The Captain Did It

by Kent Smerdon, Captain (ret’d) AKS, former Air force fighter and VIP pilot, heavy jet (B-767) Captain

The captain did it.

There is no one else who had the authority, the motive, the opportunity and the knowledge to carry out such a perfect and, for want of a better word, elegant crime.

First, who did NOT do it:

ALL passengers and ALL flight attendants (and, I assume, their families plus any Malaysian Airport, Malaysian Airline pilot and ground personnel who had come within a country mile of the aircraft in the prior month) were investigated and exonerated.  No groups or organizations of any kind…political, religious, criminal, family, rebel, partisan, terrorist, Chinese or Malaysian government rival factions…claimed responsibility for the incident.  No ransom demand was ever made, ending speculation that the aircraft was high-jacked and hidden away at some jungle airstrip. It was not the CIA, the FBI, Delta Force, the Green Berets, the Taliban, Al Quada, Al Shabab, the Russian mob, the North Koreans, or a tractor beam from a flying saucer.  Tom Clancy’s wildest dreams did not make this airplane disappear. It was not somehow tampered with in advance then “hacked” (good grief!) from the ground or from a drone(!) whereby the pilots were rendered powerless to control the aircraft, flown by remote control (Dr. Evil?) and then landed “somewhere.”

It did not explode (if it had done so, it would’ve been found by now) nor did it catch fire…airplanes that have major fires don’t fly on for 6 hours and even minor fires cause frightened crews to head for the nearest strip of concrete as fast as they can go. But the most telling fact of all is that there was never any distress call either by radio or via the transponder. If there was a fire, explosion, serious malfunction or attempts to storm the steel flight deck door using a fire extinguisher as a battering ram, any Flight Crew innocent of wrong doing or complicity would’ve told somebody…anybody in the interim, that they were in distress. They didn’t, because none of the above happened. This was an inside job.

The First Officer: He was engaged to be married and could afford to do so thanks to his new and higher hourly paid position on the B-777. Any pilot recently engaged to his future bride and so new on such a remarkable machine would be excited enough about just doing his job. He would not be planning the crime of the century.  I know because I’ve experienced the same thing. It was not him.

Who did it?

The Captain:

Experienced, competent, trusted….in other words, the perfect villain. All this nonsense about pilots being “perfect” is rubbish. They’re people, and while they may act more responsibly then some other professionals in their daily lives, there is a very big reason for this. Let’s face some facts…after all the hours of training, the enormous costs, being the newbie at the bottom of the seniority list, the simulators, the interviews, the psych tests, and the medicals, when the big bucks finally start to roll in, any sane pro pilot is unlikely to act in any way to jeopardize what is still viewed as one of the most sought after professions in the world.

His motives to plan and do this terrible act could be many. It was rumored that his wife had left him and that he may have been having mistress “issues”.  What a fertile ground indeed for mental strife and irrational acts. Adultery? Divorce? Prostitution? Blackmail? Was he secretly gay? Family shame? Family honor? Gambling debts? Mob/Loan shark pressure? Drug addiction? The list is endless.

I firmly believe that he not only wanted to take his own life, but he wanted to cover it up and he viewed the other unfortunate victims as collateral damage.  He wanted to cover his tracks in such a thorough manner in order for his family to collect life insurance and be spared any attached shame for his act.  Appeasement/guilt for the adultery perhaps? Perhaps he could not live “in the closet” any longer?  Who knows?  The fact is, unless evidence is found and proven otherwise, murder/suicide must be ruled out. Therefore, any insurance policy remains valid and he wanted his family to collect.

“But aren’t pilots tested routinely for mental stability etc.?”  Another bit of CNN mis-information.

Nonsense…at least not at my old Airline. The ONLY way a pilot would be investigated in this way would be if a fellow crew member turned him in for “acting strangely” or behavior posing a hazard to the operation. It was a VERY rare occurrence.

Otherwise, it’s the standard medical…heart, lungs, blood pressure, tap the knees, pulse, weight, with blood work and electrocardiogram on alternating years…the usual stuff to see that you’re still alive.

I should not scoff.  Many pilots at “my old school”, including myself, are alive today because of a discovery via a routine airline medical or blood work.  I thank my stars for it.

Mental assessments may indeed be a part of routine medicals for pilots flying for airlines in…um…less “progressive” nations.  I’ll say no more on that.  But if the crime unfolded in the way I am about to describe, this man would’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that he did not in any way arouse suspicion as to his mental state. I posit that this was not the crime of a raving lunatic but the careful crafting of a “successful” crime by a mastermind.

The simulator in the Captain’s basement: To me? Weird.  For a newbie, private, flying “enthusiast” or heavy jet wannabe pilot, I could understand. But for a guy with his amount of time in the air? He may have used it to plan all this but we’ll never know. For him to have this in his basement would be akin to a guy who drives a bus all day long having a bus simulator in his basement to play with when he gets home. Why?

The Flight

The crime was simplicity itself.  I don’t believe there was violence of any kind…it wasn’t necessary. 

The fight originated in Kuala Lumpur. The word “originated” is significant. In most airlines, the Captain flies the first leg of any new “pairing” or planned sequence of flights.  This would be especially true at night, to an airport with which the F/O was unfamiliar or with an F/O as new on the equipment as was this one.  Actually, as Captain, he can fly every single leg of the trip that he wants…it’s “his” airplane in every sense of the word…lord and master of all he surveys… consigning his F/O to pulling the gear and flaps, working the radios and keeping the flight plans. The F/O gets no “stick time” this way and it rarely happened when I flew.  Flight “legs” were flown alternately as a courtesy to allow the F/O to gain experience and to share the load. Captains “hogging the stick” were either dick heads or had an F/O that REALLY pissed them off somehow.  I digress.

By always flying the first leg, the Captain is running “the show” …issuing the orders for the completion of the flight in his fashion. He thereby sets the tone on the flight deck and reveals to his crew how he likes things done.  This is absolutely routine and works very well.

The flight departs and climbs on course for the 5-6 hour flight to Bejing.

After the climb to altitude and level off (approx. 45-60 minutes after takeoff depending on weight and local air temperature) the F/O would call ATC to report that they were level at their assigned altitude and the Captain would call for the level off check. This is just a routine scanning of all the flight deck instrument and control panels done by the PNF (“pilot not flying”…in this case the F/O) making sure that all is where it should be, that the many sets of altimeters, compasses, airspeed indicators etc. are set correctly and agree with each other. They also confirm that the auto pilot is doing precisely what it has been ordered to do…level flight at a set speed and altitude on a programmed flight routing.

The Captain (presumably having done this trip many times) knew roughly where the hand over point between Malaysia Center and Viet Nam Center would occur. I recall a BA Captain stating that if there ever was a time to “steal” an airplane, it would be at the boundary hand-off point between two different countries.  Several minutes before this hand off point, the Captain says;

“I’ve got to get out of my seat for a minute to get something from by bag. You have control.”

Those magic words “You have control” mean that the Captain has officially handed over control of the aircraft (temporarily of course) to the F/O. With all his checks, log book and paperwork complete by now, he gets to mind the ship AND work the radios. Remember, it’s very dark on the flight deck and with this order, the F/O’s attention is now riveted on “minding the store”.

On the B-767, the ACARS system circuit breaker was on the overhead panel right behind and above the F/O’s head. I don’t know for sure, but I see no reason why Boeing would move the circuit breaker to a less convenient place on the B-777. While rummaging in his bag, he reaches up and pulls it. A few seconds later, an alert shows up on the EICAS system telling the crew that there is a problem with ACARS.

F/O: “Captain, we have an ACARS alert on EICAS”

Captain: “Where’s the circuit breaker for that and I’ll check it for you.”

The F/O, keen to please, would’ve jumped on the circuit breaker list and announced which one it was. The captain, still standing in the dark confines of the flight deck rear spaces would reply;

Captain: “Found it…it popped. I’ll re-set it and we’ll see what happens.”

He does and the alert disappears. All is good. Still rummaging behind the F/O, the captain pulls the circuit breaker a second time and the alert reappears.

F/O: “Captain, it’s come back on again.”

Captain: “It’s popped again. Something is not happy. OK, let’s leave it, snag it in the book and they (maintenance) will look at it in Bejing.”

Boeing (and Airbus) philosophy states that if a circuit breaker pops twice, there’s probably a very good reason for it (overheat, short circuit, overload, fire etc.) and it is to be left “popped”. You are to carry on without that particular service or system and have maintenance personnel sort it out on the ground.  Contrary to all the hysteria on CNN, ACARS has nothing whatever to do with controlling the aircraft, auto pilot, flight controls or ATC. It is only to transmit aircraft performance data to Airline Maintenance and little else. The aircraft is perfectly serviceable without it.

So, with a little slight-of-hand, the Captain has removed one communication system.

He takes his seat.

Captain: “I have control, thanks”

Shortly after this, (the “disappearance” of further ACARS signals) MH370 is handed over from Malaysia to Viet Nam.

After reading back his assigned frequency, the F/O says;

“All right, good night”

to the Malaysian controller. It’s only a courtesy…done all the time in the air…nothing sinister about it and actually solid evidence that all was well up to this point.

This was about to change. While the F/O has his head down dialing up the assigned Viet Nam control frequency on his radio, the Captain interrupts;

Captain: “Hold on a minute. Could you do me a favour? I’ve got the radios. I’ll check in with Viet Nam for you.  Why don’t you go back, stretch your legs for a few minutes, grab us a couple of coffees and a copy of the Malay Times? I like their Sudokus and I take my coffee black.”

Translation? Here’s what you will now do.  What’s the brand new F/O going to say? No?!

F/O: “Yes Sir, no problem Captain.”

The F/O leaves his seat to complete his Captain’s errand and the flight deck door closes and locks solid as he exits. The Captain is now in complete control of the aircraft and all her systems.

The rest is child’s play but with a bit of speculation. There is another way this could’ve gone but I doubt this was it. It involves the Captain getting out of his seat again, just prior to the F/O’s final transmission to Malaysia, pulling out the crash axe and knocking out or murdering the F/O before he checked in with Viet Nam. I don’t think so. Too messy, too much timing involved, violent, complicated and unnecessary.

Here is the more likely non-violent way.

The first is that the Captain simply disables the emergency Flight Deck entrance system by pulling the appropriate circuit breaker. The second way is that he leaves his seat and physically “dead bolts” the door, preventing any entrance by anyone.  Either way the Captain was then free to put the rest of his plan in play at his leisure. No one could enter without a cutting torch.

First, he turns off the transponder and kills all the aircraft running lights and strobes. Now he is invisible to both radar and other aircraft. He may have even turned off his radios…he had nothing further to say to anyone.

Second, he activates a secondary stored flight plan in the flight management computer that he had previously programmed…perhaps from memory… while on the ground in KL. We used to mess with the secondary flight plan feature all the time, even while in flight. Mostly we used it to program the route to our alternate airport just to cut down the workload should it be necessary. As long as the primary flight plan was “active”, nothing would happen unless and until you “activated” the secondary stored flight plan. If you do, the auto pilot would begin to follow this “new” flight routing. This is when the sharp turns started to the west, the southwest and to the south.

Third, he allegedly climbed up to 45,000ft. (FL450)This is debatable as it was both unnecessary and most likely well above the service ceiling of a B-777, especially at that weight. Perhaps he believed that climbing to such an altitude would cause all civilian ATC radar to ignore him or to ensure that no one  would ever be able to get a cell phone call out.  No matter.

Fourth, he reached up to the Cabin Pressure Controller sub panel just above his head and started dumping cabin pressure….rapidly raising the cabin altitude to well above normal. He can do this easily.

Fifth, he puts on his own oxygen mask to ensure that he is able to complete his plan.

As the cabin altitude climbed above 10,000ft.pressure altitude, the passenger masks would have automatically deployed. These supply just 10 to 15 minutes of oxygen to the passengers… just enough to allow time for flight crew to declare an emergency, don their own masks and descend very rapidly to an altitude where it is safe to breath without them.  This descent to safety never happened.  After 20 or 30 minutes at a pressure altitude of, say, 30,000 ft.  it can be safely assumed that the F/O, flight attendants and passengers, if not incapacitated, were struggling for their lives…using whatever portable oxygen was available. The passenger oxygen would’ve run out by now. Regardless, they would not have thought to whip out their cell phones and try to tell someone that “Hey, I can’t breathe right now, but I think it must that damned Captain up there messing around with our oxygen supply!”  Nobody knew WTF was going on and besides, cell phones would be useless at that height. Most would finally just go to sleep and succumb to hypoxia even as they tried to contact the Captain. He was in no hurry. He had all the oxygen he needed. As an aside, the TUC (time of useful consciousness) for an average human being at 35,000ft. pressure altitude is less than thirty seconds.

After 45 minutes, most, if not all on board would be dead or very nearly so.

Now for the sixth and final act.  This is where the Captain’s basement simulator may have been useful but he didn’t really need it to find out. He only needed the B-777 performance charts and the location of the deepest most remote part of the South Indian Ocean.

When the Captain was sure that all were dead or otherwise incapable of any interference, he began to set his auto pilot to do his bidding. He knew how much fuel he had on board and he knew the location where he wanted the flight to end.  So he simply created a way point using the Latitude & Longitude of his target, entered it into the FMC (it may have already been there) and selected “NAV” on his glare-shield control panel and the “heading” problem was solved. The auto pilot would now take the aircraft directly toward the target.

But how could he plan the impact point? This is where the performance charts come in. At a given speed and altitude and temperature, the aircraft will burn “x” fuel per hour per engine. “x” increases if the aircraft is flown at a lower altitude.  He simply picked his target as the “tanks run dry here” point and worked backwards. With enough fuel on board to fly to Bejing, he had some burnin’ to do.  He has figured out that at a certain altitude and power setting, the fuel he has remaining should be exhausted roughly over his target. So he simply sets the altitude in the altitude select window, sets a speed in his speed select window, and rate of descent to the selected altitude and hands it all to the auto pilot. He then removes his own mask (or perhaps takes a suicide pill of some kind) and goes to sleep.

The aircraft dutifully descends to the chosen altitude (Low to mid Twenties?) and flies for hours at the selected speed, burning up the remaining fuel with no one on board alive.  This makes any cockpit voice recorder recovery useless. It’s a 2 hour self- erasing loop.  Investigators would listen to 2 hours of engine and flight deck air noise…nothing else. The flight data recorder would also be useless…revealing only that the aircraft performed beautifully and exactly as asked until fuel exhaustion and impact.

Many believe that huge pieces would be recovered. How can such a large bit of machinery disappear so completely?  It’s pretty easy when you hit the ocean doing somewhere 400 to 500 knots. The aircraft would very nearly vaporize as the impact forces would be astronomical.

Many believe that when an airplane in level flight runs out of fuel, it will just glide down and pan cake onto the surface. This may be true for airplanes not on auto-pilot “altitude hold” mode. For an aircraft on altitude hold, it is a different story. When the fuel was exhausted, the engines would quit. First one, then the other…they never stop at the same time. As long as the electrical power lasts, that auto pilot will keep doing what it has been asked to do for as long as it can. Even with the temporary asymmetric thrust problem, the auto pilot will try to maintain the assigned altitude. So when the engines quit, the airspeed starts rolling back FAST because the auto pilot is rapidly raising the nose in order to generate the lift required to maintain altitude at a slower speed. This causes the airspeed to roll back even faster. I’m willing to bet that in less than 30 seconds of the engines quitting, the aircraft had already started its death roll and plunge to the ocean. One wing always stalls before the other. The auto pilot by now had thrown up its hands and disconnected……its limits well exceeded. That huge machine then rolled on its side as the first wing stalled, the nose would fall and then gravity did the rest…rapidly accelerating that machine to extremely high speeds ensuring its complete destruction on impact.  Nothing left that would float.

That’s it. Simple, no violence, no conspiracy. An airplane full of dead people slamming into the Indian Ocean and sinking to the depths. But we’ll never EVER know for sure.

My guess is that small pieces of yellow life preserver may show up on a west Australian beach someday. They may connect some dots but IMHO, this is how he pulled it off..

 

 

21 thoughts on “The Captain Did It”

  1. Why turning back across Malaysia? Shouldn’t the pilot expect a couple of fighter jets showing up besides him in no time?

    Why flying a complicated route (those unexplained 52 minutes to the next arc) rather than straight south?

    Why not fly south over Indonesia? Could he really know their air defense would act differently?

    The theory is one of the best I’ve heard, but it still does not explain all the facts.

  2. “The aircraft would very nearly vaporize as the impact forces would be astronomical.”

    Plausible scenario…until that magnificent boner of an overstatement. Thank you for the laugh.

  3. So did the pilot actually have life insurance/mistress issues/etc? Police or other investigators would surely have looked into this.

    And why mess around flying over the Malay Peninsula? Once he has control and has killed the co-pilot and passengers, why not just program the end point and go to sleep?

  4. I have heard a slightly modified story..the capt overflow maylasia and jumped out alive using a sport parachute from his bag and out the lower e and e compartment door?

  5. I agree with guest this fits in the sense we have a motive, but it does fit the data. Those 52 minutes are crucial and you even said yourself it’s not clear if the plane even rose to a higher altitude so would passengers have lost consciousness as quickly could they not get a call out at a lower altitude, no I’m not expert but this scenario does explain enough for me. Victor iannello’s scenario was covered more question for me.

  6. FINALLY…I agree with Mr. Smerdon. It’s a good read. Thanks.

    It has been my contention all along that he did it. We only disagree on one point. He flew it to fruition. This was to deepen the mystery. He “landed” that aircraft in the SIO w/o so much as an Styrofoam cup or seat cushion escaping. As for the unaccounted for time? Who knows…IMO, he was trying to expand the search arc’s as much as possible. Flying unpredictable paths, throttling the plane back & forth while changing altitudes as well. NOTHING about this sad flight is or was predictable. I have serious doubts that we’ll ever find MH370. They’ll be tripping over so much debris such as cargo ships and such for a long time. While searching for Air France, they were right over her twice before using side scanning radar. I’ll keep the faith though. I really tip my hat to the Aussies as well along with the efforts of all nations & crew hands involved.

  7. I have felt, due to the facts known, that this was a mass killings of the crew and passengers at altitude, but with a large cash settlement and new identity for the captain after landing in a remote area.
    His aircraft could easily be repainted for personally use or terrorism attack in the future. Unlike the Israelis, Americans have too many chains of commands and will hesitate to make the fateful call in time; despite the horrors of 911.

  8. Like the author, I also have a few airline hours over several decades, from Constellation to 747. The author has left out one critical fact. The unexamined FACT is that UK, USA, Russia, China, India, Israel and whoever else ALL have satellites that are capable of reading the writing on a coin sitting on the ground …. It is absurd to hypothesize that after 5 plus hours, that even ONE of these satellites was not tracking MH-370. Pay attention: Somebody KNOWS!!

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with S.S. McDonald. Of course ‘somebody knows’ – but that ‘somebody’ doesn’t want anybody else to know the extent of their intel capabilities…
    Silence is golden.

  10. Sorry, I am late to the party.

    I too think the captain did it, but I do not believe he was suicidal. He had marital and political issues and wanted to make a statement to show he was not a timid little aviation geek as his wife probably characterized him. I do not have him calibrated as a murderer – just a depressed and angry man who wanted to show he could bark with the big dogs.

    I believe Shah wanted to land on Christmas Island, and locked the FO out as you suggest. Instead of killing the passengers, he simply got on the PA and told them he was landing elsewhere, and that they would be free to continue unharmed on their journey so long as they behaved themselves.

    Flying low to avoid radar, he ran out of fuel near Christmas Island (most likely South and East), and that is where the airplane is. The prevailing current in that region is back out to the Indian Ocean toward the Southern tip of Africa.

    The Christmas Island scenery fits the Inmarsat data, and the island is precisely on the last ping arc.

  11. Captain Smerdon presents a good story here. I just published a similar scenario (without the benefit of having seen this piece) in Wings magazine. You can read it here (see page 37ff): http://magazine.wingsmagazine.com/publication/?m=777&l=1#{“issue_id”:232431,”page”:36}

    My story includes a plausible motivation for the sabotage and an explanation for why no trace of the plane was found after the largest search operation in history (and it’s not because the plane vaporized on impact).

    As for the question above as to why Captain Zaharie didn’t turn directly south after commandeering the plane, I think the explanation is very simple – he didn’t want to fly into the grips of Australia’s famous long-range radar system (JORN), which covers the whole area north of the subcontinent. Instead he flanked the system on it’s western range limit and then landed his plane on the ocean surface above the Ob Trench. This 7,000 metre deep canyon is the second deepest point in the Indian Ocean, within fuel range of his B-777 that night, and out of radar range of any country. I believe the plane sank there and is sitting in one piece in the craggy depths of that trench.

    Unfortunately, if he aimed right, this means the plane may never be found as no search technology can get to that depth – only robotic recovery technology can go that deep but you have to know where the plane is before sending it down as it has almost no horizontal movement capability (just vertical).

  12. So if you’re guessing he had both wife and mistress issues, who benefitted from his well planned suicide? If he wanted to make a political statement, he would have wanted to make that well known to the world. Neither of these seem to match the facts. However you present a very clear way for the pilot to have pulled it off. Also, recent reports suggest a high speed vertical impact would not have torn the plane apart.

  13. The captain wanted the plane to disappear in order to embarrass his employer, Malaysian Airlines, and its owner, the Malaysian government. His motivation was political. He belonged to the opposition party in Malaysia and a corrupt government had just sentenced the party leader to five years jail on trumped-up charges (sodomy). The captain left the courtroom, went to the airport, and the plane disappeared that night. Malaysian Airlines had helped the governing party get re-elected by ferrying thousands of Malaysian ex-pats home for the vote – but only in ridings where the government was teetering on defeat.

  14. Finally someone nails it…Ray Tomaltys theory is the one…i believe his anger with the ibrahim verdict,coupled with the brealdown of his marriage.Gay friends of mine in malaysia told me he was gay,had a gay partner even ,and as a closet gay liberal in this extremly homophobic and corrupt country was furious with the government.It is possible he may have even notified someone that this was a political act but of course it would have been supressed by the Government.Their action at the time seem to suggest this possibility

  15. I don’t know who Jeff Wise is but maybe he could provide a reason for saying another person on this thread is light on reasoning and facts to back up his claim that another person is light on facts.

  16. I don’t know who Jeff Wise is but maybe he could provide a reason for saying another person on this thread is light on reasoning and facts to back up his claim that another person is light on facts. It doesn’t get us very far just to slag another person who has studied the situation closely and is trying to shed light on this weird episode in aviation history.

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