Perhaps as the title of my letter might have alluded, yes, I would certainly love to write pages and pages about gorgeous Zhang Ziyi who captured my heart with her performance in Ang Lee’s film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, but alas, who has since disappointed me with her attacks on the Malaysian authorities for allegedly hiding information when in truth there have been more than two dozen nations participating in the search for Flight MH370 but thus far without success.
Zhang might have her reasons for what I see as her jingoistic criticisms but I feel we need to cut her some slack as she had just managed very recently to neutralise some terribly salacious rumours about her character which were spread by a US-based dissident website called Boxun News.
But I believe we need to start first with the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) with regard to its role and performance in the tragic and as yet unsolved incident of Malaysian Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370.
Lately, for very obvious reasons the RMAF has been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
I believe the complaints against our air force with regards to the missing MH370 aircraft, its crew and passengers can be grouped under two principal questions, namely, (a) why the RMAF did not act soon enough to alert air traffic control (ATC) of MH370’s turn-back from Igari, the waypoint where Kuala Lumpur ATC handed over control of the flight to the Vietnamese ATC control, and (b) why it did not send fighter aircraft to intercept the MAS aircraft?
More than a few journalists have written to condemn the RMAF, particularly in its failure to send interceptors up to check on the track deviation by the MAS aircraft. One even wrote that the air force could have scrambled fighter jets to “identify the plane, make contact with it and finally guide it to a safe landing”.
I’ll come back soon to this assertion of “finally guide it to a safe landing” which would be quite funny if not for the tragic circumstances associated with the loss of Flight MH370.
Okay then, let us attempt to deal with the two questions separately, though of course both would be inter-related. But we need to remind ourselves that we will only be speculating like others until the authorities offer more information.
To speculate on the first question, perhaps we need firstly to examine the geo-political situation insofar as air threats are to the sovereignty of Malaysian airspace.
Since Abdul Razak Hussein’s proposal of Zopfan (Zone of Peace, Freedom & Neutrality) for Asean took off successfully in 1971 and which in turn engendered the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia and also a UN Resolution supporting Zopfan, we have generally enjoyed peace and non-belligerence from neighbouring countries.
Neighbourly peace continues
When the then-principal concern of Asean, namely, a Vietnam victorious from its war with the USA, and other South-East Asian countries like Kampuchea, Laos and Myanmar became member states of Asean, that neighbourly peace has not only continued but also strengthened.
Yes, there were the occasional tiffs and arguments including the Thai-Kampuchea limited conflict over possession of the ancient Hindu temple of Preah Vihear and within our own backyard a short-term armed brigandry in Lahad Datu but in the main, peace prevails in South-East Asia in which most members do not have belligerent neighbours for the last forty-odd years.
So under such militarily benign conditions what sort of air defence readiness condition is the RMAF likely to be instructed to adopt?
The maximum readiness would be a la the US military Defcon 1, where pilots sit strapped up in their primed up ready-to-go fighter aircraft, suck Minties, read serious (or naughty) magazines but all ready to light the fire (of the jet engines) and hit the afterburner button in their immediate takeoff on instructions?
I would imagine such an air defence readiness would be in place at the airspace borders of Pakistan and India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, South Korea and North Korea and throughout the USA. But in Malaysia?
If not a la Defcon1, then what about 15 minutes readiness, or 30 minutes, or perhaps two hours? But I fear anything more than immediate or 15 minutes readiness conditions, the RMAF would be unable to satisfy those journalist ‘top guns’ and other detractors.
Well, by now it’s obviously clear that many in Malaysia have agreed with some news media that the RMAF had failed to react promptly to the turn-back by MAS Flight MH370 or had elected not to react promptly. We can of course make an educated guess, read between the lines, etc, without consulting Raja Bomoh and his twin coconuts on why the Defence Ministry has been silent on this.
Whichever, whatever, however, let us not wash our own military dirty linen in the view of the international public, but instead allow a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to examine behind closed doors what had happened, and more importantly, to make appropriate recommendations after analysing how many fighter-interceptor aircraft, sets of trained pilots, weapons, support equipment including air-to-air refuelling aircraft, and logistics etc, in order to have, say, a 24/7 immediate or 15 minutes air defence readiness conditions, and also to decide on their optimal disposition around Malaysia including Sabah and Sarawak.
Surely, we aren’t suggesting that air defence is just about peninsula Malaysia, or worse, just its north-western part centered around the Butterworth air base?
Our little southern neighbor has an air force inventory (interceptor force and support aircraft mentioned here only) which comprises 24 F-15SG Strike Eagles, 74 F-16 C/D Fighting Falcons, 41 F-5S/T Tiger II, four Grumman E2-C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW & C), four Gulfstream G550 AEW & C, four Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker (to refuel the interceptor fighters without requiring the short endurance jets to return to base for refueling), five KC-130B/H also for air-to-air refueling of fighters, and has on order six Airbus 330 MTT for the same purpose.
I am sure the RMAF would love to have those 139 interceptor aircraft and its impressive range of supporting aircraft such as the AEW & C aircraft and the air-to-air refueling tankers, which would allow our air force to deploy them adequately among the locations of Butterworth, Gong Kedak, Kuala Lumpur, Kuantan, Johor Baru (or a new fighter base at the current heli base at Kluang), Kuching, Bintulu, Miri or/and Labuan, (a new base at) Kudat, Sandakan and Tawau
But the reality is, what do we now have in the RMAF in contrast to the Republic of Singapore Air Force?
24/7 immediate readiness?
So, can we maintain a 24/7 immediate readiness condition throughout the length and breadth of Malaysia if that’s what those media ‘top guns’ had sneeringly insisted upon?
Additionally, the PSC should also need to re-assess whether the current radar equipment, both civilian and military, can ensure a comprehensive coverage of our airspace inclusive and especially of the ones over Sabah and Sarawak.
Former deputy prime minister (DPM) Anwar Ibrahim is insisting that what the Marconi radar system he had purchased for our civilian air traffic control in the 1990s is a marvellous system which could see into the Indian Ocean and would have tracked MH370 for kilometres.
Finally we need to calculate the defence expenditure required to have and maintain this nationwide 24/7 15 minutes or immediate air defence readiness conditions, and how Malaysia will budget for this expenditure?
No one likes increasing taxes and/or reducing some subsidies to pay for such an air defence structure, preferring instead to build schools, hospitals, roads, bridges and low cost housing.
But then the recent outcry has shown many Malaysians want to have a super duper air defence structure which not only will ensure our national security but can also, in situations like what happened to Flight MH370, allow the RMAF to immediately scrambled fighter jets to “identify the plane, make contact with it and finally guide it to a safe landing”, as we have been told so brilliantly by our ‘top gun’ journalists.
A Motherhood truth is that there isn’t any free lunch and we need to be aware that all things come at a cost.
Let us move on to the next complaint against the RMAF by those Tom Cruise ‘Top Gun’ wannabes, namely, that the RMAF could have but didn't immediately scramble fighter jets to, in the words of a journalist, “identify the plane, make contact with it and finally guide it to a safe landing”.
Three possible scenarios
In a hypothetical air interception by the air force fighter aircraft, let us visualise (or speculate on) three possible scenarios, where in two we will have the opportunity of coopting the help of beautiful Zhang Ziyi into playing a vital role. Have I your attention by now? [smile].
Scenario No 1: A hijacker (or hijackers) was in command of the plane on its westward route.
Scenario No 2: This would be the bizarre favourite of those western media, where three phrases would trigger them into sensationalising frenzy, to wit, (a) Muslim pilots, (b) big airline-type aircraft, and (c) flight deviating from scheduled or authorised route. I won’t go any further than this out of respect for the two MAS pilots’ families but I am sure you can visualise this scenario which would not be very much different from Scenario No 1.
Say, the pilot of the intercepting jet fighter caught up with and contacted Flight MH370 and instructed the pilot to land at (take your pick) Penang, Butterworth, Langkawi, Sepang, Subang or even Kota Baru airport. The hijacker, if polite or humorous, would probably smile at and wave to the fighter pilot or if rude, give the universal sign of bird, but would have continued flying the MAS aircraft on its westward direction.
What would or could the fighter pilot do next?
Shoot down the MAS Boeing 777 with its 12 crew members and the 227 passengers with a missile or the fighter aircraft’s cannon? And who would have given the order? Indeed, who would have dared to give that order?
Wait wait, I sense a glib solution coming from one of those media ‘top guns’, like: Why don’t the pilot shoot the tyres of the Boeing 777 flat; that should stop the flight from going any further. [maniacal laughter].
Since we are on inane solutions, why don’t I bring Zhang Ziyi back by suggesting the fighter pilot hold up a poster of beautiful her to the hijacker, and inform via radio communication that Ziyi would like to see him (the hijacker) at the airport? Wouldn’t this be a far more feasible solution of “finally guiding the MAS aircraft back to a safe landing” than shooting it down with an air-to-air missile or shooting the Boeing aircraft tyres off?
Scenario No 3: The fighter pilot intercepted the MAS aircraft but saw both pilots slumped motionless at their controls. This was what happened to Helios Airways Flight 522 on Aug 14, 2005. The post-accident report on that Greek flight said that the pilots had suffered the onset of hypoxia which made the captain ignore several warning signs and queries from the ground engineer speaking to him on the radio.
The pilots of the two Greek Air Force F-16 sent to intercept Flight 522 could do nothing as the Boeing 737 eventually ran out of fuel and crashed.
This is the scenario that probably the Boeing Company dreads most as it would have meant something happened to the aircraft which possibly led to rapid decompression (depressurisation) resulting in the incapacitation of the pilots and probably all on board. There have been quite plausible suggestions that a part of the aircraft hull (fuselage) was torn off together with the transponder aerials, and which led to depressurisation.
The time of useful consciousness at 35,000 feet high is around 30 to 60 seconds, but rapid decompression would have halved that time. One of the insidious effects of hypoxia would also be the pilots suffering from a state of euphoria, that of excessive well being and false elation which could further impede or make erratic a pilot’s actions. It’s akin to a state of drunkenness where a person’s action would be irrationally erratic.
Nonetheless, I suspect or speculate that one of the pilots, despite his impaired state, still had just that wee bit of mental consciousness to react instinctively to turn back to KL as well as descend the aircraft to an appropriate cruise level, though it would have been better if he had kept descending to 10,000 feet or lower where he and the others would then have been able to recover from the possible hypoxic condition.
Strong professional instinct
From what I have read about the flight captain of MH370, Captain Azaharie Ahmad Shah, he had been the ultimate professional pilot. With such a man, I would not be surprised at all that his professional instinct would have been strong even in a state of physical-mental impairment. But alas, given my speculation that he was already seriously affected by hypoxia, there's a limit to what could be achieved by even such strong professional instinct.
Thus it would be too much to expect a hypoxic-affected pilot (like the captain of the Helios Airways Flight 522 in 2005) to be fully conscious of what he was doing. I reckon he did his best as could be for a hypoxic-impaired pilot but alas, in the process of attempting to turn the aircraft around to KL did not complete the turn but also inadvertently zoomed the aircraft up high before pushing the control stick forward to correct that error and plunging down by 20,000 feet.
Could he have also meddled erratically with the Flight Management System to set a new course in that hypoxic state but which led the aircraft flying off into the Indian Ocean? The pilot-less aircraft must have eventually settled down into autopilot-ed flight.
And what would our wannabe ‘top gun’ do when he like the Greek Air Force F-16 pilots flying echelon to Helios Airways Flight 522 see the pilots of the airline aircraft unconscious? Shoot the plane down?
If we condemn the RMAF for not acting promptly upon its information on MH370’s turn-back, we need to recall that one day after losing contact with MH370 the search authorities were not only scouring the South China Sea but significantly, the Straits of Malacca. Obviously they had received notice of MH370’s turn-back, and while that and its subsequent track westward might initially have been unbelieving to many, was nonetheless acted upon.
It is a tragic and still mysterious incident without the need for further accusations of conspiracy as Anwar Ibrahim has now screamed out to the British daily The Telegraph .
Finally, the world now knows that MAS Flight MH370 did a turn back and flew westward in the direction of the Indian Ocean, or we would likely still be searching the South China Sea until today.
Yes, the search authorities haven’t been impressive in their release of information and other conduct of business regarding MH370, but we need to ask in this concluding paragraph, who provided the information of the turn-back and the subsequent direction of travel of Flight MH370?
Was it the USA’s CIA, FBI, NSA or its military? Was it China or India? Was it former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s marvellous 1990-purchased Marconi radar that could see into the Indian Ocean? Or, was it Raja Bomoh and his bamboo binoculars?
Ask yourself that because Zhang Ziyi would like to know, too.
K TEMOC is a Penangite who enjoys being an independent blogger and loves to share his opinion on Malaysian and world affairs without fear or favour, though currently is politically inclined towards DAP, only because the political party has thus far shown faithfulness to its promise of competency, accountability and transparency.