Whidbey plane joins 777 search

By Dan Catchpole

A U.S. Navy plane stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is part of the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The plane, a P-3C Orion patrol craft from Maritime Patrol Squadron 46, joined the international search for the Boeing 777, which lost contact with authorities on the ground early in the morning on March 8 as it cruised between Malaysia and Vietnam over the Gulf of Thailand.

Ships, aircraft and personnel from several countries, including Malaysia, the United States, China, Vietnam and India, are participating in the search.

American officials say that the airliner, which had 239 souls on board, appeared to continue flying for several more hours, based on satellite data, according to news reports.

Satellites picked up pings from a system on the plane designed to send information on its performance to ground personnel.

In this case, the airplane wasn’t actually sending out info, but satellites registered that the system — called Aircraft Communications and Addressing and Reporting System or ACARS — was on. It’s similar to a laptop computer or smartphone detecting but not connecting to a wi-fi network — it knows it’s there, but no information is being exchanged.

Based on the satellite data, the plane flew several hundred miles along a popular air corridor over the India Ocean.

With that in mind, aviation accident experts are increasingly saying that whatever happened to 370 was due to deliberate human actions.

At this point, though, every scenario has one or more gaping hole in its logic.

For example, if hijackers took over the plane, why didn’t they communicate with authorities?

Or if the plane suffered a decompression that incapacitated passengers and the flight crew, how could it have changed course several times to head away from its planned flight path?

“There are no logical or reasonable scenarios that are suggesting themselves at this point,” said Thomas Anthony, director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California.

Investigators haven’t uncovered anything in the personal lives of the pilot and co-pilot to suggest wrongdoing, according to The Associated Press.

Given that every scenario seems to have some serious flaw, I asked an aviation accident expert if an airplane could conceivably lose its navigation and communication systems but have its flight controls still working.

“It is possible after losing electrical power to fly for some time,” Anthony said.

The 777 has a regular, old-fashion compass — called a “whiskey compass” — and the engines power at least a minimum of the flight controls.

That could leave the flight crew to steer the aircraft using landmarks, stars and compass bearings. Basically, what my grandfather used as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and then with several commercial airlines after the war.

“At night, it would be much more difficult to maintain your horizon,” Anthony said.

He doesn’t think it’s a more likely scenario than any other.

I asked Boeing if a 777’s ACARS could continue working if the plane lost its multiple radio and other communication systems. But a spokesman said the company wouldn’t comment on the topic.

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