As a cyber security professional, I spend much of my time thinking about how to defeat systems in order prevent others from doing the same. And several years ago, my team performed vulnerability assessments on air traffic control systems for the FAA. But I am no aviator. So to speculate on what may have become of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, I engaged in conversation with a commercial pilot who flies for a major American airline. Between the two of us, we arrived at some theories on the mystery surrounding the missing plane.
Our conclusion is that the hijacking was cleverly executed. What is yet to be discovered, however, is whether its return to Earth also occurred as planned. Here are our odds-on rankings for the various theories regarding the disappearance of the Boeing 777:
Cause of the mishap:
Planned hijacking – 99.9%
Cooperation by entire flight crew – 2%
Suicide mission – 1%
Mechanical failure – .01%
At the bottom of the Indian Ocean - 95%
Parked at a makeshift landing strip – 15%
Hidden in a hangar inside a rogue nation – 5%
The erratic altitude changes indicate a likely struggle for the controls and that the aircraft was being piloted by someone who is not proficient at flying. After diverting from the flight plan, the 777 ascended to 45,000 feet. Aside from this not being the optimal cruising altitude, this is the ceiling that the aircraft is capable of reaching.
The two communication systems, the transponder and ACARS, were turned off 12 minutes apart. This shows that going silent was deliberate. The transponder merely broadcasts the altitude of the aircraft, along with the unique code assigned to that flight. Cockpit communications with the more modern system, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, sends out altitude, heading, wind speed, current position and next position.
But ACARS is more interesting than just status communication from the flight deck. This is the airline industry’s global, satellite-based version of the Internet. In addition to the automatic flight status being broadcast, the network carries instant messaging between the crew and the airline that owns the plane. Sensors on the aircraft also automatically provide information for ground operations to prepare for maintenance and repair of components. In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the engine manufacturer, Rolls Royce, was receiving automatic parameters from engine sensors every hour, including fuel flow and temperature.