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Why Malaysia Airlines jet might have disappeared

By Scott Mayerowitz
Associated Press (*)
NEW YORK — The most dangerous parts of a flight are take-off and landing. Rarely do incidents happen when a plane is cruising seven miles above the earth.

So the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet well into its flight Saturday morning over the South China Sea has led aviation experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to place a distress call.

It could take investigators months, if not years, to determine what happened.

If there was a minor mechanical failure — or even something more serious like the shutdown of both of the plane’s engines — the pilots likely would have had time to radio for help. The lack of a call “suggests something very sudden and very violent happened,” said William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

It initially appears that there was either an abrupt break-up of the plane or something that led it into a quick, steep dive. Some experts even suggested an act of terrorism or a pilot purposely crashing the jet.

“Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the airplane apart, or you had a criminal act,” said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co. “It was so quick and they didn't radio.”

No matter how unlikely a scenario, it’s too early to rule out any possibilities, experts warn. The best clues will come with the recovery of the flight data and voice recorders and an examination of the wreckage.

Some of the possible causes for the plane disappearing include:

— A catastrophic structural failure of the airframe or its Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines. Most aircraft are made of aluminium which is susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in areas of high humidity. But given the plane’s long history and impressive safety record, experts suggest this is unlikely.

— Bad weather. Planes are designed to fly through most severe storms. However, in June 2009, an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed during a bad storm over the Atlantic Ocean. Ice built up on the Airbus A330’s airspeed indicators, giving false readings. That, and bad decisions by the pilots, led the plane into a stall causing it to plummet into the sea. The pilots never radioed for help. In the case of Saturday’s flight, all indications show that there were clear skies.

— Pilot disorientation. Pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow went off course and didn’t realize it until it was too late. This is unlikely given that the plane probably would have been picked up by radar somewhere. But it’s too early to eliminate the possibility.

— Failure of both engines. In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 1,000 feet short of the runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. As the plane was coming in to land, the engines lost thrust because of ice buildup in the fuel system. There were no fatalities. Loss of both engines is possible in this case, but Hamilton said the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call.

— A bomb. Several planes have been brought down including Pan Am Flight 103 between London and New York in December 1988.

— Hijacking. A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane’s captors typically land at an airport and have demands. But a 9/11-like hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.

— Pilot suicide. There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s — a SilkAir flight and an EgyptAir flight— that are believed to have been caused by pilots deliberately crashing the planes. Government crash investigators never formally declared the crashes suicides but both are widely acknowledged by crash experts to have been caused by deliberate pilot actions.

— Accidental shoot-down by some country’s military.

@globetrotscott

Scott Mayerowitz is an Airline Reporter for Associated Press.

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