MH370 spent 23 minutes above maximum altitude, may have caused hypoxia, says expert

As investigators continue to analyse satellite data in the hope of finding answers on what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an industry expert said the plane spent 23 minutes at up to 45,000 feet – way above its maximum altitude – and rendered everyone unconscious from the lack of oxygen, said a report in British tabloid Daily Mail.

The plane's maximum service ceiling is 43,100 feet, but military radar had tracked the aircraft flying at between 43,000 feet and 45,000 feet shortly after the last communication from its cockpit.

"It was tracked flying at this altitude for 23 minutes before descending. Oxygen would have run out in 12 minutes (in a depressurised cabin), rendering the passengers unconscious," said the source.

An expert said although the 777-200ER Boeing aircraft has a maximum service ceiling of 43,000 feet, it can probably fly safely at even greater heights.

But at that altitude, where the atmosphere drastically thins, it would take mere minutes if not seconds for hypoxia – a lack of oxygen – to set in, said the Daily Mail report.

Oxygen masks would have dropped down, but these only supply between five and 10 minutes of gas.

Andrew Rae, Professor of Experimental and Applied Aerodynamics at the University of the Highlands and Islands, told Daily Mail: "The venting of cabin pressure would be a problem at 10,000 feet, 30,000 feet or 43,000 feet, but the extra height might perhaps make things happen more quickly.

"The fact that the aircraft flew at 43,000ft should not itself trigger the emergency cabin oxygen supply."

The air used for pressurising the cabin comes through the engine and wing, and is filtered before it enters the passenger environment.

The pressurisation system may need to be turned off if the aircraft enters dirty air, but investigators are looking at the possibility that it was disabled for sinister reasons, said the Daily Mail report.

Meanwhile Chris Goodfellow, a Canadian pilot with 20 years’ experience, said in a post on Google Plus that he believed a fire broke out aboard the plane.

In his post, which also appeared on Reddit and was widely reported, he said that the plane's pilot Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was doing exactly what he needed to do in an emergency – try to land the plane at the nearest airport.

In this case, Goodfellow said, that was a 13,000 foot strip on the island of Palau Langkawi, and that is directly where the aircraft was heading when it was last tracked.

He believed that the crew were overcome by smoke and the aircraft flew as a "ghost plane" for hours past the chosen airport before finally crashing into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

"We old pilots were always drilled to always know the closest airport of safe harbour while in cruise. Always," Goodfellow had said. "Instinctively when I saw that left turn with a direct heading I knew he was heading for an airport."

He said he immediately brought up Google Earth and discovered the runway, which had fewer obstacles blocking the plane's approach than if Zaharie had attempted to return to Kuala Lumpur.

"This pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event aboard that made him make that immediate turn back to the closest safe airport," he said.

Retired pilot Eric Moody – who was in charge of the infamous 1982 British Airways Flight 9 which suffered engine failure when he flew through a volcanic ash cloud – said if it was a fire, the pilot would have wanted to get the plane on the ground immediately, instead of flying for another seven hours.

He also said it appeared that the communications were intentionally switched off and this would not have happened in an emergency.

In 1982, all four engines on the British Airways Flight 9 he was piloting from London to Auckland, New Zealand, failed when he flew through a volcanic ash cloud.

The cloud came from an eruption of Mount Galunggung in West Java, Indonesia.

Moody had to take emergency action and saved all 248 passengers and 15 crew on board by dropping from 37,000ft to 12,000ft to restart the engines.

Eventually, the flight made an emergency landing at the Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Even though he was behind the controls, he still didn't find out the full account of what happened until declassified files were released 11 years later.

Moody, who lives in Chilworth near Southampton, Hants, believes the public have not been told the full story.

"What I will say is that some agency knows something more than what they are letting on and I have experience in this.

"It took 11 years to find out how Boeing was able to ring a ground engineer in Jakarta who got to us after about 15 to 20 minutes after landing.

"A phone call was made just when my engines started going wrong. It meant they knew what was going on as they were monitoring us on satellites.

"Satellite monitoring stations by Alice Springs and Guam were following us as we found out from declassified files years later.

"As such there is so much unknown right now but someone will know more and it could be any country.

"We don't know what they're watching," the Daily Mail report quoted him as saying.

Flight MH370 disappeared from the radar on March 8 and despite an intensive multinational hunt, no sign of it has been found.

Satellite data analysis by Britain's Inmarsat confirmed to Malaysian authorities that the plane had crashed in the Indian Ocean, as announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on Monday night.

It was revealed yesterday that a final electronic signal from the plane was received at 8.19am (Malaysian time) on March 8.

"There is evidence of a partial handshake between the aircraft and ground station at 0019 UTC (GMT)," Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told the press yesterday.

"At this time, this transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work," he had said, adding that unless debris is found, there could be no closure for the affected families. – March 26, 2014.