U.S. officials now say that manual intervention was involved in the missing flight and Malaysian officials are calling it a hijacking. Some aircraft systems continued to transmit information for several hours after the aircraft went off radar, which may indicate that the transponder (the radio transmitter that provides information to the radar facility), was shut off manually. Some reports say that someone with aeronautical knowledge turned the plane off course.
Was Flight 370 hijacked? If it was, were the pilots themselves involved or was there a gun held to their heads while they executed the maneuvers told to them by the hijackers?
If you’re wondering how an airplane can be hijacked in the “post 9/11 world,” unfortunately it’s not much more difficult than it was pre 9/11. On September 9th, 2009 a man hijacked an Aeromexico flight by himself, unarmed and unassisted. No one rushed him or tried to “take back the plane,” like the passengers did on United Flight 93. Even in the U.S. there are holes in the system that could allow hijackers to still board a flight and take it over. Read here if you’re curious about how that could happen (understandably this is in Great Britain but our procedures here aren’t markedly different)
International aviation security procedures are wildly different than US procedures. In most parts of the world, walk through metal detectors are still the primary passenger screening device, and old school x-ray machines are still the primary carry-on baggage screening device. Cockpit procedures, such as the processes in place in the U.S. that are used when the pilot has to use the lavatory in flight, are not universal mandates throughout the world. And even if ICAO says that a procedure is part of their Annex 17 requirements, any nation can ignore any “requirement,” it wants to.
Hijackings have continued, unsuccessfully for the most part, throughout the past decade. None in the U.S. since 9/11 which is why most of the population in the United States hasn’t heard about them (try reading Aviation Security International magazine sometimes if you want an eye-opener).
I think a hijacking is completely plausible in this case, but the next question is who and why? There have only been two cases where the pilots were suspected of hijacking their own aircraft, EgyptAir (1999) and SilkAir (1997). Investigators are looking into those possibilities as well.
All of this remains speculation on our part. We aren’t operating with the same level of information as the authorities are, and according to latest reports, some officials believe they aren’t getting the full story from the Malaysian officials either.
While the hijack theory seems more plausible on the basis of this recent information, there is always the possibility of a crew issue. Maybe they fell asleep, or maybe there was a hazardous material issue that caused the pilots to become incapacitated. We don’t know yet. The one thing that is true in aviation is that pilots are taught to do three things in an emergency – aviate, navigate, communicate, in that order. Whatever the situation was the pilots will first “fly the plane,” then look for a safe place to land. Telling people on the ground is the 3rd priority as it’s the one step that’s unlikely to solve the immediate first two problems of aviating and navigating.
And if this was a pilot hijacking, the next question is, what’s to stop it from happening in the future? That’s the survival instinct we all have – if we know what caused death, then we believe that we can prevent that death from happening to us. The answer to that question is much more complex, and there may not be a solution.