Flight MH 370: Did the Boeing 777-200ER Pilot Ditch Over Water?

What happens when a Boeing 777 has to make a water landing? Image by Arpingstone

What happens when a Boeing 777 has to make a water landing? Image by Arpingstone

The search continues for the missing flight MH 370 of Malaysia Airlines which disappeared on 7th March around 16:41 UTC with 239 souls on board.

There are multiple theories surfacing. Was the plane hijacked? Were there acts of terrorism? Could Flight 370 have been stolen due to a valuable cargo or an important passenger?

There are even some who suggest that the plane was swallowed by a worm-hole (also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge; a hypothetical shortcut through space-time).

Since there were no magicians -and most likely, no worm-holes – around, the plane did unfortunately crash into the ocean… somewhere.

At this point, there’s little left but to investigate or theorize the manner in which the Boeing 777-200ER made contact with water.

Disregarding the course Captain Zahaire Ahmed Shah could have taken the plane on to and the crucial left turn reported by the Royal Malaysian Airforce primary radar, lets focus on the altitude of the airplane, as it plays a vital role as to how the airplane could have made contact with water.

Gliding Down To Water – Ditching A Boeing 777

The assigned cruise altitude of the MH 370 was FL350 (35,000 feet) and the plane was reportedly last detected by radar at an altitude of 29,500 feet, which indicates descent. With regards to altitude in this situation: The higher the plane was, the longer its glide would be; hence there would be a better chance of finding suitable clear land for touchdown.

Even if there is no landmass within reach of the glide path, higher altitude gives more time to the pilots to prepare for a water landing.

In case of any on-board anomaly that could have prompted  the captain of flight MH 370 to make a water landing, the primary concern of the pilots would have been to approach the water at the slowest possible airspeed, and a low rate of descent.

Water landings are extremely difficult to maneuver but not entirely impossible. Previous instances of ditching a plane in water include a Boeing 737-300 of Indonesian Airline ditching successfully in a river on 16th January 2002, and the infamous U.S. Airways jet liner ditching in the Hudson River in 2009.

If the pilot executes the ditching maneuver safely, he can avoid airplane disintegration to a great extent, which increases the time the aircraft can remain afloat. A Boeing 777 is entirely capable of ditching successfully in water (if properly maneuvered by the pilots) and would stay afloat just long enough for the passengers to disembark via the 8 slide rafts integrated into the 777 for such circumstances.

What Happens if the Ditching Goes Wrong?

To a passenger, the ocean may look calm up from the air, when observed from cruise altitudes. However, ditching a plane in water is a pilot’s worst nightmare – and a maneuver for which they are trained repeatedly on simulators. The first priority when there’s a need to make a forced landing is to avoid ditching a plane in water at all, and find a clear patch of land instead.

This form of landing is always considered a last resort – and for good reason. There are a lot of variables involved: wind speed and direction at the surface of water, airspeed, descent rate, weight of the aircraft, pitch of the aircraft, and of course the general angle (descent angle) at which the airplane approaches the water. If any of these listed variables move out of proportion or balance, the effects would be disastrous on impact with the surface of water.

Flight 370: Water Landing Executed Properly?

For MH 370, a Boeing 777-200 which has its two engines under the wings, it is particularly vital to approach the water at an angle that could perhaps avoid airplane disintegration, since the engine cowlings would act as two large scoops in action. Such an unfortunate instance would result in a large scatter of debris – a considerable portion of which would not sink but float on the surface of water.

Given the circumstances, it is highly unlikely (but not yet confirmed) that MH 370 was able to execute a safe water ditching if it encountered water at all.

© Copyright 2014 Junaid Ali, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science


  1. Jon PlotkinJon Plotkin says

    It’s time to re-evaluate the evidence in the MH-370 disappearance. The evidence is that the plane was flown by someone who knew what he was doing and deliberately hid from detection by turning off all communications and changing course. Once the plane was undetectable, one of two things happened.

    If you believe the satellite data, there was an inflection point at which time the plane began to fly without interruption to its demise in the south Indian Ocean. To me, the only sensible conclusion is that the pilot bailed out.

    If you don’t believe the Inmarsat data (frankly, I don’t), then the inescapable conclusion is that the pilot landed the plane somewhere. Somalia is my best guess right now, but there are many possibilities.

    It seems to me that authorities are ignoring the fact that someone deliberately made the plane invisible. To do that and then ditch it in the south Indian Ocean makes no sense to me.

  2. Wamuwi Changani says

    How low can a Boeing fly and what its capable minimum speed, and for how long can it maintain such a minimum at what enabling environmental factors

  3. says

    Because no debris has been found, it seems likely that at least one of the pilots or persons capable of flying the plane could have safely put the 777 on the ocean surface without any debris as was the case on the Huddson in 2009 with USAir’s Airbus. It seems plausible that all souls on board except the “pilot” were diliberately deprived of oxygen when the MH370 went above 45,000 ft for a short time. Then when the aircraft ran out of fuel the “pilot” gently glided it on the ocean and it eventually sank from there. All bodies would still be in their seats with seat belts fastened except the “pilot” whose fate would be anyone’s guess.

    • jorth storm says

      Right David!
      Since the 777 is entirely fly-by-wire and the 777 computers actually control everything a clever attacker could take control of the 777 away from the pilots by taking control of the computers. It’s been proven by both Boeing and Airbus the current generation 21st Century aircraft of this class can take off and land with the pilots hands-off.
      Scenario: Attacker (think: terrorist with no regard for collateral damage) wants item of cargo or proof positive someone has been eliminated. Attacker has access to aircraft through avionics technician sympathetic to the cause. Attacker creates a modified version of the aircraft programming that gives him remote control of every aircraft system through already existing communications lines. (think: root-kit) Bad guy avionics technician puts modified program on every plane he touches.
      One day coincidences coincide and the right target is on a flight that has the modified software. Computer ignores input from flight deck, goes to high altitude, turns off cabin heat and pressurization. Wait a while until cabin oxygen masks and crew oxygen is used up, land plane at any one of a bunch of remote locations within the range of the 777, remove object of interest from plane, send plane on to watery grave. It would take a lot of money and time to do, but you don’t know what the payoff was.

  4. michael mazur says

    If this plane had been set down in the water intact, how long would it be before it sank ? Where are the points of entry for the water, and why was it not possible to design out of the fuselage these points of entry ?

    • Junaid Alijunaid says

      If the Boeing 777-200ER were placed intact in water, there would have been time enough for all the 239 souls on board to exit via the rafts. As to the points of entry for water the landing gear hold, ram air inlets and any puncture to the aircraft skin due to impact with water would serve to load up the plane thereby increasing its weight and augmenting the rate of sinking.

      To completely design-out all the points of entry for water would drastically increase the weight of the aircraft and hence compromise flight efficiency.

      There are valves of course operating for a one-directional flow of air and would also resist any water inflow under ideal circumstances. However, water ditching is always a destructive maneuver and aircraft designers pay more attention to incorporating systems that ‘avoid’ such instances rather than strengthening the plane for it.

  5. kevin says

    “Given the circumstances, it is highly unlikely (but not yet confirmed) that MH 370 was able to execute a safe water ditching if it encountered water at all.”

    What circumstances are being referred to? The fact that the engines are under the wings?

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