A piece of what is obviously a piece of an airplane wing has been discovered on Reunion, a small island in the Seychelles off the coast of Africa just east of Madagascar some 2,900 nautical miles southwest of the point where the airplane was seen to make a turn and radar contact was lost. At the time, I looked at the information available and determined that if the airplane continued on the course it was on when last picked up by radar, it would go down somewhere in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. Now that a piece of obvious airplane wreckage was discovered in the surf off Reunion, it appears that my theory is correct. A suitcase was also found in the same vicinity a few days earlier.
Let’s look at the situation again. The Boeing 777 had taken off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. It was over the Gulf of Thailand when it was turned over to Vietnam air traffic control. At the time, it was in a dead zone and the crew was given a point at which to make the contact, which they never made. The radar transponder disappeared from the radar controller’s screen, which is normal because the range of the transponder is only a couple of hundred miles at most. Air traffic control radar only has a range of about the same distance. (I made several trips from Houston to Mexico and Central America. We would lose radar contact shortly after leaving the Texas Gulf Coastline and were required to report our position until we were picked up by Mexican radar. There was also about 100 miles or so when we were not in VHF radio contact.) Military radar picked up a contact at about the same place where the airplane was last seen and its track was shown to be somewhat in the opposite direction. The military radar was painting the airplane’s skin and other metal components that reflect radar waves. When the object disappeared from the military radar, it was still on the same heading, a heading that would take it over the Indian Ocean toward the African coast. A plot would put the track north of the Seychelles, but not by much.
The radar track never showed the airplane turning to the south. The turn to the south was a theory put forth after the British company that made the airplane’s satellite communications telephone claimed that their satellites had been “pinged” by the airplane’s equipment. The airplane was supposedly equipped to transmit hourly engine information but there was some question as to whether the airline subscribed to the service. The company “plotted” a course based on the signals it’s satellites supposedly received and determined that it turned south and headed over the South Indian Ocean past Australia. Although the authorities bought the theory, not every was convinced.
That the airplane made a turn back toward Malaysia is consistent with some kind of mechanical problem, probably electrical that caused the communications and navigation systems to fail. It is probable that there was also an explosive loss of pressurization and the pilots may have initiated a descent although there is no way to know since they were not observed by radar. The military track was very faint and had no azimuth. (As I understand it, the track was discovered several days after the incident and was not observed at the time.) A 777 once experienced a sudden cockpit fire on the copilots side that burned through the side of the airplane in an instant. Fortunately, it happened on the ground. Had this happened inflight, the airplane would have lost pressure immediately, which would have incapacitated the crew before they could get on oxygen and caused an electrical failure. The engines would have continued to run as long as they were getting fuel. (Electrical power is only required to start a jet engine – once the fuel in the burner cans ignites, it keeps burning.) Depending on where the fire was and which electrical systems were affected, the airplane could have still had power which would have perhaps kept the autopilot functioning. There have been instances where airplanes lost pressurization and everyone on board lost consciousness but the airplane flew until it ran out of fuel.
The current media reports are claiming that the wreckage followed ocean currents and ended up in the Seychelles from somewhere off of Australia but I find this doubtful since it often takes years for debris to cross an ocean, not to mention that debris in the South Indian Ocean usually goes south rather than northwestward. Don’t be surprised if more debris shows up in the Seychelles, on Madagascar and the African coast.