Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the vanished Boeing 777-200 now missing without a trace for more than seven months, had a stunning security flaw that may have let a hijacker assume control of the plane without even attempting to get into the cockpit. The flaw was exposed in a broadcast of the long-running PBS science documentary series NOVA that aired last week — now available to be viewed free online.
The entire unedited PBS NOVA episode about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, Why Planes Vanish, may be viewed above. The whole documentary is about 53 minutes in length.
The “cyber-hijack” theory has come up before, as early as March, just a week after Flight MH370 vanished from its routine red-eye flight path between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. But at the time, the idea that one of the world’s most sophisticated aircraft could be hijacked using a cell phone or some other electronic device seemed far fetched, to say the least.
But the PBS NOVA show, written and reported by veteran journalist Miles O’Brien, for the first time shows exactly how a “cyber-hijacking” could have happened aboard the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 — using a device that is on board every 777 airplane and that on Flight MH370 was, apparently, readily accessible to anyone.
“What if the hijacker or hijackers seized control of the plane without ever setting foot inside the cockpit?” asks O’Brien on the NOVA broadcast. “It would not be easy, but it is possible.”
O’Brien found a video produced in 2006 by a Brazilian airline and aimed at “aviation enthusiasts,” a video available for purchase on DVD and at least in part online — and which shows exactly where the plane’s “Electronic Equipment Bay” is located and how to get inside — which is not diffuculy because the hatch is generally unlocked.
The video shows a Brazilian pilot opening a hatch to the “EE Bay” located “just outside the cockpit door, near the forward galley.”
“It is a room unto itself. Devices start at the back,” describes former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia in the NOVA show. “They’re in the middle, they’re in the front. It’s very, very large.”
The video shows a device known as the Portable Maintenance Access Terminal which is used by maintenance crew — though not pilots — to access the computer systems that fly the Boeing 777. Operating the device would require a high level of technical knowledge, but someone who has that knowledge could actually fly the plane from inside the hatch using the terminal, said aviation journalist Jeff Wise on the NOVA documentary.
“You can basically do anything to the plane,” Jeff Wise explains. “You can even remove control from the cockpit. You can make the cockpit helpless. You don’t even need to go into the cockpit.”
There are no regulations requiring that the hatch to the electronics bay be locked. Though Boeing offers an optional lock kit for the hatch, when NOVA asked Malaysia Airlines if the electronics bay hatch on Flight MH370 was locked, the airline would not comment.
The electronics bay also contains a circuit breaker which, when thrown, unlocks the cockpit door.
But as retired 777 pilot Marc Weiss told NOVA, Malaysia Airlines “had a history of basically a porous cockpit door. They allowed people who really had no authorization to be in the cockpit, to come into the cockpit for whatever reason.”
Security measures required on United States airlines since the 9/11 attacks were not implemented by Malaysia Airlines and not in use on Flight MH370.