An MH370 theory that was simple, compelling and wrong
- 19 March 2014
On Tuesday a "startlingly simple" theory explaining the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet began making the rounds on social media and among journalists interested in the story. According to a fellow named Chris Goodfellow, the plane caught fire, and the pilot headed to a nearby airport to save the craft, eventually crashing into the Indian Ocean.
Goodfellow originally posted his theory on his Google+ page on 14 March, but it picked up steam when it was reposted on the linking site Reddit. On Tuesday Wired magazine edited and ran the post under the headline A Startlingly Simple Theory about the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet.
Goodfellow, whom Wired identifies as having "20 years' experience as a Canadian Class-1 instrumented-rated pilot for multi-engine planes", begins with a dismissive wave toward the aviation experts who have been clogging the news networks.
"There has been a lot of speculation about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370," he writes. "Terrorism, hijacking, meteors. I cannot believe the analysis on CNN; it's almost disturbing."
He says that he "tends to look for a simpler explanation".
He then theorises that a fire, possibly electrical or from an overheated tyre on take-off, sent smoke into the cockpit shortly after the crew signs off with Malaysian air traffic controllers.
The pilot executes a sharp left turn and heads for a nearby emergency landing spot, while turning off electronics - such as the transponder - in order to isolate the problem.
"Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time," he writes. "We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbour while in cruise."
A quick search of Google Earth gives Goodfellow a candidate: Pulau Langkawi.
"Surprisingly, none of the reporters, officials, or other pilots interviewed have looked at this from the pilot's viewpoint: If something went wrong, where would he go?" he writes. "Thanks to Google Earth I spotted Langkawi in about 30 seconds, zoomed in and saw how long the runway was and I just instinctively knew this pilot knew this airport."
All the pieces fit into place, he writes. The climb to 45,000ft? A last-ditch attempt to put out the fire. Where is the plane now? After the pilots were overcome by smoke, the plane continued on autopilot over Langkawi and headed west into the Indian Ocean, where it eventually ran out of fuel and crashed.
"Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a hero struggling with an impossible situation trying to get that plane to Langkawi," he writes. "There is no doubt in my mind. That's the reason for the turn and direct route."
Goodfellow's theory continued to spread across media, both social and mainstream.
"I buy this new MH370 theory of an onboard fire," tweeted the New York Times's Josh Barro.
The theory "fits the facts" and "makes sense", writes Business Insider's Henry Blodget. "It requires no fantastically brilliant pre-planning or execution or motives."
The Atlantic's James Fallows agrees.
"I think there's doubt about everything concerning this flight. But his explanation makes better sense than anything else I've heard so far," he writes. "It's one of the few that make me think, Yes, I could see things happening that way."
Only it very likely didn't happen that way - as considerable information that was already in the public realm contradicts the story. By Tuesday evening, writers and commentators were picking Goodfellow's post apart.
"Goodfellow's account is emotionally compelling, and it is based on some of the most important facts that have been established so far," writes Jeff Wise in Slate. "And it is simple - to a fault."
"While it's true that MH370 did turn toward Langkawi and wound up overflying it, whoever was at the controls continued to manoeuvre after that point as well, turning sharply right at VAMPI waypoint, then left again at GIVAL," he says. "Such vigorous navigating would have been impossible for unconscious men."
Goodfellow's theory fails further when one remembers the electronic ping detected by the Inmarsat satellite at 8:11 on the morning of March 8. According to analysis provided by the Malaysian and United States governments, the pings narrowed the location of MH370 at that moment to one of two arcs, one in Central Asia and the other in the southern Indian Ocean. As MH370 flew from its original course toward Langkawi, it was headed toward neither. Without human intervention - which would go against Goodfellow's theory - it simply could not have reached the position we know it attained at 8:11 a.m.
There still should have been a distress call, Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board crash investigator, told NBC News.
"Typically, with an electrical fire, you'll have smoke before you have fire," he said. "You can do some troubleshooting. And if the systems are still up and running, you can get off a mayday call" and pilots can put on an oxygen mask, Feith said.
Nine hours after its first article on the subject Business Insider ran a follow-up, with reaction from pilots.
Michael G Fortune, a retired pilot who flew 777-200ERs like the Malaysia plane, said it was unlikely the crew would have shut off the transponders to deal with the fire.
"The checklist I utilized for smoke and fumes in the B-777-200ER does not specifically address the transponder being turned off," he said.
Another 777 pilot told the website that putting on oxygen masks would have been the first priority for the crew, preventing them from being incapacitated.
As long as there is no definitive word about the fate of MH370, theories - from respected experts and amateurs relying on a hunch and a little help from Google Earth - will continue to bounce around the internet.
Some will catch on and go viral, until they are debunked or overtaken by new facts.