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

Resources for this article

Boeing. Boeing 777-200/-200ER Technical CHaracteristics. Accessed on March 21, 2014

BBC. MH370 Malaysian Plane: Indian Ocean searched for plane. (2014). Accessed on March 21, 2014

Aviation Safety Network. Criminal Occurrence description . (2014). Accessed on March 21, 2014

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  1. says

    i have found an aircraft 200 miles northeast of La Reunion Island near an island called Round Island, it the same size as a 777-200ER, it has the belly ripped out and the nose back to the wings broken off, in a huge debris field of items and skin panels with windows. i followed what people saw, first the oil worker saw a fire in the sky and then it went out, the aircraft has now turned around the fire is now on the other side of the aircraft, if it was an engine or wing fire the pilots were able to put it out as it was not seen while crossing back over Malaysia, now heading back to try and land, the fire has burnt out all of the electrics and hydraulic lines in that wing slowly loosing fluid and having trouble to turn they had to keep this aircraft in the air as it was night and a night crash was out of the question, but still trying to find some where to land it, but with no electrics or compass and no fluid the only thing they could do is keep it in the air till day break hoping to find an island or airport, they did find an island but they were too high they knew approximately where they were after passing over these islands, they knew that Garcia was in front of them so they tried for it, we also know that a phone call came from the aircraft through the Garcia telecommunications tower as they passed Garcia, but they were 300 miles to the east of it, so they had to keep flying now to La Reunion Island having a large airport as their airline flies there, but unfortunately they ran out of fuel before they could get to Reunion, they scrubbed off speed lowering all flaps under there own weight and dropping the landing gear which hit first folding back and ripping out the belly section, from the wings back to the rear cargo loading doors, skipping along on the engines and then nose diving as all the weight now is at the front, as it nose dived it flipped over breaking the front section from the cockpit back to the wings off, i found this aircraft on google earth historic date 27.3.2014 and also again on 6.5.2016 slowly breaking up, it only 3 miles from were it crashed over 2 years ago now the ocean currents go round and around there. i have taken into consideration the aircraft crossing 7th arks which it would have done even going straight south from Sumatra for 5.30 hours, as the expert said it crashed off the coast of Australia still crossing the 7th ark, problem is they forgot that the earth turns 15% every hour, now if you measure 5.30 hours to the west from where they say it crashed it will put you 200 miles east of Reunion, and thats where it is still afloat just, some might say how can it float for 2 years, thats what i thought until i saw how it was built, as the wings and flaps are hollow, loosing its engines and under carriage and the batteries, its now possible to float, as we know the flaperon floated ashore and hundreds of items from this crashed aircraft. i have over 300 images of items from this aircraft, but there is no photo section here. in some of the images it looks like people in lifejackets hanging onto objects, as nobody saw it crash, there was no rescue, and they are searching in the wrong area. if you want to see a photo of this aircraft go to my Facebook page . my nick name is macca, under peter mcmahon.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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