Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Novelist's Perspective On What Happened To The Missing Malaysian Airplane Flight MH370

The below is a work of fiction based on an actual event...

            Losing a 777 commercial airliner carrying 250 people is a great story.  Add further details, that the plane’s navigation system was reprogrammed to head in the opposite direction from its scheduled route, that the co-pilot signaled good night and all was well after that change took place, that the systems meant to signal where the plane was were turned off, and we get quite a mystery.  And the plane is still missing after a week.
            We also know some sinister realities.  The plane likely reached 45,000 feet, higher than the 777 safe flying range and an altitude likely to kill passengers.  The pilot was a member of Malaysia’s opposition party and had been at the trial the previous day when their leader was sentenced, many believe unjustly, to prison.  The pilot had a flight simulator in his house.  He and the co-pilot were Muslims.  Not that all Muslims are terrorists but Al Qaeda is a Muslim terrorist group that likes to target airplanes and a high level Al Qaeda terrorist, currently in custody, has claimed credit for the attack.  And that two Iranians were flying on stolen passports and with tickets purchased with cash by a shadowy Mr. Ali (who has since disappeared in Iran) in corrupt Pattaya, Thailand.
            Theories abound.  The plane escaped radar detection by tailing a Singapore Airlines plane.  There was a catastrophic event on the plane and the pilots lost their ability to function.  One of the pilots used it to commit suicide.  It was shot down by another country’s military as it strayed into their airspace.  It was hijacked.  Many of these theories can both be supported and debunked.  Why no distress call?  Why fly in the wrong direction for hours?  Why no demands from whomever did it?  And most of all, why aren’t the governments involved, especially the Malaysian government, more forthcoming with information and more willing to share?
            So let’s look at this problem differently.  Instead of listening to those in the aviation industry, who want to comfort us, or the journalists, who are honor bound to follow all leads, let’s look at it from the point of a novelist.
And, to provide some context, I’ve written two novels about terrorists in which one perspective in the story is a terrorist’s.  Thus, I’ve tried to plan plots from that point of view.  Captive came out a few years ago and has been downloaded over 600,000 times.  Escape, its sequel, will be out in a few months.  Terror strikes are unpredictable but they do follow patterns.  Anyone planning a big strike is a risk taker, visionary and able to see beyond the obvious.  They also do painstaking research, as this missing plane clearly demonstrates.
            First, I wish I’d written this story but no one would have believed it.  Indeed, it’s utter genius…making a large commercial plane disappear.  The planning is staggering and the plot was executed seamlessly, including little details like turning off tracking when crossing from Malaysian to Vietnamese waters.  And knowing that Malaysian authorities wouldn’t be on their toes when it happened (but to defend them for a minute, such events just don’t happen so this really was totally implausible to those monitoring the plane).  But while I didn’t write it I can imagine a possible story line.
            So what can we surmise?
            At the most basic level someone wanted a plane and they still have it.  They most likely don’t care about the passengers’ lives…no one who hijacks a plane has passenger safety as a main goal.  And by flying at an altitude that would likely kill those without facemasks the perpetrators probably solved the problem of 250 angry passengers.  By flying at 5,000 feet did they perhaps parachute out and achieve one possible end – that of embarrassing the Malaysian government?  Perhaps.
            I doubt it.
            Someone was flying the plane, unless we believe it was on autopilot.   Anyone who agrees to hijack a commercial plane isn’t thinking about their own personal safety.  No, they are on a larger mission.  One or both pilots?  Seemingly, for a number of reasons it’s likely that one or both was involved, willingly or not.
            Did the fact that they were Muslim matter?  Absolutely!  It doesn’t automatically label them as terrorists but it might make them more receptive to help, either willingly or by being coerced.  I love the detail that the co-pilot was recently disciplined for letting two women into the cockpit.   Now that sort of tip…that perhaps the co-pilot was lax and not guilty…is something only a skilled writer would add.
            Inherent in any such plans is the reality that things go wrong, even in the best-laid plots, and the plane could have crashed regardless of intent.  But I’d want the plane if I were writing this story.  Thus my goal wouldn’t be to fly off course for seven hours only to nose dive into the Indian Ocean.  And if the pilots were somehow involved they might be able to land that plane.
            So how do you land it?  That’s actually easier than you think.  Yes, those countries with rogue populations (of terrorists or the like; Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran) are also very heavily covered by military radar.  Landing unspotted would be tough.  Sure, one military unit could have shot the plane down.  But would there not have been some sort of communication first?  Would they hide it?  Given what happened on 9/11, that our military was getting the okay to shoot down a hijacked commercial plane, doing so isn’t the end of the world.
            Well, we just found out that Thai military radar tracked an object that could have been the plane (that day) and only just told Malaysia now!  Turns out they weren’t asked for that specific information.  So, seemingly, to get information questions will need to be phrased “did you shoot down this specific flight at this specific time and location on this actual date.”  I still don’t think the plane was shot down by any country’s military.
            Let me tell you how I would write this story.  The plane is being flown somewhere and heads into Thai airspace.  Thailand is a somewhat orderly country but its northern most region is part of the Golden Triangle, a lawless crossing of Burma, Laos and Thailand through which many things are smuggled.  I’d head the plane to Laos.  With enough planning, and this plot took a while to put in place for such breathtaking execution to occur, an airfield could have been built.  Laos is mostly jungle with a repressive government, basically no press and little communication (or education).  The Laotians probably don’t know a plane is missing; most haven’t seen planes before and wouldn’t have anyone to report such a citing to anyway.  The country is rife with corruption and dirt poor.  Bribing someone there would take little.  For $20 people could be hired to cover the plane with brush.
            And Laos is but one example, by the way.  There are other rural areas in the region with few communications ability, virtually no literacy and room for a runway. They would have been landing early morning and mostly in the light in Laos.
            While we think the plane flew for about 7 hours, even after no longer being tracked in detail, the signals indicating such seemingly came at about one hour intervals.  With the plane on the ground, I’d remove that tracking device and put it on a car or, better, a boat.  No one was looking for a boat then (they weren’t even looking for the plane a few hours in as dawn was breaking).  If the perpetrators knew how to disable so many tracking systems and hijack a plane they could probably handle the technological details of this option.
            I’d keep that boat going for a while then drop the tracking device in the ocean or bury it.  I’d also bury the dead passengers.
            Now I have a plane.  Which still has some fuel and can sit for a while.  Now, I’d use it to make a really big statement.  Every time someone tells me that my theories, or books, are crazy, I point out that the people who did this act are not so bothered by such distinctions.  They know they don’t need to succeed. 
            Terror isn’t about succeeding at any specific act it’s about doing what has happened here…striking fear in people’s hearts.  Making them question what they thought was safe.  Sure, planes crash but they don’t disappear.  This plot is an A already; use the plane or even get it off the ground again and it gets an A+.
            No, they don’t need a plane to detonate a nuclear explosion.  But would a military shoot it down over their own country if warned that it was carrying such?  We all know, or can find out, that many nuclear “bombs” are missing since the cold war and the smaller ones can fit in a suitcase.   Why not put one on the airplane and fly it to…wherever…?
            And I’d let the speculation about the flight continue until I was ready.  Providing any information beforehand only helps authorities find me and figure out my further plans.  How far can a gassed up 777 go?
            And the Chinese?  They have their own problems with Muslim dissenters and non-Muslim ones too.  And I’m not blaming this plane jacking on Muslims…I’m only raising the issue because the pilots were Muslim and a high ranking Al Qaeda operative has claimed his organization is behind it.   I think this plane grab was an opportunistic one and not meant to target China at all.  These organizers were non-state, despite the sophistication of the plot.  Most nation-states wouldn’t risk a plane grab and definitely don’t want to make China super angry for little benefit.  I could be wrong on this point but if someone wanted to target China there are much better ways (for example on Chinese soil).
            So, given where we are now and what information we have, that’s how I would write the story.  My backup plots are an assassination of someone important on the plane and a zombie takeover.   But this mystery story as it stands is perfect.  My heart goes out to the passengers, crew and families who are learning the hard way that fact is stranger than fiction and has a bigger real world impact.

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