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How does a modern jetliner vanish without a trace?

March 10, 2014 at 6:11 PM EST
There are still many more questions than answers in the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Judy Woodruff asks former NTSB investigator Alan Diehl and former NTSB board member John Goglia to speculate on different known factors and possible theories.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There are so many questions tonight, including how a modern jetliner vanishes without a trace.

We explore some of them with a pair of experts. John Goglia is a former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board member who now works as a consultant on aviation maintenance and aircraft operations. Alan Diehl is an aviation safety consultant who has worked with the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Air Force.

And we welcome you both.

John Goglia, with all the modern technology out there, how could a huge jetliner vanish?

JOHN GOGLIA, Former NTSB Board Member: That is the big question of the day, of the week, probably.

Given all the avionics that’s on the 777, the redundant electrical systems, it doesn’t appear that it would be an accidental shutting something off that would cause it. It would have to be a catastrophic event or a deliberate act by somebody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you — what are you ruling out here, though, when you said — in the first part of your answer?

JOHN GOGLIA: About the redundant electrical system?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JOHN GOGLIA: Right.

The airplane has, if my memory is correct, five redundant electrical systems. You have at least three VHF radios. You have two high-frequency radios. You have a transponder. And you have a data link with the airplane that sends down information about how the airplane is performing.

And you may recall that that data link was the first bit of information that we received on the Air France accident out in the Atlantic Ocean. So — and that’s discreet. That’s not really — the pilots don’t have to do anything to have that work.

So you have all these systems on the airplane. You have all the electrical power that you could muster. For them not to have communications in some form with the ground is — it’s just mind-boggling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alan Diehl, mind-boggling to you as well? Or are you seeing and hearing some things that amount to clues?

ALAN DIEHL, Former NTSB Investigator: Well, there are a few potential clues.

Most of the information right now, Judy, is tentative. The Vietnamese controllers said they thought they saw the aircraft turn around. Now, if that holds up, John, we may have to revisit this of some kind of maintenance issue being causal. We don’t know.

About the only thing that seems to be ruled out right now is one of the four arenas, weather, the machine, human error, and, of course, criminal acts. And, right now, they’re saying the weather looks very unlikely. It was a benign environment. They really don’t think there was any kind of turbulent upset, like the Air France accident that John was talking about a minute ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — but, if the plane turned around, was attempting to start to turn around, John Goglia, wouldn’t there have been radar — the radar trace from that?

JOHN GOGLIA: Well, that’s what is giving us the indication that it may have turned around.

But, you know, what is wrong with that theory is that, if he’s turning around, with the radio call, no pilot in his right mind would turn an airplane around without letting air traffic control understand that he’s doing that, or at least broadcast it on the open frequency, so that any airplanes that may be following him are aware that he is going to turn around. So there’s lots of protocols that were violating if he were turning around that raises questions about his actions and why.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are — Alan Diehl, what are the specific things that could have happened instantly, catastrophically to make this happen?

ALAN DIEHL: Judy, you have got to remember, I’m just speculating here. I obviously — no one knows what really…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We all are, right.

ALAN DIEHL: … went on in that cockpit.

But, as John is aware, they have found some cracked windows on the 787, the successor airplane to this aircraft. John, I could envision a situation where perhaps a cockpit window cracks, and they’re talking to the flight attendants to get everybody down in their seats, we may have a rapid decompression, and as they are turning around, something catastrophic happened, a window might have given way.

Now, again, Judy, I’m stressing…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure.

ALAN DIEHL: … I’m not suggesting this is the answer. But I can envision — I’m a human factor specialist.

And we do know that in the Air France accident that John talked about a minute ago, they never — for several minutes, they flew that thing into the water while trying to figure out what was wrong with the automation. These automated cockpits are a bit of a mystery. And there was, in 2005, a problem with the automation, as you know, on the 777, John.

Turned out it was a software error that Boeing has corrected. But I — unlike John, I’m not willing to say these pilots — certainly, they probably could have and should have said something over the radio about mayday or we have got a problem.

But, when you get busy, as an airline former pilot myself — I have an airline transport rating — sometimes, it gets hectic in that cockpit, Judy. And I can see these guys maybe not doing the proper protocol, as John described.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as — and we realize we’re asking both of you to speculate. But we’re asking you because you have spent your entire careers working in this area.

John Goglia, whatever happened, wouldn’t there be debris? And we know that they have now enlarged the area where they’re searching. Do you expect that they will eventually find something in the water?

JOHN GOGLIA: Well, I certainly — I certainly agree with the debris theory. No matter what happened at altitude, I would expect to find a lot of personal belongings, foods, packaging, water bottles floating, and not just one or two, a considerable number.

So, without the debris field, that calls into question all of these scenarios that we have — believe happen at altitude. It’s just, they don’t equate. We can come up with the theories that work and the airplane in flight that could have caused this. But they don’t work when we get down to the ocean, because there’s no debris.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Goglia…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

JOHN GOGLIA: It is just really a quandary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Goglia, is there any chance this plane could have gone down on land?

JOHN GOGLIA: I believe there is a chance it could have gone down on land. And I would bet that there’s been satellite searches conducted on nearby land areas where this airplane could have gone down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alan Diehl, what about that?

ALAN DIEHL: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

ALAN DIEHL: Well, I think John is certainly right.

I believe the Pentagon has already announced that they have looked at their infrared satellite pictures. These are designed to look for missile launches. And they didn’t see any signs of a fuel explosion or a large explosion. So John may be right. This thing possibly could be down on land, and we know that part of the world has got what they call triple jungle canopy hundreds of feet high.

So it’s possible, particularly if this some sort of terrorism act, that they might have gotten to land. And if the airplane didn’t explode, so the satellites wouldn’t see the flash, it could well be one answer as so why there is no flotsam and jetsam.

And I agree with John. You would expect to see some of the airplane float. Much of the structure of these modern aircraft is what they call honeycomb. And John is more familiar with this than I am. But that stuff floats. It’s lightweight and it should be on the surface.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there are so many questions. And we appreciate your both being with us tonight to help us sort through them.

Alan Diehl, John Goglia, thank you.

JOHN GOGLIA: Thank you for having me.

ALAN DIEHL: Thank you, Judy.