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How to steal a 777

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 14, 2014 09:30 AM

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New details in the case of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight suggest that the plane may have been intentionally diverted from its original flight path. The possibility raises the question: How hard would it be to commandeer a 777 airliner, fly it hundreds or thousands of miles, and land it, all without being noticed?

This morning I spoke by telephone with John Hansman, professor of aeronautics at MIT and director of MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.

“The probability that an airplane could be hidden in a random airport is pretty low,” he said, adding that he thinks it's far more likely the plane crashed into the ocean. Then he talked me through how you might try to do it.

To land a 777 you need a runway at least 5,000 feet long. The airplane seems to have diverted 40 minutes north of Kuala Lumpur, with enough fuel to travel 2,500 more miles. Hansman estimates there are around 500 runways within that range long enough to accommodate a plane that size.

Getting to one of those runways without being detected is hard, but not impossible. “We don’t have radar surveillance over most of the central parts of the ocean,” Hansman says, so, with on-board transponders turned off (as seems to be the case here), the plane would have had an easy ride for awhile.

Stealth operation gets tougher closer to the coasts, where most countries have a lot of primary radar operating, and it’s even harder flying over land, particularly heavily militarized borders. Hansman thinks there’s almost no chance the plane could have made it into Pakistan without India noticing, or North Korea without South Korea or China picking it up.

The pilot of the commandeered 777 would have needed to find a long runway close to the coast, in an out-of-the-way place with minimal radar systems. The plan would have had to come in low, to avoid radar, and flying a big plane at low-altitude burns fuel faster. Hansman thinks a small island is the best bet.

“Could you get into an island in Indonesia that might have a 5,000-foot runway? Probably,” Hansman says. Runways in the Malaysian archipelago would also be possible, though the last radar tracks on the Malaysian Airlines flight show the plane diverting in the other direction, west toward India.

If the plane did manage to land secretly, the next challenge would be hiding it from overhead satellites. You’d need a big hangar, and those aren’t easy to come by either, in the kinds of places you can get to without being detected by radar.

“The more I sort of think about it," Hansman says, "the likelihood that an airport would have a hangar that would keep the airplane and not have good enough radar capabilities to detect the airplane, the set of those is probably pretty small, or zero.”

He adds that if you have a cooperating government on your side, “it’s a totally different story.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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