As investigators start looking into the cause of the downing the Malaysian flight, they have a list of possibilities, and all have precedence. At this point, it’s too early to say what brought down the plane, but previous catastrophes have been caused by everything from airframe failure to terrorist attack to pilot suicide.
The most dangerous moments of an airplane flight are take-offs and landings. It’s seldom that anything significant happens when a plane is cruising over the earth about 8 miles up. Because of the relative safety of high-altitude flight, the Malaysian Airlines jet that went missing Saturday has aviation experts guessing what happened.
Investigators could be busy on this mystery for weeks, months and possibly years. The Boeing 777, which was on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, is among the safest in the Boeing family and is one of the most popular aircraft frames purchased by airlines. The 777 first took off with passengers in the summer of 1995. For the next 18 years it flew without a fatal accident. That record ended on the tarmac in the summer of 2013 with the Asiana crash. Saturday’s Malaysian Airlines flight with 239 souls on board would be just the second fatal episode for the aircraft type.
Todd Curtis, who is an ex-safety engineer with Boeing says, “At this early stage, we’re focusing on the facts that we don’t know.” A minor mechanical failure to something more serious like both engines shutting off would have given the pilots enough time to radio a distress call. In the absence of such a call, experts are thinking that something very quick and violent happened. Some experts are pointing to a sudden breakup or an “incident” which led the plane into a sharp, steep dive. Other experts are looking at terrorism or even the possibility of the pilot deliberately wrecking the plane.
Scott Hamilton, managing director for Leeham says, “Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the plane apart, or you had a criminal act.” Experts warn that no matter what ultimately is found to have caused the downing of the Malaysian flight, the best clues will come with the recovery of the onboard data and voice recorders and a good look at the wreckage.
The majority of plane crashes happen during takeoff and landing. Last year’s fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco is one such example. 91 percent of fatal accidents happen during those moments surrounding liftoff or touchdown.
One of the first signs of what happened to the Malaysian flight will be found when investigators get a look at the size of the debris field. If it’s large and spread out, then the plane probably broke apart at cruising altitude which is between 7 and 8 miles. Breaking up at this height could point to either a bomb onboard or an airframe failure. If the debris field is smaller, then the plane more than likely fell out of the sky from a much lower altitude and broke up on contacting the water.
Possible Causes of Crash
Investigators will be looking for the cause of the crash beginning early in their search for clues. Among the possible causes is a catastrophic failure of the airframe. Most airplane bodies are built of aluminum. The constant pressurization and depressurization of the cabin during takeoff and landing is similar to a balloon being inflated and deflated many times. Eventually, just the expansion and contraction of the material will cause failure if not found in time. In April 2011, a Boeing 737 flying for Southwest Airlines had its fuselage torn from this stress on the airplane’s skin.
Other causes being looked at by investigators will be bad weather, pilot disorientation, twin-engine failure or a bomb onboard.
Families of the 239 souls onboard the Malaysian flight which went down Saturday morning are also seeking answers.
By Jerry Nelson