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Plane crash expert on Flight 370 theories: ‘I’m still not convinced’

A girl stands in front of message cards for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, April 11, 2014.

Vincent Thian/AP

Max Vermij does not believe in pilot suicide. Anyone who deliberately crashes a plane full of people is guilty of mass murder, not suicide, he says. And decades of experience have taught the veteran crash investigator, who has been called to work on behalf of victims in the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner, to always look for other explanations.

"This happens a lot with accident investigations – there is a mechanical problem, but they cannot find it. So they blame the pilot," he says. "I always believe, as a primary thing, that it is an accident."

Mr. Vermij, a Canadian based in Ottawa, may play an important role in the flood of lawsuits and recriminations that are virtually certain to come in the wake of the disappearance of Flight 370, whose 239 passengers and crew left behind grieving and angry families.

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Ribbeck Law Chartered International, an aggressive American class-action firm, has already called on him to help piece together an independent analysis of what happened with the aircraft. A Chinese visa is already stamped in Mr. Vermij's passport; the moment more evidence emerges, he will board a plane to begin his work in earnest. China is one likely destination, given that two-thirds of those on board are Chinese.

What he discovers could prove important if lawsuits from the families against the airline or manufacturer reach court. When a plane crashes or goes missing, powerful interests are at stake. A problem with the aircraft design, or a mistake by an airline, can lead to payouts of many millions. If a pilot is at fault, corporate liability tends to be limited. Authorities believe Flight 370 was deliberately diverted off course, and have said suicide is a possible explanation.

Though countries with teams of professional investigators conduct the major crash investigation, Mr. Vermij will scrutinize their work and likely any evidence of wreckage that emerges, including flight data and voice recorders. He will be looking for problems with the investigation and the aircraft that could be used to litigate and win damage payouts for families of those on board. Lawyers have already told them the amounts could be substantial.

After a dozen years with Canada's Transportation Safety Board, Mr. Vermij left government to work in private investigation in 1987. Aviation accidents are surprisingly common. Last year in North America alone, 41 airplanes crashed, killing 75. Mr. Vermij's career has taken him to more than 1,000 air crashes on five continents.

Now 77, he has spent a lifetime learning to think as a contrarian. After all, the incentives for firms like Ribbeck – which was recently censured by a U.S. judge for "improperly" filing a petition seeking information on possible design defects with Flight 370 – are often directly opposite those of companies like Boeing.

Mr. Vermij is skeptical of authorities looking for the plane, who count among their ranks some of the world's most skilled searchers using the most sophisticated technology.

He is not persuaded, for example, that the Australian-led searchers are close to finding the missing jet. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday he is "very confident" that underwater audio "pings" they detected come from the plane's "black boxes," some 1,670 kilometres north of Perth. For the flight to have ended there, the plane would have had to fly for hours in a direction opposite Beijing, its intended destination.

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But "who says it flew on for so long? I'm still not convinced," Mr. Vermij says. His doubt is based, in part, on the fact that no debris has been found after five weeks of air and sea searches. If the aircraft did run out of fuel, he says, it likely would not have gently settled into the water. Instead, he says, it would likely have either landed flat, in which case the engines would strike the water at high speed and cause major damage, or with one of its wings down following an aerodynamic stall. That happens when an aircraft slows to a speed where it can no longer produce enough lift to fly.

"The aircraft would have been ripped to pieces," he says. "The fact they didn't find any wreckage makes me concerned about whether the wreckage is really there."

Mr. Vermij is struck by a recent accident that has gone largely overlooked.

On July 29, 2011, the cockpit of another Boeing 777-200 caught fire after passengers had already boarded at Cairo airport. Though everyone was quickly evacuated and fire crews arrived in minutes, photos show the cockpit reduced to a blackened shell. The fire burned white hot, melting steel, defying the in-plane fire extinguishers and ultimately leaving two holes in the nose of the plane, the largest 76-by-40 centimetres. Investigators believe the blaze was caused by a problem with a hose in the cockpit oxygen system; Boeing issued a service bulletin ordering replacements.

For its part, Malaysia Airlines has said its aircraft are airworthy and comply with all service bulletins, although its chief executive has acknowledged some of those bulletins do not require immediate action.

Without finding the aircraft and its data recording systems, it is impossible to know what went wrong. And law firms seeking damages are keen to pin blame on aircraft manufacturers and airlines, whose deep-pocketed insurers can be the source of greatest damage payments.

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In the Malaysia Airlines scenario, there is additional incentive to do so, since Boeing is an American company, and lawyers want to file suit in the United States, where courts tend to be more sympathetic to victims.

Still, with little other evidence at this point, Mr. Vermij said history can serve as a useful guide. An on-board fire is a "possible scenario" for Flight 370, he said.

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