Many Theories But Few Facts On Why Malaysia Plane Went Down

It's been one month since Malaysian Air flight 370 vanished with 239 people aboard. Even after combing thousands of miles of ocean for wreckage, the jetliner's disappearance remains largely a mystery.

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We have a report this morning on that Malaysia Airlines plane that sticks to just the facts. We're peeling away the speculation and going back to what we actually know. One thing we do know is some pings have been detected from the middle of the Indian Ocean around where investigators believe the Boeing Triple Seven went down. We don't know if those pings are coming from the plane's black boxes. That's the latest on the story.

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel takes us back to the beginning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Just after 12:30 in the morning on March 8, Flight 370 to Beijing took off from Kuala Lumpur. There were 239 people on board. In the cockpit was a veteran pilot and his experienced first officer. It was just another redeye flight.

TODD CURTIS: Approach control or what they call Lumpur approach, talked with them until they reached a roughly 18,000 feet in altitude.

BRUMFIEL: That's Todd Curtis, a former Boeing safety engineer who now runs a website called Airsafe.com. There is a down-to-the-second transcript of all the pilot's communications with Air Traffic Control.

CURTIS: So they go into 18,000 feet and above. That would take them out over the water towards Vietnam.

BILL WALDOCK: It looks perfectly normal.

BRUMFIEL: That's Bill Waldock.

WALDOCK: I'm a professor of Safety Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

BRUMFIEL: The plane climbed to 35,000 feet. It cruised for 20 minutes or so, until it reached the edge of Malaysian airspace.

WALDOCK: About 1:19 that night, all the things that are under investigation right now started to happen.

BRUMFIEL: Malaysian Air Traffic control makes the routine call: You're leaving our airspace, contact the Vietnamese. Someone on the plane responds: Good night, Malaysian 370.

WALDOCK: That's the last anybody talks to the airplane and the last time any of the transponder communications occur.

BRUMFIEL: The transponder is a radio beacon that tells controllers where the plane is. But it stopped signaling. Vietnamese controllers never heard from Flight 370. But radars scanning the area saw something.

CURTIS: The aircraft made a turn toward the west.

WALDOCK: About a 150 degree left turn, which takes them back over Malaysia - the Malaysian Peninsula.

BRUMFIEL: The entire investigation hinges on why the plane made that turn. There are a lot of theories out there; maybe the most popular is some kind of mechanical failure aboard, a fire that destroyed communications and incapacitated the crew. But Bill Waldock says there are some facts about the airplane itself that need to be taken into account.

WALDOCK: The Triple Seven has been a very safe aircraft. It's only had two crashes.

BRUMFIEL: Neither occurring while the plane was cruising and one was pilot error. It's worth noting as well that this plane is well-protected against fires.

WALDOCK: You have both fire detection and suppression in both cargo holds and down in the electronics bay.

BRUMFIEL: And Todd Curtis, who actually helped design some of the Triple Seven's safety features says that all the plane's communications would be unlikely to loose power at once.

CURTIS: You can have some fairly serious system issues in the aircraft that may take down multiple power sources. But there are still ways that the aircraft can be configured and keep essential systems up and running.

BRUMFIEL: These facts are why neither Waldock nor Curtis, nor the official investigators, believe the turn itself was accidental. It was deliberate. Somebody in the cockpit was in control. They made that turn.

CURTIS: Whether that was done for a very good reason - for example, the crew might have been trying to divert to an alternative airport - or whether it was done for another reason, someone was trying to commandeer the aircraft, there's no evidence one way or another.

BRUMFIEL: After the turn, things get even hazier. Some reports say the plane was flying too high, others that it was following a standard route. All this seems to be based primarily on data from military radar. That radar doesn't give clear altitude and speed readings. And nations don't publically share information from military radar, so it's hard to know what they saw.

But we do know the plane eventually turned again. A satellite signal sent once every hour showed it went south, into the vast Indian Ocean. The plane sent a total of seven signals, none of which gave a precise location. The last one arrived at 8:11 a.m., seven-and-a-half hours after it took off.

WALDOCK: The flight probably ended when they ran out of fuel.

BRUMFIEL: Bill Waldock says there is one final fact about this airplane: It had eight life rafts. And each one had an emergency beacon capable of sending GPS coordinates to a satellite. If those rafts had inflated, the beacons would have switched on.

WALDOCK: We know that didn't happen so none of the rafts were deployed.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, there were no survivors.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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