The news that missing Malaysia Flight 370 was transporting 200 kilogrammes of lithium-ion batteries in its cargo hold will come as little surprise to the former head of security for the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration, writes Aimée Turner.
Billie Vincent who served as the FAA’s civil aviation security chief insisted from the outset that rather than portraying the crew of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as saboteurs, the pilots struggled heroically to save the aircraft until overcome by smoke from a catastrophic cargo fire caused – or exacerbated – by its highly flammable lithium battery cargo.
Vincent played a key policy and crisis management role in the handling of all hijackings of US aircraft in the 1980s. He was also in charge of the agency’s armed Federal Air Marshals and served as an expert witness in the trial of the Pan Am 103 terrorist bombing.
After leaving the FAA he led an international consulting firm which was contracted in the 1990s to design and implement the security system of Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport where Flight 370, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew, started its journey at 12.41 am on March 8 before disappearing from civilian radar en route to Beijing at 1.21 am after a final radio transmission made at 1.19 am.
Officials in Malaysia said they suspected that someone on board the aircraft first disabled the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) shortly after takeoff before switching off the aircraft’s transponder in a systematic effort to render the aircraft invisible to air traffic surveillance. ‘Pings’ sent from the aircraft to an Inmarsat satellite, indicated that Flight 370 may have then been deliberately diverted and flown as far north as Central Asia or south over the Indian Ocean.
Speaking exclusively to Air Traffic Management, Vincent dismisses the likelihood of a bomb being detonated on board which would have ruptured the pressure hull of the aircraft citing the fact that the series of ‘pings’ would indicate that Flight 370 flew for up to seven more hours. That would not have been possible if its aerostructure had been compromised. If, building from the aircraft’s final ‘ping’ satellite signals, debris is indeed found in the predicted area 1,550 miles south west of Perth, many now believe that the aircraft may not have been under active pilot control.
“The data released thus far most likely points to a problem with hazardous materials. This scenario begins with the eruption of hazardous materials within the cargo hold – either improperly packaged or illegally shipped – or both,” says Vincent.
Malaysian authorities on Friday confirmed that the missing flight was carrying lithium batteries in its cargo hold but said they did not regard them as endangering safety as standard rules had been observed in packing. “These are not regarded as dangerous goods and were packed as recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation,” Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told a media briefing. Until now details of the cargo manifest have been limited to four tonnes of mangosteens.
Vincent remains convinced however that a fire which started in the cargo hold progressively and serially destroyed the aircraft’s communications systems; toxic fumes quickly overwhelmed the passenger cabin and the cockpit where at least one of the flight crew managed to don an oxygen mask allowing them to turn the aircraft back to either Kuala Lumpur or Pulau Langkawi.
Flight 370 is reported to have climbed to 45,000ft which Vincent believes could have been due simply to the inability of the flight crew to clearly see and set the controls for a return.
Vincent guesses that control could have been regained and the aircraft sent back to a lower altitude of around 25,000 ft – which is a diversion altitude set by aircraft manufacturers to prevent a fire taking further hold and which both allows better survivability while venting the avionics bays.
The final report of a UPS B747 crash in Dubai in 2010, details how that crew similarly attempted to depressurise the freighter aircraft by descendign to 10,000 ft to slow down the fire 30 seconds after the loss of aircraft systems and flight controls. In that accident in which there were no survivors, the time interval between fire detection and the onset of aircraft system failures was around two and a half minutes.
The aircraft was found to be carrying at least three shipments of lithium batteries which should have been declared as hazardous materials – but were not. Testing conducted by the FAA Tech Center in the United States after the crash indicated that even overheating caused by an unrelated fire in the cargo hold could have caused a chain reaction: “For this reason, batteries that are not involved in an initial fire may ignite and propagate, creating a risk of a catastrophic event,” stated the investigators in their final report.