Does The Flight 370 Radio Transcript Show Anything? Probably Not.
There’s a transcript floating around the purports to be a transcript of the communications between air traffic controllers and the missing Malaysia Air flight 370.
Before going any further let me give you a little background so you can take what I’m going to say with appropriate levels of salt. Back in 1999/2000 I learned to fly small, single engine planes, your basic Cessna prop jobs. I haven’t flown much since then because it became even more ridiculously to fly than it was before (hey, hit the tip jar and maybe I can become current again!). So I’m not a high time private pilot and never came close to becoming a pilot for an airline. Still, I did fly from a towered airport and deal with ATC from the tower, approach and center levels.
Now, with that out of the way….
Once again people are focusing on the final bit of communications, “All right. Goodnight”.
Is that non-standard radio procedures? Yes. A pilot should read back the instruction he’s given. But the reality is, sometimes pilots use improper communication techniques.
Why would a pilot do this?
He’s lazy. Cruise is the easiest part of a flight for a pilot. Unlike takeoff and approach, you are usually just cruising along monitoring the automated systems. You usually aren’t given a bunch of heading/altitude changes. You aren’t being sequenced in a congested airspace with a bunch of other flights trying to get to or away from the same relative small point (the airport). Things just get…lax. He may have heard other flights handed off to the same center he was being passed off to and had the frequency preset in his other radio and didn’t feel anything would be lost by not reading back the new frequency. Very often pilots will know the next frequency they will need and listen in to get a sense of how heavy the traffic is before they switch to it. It gives you a feel on how you need to fit in (is it busy and you need to find a spot or is it slow and you can take your time? That sort of thing.)
Side note: Planes have more than one radio. My little Cessenas always had at least two so I’d imagine a 777 has more than that. What you generally do is have the first frequency you’ll need programmed into one and put the next one into the 2nd radio. When it’s time to change you flip the radio you are using and start broadcasting on that one. This also serves as a backup. Say the next frequency you are giving, in this case 120.9 didn’t work for some reason (it happens), you flip back to the other radio already set to a frequency you know works to talk to someone.
The transcript shows that the flight properly acknowledged all prior ATC commands and that makes this one failure to do so…curious. One possible explanation for the change in procedures (and it’s just a possibility, nothing more) is that it was a different member of the flight crew responding to that command than there was to the others.
Captains and first officers generally trade legs as the “pilot flying”, that is the pilot actually doing the take off/landing. When in cruise they may switch responsibility for handling the radio and other “house keeping” chores like changing heading/altitude. For all we know the pilot who used the proper communications format was in the bathroom or having a snack and the pilot who made this transmission was working the radio for the first time in the flight.
There’s no reason to say ether of these things are what happened, I’m just proposing some innocent reasons why this communication was different from the rest.
I’ve heard people say this was some sort of hint from the flight crew that something was amiss. I’ve heard that there are code words for crews to use in case of hijackings (there’s a special transponder code you’re supposed to enter if you can that will show up on a controller’s screen). Well, if this was an attempt by the crew to signal something, it didn’t work.
As far as the possibility that it was a hijacker who made that transmission, it seems unlikely that a hijacker would know how to disable ACARS, turn the transponder off, fly the plane in an entirely different direction but be so unfamiliar with aviation procedures that they couldn’t manage to use the standard format for a center hand off.
As much as everyone wants to find a clue or read into anything unusual, this is very likely a dead end.