After I put up my post on Tuesday, some people questioned why I would even pose such a question whose premise is so unlikely. The reason is that at present there seem to be only two possible end-of-flight scenarios for MH370:
- Flying south on autopilot, the plane ran out of fuel shortly after 0:11 and thereafter plunged into the sea at high speed, hitting the surface near the 0:19 ping arc. This is what I would call the mainstream default view; it is implicitly endorsed by the ATSB and the Independent Group, and is the justification for the current subsea search area.
- A conscious pilot flew the plane until fuel exhaustion—possibly along a curving path—then guided it to a soft landing (the “ditching” scenario) beyond the current search area.
Scenario 1 has largely been discounted by the failure of the seabed search (the Australians cling to hope that the wreckage will turn up in the extended search area, which should be completed within the year; if it does not they have admitted that they are out of ideas). Scenario 2 would explain the lack of wreckage on the seabed and the scarcity of surface debris; the idea is that the plane could have come to rest on the surface largely intact and then sunk in one piece, leaving little floating debris.
The condition of the Reunion flaperon might also be evidence for ditching, given its relatively intact condition. Some have surmised that the aft portion was ripped away at the moment of impact with the water. (Fans of scenario 1 propose that the flaperon could have been ripped of by aerodynamic forces during a very high-speed descent, and then fluttered intact the surface while the rest of the plane hit the surface at near-Mach speed at was smashed to smithereens. This would explain why the flaperon is intact, but not why the subsea search has failed.)
As I pointed out in the original post, an inherent problem with the ditching scenario is that it is an intentional act that dooms the pilot to a prolonged death. Indeed, while pilot suicides are rare, ditching suicides are so far unknown. It woud be like committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge while wearing a parachute.
So how to explain such an occurrence? Here are some of the answers that commenters came up with:
— To hide the crime. First-time commenter @Rob (welcome!) wrote: “If you plan to make the plane disappear into the SIO, and you choose to stay aboard for 6 more hours, this suggests that you personally wanted to make sure the plane was properly ‘ditched,’ maybe to prevent a lot of debris from showing up.” @Jason Skidmore proposed that the disappearance was “some new form of terrorist-type attack.. If the plane is never found, and no one knows what happened it’s going to be pretty tough to prevent it in the future.” PRO: If a perp were to fly the plane into the remotest part of the ocean and ditch it so that it would come to rest intact and sink to the bottom of the ocean without leaving a trace, they would go to their deaths knowing that they had created the greatest aviation mystery of all time. Wrote @Kikeena: “Ever since the 4th century BC people have recognised that others will commit a criminal act to become famous. Herostratus destroyed the temple of Artemis for fame, though he was killed by the authorities to try to quiet the story. I think the reward for Zaharie was in the planning and execution. Suicide wasn’t the main motive, though he was prepared to die in persuit the fame of creating a mystery. And waiting the 6 hours to land the plane would be exhilerating.” CON: They wouldn’t be around to enjoy this knowledge, and if their goal was to become famous by generating an unsolvable mystery, their success undercuts that goal, because no one knows they did it. If, on the other hand, their aim was to achieve some terroristic objective, e.g. to show the bankruptcy of the UMNO regime, the fog of mystery is too vaporous to do so. To put it another way, no one has visibly benefitted from the disappearance of MH370. Also, I wouldn’t put much stock in a plan that requires a 777 to ditch successfully in the open ocean—a manifestly dangerous and perhaps impossible feat.
— Botched hijack. @Zoe drew a comparison to Ethiopian 961, in which hijackers told the pilots to fly to a destination that lay beyond the plane’s fuel reserves; when the plane ran out of fuel, the pilots managed a semi-successful ditching. PRO: Only scenario based on historical precedent. CON: Requires hijackers to be numbskulls, which is contra-indicated by the sophisticated nature of the turnaround portion of the flight.
— Chickened out. This one I came up with by myself. The idea is that Zaharie decided to kill himself, and turned off the cockpit voice recorder by isolating the left AC bus so that it wouldn’t record the sound of him killing his copilot. But then he found himself unable go through with his plan to dive the plane into the sea, and instead just kept flying. Too scared to go home, too timid to nosedive into the sea, he just kept going, maybe turning the plane now and again as if starting to head for home and then thinking better of it. Finally, the plane ran out of fuel, but he was still too scared to face that deadly final plunge, so he eased the plane down into the water. PRO: Seems pyschologically plausible, to me anyway. CON: The acceleration and careful maneuvering post IGARI, as described in Victor’s recent guest post, doesn’t exactly smack of timid indecision.
— Schizophrenia/Hypoxia. It being so hard to find a rational motive for the disappearance of MH370, perhaps it was carried out by someone who had lost their mind, perhaps as a result of hypoxia or a psychotic break. PRO: Removes the need for a motive. CON: Commenter @Roberta wrote that she has personally known people who underwent psychotic breaks: “They are generally unable to function at a very basic level when they are going through a true psychosis. They have literally “lost their mind” and often do not recognize loved ones, cannot take care of themselves and cannot speak with any clarity about very simple things. This includes psychosis caused by schizophrenia, bipolar mania and depression. Statistically psychotic breaks rarely lead to suicide. Most psychotic people don’t have their shit together enough to make and carry out a prolonged suicide plan, let alone fly a Boeing 777 and precisely know when and how to turn off ACARS, when to fly high or low to avoid primary radar, etc.” Hypoxia produces even more severe incapacitation and is unlikely to leave pilots in a state of steady semi-consciousness for six hours.
— To meet a ship or sub. There was something valuable on board the plane that plotters wanted to steal untraceably, so they arranged for the plane to ditch in the vicinity of a getaway vessel. PRO: Writes commenter @agreen: “No detection by radar or satellite and deep waters to dispose of the plane.” CON: As @alex immediately pointed out, it would be sketchy to plan such a transfer right at the limit of the plane’s fuel reserves. Also, as noted above, a plan that depends on successfully ditching a 777 in the open ocean seems fundamentally flawed.