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Good Question ‘Reply All’: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Edition

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s been 10 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. Since that time, it seems like most everyone has a theory about what happened to the Boeing 777 on its way from Kuala Lampur to Beijing.

Many WCCO-TV viewers have sent in their Good Questions on everything from the logistics to how planes work to why people never made phone calls. So, we thought we’d answer some of the Good Questions we’ve heard throughout the week.

Investigators have said the plane’s transponder that sends signals back to the ground was turned off. Ashley from Woodbury asked: Why is this allowed to happen?

According to Gary Balas, a professor of aerospace and engineering mechanics at the University of Minnesota, the transponder can be easily turned off through a knob or switch in the cockpit. He says Boeing builds their planes with the idea that the pilot should always be in control. Therefore, if the transponder is sending out bad information or catches fire due to an electrical malfunction, the pilot should be able to make the decision to turn it off.

Rob from Delano wondered: Could the plane have landed somewhere?

“It could have, but did it? Probably unlikely,” said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics at MIT and director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. He says, theoretically, the plane had enough fuel but would have need at least 5,000 feet (just under a mile) of runway to land safely. Were the plane to head north to land, it likely would have been picked up by radar in Pakistan, India or China. But were it to head south to a remote landing strip in the Indian Ocean, it would still need space big enough to hide the large aircraft. Hansman said most hangars in those areas are not tall enough to take a 777 airplane. In addition, Hansman believes all of those potential landings spots would have been searched personally or by radar.

“There is a chance it could have gotten cooperation in some country, but then you’re into conspiracy land,” he said.

Why couldn’t passengers make phone calls or post to social media?

Passengers might have been incapacitated or not have known anything was wrong given the plane was flying in the middle of the night, according to Jim Higgins, associate professor with the Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota. At high altitudes (above 5,000 feet) cellphones won’t be able to pick up any signals. Hansman also pointed out that even at lower altitudes planes are generally moving so fast between cell towers, they have a hard time catching one. Cell towers exist where people are, so anyone flying over the ocean, desert or forest wouldn’t be able to connect to any tower.

And, as for any wireless capabilities or airphones like those used during the 9/11 hijackings, Higgins said, “The pilot can easily turn that off.”

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