It may seem unfathomable that a Boeing 777 could simply vanish. But that’s what happened last weekend. A Malaysia Airlines jet with more than 230 people on board disappeared during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Controllers lost contact with the plane. No mayday, nothing.
When a large airliner crashes into a body of water, it leaves a hell of a mess. That was most certainly the case with Swissair 111, which slammed into the ocean six nautical miles off Peggys Cove, N.S., on the night of Sept. 2, 1998. Over the course of 41/2 years, I directed a detailed film about the investigation, and saw more pieces of broken airplane than I care to remember.
The MD-11 wide body jet had 229 people on board. No one survived when it hit the water at several hundred kilometres per hour. At impact, investigators believe, it was 20 degrees nose-down and banked 110 degrees.
One of the sleuths said to me that the destruction was akin to what happens when a Coke bottle is dropped from a 10-storey building. In the case of a tube hitting the water at that speed, the water would be like cement and it would fill the tube with such incredible force that it would blow it apart. Swissair 111 broke into about two million pieces in a third of second.
Some parts of the plane were intact, such as the landing gear, built to withstand the weight of touchdown and taxiing. The bulkhead separating the flight deck from the rest of the plane and the cockpit door were dirty, but virtually undamaged. Investigator Don Enns told me that was the result of a Swissair-specific modification to thwart terrorism. This was pre-9/11, but European airlines and airports had often been the targets of bombings and hijackings. Swissair had reinforced the bulkhead and cockpit door with Kevlar, making them bulletproof. When they hit the water, they didn’t break apart.
Sadly, the people did. Eventually, forensic experts identified the remains of everyone on board, and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada recovered 98 per cent of the wreckage from the ocean floor.
One piece of the debris told a powerful story. In the reconstructed cockpit, the co-pilot’s seat belt was torn in two, evidence that he was in his seat, strapped in, flying the plane. The captain’s seat was pushed back, in what’s called the “egress position.” His seat belt showed no sign of ripping. Investigators believed he may have been trying to fight the fire that had doomed the aircraft, melting the cockpit ceiling and crippling the electronic flight instruments. The last known action in the cockpit was approximately a minute before impact, when the No. 2 engine was shut down, perhaps because of a false indication of an engine fire. Sixty seconds later was mass destruction. The gruesome debris would haunt local residents who rushed out to sea looking for survivors.
Had the jet gone down an hour or three further into its New York-Geneva flight plan, out over the Atlantic, it too might have vanished, or have been extraordinarily difficult to find. It also might have prevented investigators from extracting a long list of safety lessons from the incident. The key finding from Swissair 111 turned out to be the startling fact that the cover material on insulation blankets beneath the skin of the plane was flammable. It burned like crazy. As a result, thousands of aircraft were stripped down and reinsulated with non-flammable material.
Crashes kill people, which is terrible. But they also teach us things to save lives in the future. Finding Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 won’t just provide closure for families and friends – it will help us understand what happened and why.
Howard Green is host of Headline on BNN. He directed and wrote The Investigation of Swissair 111.