Retired 777 Pilot Calls the Show
March 18, 2014
RUSH: I've got a call up I want to take now. It's a retired 777 pilot. If I wanted to really sound like I was hip, I'd say triple seven. If I wanted to sound like a network TV guy, I'd say we have a retired triple seven pilot, make you think I really knew what I was talking about. The man calls himself Captain Luke, and he's from South Carolina. And Captain Luke, great to have you with us on the program. Hello, sir.
CALLER: Great to be back. Rush, I talked to you once before in 1990, and it's been a long time.
RUSH: Well, that's like 19 years ago --
CALLER: Yes, it is.
RUSH: -- 22 years ago, that is. Well, it's great to have you back, Captain. How long did you fly the triple seven?
CALLER: I flew it for four years on an international basis, and domestic, from 2000 to 2004. I flew into Beijing and Singapore, all that area, as well as Frankfurt in Europe and other places, but --
RUSH: Did you ever launch out of Kuala Lumpur?
CALLER: Never did. (laughing)
RUSH: Your first flight on a 777, were you in the right side seat or the left side, in your first flight? In other words, you got your rating in the simulator, right?
CALLER: Yeah. The way these simulators are, the virtual reality, they're just amazing, multi-access simulators. They have huge computer rooms that control all the visuals and the movements and you really can't tell you're not in an airplane except you can kind of tell the visuals are a little cartoony, sort of like a video game.
CALLER: But they work in real life.
RUSH: So it's entirely possible that people on a -- well, it doesn't matter, a 777, 767, whatever, the pilot there may actually be flying it for the first time?
CALLER: Yeah, I flew my first flight as a captain, I had a check captain in the right seat who was giving me a line check and once he signs me off for so many landings, I make five successful landings we can taxi away from, then he signs me off to be in command of the airplane. Of course I had, you know, 15 years of command experience on other aircraft, including the 767 --
RUSH: Well, it's so expensive.
CALLER: -- and 727.
RUSH: It's so expensive to --
RUSH: -- fly these things that actual on-board training is cost prohibitive. That's why the simulators, for other reasons. Okay, so you've heard everything I assume that's being bandied about to explain this. You flew the airplane, you've heard everything. What are your thoughts?
CALLER: Well, my thought is basically, I think you and I are thinking on the same lines -- you've heard of Occam's razor, right?
CALLER: Occam's razor is what I believe, that the simplest explanation is probably the one that's true. And the thing that I believe happened is I think one of the pilots commandeered the airplane from the other pilot. My personal feeling is it might be the captain. The flight path climbed up precipitously to 45,000 feet, stalled, and then dove down to 25,000 feet 'til it was recovered, would probably parallel a cockpit fight for control of the aircraft.
So I think what happened was the other pilot didn't want to go along with what the other pilot was doing, so they started fighting. And during that time nobody was flying the airplane, it started climbing, went into a stall and finally somebody got control and recovered the airplane at 25,000 feet, then it took off in whatever direction they think it took off. My personal feeling is the airplane is probably at the bottom of the sea. He probably dove it into the ocean a la Flight 93 at about six, 700 knots, and they won't find any debris field. It will be too small.
RUSH: I need to ask you a question based on some of the stuff I've heard on television. For example, it has been all over television that if you take a 777 to 45,000 feet, the passengers automatically die, and I've been screaming at the TV listening to people say this.
RUSH: These people want us to believe that you can't pressurize a 777 to fly at 45,000 feet?
CALLER: Yeah, the 45,000 restriction is really more of a high-speed stall --
RUSH: But, I mean, you can get up there.
CALLER: Oh, yeah.
RUSH: The magic altitude of 45,000 feet does not depressurize the airplane and kill the passengers, right?
RUSH: Folks, this is classic of what I've been talking about. I mean, this is all over the media: you go to 45,000 feet and the passengers die. The only way you could do that is if you guys in the cockpit depressurize the cabin, right?
CALLER: Even if we do, there's still about 20 minutes worth of oxygen that's gonna pop out of the overhead --
RUSH: Oh, no, the experts on TV say they'd be dead in two seconds, Captain.
CALLER: No, I've been through hypoxia school, you know, where they train you in a pressure chamber.
CALLER: You can actually be without oxygen at 35,000 feet for about 20 seconds before you lose useful consciousness. And what that means is you cannot think anymore. You aren't dead, you aren't unconscious yet, but you have lost the ability to flip a switch or to reason.
RUSH: It's what happened to the poor people on board that Lear that was carrying Payne Stewart somewhere.
RUSH: They depressurized, they slowly lost consciousness, and they just went to sleep and then the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.
CALLER: Right. They were probably still alive, just unconscious.
RUSH: Right. Now, explain something to me. I just want to clarify. The 777, what is -- like, for example, the Gulfstream 550 is rated at 51,000. You can go up, stay there, perfectly safe. It'll actually fly higher than that, but the rating is 51,000. What is it for a 777?
CALLER: It's 43,000, is recommended. I don't know if that's the limit; it's just a recommendation of the maximum they want you to fly.
RUSH: But the airplane as manufactured could easily fly at 45,000 feet?
CALLER: Easily. I could fly it all day at 45,000.
RUSH: Okay, folks, there's no magic that equals passenger death at 45,000 feet. This is exactly the kind --
CALLER: That's correct.
RUSH: -- misinformation. Now, I have a scenario here that I ran into by another pilot, a former pilot. I don't know if he flew the 777. His name is Chris Goodfellow, and he put this theory of his up on Google Plus. It is a theory rooted in simplicity. It does not involve your theory, but I want to get your thoughts on it.
RUSH: This is his theory as written. "Shortly after takeoff, as Malaysia 370 was flying out over the ocean, just after the co-pilot gave his final 'Good night' sign-off to Malaysia air traffic control, smoke began filling the cockpit, perhaps from a tire on the front landing gear that had ignited on takeoff. The captain immediately did exactly what he had been trained to do: turn the plane toward the closest airport so he could land. The closest appropriate airport was called Pulau Langkawi. It had a massive 13,000-foot runway. The captain programmed the destination into the flight computer. The autopilot turned the plane west and put it on a course right for the runway (the same heading the plane turned to).
"The captain and co-pilot tried to find the source of the smoke and fire. They switched off electrical 'busses' to try to isolate it, in the process turning off systems like the transponder and ACARs automated update system (but not, presumably, the autopilot, which was flying the plane). They did not issue a distress call, because in a midair emergency your priorities are 'aviate, navigate, communicate' -- in that order." Is that true? If it isn't, I don't need to go any further.
CALLER: Aviate, navigate, and communicate, that's correct.
RUSH: Okay, let's go. "But smoke soon filled the cockpit and overwhelmed them (a tire fire could do this). The pilots passed out or died." The smoke spread to the cabin, the cockpit doors locked, nobody can get in there. There's nobody that knows what's going on, smoke inhalation. They didn't get their masks on or whatever, and they're on that heading for that runway and they run out of fuel seven hours later and just what you said, plunge. Now, the root of this theory is some sort of mechanical. Tire fire is his theory that eventually incapacitated the crew, nobody could get in the cockpit. I'm glad you're here. Could nobody get in the cockpit if this scenario had happened?
CALLER: Well, the flight attendants can get in the cockpit. They have a way to access it. I won't give it out over the air.
CALLER: But they can if they want to. Yeah.
RUSH: Okay, so what are your thoughts on this theory, it's mechanical, it's relatively --
CALLER: Well, the first thing that bothers me is that the first procedure you do when you have smoke in the cockpit is you raise cabin pressure. No, actually, the first thing you do is you put on your oxygen mask a hundred percent, which would block out any ambient air that could come in your mask. The second thing you do is you raise the cabin pressure to evacuate the smoke. The possibility of a nose wheel tire being on fire, there's no brakes on the nose wheel, I don't understand how it could heat up enough to catch fire. I know a main gear brake can catch fire. But for it to get into the cockpit it would have to get into the ventilation system, or burn its way through the pressure hull.
RUSH: Let's keep --
CALLER: It would take an hour for a fire to burn through the pressure hull from the nose gear compartment. Maybe half an hour.
RUSH: Okay. What if the smoke was due to fire? They've got the masks on but the fire just consumed them?
CALLER: A fire is probably the most scariest thing to happen in flight. If you remember that TWA flight that had a fire, they had landed the airplane within 20 minutes and within 20 minutes the whole airplane was engulfed in flames. Our teachings as pilots when we go through school is that once you have uncontrolled on-board fire that you have to get that airplane on the ground within 20 minutes or less or everybody's gonna be dead. You'll lose control of the airplane. The airplane will become unflyable or everybody will be dead from asphyxiation. So you immediately start descending which he didn't do immediately, okay?
CALLER: So that would kind of shoot that down. The second thing is him being asphyxiated, unlikely unless the pilot's oxygen system was malfunctioning. That's a double malfunction now we're talking about. I think the theory is good in theory, but it's not the simplest, it's not Occam's razor. It's not the simplest explanation.
RUSH: Well, there's something else that argues against it and that is the latest news that that left turn was programmed into the onboard computer before the copilot signed off. Now, we don't know.
CALLER: He might have been planning to attack the copilot and programmed it without the copilot knowing and had it set to go so all he had to do was punch the go button and then start the fight with the copilot and turn off-course.
RUSH: Why would you conduct a test on the copilot that way with passengers on board? If I heard you right.
CALLER: Say it again? I'm sorry. I misunderstood.
RUSH: You said they might have been testing the copilot, did I --
CALLER: No. Before he attacked the copilot.
RUSH: Oh. Oh. Before he attacked the copilot.
CALLER: I'm just assuming the captain's the one because he is the one that had issues.
CALLER: So that's the simple explanation to me. If he took it into the Bay of Bengal or somewhere in the Indian Ocean going about six, 700 knots vertical, just like Flight 93, the pieces of the airplane would be the size of your thumb. There won't be any debris field. There might be an oil slick, but if it flew on for several hours and then he did it there would be no oil slick 'cause he burned up all the fuel.
RUSH: Okay, gotta run, but one more question. Given your theory, are they ever going to find any evidence?
CALLER: Probably not.
RUSH: Probably not. So what will people like you, pilots, what will officials, airlines now tell them going forward? You try to learn from every incident. You try to educate flight crews based on every malfunction that happens. What's gonna be taught about this?
CALLER: Well, I've talked to the chief pilot of our company and I've talked to the FBI about this. I said I think we have a lot of foreign nationals that are flying for American flag carries now and we need to do background checks, see who they're calling in Pakistan, see who they're associated with politically. I think there's a lot of danger when you have the cockpit door locked. You might have a jihadi or a person with some kind of suicide mission in his mind. When I first started flying for the airlines there were no foreign nationals except Canadians flying with us. It was after the eighties we started hiring a bunch of people from Afghanistan --
RUSH: You mean on American Airlines?
CALLER: Or an American carrier.
RUSH: American carrier.
CALLER: I think you need to have an American citizen to be a command pilot of an American carrier. Right now they're not. You don't need to be an American citizen to be in command of an American carrier.
RUSH: Obviously not if you can go to flight school and learn how to take one off but not land it. I mean, there's all kinds of --
CALLER: I mean, the pilot, you know, in the airline business, I mean just getting hired by an airline. I think part of the ATP requirement to be a command pilot in the United States should be you have to be a citizen of the United States.
RUSH: Well, that'd be discriminatory. That'd be unfair.
CALLER: Well, it's also safe. You have to swear allegiance to the United States, be a citizen --
RUSH: Oh, no, no, no.
CALLER: -- background checks.
RUSH: That's nationalism. We can't have that.
CALLER: Yeah, I know. (laughing) I'm an Old Navy vet, so I'm pretty nationalistic. Sorry.
RUSH: Well, Captain, I'm glad you called. I'm really glad you got through.
CALLER: Yeah, I'm amazed I got through.
RUSH: Yeah, me, too. There's a reason why you only get through twice in like 20 years, but you did it, and I'm glad you did, and thank you.
CALLER: God bless you.