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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Former Pilot Suspects Foul Play In Missing Flight

This picture taken aboard a Vietnamese Air Force Russian-made MI-171 helicopter shows a crew member looking out from a door during a search flight some 200 km over the southern Vietnamese waters off Vietnam's island Phu Quoc on March 11, 2014 as part of continued efforts aimed at finding traces of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

A crew member looks out the door from a Vietnamese Air Force helicopter during a search flight, March 11, 2014, aimed at finding traces of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

Interpol has released images of two men who were using stolen passports when they boarded Malaysia Airlines flight 370 on Saturday. Both men were identified as Iranian and one was seeking asylum in Germany, according to the international police organization.

So far, Interpol investigators say they have not found a terrorist link to the plane’s disappearance.

Former American Airlines pilot Mark Weiss tells Here & Now that he’s not sure what happened to the flight, but “I think there was a some kind of a struggle in airplane — something may have happened in the cockpit that prevented the pilots from doing their duties.”


  • Mark Weiss, former American Airlines pilot. He’s currently head of the civil aviation team with the Spectrum Group, a consulting firm based in Washington D.C.



This is HERE AND NOW. Interpol has released an image of two men who used stolen passports to board the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished on its route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing four days ago. The two men are Iranians who flew to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then switched to the stolen ones to go from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Both were supposed to fly on to Europe, and officials say it's unlikely either man had links to terrorist groups, which doesn't bring authorities any closer to finding the missing jet, which disappeared from radar while flying into the Gulf of Thailand at 35,000 feet.

Now Malaysian officials are saying today that the plane made a turn and made it to the Strait of Malacca, which is hundreds of miles from its last reported position. The search for the plane has been underway, as we said, for four days now. Well, joining me now is Captain Mark Weiss. He's a former pilot with American Airlines. He's flown the Boeing 777 and now leads the civil aviation team with the Spectrum Group, that's a consulting firm based in Washington D.C. Captain Weiss, welcome.

MARK WEISS: Pleasure to be here, thank you.

HOBSON: Well, let's start with the latest news, that this plane may have taken a turn and gone hundreds of miles away from its last reported position, into the Strait of Malacca, perhaps near this small island there. What do you make of that, that we're just now hearing that it may have gone far off course?

WEISS: To be honest with you, that's a very disturbing situation. Pilots are trained to aviate, navigate and communicate. These people, these pilots, have been trained in a method that if you deviate from your intended flight path, for whatever reason, then you have to enunciate that, make sure that there's nobody in your path, to allow air traffic control to know that.

If you can't communicate directly with air traffic control, and you transmit a message what they call in the blind, just transmitting it for other aircraft that would be in the vicinity, they'd be able to hear that. Somebody, had they been in control of that aircraft, one of the pilots would have said that they were deviating from their flight path. So that's disturbing in itself.

HOBSON: So what does it tell you that they didn't, that they didn't get to that communicate part of that motto: aviate, navigate, communicate?

WEISS: Well, it brings up a potential number of different scenarios, I would think. The first one is we don't really even know who was in the cockpit at the time that they made that deviation. We don't know if there was a problem with them trying to really wrestle with the aircraft for whatever reason to make sure that it was still flying, that you're still aviating.

If you recall in that - and everybody seems to refer back to the Air France 447 aircraft, when they were working the problem on the aircraft, which seems to have been self-induced, they really didn't communicate the problem. That aircraft changed altitude, it changed course. We only found out a lot of that information later on when we found the flight data recorder and the voice recorder.

And I think that's really what's going to be the telling point in this tragedy is once you have those black boxes and are able to identify who was in the cockpit, was there a struggle in the cockpit, really what defined the parameters at the time of that turnaround and whether or not there was even an altitude change.

HOBSON: Well, when you say struggle in the cockpit, and you've mentioned this a couple of times now, is this - are you looking at foul play?

WEISS: There's - that's certainly one of the potential opportunities. Again, did somebody come into the cockpit? Did somebody who was in the cockpit try to wrestle that airplane away from the pilots? Did one of the pilots have a meltdown? Certainly there seems to have been enough time for word to have gotten out from the cockpit, if word had wanted to be gotten out, that they had deviated from their flight path, and that's disturbing, and it should be disturbing to anybody.

HOBSON: And of course we know that cockpits have a significant amount of locking mechanisms on them these days, although I saw a report today that one of the pilots had, on a previous flight, invited some passengers up to take photos in the cockpit. What about radar? Wouldn't radar detect where this plane was going even if it did turn off any kind of transmitting of its location?

WEISS: Well, if the transponder had been turned off, which basically radar sends out a signal and gets a return from the aircraft, the more sophisticated radars basically interrogate the aircraft. So the radar return from the aircraft would be telling the ground station that this is MH370, we're at 35,000 feet, our heading is whatever the heading was, and it's giving the aircraft information to the ground radar station.

Yes, that information should have been - should have been gotten. Radar tracks should have been following that aircraft. Now I don't know really what the radar coverage area is down there, but certainly even if the transponder had been turned off, this should have been a primary signal that there should have been some target out there. That's disturbing again.

HOBSON: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Captain Mark Weiss. He's a former pilot with American Airlines. And we're talking about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which still has not been found. Captain Weiss, if this was not foul play, and it's a 777, this is one of the safest aircrafts in many of these airlines' fleets, what could possibly have happened?

WEISS: Really perplexing question because quite frankly, I mean, I've flown the airplane. It's a very solid platform, very forgiving aircraft, very well-designed. It's very much of a pilot's airplane. System-wise, there's a lot of triple redundancies on something like that. You know, if there had been some kind of catastrophic event onboard the aircraft, that certainly could have triggered, you know, a deviation from the flight path.

But remember, that aircraft had been - recently undergone maintenance checks, only I think 10 or 12 days before. Malaysia Airlines is a very safe airline. The pilots are well-trained. The flight attendants are well-trained. So when you take that into account, and you list the array of potential of opportunities of what could've gone wrong, you start to eliminate or prioritize, really, if the airplane is structurally stable at that point, what would have caused that to happen.

And then you start to come in to these scenarios that I've mentioned earlier.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think happened?

WEISS: Well, my background is in security, and I tend to look at things in a light that kind of focuses on that. There would have been no reason to turn off a transponder. There would be no reason to deviate from the flight path. I question as to who was in the cockpit and whether or not somebody was - there was a fight in the cockpit, whether or not - who was in control, whether the pilot or pilots were incapacitated, and somebody else had some other design in mind for the termination of that flight.

Now, you know, the - there was plenty of fuel on that airplane. And, you know, there's a lot of not just ocean out there, there's a lot of jungle out there. That airplane could be anywhere.

HOBSON: And we will keep following it until it is found. Captain Mark Weiss, former pilot with American Airlines, now runs the aviation team for the Spectrum Group in Washington D.C. Captain Weiss, thanks so much.

WEISS: Thank you.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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