The mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has captivated the world for more than four years, but for two retired Ottawa air accident investigators, it all comes down to six seconds.
And the evidence from those final moments before the Boeing 777 disappeared into the Indian Ocean is irrefutable, say Larry Vance and Terry Heaslip.
“We call it an accident because that’s our terminology. But this is a criminal act. It’s not an accident,” says Vance, a former senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, who has written a book on MH370 that will be published next week.
“If someone does this intentionally, you can call that suicide. The pilot took his own life and he took the lives of everyone who was on board that aircraft.”
Just 20 confirmed and identifiable pieces of MH370 have been found since the plane and its 239 passengers and crew vanished on March 8, 2014. But those few pieces are enough, Heaslip said.
“When you start looking at them, there’s a story in every one of them. And the story is consistent,” said Heaslip, an expert on wreckage analysis who was the TSB’s director of engineering when he retired in 1983.
Heaslip and Vance, along with their partner, Elaine Summers, another retired TSB investigator, began looking into the MH370 crash as a training exercise for their Ottawa consulting company, HVS Aviation.
The more they saw, the more they became convinced that the crash was a deliberate act by one of the pilots, whom they say likely killed his passengers by depressurizing the plane, then deliberately flew into a remote area of the Indian Ocean and ditched. Their theory flies in the face of the official story, which says the plane flew in a straight line until it ran out of fuel, then plunged vertically into the sea.
In the basement of Heaslip’s Blackburn Hamlet home, the two men pore over photographs of the wreckage, maps of the flight path and schematic drawings of the aircraft. They’ve worked together so long, they sometimes finish each other’s sentences.
Vance was the deputy lead investigator on Swissair 111 and wrote the TSB’s final report on the 1998 crash off the coast of Nova Scotia that killed 229. He was also the one to give briefings to the families, something that made it clear the investigation was more than a cold analysis of engineering calculations and cockpit procedure.
“People accuse me of being insensitive to families,” Vance says. “I don’t mind taking the question, but if someone challenges me, I say, ‘I don’t need any lessons from you. How many grieving families have you talked to after an airplane accident? I’ve done it by the hundreds. Don’t tell me that I don’t have any sympathy. I’ve had people faint in my arms.’ ”
Among the pieces of MH370 that have washed ashore are the aircraft’s right flap, a part of the wing the pilot extends when the plane is flying slowly before landing, and the adjacent “flaperon,” which also is extended and used to control the plane in low and slow flight.
The largest piece of wreckage measured eight-by-12 feet, something that would be impossible to survive a high-speed vertical impact. Nor were the rounded leading edge of the flap and flaperon damaged, again indicating the plane hit the water low, slow and relatively level.
“When the airplane is coming in (vertically) at 300 to 600 feet per second, everything is shattering into a million pieces,” Heaslip said. “In a third of second to half a second, it’s gone. There’s no way you could end up with a piece like this with the leading edge absolutely intact.”
That the flaps were extended also means the pilot had fuel, electricity and hydraulic power when he put the plane down, again proving that the plane’s tanks hadn’t run dry, they say.
Heaslip and Vance relied on old-fashioned wreckage analysis for their theory, studying the stresses and fractures visible on the recovered pieces to deduce the forces that tore the plane apart. Not even the electronic data of a black box recorder can do that, Heaslip said.
“Wreckage analysis is a dying art. They’re depending on the recorders. They tell you what happened — maybe. But they don’t tell you the sequence or why things are happening. You need to be able to do wreckage analysis.”
A flaperon from MH370 recovered from the Indian Ocean, showing the intact rounded leading edge that air crash expert Terry Heaslip says proves the plane was ditched at sea and didn’t crash at high speed. HANDOUT / AFP/Getty Images
The crash data fits well with Vance’s examination of the earlier parts of the flight, including how the pilot turned off the plane’s transponder to make it invisible to radar before reversing direction and flying along the boundary of two separate air traffic control regions where the plane would be easily missed by controllers.
The wreckage of MH370 has never been found, despite years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent scouring the seafloor.
“What they’re proving every day that they search is that their assumptions were wrong,” Vance said.
The Ottawa team’s work is not part of the official investigation, nor have they been paid for any of their research, but Vance hopes their findings provide some comfort to the families of MH370.
“This is an attempt by us to give some amount of closure by telling them what happened,” he said. “Because if people in the end — I don’t care who they are — if they know the truth it’s better in the long run than if they never know what happened.”
MH370 Mystery Solved will be available in bookstores next week and can be ordered online at hvsaviation.com/