The most concise and cogent piece of advice offered this week from an array of Israeli aviation and terror experts was from Arkia pilot and military analyst Reuven Pedatzur. “The more you know about aviation, the less you have to say at this point,” Pedatzur said of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing for 11 days as of this writing.
Pilots rely on instruments, facts, data. Either the plane will be found in an isolated hangar somewhere, or the debris, many of them say, will tell the tale. The distance between the tail and the engines, the degree to which the debris has scattered, the manner in which the plane broke apart: these will reveal what happened to MH370.
But as time passes and no one hears from any of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the large Boeing 777 airliner is not found, a strange case from October 31, 1999, looms large on the horizon of possibilities.
On that day, a twin-engine Boeing 767 en route from New York City to Cairo with 217 people on board hit a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, flew normally for several more minutes, and then came hurtling down through the sky, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean several dozen miles south of the coast of Nantucket.
Many people remember that Egypt Air flight as a tragic accident. That is largely on account of Egypt’s staunch refusal to face the facts of the investigation. The US National Transportation Safety Board, a no-nonsense and highly skilled organization of professional engineers and investigators, released its final report on the crash in March 2002. It stated quietly what the professional investigators had known almost from the beginning: that the deputy pilot, Gameel al-Batouti, pushed the plane into the sea.
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the Egypt Air flight 990 accident is the airplane’s departure from normal cruise flight and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the relief first officer’s flight control inputs. The reason for the relief first officer’s actions was not determined,” the report read.
The pilot and author William Langewiesche, who wrote a searing, learned account of the alleged mass murder, noted in The Atlantic that “one of the world’s really important divides lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not.”
There are nations that pursue the truth, despite the pain, and nations that seek to avoid the pain by steering around the truth. The latter is what happened in the fall of 1999, when Egypt refused to accept the fact that Batouti — who found himself alone in the cockpit, and slammed the nose of the plane into a dive while repeatedly intoning the words “I rely on God” — had committed a gruesome act of terror.
In the case of Egypt Air Flight 990, the facts, detailed first in Langwiesche’s article and later in the NTSB report, were gleaned from the retrieved black box and the trail of evidence left by the debris.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is still a mystery. No debris has been found. The airplane, a rather large Boeing 777, has not been seen and none of the passengers has been heard from.
For Hillel Avihai, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya with a doctorate in aviation terrorism, the ongoing silence points primarily in one direction – a crash, probably by design, and probably at sea.
“It’s hard to imagine you can hide hundreds of passengers and the plane for this long,” he said. “It is not a Cessna.”
The passenger plane would almost surely be seen, he said, “unless there was a state behind the operation” – in which case a secluded airstrip could be arranged in advance. But what state would go to such lengths against a Malaysian airliner? he wondered.
An act of air piracy, he added, is “very sexy,” and would spawn a crop of action movies, “but is very unlikely.” Instead, he said, skilled pilots, for whatever reason, seem to have driven the plane to its end.
Moti Francis, a 25-year veteran of the Shin Bet and a former head of the organization’s Middle East Protection Division, was less than complimentary when speaking of Malaysia’s air security. “It’s not in the first or second tier,” said Francis, who heads a security consulting group called DFGM. He doubted whether the pilots were screened with any regularity or attention to detail.
A former intelligence officer with a history of service in Southeast Asia seconded that assertion. He described Malaysian security as “very lax” and said that he had flown domestically there with no ID at all. The forged passports used by two young Iranian men, he said, were terribly done, with the actual age of the passengers being many years lower than what was listed on the documents – and still the passengers were allowed to board.
The former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, speculated that if terror in fact played a role in the disappearance of the aircraft then it would be worth noting that “Muslims in the region have an inferiority complex regarding their Islamic worthiness.” This situation, he said, could lead a distressed pilot to a desperate act that would “prove the power and cunning of the local brand of Islam.”
That said, the former officer disagreed with Avihai, refusing to rule out the option of air piracy. “There are plenty of isolated landing strips in the area,” he said. Such an operation could be pulled off. “It’s not that it can’t be done,” he added. “Just that it’s unbelievable if it has.”