The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has ignited several unanswered questions over the fate of the jet and its 239 passengers.
1. Could the plane have run out of fuel?
Malaysia Airlines has confirmed that MH370 was fuelled for at least eight hours of flight, and the aircraft’s Kuala Lumpur-Beijing route typically lasts only six hours. Furthermore, aircrafts generally carry about two hours’ worth of fuel on top of what is needed.
“If there was a fuel loss, the pilot would have enough time to call for distress signal, and to turn around and glide back to land,” said Ravi Madavaram, an aviation analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
2. Could a mechanical failure have occurred?
Flight MH370 was a Boeing 777-200 – an aircraft rated as one of the safest jets in the world. Experts have said that a total structural breakdown that might lead to an explosion or a loss of cabin pressure is extremely unlikely considering the plane’s reliability, particularly when there have only been four accidents involving the Boeing 777 since 1994.
Furthermore, based on the MH370’s maintenance records, the plane was structurally sound and had “nothing that would jump straight out of the page,” according to reviews by Indonesia-based aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman.
Despite this, the failure of the plane’s twin engines is technically possible.
In January 2008, a British Airways Boeing 777 crashed 300 metres short of a runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. Ice accumulation in the aircraft’s fuel system had caused the engines to lose thrust.
However, in the case of flight MH370, a mid-air engine failure would have still given the plane about 20 minutes of glide time before descending – more than enough time for pilots to make an emergency call.
3. Was the plane’s sudden disappearance due to a terror attack or a hijacking?
Authorities have not ruled out hijacking as an explanation, particularly due to the absence of a distress signal from the plane.
Some aviation experts have argued that the disappearance of the plane from radar screens only 40 minutes into its flight without any warning indicates a sudden catastrophe such as a bomb, although there is currently no evidence to indicate that a bomb was placed on board.
Others have theorised that the plane may have been deliberately flown into the sea, with the pilot either attempting to commit suicide or under duress in a hijacking similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“There was not even time for the pilot or crew to raise an alarm. It could have happened due to a deliberate act – by a pilot or a terrorist – but this is all very speculative,” Ravi said.
The news that two passengers boarded the plane with stolen passports has also ignited speculation of a terror attack, but US Department of Homeland Security officials have publicly stated that stolen passports do not necessarily equate to terrorism and may have simply been purchased illegally on the black market.
4. Did piloting errors cause the plane’s disappearance?
MH370’s pilot was Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old who had been flying for 33 years. Information released about Shah show that he was a professional veteran with 18,365 hours of experience under his belt, making human error unlikely but possible.
Currently, MH370 is drawing comparisons with a 2009 crash of an Air France flight 447 into the Atlantic Ocean – an accident which killed more than 200 people. Investigations into the incident revealed that speed sensors on the plane had failed, causing a drop in altitude.
According to official reports, the plane’s crew lost control of the jet largely because they lacked training at manually handling the aircraft in the event of an emergency.
5. Could pilot suicide have occurred?
If a pilot planned to commit suicide by crashing a plane, he could theoretically lock himself in the cockpit alone when his co-pilot visited the toilet. It would then be simple to disengage autopilot and take control of the aircraft.
Silk Air Flight 185 from Jakarta to Singapore, flow by Captain Tsu Wai Ming entered a “rapid decent” at 35,500 ft, crashing mid-flight on December 17, 1997. All 97 passenger and seven crew died onboard the Boeing 737.
The National Transportation Safety Board was among the investigators who concluded evidence pointed towards deliberate interference of the controls, infering that one of the pilots caused the plane to crash.
6. How can a plane go missing with absolutely no sign of wreckage?
It is not unprecedented for wreckage recovery to take a long time, particularly if the plane disappears in an area outside of radar contact - which may be the case with flight MH370.
Air France flight 447 disappeared in the middle of the evening outside of radar contact, and while Brazilian authorities were able to uncover portions of wreckage about five days after the incident, it took a full two years before the aircraft’s flight recorder was finally recovered from the ocean floor.
7. Why was no distress signal sent?
The absence of a distress signal suggests something unexpected and catastrophic occurred on the aircraft, giving the pilots no time to react.
However, if something is wrong with the plane, pilots can radio for help. But it’s not uncommon for modern aircraft to fail to send a distress signal.
Aviation, security and counter-terrorism expert Chris Yates said: “The fact of the matter is from time to time airplanes do literally disappear off the normal communication channels and it’s not necessarily a problem with the aircraft going down but normally a fault with the aircraft itself.”
However, the ill-fated Air France crash in 2011, pilots did not send a distress signal because they realised they were about to crash moments from impact.
8. Is the plane fitted with a tracking system?
Modern aircraft are equipped with all sorts of tracking devices, but both Malaysia Airlines and Boeing have refused to confirm if the missing Flight 370 had a transponder or other radar-detecting equipment installed.
Rolls Royce, manufacturer of the two Trent 800 engines supplied to the missing jetliner, confirmed it tracks all of its engines at its control centre in Britain.
Asked if Rolls Royce would know if there was a change in power, a spokeswoman for Rolls Royce replied: “We know first hand if there is something wrong with the engine, yes... any kind of problem.”
Asked if other parties were made aware of the information from its control centre, the spokeswoman said the information would be passed to Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian authorities.
It is believed Boeing has the ability to track all of its aircraft anywhere in the world in real time.
9. What about the aircraft’s black boxes?
If the aircraft has crashed on water, then the "black box" flight data recorders - actually coloured orange - should send out a signal. In the event of an aircraft being lost at sea, the beacon, triggered by contact with water, will ping for at least 30 days. However, investigators are searching a vast expanse of water, meaning locating the black box will not be a straightforward process.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse