TIME

New Theory Sees Possible Fire on Missing Jet

A man recites the Koran after a special prayers held for the missing Malaysian airliner MH370, March 18, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Rahman Roslan—Getty Images

A new theory claims that a fire broke out aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the crew was doing what it could to save passengers and themselves

As the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 enters its twelfth day, conspiracy theories and suggestions of foul play are giving way to the idea that a fire broke out onboard and the crew were simply doing everything they could to save the passengers and themselves.

That theory, first floated by Chris Goodfellow, a pilot with 20 years of experience, holds that a fire on board the aircraft caused the pilots to set course for the nearest viable airport. Heading back to Kuala Lumpur would have meant traversing 8,000-foot ridges. A much more feasible option would have been the 13,000-foot runway at Pulau Langkawi, a destination which would correspond with the new route the aircraft appeared to have followed.

Once the course had been altered, the fire could have melted electronic wire bundles, causing cyanide gas to be pumped through the cockpit and cabin, rendering everyone unconscious (oxygen masks don’t help since cyanide gas can be absorbed through the skin), and leaving the aircraft heading along its path until it ran out of fuel.

“I think it’s very possible that this is what happened,” says Bruce Rodger, the president of the aviation consultancy Aero Consulting Experts. “It’s my favorite analysis because it means there wasn’t a bad guy doing something bad to an airliner.”

The fire scenario could also explain the loss of communication systems. Either the pilots started killing electrical busses in order to contain the fire, or an electrical fire caused the gradual collapse of various systems on board.

“Taking busses offline is a big process, and it may leave you without computer and navigational instruments,” says Rodger, who believes it is more likely that a fire took down the aircraft’s communication systems.

Investigators still believe the flight was deliberately taken over. An unnamed “senior American official” told the New York Times the new flight coordinates were entered into the flight computer, which “has reinforced the belief of investigators – first voiced by Malaysian officials – that the plane was deliberately diverted and that foul play was involved.”

Rodger, on the other hand, believes entering the new route into the flight computer would be the easiest, and first resort in such a scenario. He also says that he and several experts with him agree that it is unclear how anyone could know whether the course was altered manually or via the computer.

The causes of a fire on board could meanwhile be many. While Goodfellow believes that a fire could have been ignited by overheated landing gear, Rodger says that it more likely would have started in the cargo hold. “We know that the cargo compartment contained lithium-ion batteries,” Rodger says. “I don’t want to discredit another pilot’s theory, but it is very unlikely that a flight would have been able to continue for that long with an overheated landing gear.”

A fire could possibly also explain the reported fluctuations in the aircraft’s altitude – perhaps the pilots as a last-ditch effort tried to suffocate the flames in the thin air at 45,000 feet. Smoke may also have hindered them from seeing their controls clearly and fire may have damaged the computers so that crew commands were not carried out correctly.

The search for the missing jetliner, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crewmen, currently runs along a southern and northern corridor, spanning a total of 2.24 million square nautical miles. There are 26 nations are involved in the massive operation, taking place in the Indian Ocean as well as in China, India and central Asia. However, several countries have already reported that they have found no evidence that MH370 entered their airspace, and a source “close to the investigation” told Reuters Wednesday that the aircraft most likely flew into southern Indian Ocean. This route could possibly match one set for Palau Langkawi.

Malaysian officials have previously said the communication systems on MH370 were shut off deliberately as the aircraft was in transition between Malaysian and Vietnamese radar coverage — a notion that has given rise to several conspiracy theories. The homes of captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid have been searched, and their backgrounds as well as everyone else on board the jet are being scrutinized.

“Both the theory of foul play and that of a fire are possible and important to explore,” concedes Rodger. “But I’m an optimist. I want to believe that the pilots did everything to save the airplane.”

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