Absent 777’s debris, there might be other clues

While ships and aircraft scour Southeast Asian waters for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, investigators are also poring over records and databases and conducting countless interviews as they try to determine what happened to the Boeing 777-200 and the 239 people on board.

“There are a lot of parts of the puzzle that are not on the bottom of the ocean,” said Thomas Anthony, director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California.

“You want to take a look at everything that was put on that plane in the immediate past and talk to everybody who had touched the plane,” from mechanics to catering delivery services to the cleaning crews, he said.

Anthony was a longtime regional division manager for Civil Aviation Security in the Federal Aviation Administration.

Questions include things like did you see, feel, hear or smell anything abnormal? he said.

Investigators will also review information stored in the memories of screening equipment and other security devices at the airport, he said.

“Aircraft accidents are never one thing. They are often four or five things,” he said.

With so little information available, theories abound about what became of the Beijing-bound airliner that disappeared somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam.

Terrorism is one that comes up regularly, especially as two passengers were traveling using stolen identities.

However, the odds of that are very remote. The most recent suspected bombing of a plane in flight was in 2004, Anthony said.

On Aug. 24, 2004, two Russian jetliners crashed due to explosions within minutes of each other. Chechen separatists later claimed responsibility.

Terrorist attacks on airliners are very, very rare, Anthony said. “The numbers are not leading you to that conclusion.”

Instead, data point to human error as the most likely cause, he said.

A Boeing study of commercial aircraft crashes found that 62 percent occurred due to human error, he said.

The term “human error” covers any judgment, selection, action or statement that has the potential to cause an accident, Anthony said.

It could be something that lies dormant for years, like the faulty repair that brought down Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985.

Searchers so far haven’t turned up any debris, suggesting that they might be searching in the wrong areas, writes Scott Hamilton, an aviation expert and owner of Leeham Co. in Issaquah, on his blog, Leeham News and Comments.

“If the plane was destroyed at (cruise) altitude, as if from a bomb or catastrophic structural failure, debris, such as seat cushions, blankets, insulation, and even bodies, would be found quickly,” Hamilton said.

The same is true if the plane had been intact when it hit the earth, he said.

At least one major commercial jetliner has disappeared in recent years, he noted.

In 2005, an a Boeing 727-200 took off from Luanda, Angola, in Africa, with no clearance or communication with air-traffic controllers. The plane, which had at least two people aboard, hasn’t been seen since.

In a perfect world, MH370 turns up intact and with all its passengers alive on some remote airstrip. However, that seems highly unlikely at this point. So, hopefully, searchers can at least find the plane and bring closure to the families struggling with the loss of loved ones.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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