Could a four-year-old thriller unlock the mystery of flight MH370?
By Toby Young World Last updated: March 16th, 2014
As the story of MH370 unfolds, becoming more mysterious by the day, I keep being reminded of a thriller I read four years ago. Bolt Action, a novel by Charlie Charters, is set on board exactly the same plane – not just a Boeing 777, but a 777-200ER. In addition, the plane belongs to the national carrier of a Muslim state, though in Bolt Action's case it's Pakistan not Malaysia.
The thriller poses the question: What if a plane is hijacked but no one can regain control because the cockpit door is locked? Since 9/11 all passenger jets have bolt armatures fitted to the cockpit door (the Bolt Action reference in the title). The door remains locked during flight and it's virtually impossible for anyone to get into the cockpit unless the pilot or co-pilot chooses to open it. The locked door is designed to withstand a hand grenade being detonated right outside, a 9mm clip being fired into it at point blank range – even an axe attack. In Bolt Action, the terrorist is a member of the cabin crew, which allows him to access the cockpit where he poisons the pilot and co-pilot, and then bolts the door. The flight in question is from Manchester to New York, but the hijacker has no intention of landing the plane. Rather, his aim is to force the US Air Force to shoot the plane down, martyring everyone on board and advancing the cause of global jihad. The main action of the novel concerns the efforts of Tristie Merritt, an ex-special forces soldier, to get into the cockpit.
Charlie Charters, a Fijian who lives in Yorkshire, is now head of sales for a leading sports hospitality company and working on a sequel to Bolt Action. Not surprisingly, he too has been struck by the uncanny similarities between his book and the disappearance of flight MH370.
"When I first read about this plane I assumed there was some ghastly explosion or mid-air break up and that the plane had gone straight into the sea," he says. "But with each succeeding day and each succeeding news cycle there's this ghastly realisation that events are tracking more and more closely towards the basic proposition I put forward in Bolt Action. It's been really weird and uncomfortable. I came to write the book because fundamentally I love planes and more than anything I wish I had become a pilot. So it's just kind of startling to realise that something I wrote about three or four years ago could be potentially playing out in real life."
When I ask him if he really thinks a hijacker (or hijackers) gained access to the cockpit of the Malaysian Airlines flight – and then bolted the door to prevent any of the passengers or crew from re-taking the plane – he sounds a note of caution. "There's a school of thought which says there's no point in trying to work out what happened until you've found the plane, found the black box and can reconstruct everything backwards from that point," he says.
Nevertheless, Charters refuses to believe that the pilots are to blame. "If I had to make a guess now, I'd say somebody took control of the plane who had a limited understanding of flight procedures and was not the captain or the co-pilot of MH370," he says. "Part of me, like a little child, is still tremendously impressed by anyone who is qualified to fly a plane and flies it to the best of their ability on behalf of all of those people on the plane. That part of me finds it difficult to believe a pilot would do this."
Not everyone will be convinced by this, but he has another argument. If one of the pilots was the mastermind behind the plane's disappearance, he would have switched off all the communication devices, not just the transponder and the ACARS (the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System). In this case, one of the communication systems remained on after the main systems were disabled and the plane continued to send "pings" to an Inmarsat satellite sitting above the Indian Ocean a full seven hours after take off. These are the last signals to be transmitted from the plane and, as the graphic below illustrates, this slightest of electronic traces has enabled the Malaysian investigators to map out two broad corridors where the plane could have been when that signal was transmitted.
New York Times infographic showing areas being investigated
"If a pilot or co-pilot was minded to do this, they would have completely disabled all of the communication devices and ensured that the Inmarsat satellite would not have identified the two corridors along which the search is now proceeding," says Charters. "Whoever took over the plane – and with each passing day it looks as though somebody did – they disabled the obvious ones like the transponder, but not the connection to the Inmarsat network."
Given that Charters believes the plane was hijacked, does he think it's conceivable that it could have secretly landed somewhere? The New York radio station WNYC has identified 634 runways within range of flight 370 where the plane could have landed (see below).
The 634 runways where the plane could have landed
Although Charters says he is no expert, he thinks that's unlikely.
"A transponder is what enables air traffic controllers to track a plane that's coming in to land at a particular airport," he says. "If flight 370 had tried to land at a conventional airport, there would have been no one who knew there was a plane on approach, no one to vector the plane on the way down, no one to relay vital information to the pilot, such as wind speeds, air pressure, and so on. Basically, the plane would have just been invisible to the air traffic controllers. You would have no coordination so the prospect of it making a safe landing in those circumstances is remote. It would need the most benign weather conditions in an otherwise completely empty airspace and a traffic-free airport."
Another reason for thinking the plane hasn't landed anywhere, he says, is because we would have heard about it by now. Or seen evidence.
"I researched a similar scenario and it was clear that for the plane to have landed safely somewhere, and yet for us to still not know about it, would mean that whoever was in charge of that airport – and we're talking a pretty big airport with a runway at least 3,000 metres long – would have to be in on the conspiracy, as would the civil aviation authority with jurisdiction over that airport. That seems the least likely scenario."
He thinks the likeliest explanation is that the crashed plane is in the southern of the two corridors identified by the Malaysian investigators.
"If it had crashed somewhere along the northern corridor, it would have been spotted by the military radar in one of the countries it flew over," he says. "That's a seriously militarised airspace between China, India, Pakistan and the southern fringes of the old Soviet Union."
"My gut feeling is that the plane is somewhere in the southern corridor, along the arc that extends beyond the west coast of Australia, way beyond the reach of where people are currently looking."
He thinks it'll be discovered, but it could take months. He points out that it took the investigators searching for the wreckage of the Air France plane that crashed on route to Paris from Rio in 2009 several months to find it, and then a further 23 months before a robot submarine found the black box recorder. So we could be in for a long wait.
Charlie Charters isn't the only person to think the plane may have been hijacked and crashed by a terrorist, but the theory does have a big hole, namely, why hasn't any organisation taken responsibility for the plane's disappearance yet? How does it advance a particular cause to create a mystery? If a terrorist or group of terrorists were responsible, wouldn't we have heard about it by now? Charters doesn't have an answer to this, but points out that anyone claiming one of the pilots was responsible has to answer the same question. If this was a case of "suicide-by-pilot", why do we still know so little about the motive? If the first officer, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was intent on drawing attention to the plight of the jailed opposition leader in Malaysia, as some have been speculating, wouldn't he have left a note to that effect?
No, Charters believes that the plane was taken over by a hostile interloper – or a group of hostiles – and the reason they were able to keep control, long after it must have occurred to everyone on board that something was wrong, is that the cockpit door was locked. He wrote Bolt Action partly to highlight the risk of this security procedure and he points out that flight 370 wouldn't be the first plane to crash because no one was able to access the cockpit after take-off to prevent a midair emergency. In 2005, a Cypriot charter plane crashed when two pilots succumbed to hypoxia and the cabin crew were unable to do anything about it. (You can read about that episode here.)
"There were four planes hijacked by terrorists on 9/11," says Charters. "Three of them made their target, but the reason the fourth didn't – United 93 – is because the flimsiness of the cockpit door allowed the passengers to re-take the cockpit and drive the plane into the ground. So by turning the cockpit into a fortress, you are providing a measure of security and one that feels good from a visceral point of view. But you don't have to be awfully smart to realise that if you do lose control of the flight deck then you have basically created your own worst-case scenario because it is now impossible to retake control of the cockpit."
In the meantime, while the world waits, Charters says his thoughts are with the families and the loved ones of those in MH370. "Can you imagine the pain of not knowing?"