What Can Boeing 777 Flight Simulator Tell Us?
A year to the day after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished, not a trace of the missing jet has been found despite a multi-million dollar search operation. NBC News’ Lester Holt went aboard a Boeing 777 simulator and spoke with two aviation experts to examine several theories about what happened on March 8, 2014.
The pilots may have tried to turn around because of smoke or fire in the cabin
Despite losing contact with air traffic control, MH370 was picked up by Malaysian military radar traveling west shortly afterwards. This would have required a sharp turn to the left from the aircraft’s scheduled route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Retired commercial airline pilot Rob Johnson accompanied NBC News inside the Boeing 777 simulator to look at what could have prompted this action: “Possibly something’s gone wrong in the aircraft, in the flight deck, in the cabin, and they want to turn the aircraft around and get back home.” Johnson said fumes or fire could be the culprit in this potential scenario, perhaps originating from an air conditioning pack or another electrical component on board the plane.
In a bid to try to stop this emergency, the pilots may have disconnected their communications
Minutes after its last message to air traffic control — “Goodnight, Malaysian three seven zero” — the plane’s transponder, which communicates with ground radar, stopped transmitting. Johnson used the simulator to show how the pilots may have switched off this vital piece of equipment in a desperate bid to stop the potential on-board emergency. “Right now, the most immediate problem is the source of this smoke and fumes,” he said, mapping out what could have happened. “I’m going to get the checklist out, I’m going to start shutting off electrics.” Johnson said the pilots may have been “so engrossed in the checklist procedure — smoke, fumes — they may have disconnected” the communications. “There’s no use talking to somebody if you’re going to be dead in four or five minutes.”
The aircraft may have then flown for hours while everyone on board was unconscious
Johnson said a likely course of action for pilots dealing with such an emergency would be a rapid descent to 12,000 feet, where the air is breathable and the cabin can be depressurized. If the crew were overcome with fumes, as investigators theorized in June, there would be nothing stopping the aircraft maintaining its course until its tanks were empty. “We haven’t shut off the engines,” Johnson said, demonstrating this course of action in the simulator. “They’ve got 86 metric tons of fuel, they are going to go for another six or seven hours easily.” If the fuel did run out, MH370 would have “become a glider into the water,” Johnson said, estimating it would have crashed 30 to 40 miles later. This fuel calculation, as well as satellite data, was what investigators used to map out the current search area.