Friday, March 21, 2014

Real life fiction: The Final Flight

(March 18, 2013) - The whole world has been gripped by the seeming total disappearance of a Malaysian Boeing 777 with 239 souls on board. Its scheduled overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, China March 8th, 2014 never arrived at its destination. Air control radar lost all contact with it after it reached its assigned cruising altitude about an hour into its flight. 

After the first ten days of confusion, failure of the Malaysian governmental bureaucrats to cooperate with other nations by providing data in a timely manner made the story drag on and on and imaginations have run wild.

As a private pilot with aircrew experience going back to my U.S. Navy days in the late 1950's and as a retired journalist and writer I decided on the evening of March 18th to use my imagination to sketch out a rough movie plot line with actions set vaguely in Indonesia and to intertwine totally fictional elements with some of the early press reports about a real pilot.

The story is grim, yet it embodies elements that together make a shocking and dark story that could have some basis in truth with what may have actually happened. Here is my completely fictional account of of how a motion picture might  portray "The Final Flight."

The Final Flight
Ⓒ Larry M. Ray   Mar 19, 2014

The experienced and respected captain of Flight 307, Arief Agus Jawardi, had learned three months earlier that he had an inoperable brain tumor. He had gone to Singapore for the MRI, using an assumed name and identity.  He knew as soon as the airline found out about his worsening condition he would no longer be able to fly. Meanwhile he had continued to report to work as scheduled.

With his own flight simulator in his home and being a Certified Flight Instructor qualified to approve pilots for ATR type rating certification in large commercial passenger aircraft, it was clear that his life was singularly devoted to the pinnacle of being captain of a large Boeing 777-300ER with its sleek and powerful improvements and a flight range of 7,930 nautical miles. The tumor was already making his reasoning stranger and stranger and he had spent more time than usual on that home flight simulator in recent weeks.

By March 8, 2014, Captain Jawardi's world had begun to whirl and change. Prior to arriving at the airline’s operations office to conduct the plane's pre-flight inspection and check the routine flight plan for the regular 12:41AM departure of flight 307, he had attended a controversial trial in the city's large courthouse in which his political idol, Irwan Salim, was jailed for five years.

Captain Jawardi had been described by some as a political fanatic because of his devotion to Salim who was sentenced in 1998 to 15 years imprisonment on an ugly, very public trumped up sodomy charge. Salim had served six years of that sentence mostly all in solitary confinement but he was released in 2004. Salim, the key challenger to the the ruling party, was arrested once again on sodomy charges in 2008, and acquitted of those charges in January 2012.  But the ruling powers appealed the decision, and on Friday March 8, 2014 that acquittal was overturned and Salim was again sentenced to prison. Captain Arief Agus Jawardi was known to be an ‘obsessive’ supporter of Salim and was visibly upset over the terrible verdict.

The horrible injustice he had just witnessed sent his unstable mind racing into overdrive with reason and zest for life now replaced with a dark, carefully studied final flight plan not for his Indonesian home base to Beijing Capital International Airport but instead to a tormented destination known only to Captain Jawardi.

Flight 307 had reached cruise altitude and they were flying, or more accurately, the autopilot was flying the way point legs programmed into the plane's navigational computer red eye for the flight to Beijing. As passengers settled into a smooth, soothing long night journey, a young flight attendant entered the flight deck and brought the captain and his first officer, seated in the right seat, some cold drinks and nice box lunches. The captain thanked the attendant, smiling a familiar smile that said all was well and he indicated that they would talk to them before the decent into Beijing. The copilot, in a final radio response to their routine hand off from their local air traffic control center, radioed thanks and a good night to the controllers. In less than forty five minutes they would enter Vietnamese air space and check in with their new controllers.

The captain finished his sandwich and a sweet pastry then loosened his seat belt and walked back to the reinforced flight deck door and bolted it firmly shut from the inside. After quickly pulling the circuit breakers turning off the cockpit flight deck voice recorder he casually walked back toward his unsuspecting co-pilot, approaching him from behind as he uncoiled a length of thin polyester rope. Then, in a dispassionate yet violent move he swept the rope over his co-pilot's  head and yanked him back against the seat, strangling him. The seat belt kept his victim from being able to jump up or swivel, and he died quickly, barely able to utter but a few gurgling sounds.

The captain then calmly switched off the plane's electronic connections to the world outside, rotating switches and knobs on the center console to the off position. In an instant there was no more signal from the radar locating transponder, or the ACARS air to ground communications, and in an hour or so he would again walk to the back of the flight deck and on the large overhead panel would pull out the circuit breakers to the passenger entertainment system which would also disable the in-flight satellite telephones in business class. It is almost certain that he also pulled the circuit breakers to the two flight recorders in the plane's tail commonly referred to as the two "black boxes." With a very long night flight ahead, the plane banked gently into a 20 degree left turn to the West, barely noticeable to passengers. The captain had typed all new five character way points into the nav computer telling the autopilot to fly the plane back over the narrow Indonesian archipelago and on out into to the vast emptiness of the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile passengers had been fed, and most were trying to get some sleep, not noticing that the plane was doing anything other than flying along into the blackness of night. The still operating basic independent interrogatory satellite pings from the Boeing aircraft are said to have indicated to ground stations that the plane flew for a total of seven hours after departing from the initial flight path to Beijing before the signals ceased. By the time passengers and flight crew started to wonder why the plane was not letting down as it approached China, it was too late. That far out over the Indian Ocean no cell phone calls would have been possible, and no one could get into the cockpit at that point.

The captain had thought out every detail out right down to flying on far out over the ocean to the furthest reaches possible until the plane's fuel was depleted so there would be no visible oil slick. This was to be his perfect final flight. Now, in his errant and erratic logic, he was alone in his huge airliner. There were no passengers, no crew, just him making a final bitter comment to world, to his family and especially the crooked and worthless politicians in power back home.

Then with the very last of the fuel remaining, he descended slowly and evenly down to a hundred feet or so above the water. Airspeed was down to the lower end of flyable approach speed and as he was mere feet above the ocean he throttled back the two giant Rolls-Royce Trent engines and pulled up for a nose-high, tail dragging, wheels-up pancake landing doing as little damage as possible to the plane. And then after impact which had thrown him forward in his seat, he loosened his harness, walked back with difficulty as the plane was instantly starting to toss in several directions by the roiling sea and he reached up and pulled the emergency exit light circuit breakers.

The chaos among the 237 passengers and crew after the shocking surprise water landing meant doors would be opened allowing some people to instinctively attempt escape only to most certainly die. And those open doors and exit hatches were an inevitable part of the plan as they would allow the heaving sea to fill the airplane with its near freezing brine.  Many did not have seat belts fastened, having no idea what was about to happen, and were violently slammed and thrown about with a number of them gravely injured.

This adding to the total surreal screaming and panic on board. The darkened cabin with even the emergency exit lights on the aisles disabled created a living nightmare. With no prior notice of a water landing it is probable that few if any would have located the life jackets under the seats and somehow donned them in the madness and total darkness.

The captain had left the circuit breaker panel and returned, fighting to keep his balance, to his Captain’s Seat. He calmly opened his mouth and began to swallow a handful of powerful opiates that would quickly knock him out and if they did not kill him, at least he would not be conscious when the icy water crept into the the cockpit as the basically intact plane lost buoyancy and swirled down into the depths of the frigid melding of the Indian and Southern Oceans. Perhaps he had set a final way point to the West of the Diamantina Deep, a meandering trench which is 26,401 feet below the water's surface.

All the searching for the missing plane that diverted from its assigned flight path on March 8, 2014 was concentrated for the first week on a relatively small area around the point where the plane dropped from radar and all communication with it stopped. The plane had gone down, unobserved, in the early hours of March 9th into the nether reaches of the vast Indian Ocean.

Indonesian bureaucrats and career military generals were totally inept in coordinating an orderly investigation, refusing to share with other countries and agencies all the data they were collecting. As the squabbles and confusion mounted, any realistic hope of rescue died. The passengers who had made it out of the plane before it filled with water and started to sink had no chance against the rapid onset of hypothermia. The distant and extremely frigid waters of the beginning of the Southern Ocean are cruel, with massive, churning waves and they are rarely traversed by commercial shipping. Bodies of those outside the plane would eventually be eaten by any of several of the active varieties of sharks in those waters, including the Great White, another thing for which the Southern Ocean is infamous.

So there were no visible signs of debris from the plane by the time searchers belatedly started to fly random grids ten days later over the huge ocean area. There were no seat cushions, floating plane parts or other familiar crash debris all clustered and waiting to be spotted because the difficult but well executed water landing landing did little structural damage to the huge airplane. If anything had broken off the plane and somehow floated, the howling wind, giant waves and surging currents of the unforgiving Southern Ocean would have displaced debris making calculation of of their origin extremely difficult if not impossible.

Meanwhile the disconnected Black Boxes had long stopped functioning, recording nothing and would yield scant information as to what had happened because they were disabled by the pilot shortly after the plane's early turn from its scheduled flight path.

A giant airliner and all its victims would now reside at 20,000 feet below the difficult sea for a very long time, evading attempts at an easy discovery or retrieval. The grief of loved ones would not easily fade with the uncertainty of how, where and why their friends and family members had mysteriously perished.

The Titanic went down in 1912, and was not definitely located until September 1985 or 93 years after it sank. And those searchers had a good idea about the general area where it sank.


All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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