Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Pilot Examines Hijacking and Fire Theories

February 3, 2015 Updated: February 4, 2015

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is turning out to be possibly the greatest aviation mystery of all time. A longtime pilot has offered his take on what could have happened on the plane.

The aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 people on board. No signs of the aircraft have been found even after months of searching in the southern Indian Ocean. Last week, Malaysian officials declared the plane’s disappearance an “accident,” with no further details. 

Tom Bunn, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and longtime commercial jet pilot who has developed the SOAR courses on overcoming the fear of flying, points out that the information offered by the Malaysian military as to what happened to the plane is lacking. 

“Every theory has a problem. That is, if you believe all the ‘information’ being offered is legitimate. For example, military radar claim that the plane climbed to 45,000 feet and then rapidly descended. If that is true, the crew took that extraordinary action for some reason,” he told Epoch Times via email.

Bunn said he can see two possibilities for what happened: there was either a hijacker in the cockpit or there was a fire on board the plane—possibly from a shipment of lithium batteries.

Regarding the first theory, Bunn explained that the captain may have been forced to climb to 43,000 feet to “deal with the hijacker” before putting on his oxygen mask.

“Then, he pressed two buttons to shut down cabin pressurization. Within a few seconds, the hijacker would have passed out. But if that was the captain’s plan, something went wrong. On this plane, either pilot can use the autopilot in the FLITCH (flight level change) mode,” Bunn noted. “The pilot dials in an altitude at which he wants the autopilot to bring the plane to. So, lets assume he set in 23,000 feet. That altitude provides enough oxygen to keep a person alive, but not conscious. But until he hits the FLITCH button, the plane maintains altitude.”

The hijacker may have then realized what was happening and took the captain’s mask from his face. “The captain now, I’m figuring, hit the FLITCH button, and the plane rapidly descended to 23,000 feet. But before reaching that altitude, he, the copilot, and hijacker went unconscious—not dead—but unconscious. And when the plane leveled off on autopilot at 23,000 feet, that altitude still was not low enough for anyone to regain consciousness,” he said.

The passengers, meanwhile, would have used the oxygen masks that were deployed, Bunn said, adding there’s only a finite amount before they and the flight attendants would go unconscious too.

Captain Tom Bunn
Captain Tom Bunn

“The plane continued at 23,000 until the fuel was exhausted and, with the autopilot trying to hold the plane at 23,000, as it slowed, it stalled, and descended rapidly and impacted violently into the water,” he said.

As for the second theory that there was a fire, last year, Ahmad Jauhari, CEO of Malaysia Airlines, said that Flight 370 was carrying potentially flammable lithium-ion batteries. In early December, the Federal Aviation Administration released a video by the agency that shows that planes could be susceptible to explosions or fires from rechargeable lithium batteries in the cargo hold.

But Captain Bunn thinks the lithium battery theory is less plausible.

“Lithium battery fires are hard to extinguish. The pilots climbed to 45,000 feet to try to deprive the fire of oxygen, but when it did not work, used FLITCH to go down to 23,000 [feet]. I don’t think this is what happened, because if 45,000 didn’t work, the plane would probably be returned to its normal cruise altitude using the FLITCH mode on the autopilot, not 23,000,” he noted.