The strange case of the Malaysian Airliner

by Bernard Brandt

“Tell me, Moriarty, have you ever had a better porterhouse steak than what I have set before you?”

“I do wish, Holmes, that you would not call me ‘Moriarty’. I am a simple professor of mathematics, and that is probably the only resemblance I have with that villain. That said, though, it was a wonderful repast. The steak was pan-fried beautifully, with olive oil and butter, seasoned perfectly. And the Russian Imperial Stout that you served with it paired superbly. Thank you for dinner here again.”

“You are most welcome, old friend. Well then, would you mind if I simply called you ‘M’, and allowed me my own illusions as to your eminent capacity to have become another ‘Napoleon of Crime’, had you wished it?”

“If you insist. And I suppose, for my part, that I should call you ‘H’ as well.”

“That’s just as well. Instead of that sleuth of sleuths, I am but an idle and retired gentleman of leisure, whose occupations these days extend only as far as fine cooking and the brewing of beers, and the occasional vinting of wines.”

“Rather more than that, H. You’ve managed to distill your beers into quite fine whiskys, and your wines into equally fine brandies.”

“Ah, mere trifles, sir. Good food and drink are but a couple of hobbies of mine. Speaking of which, M, would you care for some of my brandy and a cigar in my study?”

“I would love to, H, but I do have to get home to my wife and children. What with the law these days, it would not be safe for me to drive home after several pints and a snifter or two.”

“Pish, I say, M! And tush as well! Do please join the twenty-first century. There are these excellent, albeit oddly named, companies called ‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’, which provide folk like you and me with rides home when we’ve had a bit too much to drink. I would be happy to call, and to pay for, your ride home. And in the morning, I can drive your car to your home, and take public transit home, or make use of the same services that would get you safely home this evening.”

“Well, as I am on sabbatical, H, I do not have to prepare for classes tomorrow. I will happily accept your kind offer.”

The two old friends rose from their dinner table, and H. took the dishes to the sink, briefly rinsed both them and the cutlery in the kitchen sink, and placed plates and flatware in the dishwasher. That done, H selected two crystal snifters from one of the kitchen shelves, and with a silent gesture, bade M. follow him to the nearby study. A sign on the study door grandly announced: ‘Cigars and Brandy will be served in the War Room’. H opened the door, to reveal a room lined with bookshelves laden with a myriad of books, and at one corner, a desk with a closed lap-top. Two leather covered chairs with a small table between them were the only furniture other than the bookshelves and the laptop. On the table were a crystal flask containing a dark brown liquid, and a humidor. H placed the two snifters on the table, sat in one chair, and gestured M into the other.

“It is obvious, H, that you called me to dinner tonight, and bade me stay, because you wanted to tell me something of import. Shall we dispense with the pleasantries, then, and get down to the matter at hand?”

“You know me well, M. But please indulge me, and allow me first to fill your glass, and trim and light your cigar.”H did so, and served himself as well, before speaking again.

“Do you recall the unpleasant matter of a few years ago, when a Malaysian jetliner, rather than making its accustomed flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, instead disappeared, never to be seen nor heard from again?”

“To call that event ‘unpleasant’ would be the height of understatement, H. Several hundred people were on that flight. Their families grieve their loss. No one knows for certain what happened, but it is supposed that all on board that flight perished, somehow.”

“I think that I know what happened, M.”

There was a brief pause. Then– “If it were anyone other than you that said that to me, H, I would be apt to rise from this excellent chair, and depart under my own steam, or gasoline, as it were. My family came from nearby Dutch Indonesia. This is not, at least for me, a joking matter.”

“I do not jest, M. I am in earnest here. I fear that I know what happened then and there.”

“Many believe they know what happened, H. Some say that the ‘plane was shot down by government forces, either Vietnam, or China, or the U.S., or Malaysia. Others say that it went to a secret base in wherever, where the passengers are somehow languishing. Finally, others say that the ‘plane was driven by the pilot to crash into some sea. Shall I go now to your kitchen, tear off a sheet of aluminium foil, and fold and fashion for you a tinfoil hat, H?”

“There is no need for you to do that, M. I would suggest, however, that we both address ourselves to the task of smoking our cigars, before they need to be relit.”

They did so. H poured a few drops of brandy from his snifter into a shot glass that was on the table, and dipped the end of his cigar into the glass to moisten it. With a silent gesture, H bade M to emulate him in that effort. M did so, and gave a slight smile to acknowledge his pleasure at this new vice.

After a time, H said, “No, M. Like Isaac Newton, who said, “Hypotheses non fingo”, I do not fashion hypotheses. I look at the facts, and I allow them to lead me to reasonable conclusions. And like my namesake, I try not to hypothesize in absence of the facts.”

“But what are the facts, H!” M burst out, in apparent frustration. “To my mind, I’ve seen blessed little in the way of any facts in this matter.”

“Ah, M, but we do, finally,” said H. A journalist at The Atlantic has finally risen from being a stenographer of the current party line of cant, to being a reporter of those facts. Have you read the recent article?” H walked to the desk on which the closed laptop lay, and pulled out from the desk under it a tablet. He proffered it to M.

M raised a hand of refusal: “Why don’t you state what you consider to be the facts, H, and let us consider those in turn. I would be happy to read the article later. But right now, you have a hobby horse which you wish to ride. By all means, then, ride it.”

H returned the tablet to its place in the desk under the laptop, and began. “Fact: pieces of the missing ‘plane, verified to be from that ‘plane, have been found on the shores of islands and countries in the Indian Ocean, along the last estimated flight path of that ‘plane.”

M crossed himself and whispered, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.

H bowed his head as well and said, “Et lux perpetua luceat eis.” There was a brief pause.

Then H resumed. “Fact: with the precautions in place after September 11, 1991, it is unlikely that outside highjackers could have gotten into the locked cabin and overcome the pilot and copilot. Conjecture: the cause of the disappearance of the jetliner can be traced to actions either of the pilot or the co-pilot.

M made a noise at the back of his throat and nodded at this. “That makes perfect sense, H. There was the earlier Air France flight from Rio to Paris, where the senior pilot stepped out, and the co-pilot made some ghastly mistakes that cost the plane, the crew, and the passengers their lives. And there was the later German flight where a depressed co-pilot locked the pilot out, and drove the plane into the side of the Alps, killing all aboard. Precedent thus suggests that either by accident or intent, either the co-pilot or the pilot crashed the plane.

H looked at his friend with renewed respect. “I see that you’ve been following this matter carefully yourself.”

M shrugged. “No more than the next man, H. I simply read the papers, and remember what I read. The rest is simply a matter of ‘connecting the dots’, as the current phrase is. And I believe I’ve demonstrated, in the course of our long friendship, that I can do that quite as well as you can. You simply had to direct my attention to the matter.

H nodded and said, “Just so. Well, the magazine article under discussion gave me several more facts that I had not learned until recently, that might interest you.”

M. spread his hand open, palm upward, toward H and said, “Please give them me.”

“Very well: it seems that when the Malaysian authorities investigated the pilot’s belongings, including his personal computer, they found that it contained a copy of a popular program called ‘Flight Simulator’, which name should explain itself. The pilot had logged hundreds of hours on that program, and one of his last ‘flights’ appears to have matched the last known co-ordinates of the missing airliner.”

“Thus leading a reasonable person to the conclusion that it was the pilot who did it, and that he did it with intent.” M remembered his cigar, dipped its end again into the shot glass of brandy, and took a meditative puff on it. “But why?”

“I would suggest,” said H, “that we first establish the ‘what’, or the facts, before we attempt to determine the ‘why’. And for that, I think we need to examine the flight path which he took. Or at least, what we are able to reconstruct of it.”

“Very well then, H.” M took another puff of his cigar. “I’m waiting.”

“Perhaps it would be helpful if we used my ‘orbus mundi’ for that,” said H., gesturing at the three foot diameter world globe at one corner of the study. H and M rose from their chairs, and walked the two or so steps to the globe. “I see you’ve already positioned your little toy to show us the clear path between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing,” M observed idly.

H smiled. “Prior Preparation, in addition to Preventing Piss Poor Performance, also saves much in the way of time.” H pointed to the dot which marked the Malaysian city, and then traced with his finger the geodetic line to the Chinese one. “The ‘plane departed Kuala Lumpur near midnight Malaysian time, and proceeded northeast up toward Vietnam.” H traced the path of the ‘plane with a forefinger on the surface of the globe.

“But then,” H continued, “rather than proceeding on to Beijing, at thirty-nine minutes into the flight, the ‘plane abruptly changed course, as it was about to enter Vietnamese territory and radar acquisition. It instead doubled back toward the Malaysian island of Penang. The ‘plane also dropped in altitude, out of the range of both Malaysian and Vietnamese domestic radar. It was only because of a combination of Malaysian military radar, and satellite communication with various functions of the ‘plane, that the authorities were later able to reconstruct its final flight path.”

“And what was that final path, H?” M appeared genuinely interested.

“About forty minutes after it had changed course and doubled back to Penang, the ‘plane made a broad turn to pass over the island, and to then proceed northwest in a path which would take it to the Indian Ocean.” H traced his finger over the globe to show the path, then continued. “Seven hours after taking off, the ‘plane’s automatic equipment made a final satellite communication. That also tallies with the estimates as to the ‘plane’s fuel capacity and consumption. It also tallies with the information from the pilot’s Flight Simulator. It seems that he was doing estimates as to how far such a ‘plane as his could travel along such a path before it finally crashed in the ocean.”

“Good God!”, exclaimed M. “The facts you have related so far clearly indicate that the pilot intended all of these actions. I know enough about the workings of autopilots to know that it would have been quite beyond their capacity to have negotiated either of those turns, let alone both together. And what other facts do you have to share with me?”

“Only three more facts,”replied H. The first is that the pilot was born and raised on Penang Island. And the second is that just a few days before that final flight, the wife of the pilot removed both herself and his and her three children from the house they lived in, because of an apparent infidelity on his part.”

“Those two facts, given in that order, would suggest that the pilot was despondent over the loss of his wife and children, had elected to commit suicide by jetliner, and had decided to take a view of his childhood home before going on to a watery grave. But you mentioned three facts, H, and I know you of old as one who likes paradoxical surprises. You have attempted, on any number of occasions, to lead me down the garden path, only later to pull an ‘inconvenient truth’ like a rabbit out of your deerstalker hat. I’m not falling for it this time.”

“Just so,” admitted H. The theory you have expressed has a certain merit to it, and is a far better one than most of the lot currently wearing tinfoil hats have managed to come up with. Would you care to examine the pros and cons for that theory.”

M took a sip of his brandy, a puff from his cigar, and closed his eyes for several seconds. On opening them again, he said, “The merits are pretty much as I have already stated. The demerits are that such a set of actions is entirely out of character with the pilots whom I have met, and with whom I have worked. They tend to be direct and unsentimental men of action. They also tend to be alpha males, who generally are a randy lot, and also tend not to be too attached to wives or other baggage.”

M continued, “Thus, to tell me that an airline pilot was so despondent over the loss of his wife that he circled back to take a view of his family home before going on to do away with himself is ‘a bridge too far’ for me to consider as something other than arrant nonsense. Besides, even if he were to decide to take his own life, though, he wouldn’t dilly-dally about it: he would have disabled the co-pilot, or locked him out of the cabin, and then crashed the ‘plane soon after takeoff.”

“Correct,” said H. “As happened in the unfortunate case of the German airliner which had been mentioned earlier. Very well done, M. Now, as the TV game show host would say, ‘for extra Jeopardy points’, what would explain the pilot’s odd behavior?”

M paused for a second, and then said, “For one thing, it would appear that the pilot was applying an elaborate policy of concealment in all his actions. By dropping out of radar range and then suddenly changing direction, he was concealing the ‘plane’s whereabouts, location, and direction. Second, he did this, not once, but twice, in the change of direction of the ‘plane over Penang. Third, by arranging for the ‘plane to run out of fuel at about the time that it was due in Beijing, he postponed the time that the air traffic controllers there would start looking for, and worrying about, the missing ‘plane, until it was far too late to track or find it. Finally, there is some significance in the fact that the ‘plane made its final turn over the pilot’s home town, but just what significance it might have, or why he was concealing his movements, is beyond my powers.”

“Then I think that it is time, M, to present you with the final clue. The overwhelming majority of the ‘plane’s passengers were citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China, bound homeward from vacations or business from Kuala Lumpur, and headed back to Beijing.”

At this, M began to open his mouth, only to shut it again tightly. His eyes shut as well, and a tic began in the outer corner of his right eye. The tic continued, once per second, until a bit more than a minute had passed. Then M opened his eyes again.

“That explains everything. In the course of my distant past, I had the dubious opportunity of meeting a number of high PRC party officials, some time after the Cultural Revolution. Rather than being devoted to the ideals of the party, they were, to a man, in it for themselves. A fair number of them also had access to the considerable assets of the government. It is therefore not surprising that in the last few decades, some of them were caught using the casinos of such places as Hong Kong, Singapore, Macao, and Seoul to convert millions of yuan into dollars, pounds, swiss francs, or such commodities as gold, and to hide them away in numbered accounts in foreign banks. As a result, some of the smarter party officials would go instead to less traveled casinos. Such as the ones in Kuala Lumpur.”

H beamed with pleasure, and said, “Got it in one, old man. You’ve established a motive. Would you care to try for means as well?”

M made another rough sound at the back of his throat, and said, “Now that you’ve set the facts before me, coming to plausible conclusions is child’s play. The ‘plane would take off, as usual, with the trainee co-pilot driving the ‘plane, while the pilot oversaw things. It would be a simple matter, with a cosh or a gun, for the pilot to have dispatched the trainee during take off, while he was putting his full attention on driving the ‘plane. At that point, the pilot could take over flying the plane, but not before depressurizing the passengers’ cabin. That could be accomplished either from the ‘plane’s control panel, or else by the simple expedient of firing a pistol round through the hull or a window of the ‘plane. As a matter of fact, by using a gun, the pilot could have effectively killed any number of birds with a single stone.”

H winced, and said, “My congratulations. You have managed to turn a shopworn cliché into a rather gruesomely effective metaphor. Do continue, though.”

M did so. “At standard altitude for a jetliner, around seven or so miles above ground, passengers and crew in an unpressurized cabin would become unconscious within fifteen seconds, and be dead within six minutes. Those few who managed to get their oxygen masks on would have bought about ten minutes worth of time, as the capacity of those masks is quite limited. The masks were only meant to buy the passengers enough time so that the pilot could decrease altitude to three miles or less above ground, where the air would be breathable. They would be of no use whatsoever, if the pilot were to maintain altitude.”

“In fact,” H interrupted, “I am given to understand from another source that Malaysian radar indicated that at one point in that dreadful night, a plane matching that heading rose as high as 45,000 feet.”

M nodded and said, “Thank you, H. That fact would be a further confirmation of my theory. It would depend, of course, on just when that change in altitude occurred. But in short, H’, whether at 37,000 or 45,000 feet, perhaps twenty minutes after the ‘plane depressurized, every man, woman, and child in the ‘plane, except for the pilot, would be dead.”

“As it happened in the case of the Greek jetliner to Cyprus, but that happened by accident. And why would it be necessary for all of them to be dead?” asked H, almost innocently.

“’The better to rob them by, said the Big Bad Wolf’,” intoned M. “If the pilot had done his homework, he could use the passenger list, the associated list of hotels and lodgings of the passengers, and his own wits, to determine likely victims, and while the ‘plane was on autopilot, to go through the victims’ clothing, wallets, purses, and onboard luggage to his heart’s content. If he had only three or four victims, that could be done in the forty minutes that it would have taken, at standard speed, to get to Penang. And if there were more victims, he could always buy more time by setting the autopilot to a lower speed.”

“At this point,” said H, “I’ll play devil’s advocate, and throw up an objection or two. It’s unlikely that he could have jumped off the ‘plane without hitting its hull, and it would have been impossible to jump off the ‘plane at standard cruising speed. D.B. Cooper tried, and most likely died in the attempt.”

“To take the second objection first, when the pilot had made the second turn to Penang, he could have slowed the plane to just above stall speed, which for a ‘plane of that type is between 125 and 150 knots. Additionally, he could have positioned the ‘plane for twelve to fifteen thousand feet above ground, which is the standard altitude for a parachutist’s jump. And, as to the first objection, 150 knots happens to be the maximum speed at which a parachutist can safely deplane during a jump. Of course, to be perfectly safe, he could throw a weighted line that was tethered to the inside of the plane, and use a hook to slide down and past the rear hull or the tail of the ‘plane.

“But,” continued M, “This explains the bend in the route over Penang. The pilot grew up there. He would have known the roads, the flight landmarks, and more to the point, the open fields near those roads. I would not at all be surprised if the pilot became proficient at parachuting, and did several jumps in Penang, just to prepare for the event.”

“So,” said H, “In addition to having established motive, you’ve established the means of the pilot’s actions, to boot. Would you care to try for opportunity as well?”

M paused, and said, “I suspect that all of the pieces in this horrid game were rolling around in his head, and for a long time. Although gambling is illegal for the citizens of Malaysia, because of his high status as an airline pilot, he could have gotten away with frequenting the casinos, if he himself did not gamble. From that vantage point, and with contacts in the airline and hotels, he would have had years, if not decades, to take the measure of his victims, and content himself with thinking, ‘I COULD do this, if I wanted to’.

“And all the while, he could gain the skills which would enable him to do just that. Parachuting as a sport. The constant use of the Flight Simulator. Calculations of how much fuel would get the ‘plane just how far. And perhaps examining the maritime maps of the Indian Ocean, to determine where the deepest part of that ocean might be.”

H nodded agreement, and said, “Actually, what you are saying fits quite nicely with everything I’ve been able to find out about the pilot, courtesy of Messrs. Google and Yahoo. He was both methodical in every thing he did, and quite well off, with two houses, and a rather hefty bank account; at least, the one that he left to his wife. I have no doubt that there were other accounts as well.

“But”, continued H, “all accounts indicated that he was something of a ladies’ man, that he was of an age to have a ‘midlife crisis’, and that his marriage, if not on the rocks, was approaching the shoals. While the report of the Malaysian government said there no signs of untoward activity by the crew, the rumors remain that the pilot’s wife had just separated from him, and was intending to file for divorce, a few days before the plane’s disappearance.”

“For my part,” said M, “I suspect that that event, rather than being a trigger to his suicide, was the factor which led him to his decision to set the whole scenario we have described into motion. It was, more or less, his ‘last straw’.

“But it accomplished rather more than breaking a poor camel’s back,” said H. “It caused the horrible deaths of more than two hundred innocent people. And even his ‘victims’, those people who had embezzled PRC funds, were not guilty of anything worthy of a death penalty.”

“I’m afraid that the PRC would disagree with you on that one, H.”

“Probably, M. But I’m wondering whether it would at all have been worth it to the pilot.”

“I think that, for such a one as the pilot, it would have been. At worst, he could have collected several hundred thousand dollars, or the equivalent, of cash and other valuables on the two hundred corpses in the ‘plane. At best, his ‘victims’ would probably have their numbered bank accounts on their persons, which he could then ‘liberate’ for his own use, to use a common and ugly verb in currency today. And regardless, he would probably have long ago banked his own resources, under a different identity, and could have gone on to live, with a new life, and a new identity. Yes, I think it would have been worth it to the pilot.”

There was a brief pause, while the two friends sipped their brandy, and took sustaining puffs on their cigars. Then H said:

“Now that I have laid all this before you, M, the question occurs to me: what should be done about it?”

“And I have an answer for you, H: nothing should be done about this, at least by either of us.”

Why so?

“Well, H, for one thing, you have retired from your investigative pursuits. For another, I am also retired from my own pursuits in my particular metier, Further, I have long ago found it to be the wisest counsel to mind my own business, and to limit my concern to matters and people who interfere with that business. Since the pilot has done me no harm, I intend to leave him alone. I would suggest that you do likewise.”

“M, I’m tempted to disregard your advice.”

“H, if you will recall, you did so in the past, with me in particular, and the results were not as pleasant for either of us as they could have been.”

“True, M.”

“But besides all that, H, it occurs to me that there is yet another reason why it is quite unnecessary for either of us to take up the chase against this rogue pilot.”

“And that is, M?”

“I suspect that the chase has already begun.”

“And what leads you to this conclusion, M?”

“Quite simply, the fact that the PRC have long been involved in the present matter, what with the facts that two hundred of their citizens have been brutally murdered, and more to the point, it is likely that millions of their yuan have been stolen by the pilot.”

“But what makes you think that they have come to the same conclusions as we have, M?”

“Because, while I have a healthy regard for the acuity of my intellect, and yours as well, I am under no illusions that either of us are unique in that particular regard. And while I have some considerable doubts as to the acuity of the present British or American governmental leaders, I have none as regards either the leaders, or the technocrats, of the PRC. I would estimate that their average intellect, particularly of their technocrats, rivals that of our own.”

“Since you have had more dealings with them than I, M, I shall have to take you at your word.”

“Please do, H. And more to the point, they have something which both of us lack: a personal involvement, or ‘skin in the game’, since their own people were killed, and their own money was taken.”

“Then I suppose that the only thing we can do is to toast the success of the fox, or the hounds, M.”

“If you don’t mind, I would prefer to toast the fox over the hounds, H.”

“Please feel free to do so, M. But I think it only proper to do so over a fresh drink. May I suggest a tot of my aged rum?”

“The one that you fermented, distilled, and aged yourself, H?”

“Quite so, M.”

“I wouldn’t mind that at all, H. To be quite honest, I was hoping for another taste of it. And perhaps, after you have rung up Uber or Lyft, and arranged my ride home, you can tell me the story of how you came to confect your excellent rum.”

“I would be delighted, M.” The two men rose from their chairs.