A study of some critical numbers is helping investigators track down Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over a week ago on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
All of the significant numbers have been looked at, but perhaps one more rehash with maybe a different perspective — and a couple of new numbers — will shed much-needed light on the search.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: What Was The Range Of The Plane?
The Boeing 777 is designed to hold enough fuel to travel over 5,000 miles. However, airlines don’t fill the tank, as this would decrease efficiency due to the added weight of fuel.
Flight 370 was scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, around 2700 miles. A generous estimate would be that the plane carried enough fuel to fly 3500 miles. However, range may not be the most important metric for this flight.
How Long Could The Plane Stay In The Air?
The Boeing 777 is designed to cruise at a speed of 562 miles per hour with a maximum speed of 590 miles per hour. At cruising speed, and with a range of 3500 miles, the plane would stay aloft for six hours and 12 minutes. However, if the plane flew at a considerably slower speed, it could remain in the air much longer
Consider a car. If you drive 30 miles per hour, you can drive twice as long as if you drive 60 miles per hour, though you won’t go any farther. A plane may not be exactly equivalent to a car, but the minimum speed of the Boeing 777, used on landing, is 160 miles per hour. At a speed of 250 or 300 miles per hour, the plane could stay aloft for at least a few hours longer than its time at cruising speed.
The Path The Plane Traveled
At approximately 8 a.m., more than seven hours after takeoff, a geostationary satellite in the Indian Ocean recorded a signal from the plane. The satellite is only equipped to determine the distance to the signal –nothing more. Not the angle from the satellite to the plane, nor the speed or direction the plane is traveling.
The arcs that have been shown north and south of Malaysia are very misleading. If connected and continued, they would form a circle, the points of which are equidistant from the satellite. The arcs end because that is considered the maximum range of the plane. The plane was somewhere on that circle.
Summing Up What We Know So Far
MH370 was diverted from its scheduled Kuala Lumpur to Beijing route by someone with intimate knowledge of the aircraft. This person had meticulously planned the theft of the airplane. If (s)he wanted to crash it into the ocean, (s)he wouldn’t have gone to such elaborate lengths to hide, and could have simply taken the aircraft down in the China Sea. If the plane had flown north over Asia, it certainly would have been spotted by radar.
The plane must have flown south, and was still in the air an hour after it would have run out of fuel if it had flown at cruising speed.
It is reasonable to assume that someone who has gone through this elaborate planning wants to land the plane. If the plane proceeded at cruising speed, it would have run out of fuel at 6 a.m. Kuala Lumpur time. The plane last sent a signal at 8 am. What happened between 6 and 8 am that would make the pilot want to keep the plane in the air? The sun came up.
Obviously this plane could not be landed at a commercial airport without the pilot being apprehended. Landing anywhere else would have to be done manually and require a decent view of the surroundings to have any chance of success.
Where Could Flight 370 Land?
Though other places in the Indian ocean have been suggested, the only sensible answer is Australia. It is only 2500 straight line miles from Kuala Lumpur to Perth in western Australia. Even accounting for the route, which may have been several hundred miles farther, the plane could have made it.
The Australian outback covers all of western and northwest Australia except for a very narrow coastal strip. The terrain is mostly flat and unpopulated. The Boeing 777 requires a landing distance of 7,000 feet; there must be many such stretches in the outback. The landing wouldn’t have been easy, and the plane surely wouldn’t be able to take off again, but there is no reason to think that an experienced pilot could not put the plane down there.
What About Radar?
There are no military radars in western Australia. There are a number of meteorological radars, with ranges of around 200 miles. A pilot with knowledge of the locations could probably avoid detection; but even if one of the radars had recorded a signal, no one would have noticed.
The Big Question: Why?
There are three possible reasons for wanting to steal this plane: there is a passenger of value; there is cargo of value; the plane itself has value. If it was a valuable passenger, a ransom note would have been received; the plane surely has no value (at least to the pilot) after the landing; so it must be the cargo. What it is and how it got there — that’s for somebody else to figure out.