A growing number of experts have argued that the plane may have flown into the ocean rather than spiraling out of control and into the water after the jet ran out of fuel, and a world-renowned Canadian crash investigator has added his voice to the argument.As the search for MH370 enters its final phase, investigators have been considering alternative explanations for the plane’s final hours.
Larry Vance is a former investigator-in-charge for the Canadian Aviation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada; the BBC reports that he has led more than 200 investigations into downed aircraft, including cases in which aircraft were lost over water. In a recent interview with the Australian TV show 60 Minutes, Vance stated that the only way to explain the condition of the MH370 flaperon recovered last year on Reunion Island is if the plane was flown into the water, rather than smashing into it in an uncontrolled dive.
“Somebody was flying the airplane at the end of its flight,” Vance said. “Somebody was flying the airplane into the water. There is no other alternate theory that you can follow.”
According to Vance, the flaperon isn’t cleanly broken off — it has a jagged edge. That’s significant because it implies that high-speed water erosion tore the flaperon off the aircraft rather than immediate, blunt-force impact. “The force of the water is really the only thing that could make that jagged edge that we see,” Vance said. “It wasn’t broken off. If it was broken off, it would be a clean break. You couldn’t even break that thing.”
The flaperon also appeared to be deployed for landing — again, not something that could happen without a pilot at the helm. The BBC article also contains a more extensive list of artifacts than we’ve previously covered. The flaperon from last year has been positively confirmed as being part of MH370, but other objects are still undergoing analysis.
The horizontal tail stabilizer (#2), “No Step” stabilizer panel (#3), and the engine cowling with a Rolls-Royce logo fragment are all believed to be from MH370, but have not been confirmed yet.
If MH370 was piloted into the water, it would explain why there was no obvious debris field for searchers to find in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance. Striking water at speed will shatter an aircraft into millions of pieces and should have left a cloud of debris. If the aircraft “landed” in the water, it would still disintegrate, but into a much smaller number of fragments, the majority of which would have quickly sunk. As we’ve previously discussed, a pilot at the helm could also have taken the aircraft out of the assumed search area.
If the pilot of MH370 was awake and conscious and used the aircraft to commit suicide, it also raises extremely troubling possibilities about the state of the passengers and crew in the hours before the aircraft hit the water. It’s been generally assumed that MH370 experienced a catastrophic loss of pressure that incapacitated or killed everyone on-board and left the plane running on autopilot until it fell out of the sky. If what happened on MH370 was deliberate, it means the passengers and crew may have been alive right up until the plane hit the water.
Even the question of how the uncrewed aircraft would have hit the water has been hotly debated in recent weeks. While the spiral dive theory has been broadly advanced, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) disputes this, writing: “[E]xtensive testing on Boeing’s (the manufacturer of the missing Boeing 777) simulator shows that after running out of fuel, the aircraft actually stays airborne for several minutes and descends at various rates in a “fugoid” (or wave-like) motion.”
A fugoid motion is one in which the aircraft rises and falls through the air, generally while descending to a lower altitude. Could an uncrewed Boeing 777 have hit the water at just the right point in a fugoid to create the illusion of a controlled set-down? Maybe — but that wouldn’t explain why the flaperon was deployed. Would a pilot determined to commit suicide have chosen to set his aircraft down with professional skill honed over decades of practice, even as he broke the most fundamental duty of a pilot — to deliver his passengers and crew safely back to solid ground? Maybe.
The list of questions is much longer than the list of answers. Even if we find the aircraft, that may never change.