As the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, journalists and pundits are engaged in a delicate dance, edging around the scenario that seems almost inevitable; in other words, the loss of the Boeing 777-200, with 239 souls aboard, was the result of foul play, probably terrorism.
To be fair, no firm link has been established between the jet's disappearance and a terror group. And, at this point, with no wreckage or bodies recovered, other potential causes cannot be completely ruled out. Yes, there is a chance that some sort of catastrophic failure caused the 777 to disappear from radar and plunge into the Gulf of Thailand, a little over two hours after its departure from Kuala Lumpur. But the Boeing jet has an impeccable safety record; before Flight 370 disappeared yesterday, the 777 had recorded only one fatal accident in nearly two decades of service, last year's Asiana crash in San Francisco, which was caused by pilot error.
Likewise, weather has not been totally ruled out as a possible factor in the crash. But there were no storms or reports of severe turbulence along the jet's flight path, so it's difficult to imagine that a sudden, severe downdraft, in clear skies at 35,000 feet, caused the aircraft to go down.
Was it pilot error? The pilot-in-command had been flying for Malaysia Airlines for more than 30 years, logging over 18,000 hours in the cockpit. His co-pilot joined the airline seven years ago, and had nearly 3,000 flight hours, with much of that time in the 777. A veteran crew was piloting the aircraft on its flight to Beijing, and it's difficult to imagine any sort of system failure that spiraled out of control, leaving the pilots unable to control the wide-body jet.
This much we know: whatever happened to Flight 370 transpired very quickly. Tracking data indicates a slight deviation to the left of its planned route and a drop in altitude of 600 feet just before the Boeing 777 disappeared from air traffic control radars. There was no Mayday call from the crew, suggesting a sudden catastrophic event that sent the airliner on a fatal plunge.
What could cause such a failure? Any number of things, from a section of windows or a cabin door blowing out at altitude, triggering a structural chain reaction that caused the airliner to fall apart. Once again, it's a possibility, but far from likely. A Malaysia Airlines spokesman said the aircraft was last inspected 10 days ago ("well ahead of schedule") and no problems were discovered.
An explosion could also cause a catastrophic failure, though definitive proof won't be available until the jet's wreckage is recovered from the crash site, a process that could take weeks, even months. However, there are malfunctions that may cause an aircraft to literally blow-up in flight, such as a fuel tank explosion. Almost two years ago, a Boeing 737 crashed on approach to the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan. The pilot radioed air traffic controllers that a fuel tank was on fire shortly before the plane went down, barely three months before its scheduled landing. More than 130 passengers and crew died in that crash; the ill-fated jet had been in service for 32 years, and there were questions about maintenance on the aging 737.
Six years earlier, a wing tank blew up on an Indian airliner, sitting on the tarmac in Bangalore. No passengers or crew were on the aircraft at the time, and there were no reported injuries. Investigators believed the explosion may have been related to deteriorating electrical wiring and insulation tubes in the fuel tanks of various Boeing jets. In 1999, the FAA ordered an emergency inspection of fuel tank wiring tubes (and the wires they shielded), over concerns about a possible explosion.
The most famous "example" of an exploding fuel tank on a jetliner occurred in the crash of TWA Flight 800, which went down over the Long Island Sound in 1996, just minutes after departing from JFK Airport in New York. After a prolonged investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that an electrical short circuit caused fuel vapors in the center tank to explode, causing the Boeing 747 to fall from the skies, killing all 230 people aboard. But some of the experts who participated in the original probe have refuted its findings, speculating that the explosion was caused (instead) by an external source, perhaps a missile.
On the other hand, a bomb could produce a similar, catastrophic failure, and that possibility seems more likely, given the recent revelation that two of the passengers were traveling on stolen passports. The original passenger manifest listed an Italian national and an Austrian as among those on the flight. But both quickly reported that they were alive and well and on the ground when the jetliner disappeared. The two men also claimed that their passports had been stolen, in one case, more than two years ago. At least one of the thefts was reported to Interpol, but it's unclear if the information was shared with intelligence agencies or the airlines.
Who were the passengers traveling on those stolen passports? At this point, no one can say, but their presence raises concerns about terrorism. It's quite possible that a terrorist group would use someone else's identity to put a pair of suicide operatives on a jetliner. We've also learned that tickets for the passengers with the stolen passports were sold by China Southern Airlines, which has a code share agreement with Malaysia Airlines. There has been no information on how or when the tickets were purchased, and if that transaction should have alerted authorities.
Answers to those questions--and others--will be revealed in the days and weeks ahead. And while few things are certain at this point, the use of stolen passports to put mysterious passengers on the plane certainly raises the specter of foul play. It is also worth remembering that terrorist organizations have never lost their interest in aviation targets, and the Pacific region has long figured in their plotting. We may soon learn if the bad guys have finally achieved their murderous goal.