A “Startlingly Simple Theory” About the Missing Airliner is Sweeping the Internet. It’s Wrong.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 18 2014 6:03 PM

A “Startlingly Simple Theory” About the Missing Airliner is Sweeping the Internet. It’s Wrong.

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Has someone finally solved the MH370 mystery?

Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Goodfellow doesn’t have much patience for the uncertainty concerning Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The instrument-rated Florida pilot found the theories and countertheories mooted on outlets like CNN “almost disturbing.” (I’ve appeared on CNN to discuss Flight 370, but I’ll try not to take Goodfellow’s remarks personally.) So he set about cutting through the clutter, using nothing more than the machete-like incisiveness of his own intellect. “I tend to look for a more simple explanation,” he writes in a Google Plus post that was republished on Wired.

As he read up on the incident, he got to the part where Malaysia military radar detected the aircraft making a 90-degree turn to the left and leaving its planned flight path, just after it had passed the last navigational waypoint in Malaysian territory, and after its transponder and ADS-B (“Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast”) reporting system had stopped working. His eye followed the track that the airplane made as it headed west, toward the Malay peninsula and to the Andaman Sea beyond. And there, close by the western shore of the peninsula and just a few miles south of the plane’s recorded track, he spotted the island of Langkawi. In a flash, everything made sense.

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“Thanks to Google earth I spotted Langkawi in about 30 seconds, zoomed in and saw how long the runway was,” Goodfellow wrote on his Google Plus page on March 14. “I just instinctively knew this pilot knew this airport.”

He knew what the lost pilot and co-pilot had been thinking when they made that turn, and it was something he’d thought himself, while behind the yoke of an aircraft, many times before. “We old pilots were always drilled to always know the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise,” he wrote. "Airports behind us, airports abeam us and airports ahead of us. Always in our head. Always.”

In the scenario that Goodfellow laid out, MH370 suffered a fire in the cockpit as it climbed to cruise altitude en route to Beijing. Sensing the urgency of the crisis, the flight crew turned toward Langkawi and its 13,000-foot runway, while at the same time pulling circuit breakers to stop the fire. But it was no use. The smoke rendered the men unconscious, and “the flight continued on deep into the south Indian ocean” until it ran out of fuel and crashed.

In a stroke, Goodfellow had solved the mystery of MH370—not only what caused the crash, but where the wreckage would be found. What’s more, his revelation rehabilitated the reputations of the captain and first officer, who have come under an increasing cloud of suspicion. “This pilot,” Goodfellow wrote, “was hero struggling with an impossible situation. … Smart pilot. Just didn’t have time.”

Goodfellow’s posting may be the most (first?) popular thing ever to have come out of Google Plus. After exploding across Twitter, it was reprinted by Wired and praised by James Fallows of the Atlantic, who wrote, “his explanation makes better sense than anything else I've heard so far.”

Goodfellow’s account is emotionally compelling, and it is based on some of the most important facts that have been established so far. And it is simple—to a fault. Take other major findings of the investigation into account, and Goodfellow’s theory falls apart. For one thing, while it’s true that MH370 did turn toward Langkawi and wound up overflying it, whoever was at the controls continued to maneuver after that point as well, turning sharply right at VAMPI waypoint, then left again at GIVAL. Such vigorous navigating would have been impossible for unconscious men.

Goodfellow’s theory fails further when one remembers the electronic ping detected by the Inmarsat satellite at 8:11 on the morning of March 8. According to analysis provided by the Malaysian and United States governments, the pings narrowed the location of MH370 at that moment to one of two arcs, one in Central Asia and the other in the southern Indian Ocean. As MH370 flew from its original course toward Langkawi, it was headed toward neither. Without human intervention—which would go against Goodfellow’s theory—it simply could not have reached the position we know it attained at 8:11 a.m.

To make a good theory, Einstein is said to have asserted, “everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Unfortunately, Christopher Goodfellow’s wildly popular theory errs on the side of too much elegance.

Update, March 18, 2014: This blog post was revised to make consistent which version of Goodfellow's article was used for quotations. The quotes are now all from Goodfellow's Google Plus account, rather than the Wired version.

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Jeff Wise is a New York-based magazine writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. A contributing editor at Popular Mechanics and Travel + Leisure, he specializes in aviation, adventure, and psychology. He tweets as @ManvBrain and blogs at JeffWise.net.