Limerick pilots give insight into fate of missing Malaysian jet

Donal O’Regan


Donal O’Regan

Sgt. Matthew Falanga on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, scans for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in southern Indian Ocean     Picture: AP
EVERY pilot in the world has their theory on what happened to Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER.

EVERY pilot in the world has their theory on what happened to Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER.

This Thursday morning a Thai satellite detected 300 floating objects in the southern Indian Ocean where an international search is under way.

The objects were spotted around 2,700 km southwest of Perth by satellite. However, air searches have found nothing and been suspended due to bad weather. So while the search does appear to be closing in, why it happened may never be known.

The Limerick Leader contacted Gerry Humphreys of Brittas, Murroe. He has been flying professionally for over 35 years and has logged over 9,000 hours worldwide in a variety of aircraft ranging from military fast jets to general aviation aerobatic, sport, land, sea, utility, and training aircraft.

The former RAF pilot is currently chief pilot at Pacnet Air and airlines/aviation consultant. To say he is an authority on all things aeronautical is an understatement.

While there have been some ingenious theories, Mr Humphreys believe something catastrophic happened in the cockpit.

“Possibly fire or decompression, impossible to say without the data recorders. If it turns out that the aircraft flew in a straight line until it ran out of fuel I can only imagine that it was on some sort of autopilot heading and altitude hold,” said Mr Humphreys.

He says the Australian and New Zealand Orion aircraft currently on task are specialist maritime patrol aircraft with an anti-submarine role.

“They will probably have dropped sonar listening buoys if they suspect an emergency transmitter is in the area. However, sound waves attenuate quickly in water and the range on such a device may mean that, given the depth of the ocean in the area one might have to be almost on top to pick up the signal,” explained Mr Humphreys, who like everyone feels immensely sorry for the passengers’ families.

It will be three weeks on Saturday since the plane went missing.

“And I feel an even longer wait to find out what actually happened,” said Mr Humphreys.

The Leader has also received an expert insight from another Limerick pilot who has flown Boeing 777s - the same type of plane that crashed. He didn’t wish to be named.

“This whole saga is bizarre. I had theories but they change by the day. The aircraft continuously streams data back to base with regard to engine and flight parameters. I have often in the past received messages from engineering telling us of defects before they have actually presented themselves to us on board,” they said.

Initially, the only thing he thought was certain was that what ever happened was sudden and catastrophic.

However, the radar track showing the aircraft off course doesn’t fit that model.

“Now I think that the only thing that is certain is that we are not getting all the information. The powers that be say that someone (most likely pilot) switched off transponder, datalink and ACARS. There is no possible way they can know that for certain without recovering the flight data recorder. They could have failed, happens intermittently (ACARS, not transponder) on almost every sector. So why say it?” they asked.

The pilot also passes on his sympathies to the families who have lost loved ones, particularly because “it’s likely that they may never know what happened”.

Returning to Mr Humphreys, he says there is a lot of jargon for the general public to get around.

“But it’s all pretty simple in reality. ACARS [Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System] is a digital datalink system for transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via airband radio or satellite, not unlike SMS. Lots of data is passed to ground-based engineers who often pick up a fault before it is apparent to the crew,” said Mr Humphreys.

With communications so predominant in every facet of modern life, he says readers may not be aware that radar coverage is limited and in many parts of the world, over the Atlantic for example, there is none.

“At the sort of altitude an airliner flies at I would expect a radar to be able to detect aircraft at roughly 200 miles if the transponder is on. A transponder is a device to assist a radar in highlighting a target.

“Radar works just like a torch in the dark. You shine your torch in the direction you want to see, the eye picks up reflected light and cleverly transforms this into an image sent to your brain. If an object is far away you won’t notice it.

“However, if that object had a torch of its own which automatically switched on whenever it ‘saw’ your torch then you would see it. That’s exactly what a transponder does, it helps radar to ‘see’ objects that would otherwise be invisible by transmitting a burst of energy that can be received by the radar.

“Transponders ‘tag’ their emissions with aircraft altitude and a 4-number code (known as a ‘squawk’) selected by the pilot,” said Mr Humphreys.

One of the issues exposed by this whole affair is that modern Air Traffic control radars are ‘filtered’ to cut out false reflections (e.g. from some types of clouds) and so optimised to see transponding traffic only.

“As a result they are almost ‘blind’ to objects that do not ‘transpond’ - especially if they are at extreme range or low down. Without a transponder, a high-flying aircraft can effectively ‘disappear’ from radar. The lack of a transponder signal, voice and data communication to me point to some sort of major electrical fault, or human interaction,” he said.

Mr Humphreys concludes by saying he doesn’t think anyone will solve this mystery without the data on the recorders.