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Premeditation and physics

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaDid a 138,000kg metal tube improbably glide? That is what MH370 investigators have to decide. Here are some planes that have flown sans power.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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US Airways Miracle on the Hudson - 15 January 2009

The 'Miracle on the Hudson' was entirely attributed to the gliding skills of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

AS THE search for the missing MH370 B777-200ER continues over the belittling vastness of the Indian Ocean, talk has turned to whether it ‘glided’ to a zone farther than first anticipated in the crash scenario. Despite the sceptics and naysayers, this has always been a plausible scenario. More recent frisson has been generated by a New York Magazine article pointing to the existence of a simulator flight path on the pilot’s home computers similar to – but somewhat different from – the currently plotted route.  

While the contrarian glide theory presupposes someone was at the controls directing – or attempting to salvage – the situation, eyebrows have shot up at the suggestion that a 138,000kg metal and carbon behemoth could actually fly sans power. The simple truth is, it can. It’s called a dead-stick flight.

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Aircraft have been known to land safely or with minimum casualties in glider mode after complete loss of engine power. A dead-stick landing involves a steeper glide path than for a conventional glider of course but, depending on the wind conditions, it is estimated that from a height of 30,000ft an aircraft could theoretically cover a further 150km before reaching the ground.

This is why the Dutch company leading the efforts to locate the Malaysian passenger jet, missing since 8 March 2014, now feels the search may have inadvertently been focused in ‘the wrong place’ – a depressing thought for rescuers-turned-airline-sleuths who have been combing 120,000sq km off West Australia. Yet it could hold a germ of reassurance for the families of the passengers who may hopefully find some closure if the search is eventually extended and resolve maintained. Premeditated or not, the flight, en route Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared on March 2014 with 239 passengers onboard. It is a mystery that deserves answers.

{Less known but even more amazing – not least for a dangerously sloppy metric conversion – was the 23 July 1983 case of Air Canada flight 143...

Perhaps the most storied example of an aircraft gliding – but this time, to safety – was the 15 January 2009 incident involving a US Airways Airbus A320 piloted by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. He successfully ditched in the Hudson River after bird hits took out both engines just after take-off from New York’s La Guardia. At the end of this fast-unfolding drama, all 155 passengers and members of the crew had been safely evacuated.

Less known but even more amazing – not least for a dangerously sloppy metric conversion – was the 23 July 1983 case of Air Canada flight 143. The B767 flight from Montreal to Edmonton was abruptly curtailed when the plane ran out of fuel and the pilots were forced to land without power. As it turned out the captain was a trained glider pilot and his co-pilot had a childhood familiarity with the terrain they were flying over.

Unable to make it to Winnipeg, the co-pilot suggested landing at Gimli, a nearby air force base. What neither Captain Robert Pearson nor First Officer Maurice Quintal were aware of was that part of this complex had been converted into a racetrack. Coming in too high for a safe approach, Pearson executed some textbook gliding manoeuvres and S turns to ‘slip’ sharply and lose altitude before coming down hard on the tarmac with a collapsed nose wheel, which, ironically, slowed the plane sufficiently to bring it to a standstill metres before gawping spectators and race cars. Its silent approach had taken most people unawares. All 61 passengers were evacuated without any serious injury. Why did the aircraft run out of fuel? The metric system (litres) had just replaced the imperial system (gallons) and the engineers miscalculated the amount to pump into the plane.

Passengers on an Air Transat flight from Toronto to Lisbon on 24 August 2001 had a similar experience when their plane ran out of fuel mid-Atlantic and was shepherded to a glider landing in the Azores by Captain Robert Piché. All 306 people on board the A330 owe their lives to the pilot’s gliding expertise, which stood them in good stead. The fault was traced to a fuel leak in one of the engines.

In a celebrated 24 June 1992 case, a British Airways B747 flight lost all thrust due to volcanic ash ingestion near Jakarta and flew completely unpowered for 10 minutes before managing a restart of all engines midflight and landing safely in Jakarta on three engines. With the usual British understatement, the captain asked the passengers to stay belted, as there was a spot of bother to deal with.

Yet nothing comes close to the aerial acrobatics and sheer derring-do of Zivi Nedivi, an Israeli Air Force pilot who lost one entire wing on his F15 during a simulated dogfight that resulted in contact with another plane. Having lost the wing, unbeknownst to him and his instructor (there was a blind spot created by spurting fuel), Zivi pulled out of his roll by engaging the afterburner and increasing thrust. The extra power helped right the plane and he managed to bring it in for a fast but safe landing. That’s when the duo discovered he had actually done the impossible. But I digress. He didn’t glide. He flew.

And so back to MH370. Was there a glide path? Was there premeditation or suicidal intent? And could all this lead to a different crash zone? We may never know but, despite the cost, aviation will be safer if we probed deeper and longer.

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