01 a.m., First Officer Hamid radioed Kuala Lumpur Traffic Control that they had reached "flight level 350" (35,000 feet). Radar controllers at Kuala Lumpur monitored the progress of Flight 370 for another 20 minutes, until it was nearing the limits of the range of their civilian air traffic radar. A routine communication advising the flight to contact the next sector (Ho Chi Minh radar) was acknowledged by First Officer Hamid, with a routine "Good night, Malaysia Air 370." That was the last ever heard from the aircraft.

Who pulled the plug?

Airliners and other aircraft in the high altitude corridors of travel utilize a number of redundant systems to navigate and communicate with stations on the ground. Commercial airliners exchange continual information including maintenance, scheduling, load data, passenger connections, and gate assignments with their companies. Likewise, these ground stations, as well as radar controllers, depend on a number of systems to link with them from minute to minute. Radar signals from ground stations are essentially two-tiered in sophistication. Radar of World War II design track objects by reflecting pulses off objects, known as "primary" radar. However, commercial air-traffic radar facilities, such as air traffic control centers and approach controllers, receive vital and continuous information from transponders aboard the airliners that continually provide identity, altitude, airspeed, and course. This is called "secondary" radar. Its effectiveness, of course, depends on the airplane's equipment being active (turned on) while "primary radar" does not require human response, as most military radar naturally do not expect a quiet intruder to turn on such a transponder and announce its position. Military radar stations merely track metal objects.

Back on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the plug is most likely pulled. Within two minutes after the final "good night" from Flight 370, mysterious events began to unfold. At 1:21 a.m., as the aircraft reached the outer limits of Malaysian radar, but still far south of the range of Vietnam's radar, the airplane's transponder went black, likely turned off. Only 40 minutes after takeoff, all voice communications, despite calls, ceased. Now, only scattered radar stations, manned by Malaysian military, were able to track the silent airplane. The flight abruptly changed from its northeast track, veering southwest back across Malaysia and then northwest over the Strait of Malacca, the slot of water that separates Malaysia from the giant Sumatra island to the west. It answered no calls. Military radar stations reported watching the silent airplane climb from 35,000 feet to 45,000 feet and then descend rapidly to 23,000 feet, before climbing again. Despite the dramatic turn to the west across Malaysia and the rapid climbs and descents, there is not a single report of a cell tower in Malaysia being "hit" by a cell phone signal from an on-board device from any of 227 passengers!

The silence and the mystery deepens as the airplane's secondary communications devices fail to respond to scheduled transmissions. A device called ACARS (Aircraft Communicating, Addressing and Reporting System, not unlike a teletype machine with video), automatically transmits routine, scheduled information among ground stations, airline operations, maintenance bases and others on a multitude of subjects from weather, to gate information, maintenance, route changes and more. The ACARS of Flight 370 failed to respond to a scheduled information transfer at 1:37 a.m. It was likely turned off, as well. Altogether the three essential and redundant lines of communication - voice, transponder and ACARS - fell silent while the airplane was tracked off course toward the west and the Indian Ocean, erratically climbing and descending. Finally, lost even to military radar and far from land off the northern tip of Sumatra, the flight slipped into the vast airspace over the Indian Ocean. Cell phones aboard the flight are silent as well.

But... tiny peeps of the living airplane began to emerge. Far to the west in Earth orbit, a lone IMARSAT (International Marine Satellite, a global marine distress system ), receives a tiny signal designed to routinely reset aircraft system timers. This signal is only a brief tic, and then silence. One hour later, another tiny tic. One hour later, another. Five in all, one each hour. Then silence.

By the end of this day, and in the weeks following, the world's greatest search begins. While speculation swirls, intensive investigations begin into passenger lists, crew history and aircraft characteristics. A 300-ton Boeing 777 with 239 souls on board has vanished. Or has it?

The IMARSAT calculations are key to their whereabouts. Even now, the investigation and the search continues.

 

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