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There are 2 noteworthy occurrences in the ATC radio transcript within just minutes of a 3rd noteworthy, quite unprecedented occurrence in aviation history:

  1. At 01:07:55 MH370 unnecessarily reported maintaining FL350 a second time
  2. At 01:19:29 MH370 famously only replied "Good Night, Malaysian 370" without reading back the frequency for the handover, although this is an ATC instruction that should be repeated (see below)

  3. At 01:20:33 MH370 "goes dark" (losing XPNDR, ACARS and SDU).

This temporal proximity caught my attention and left me wondering if the 2 ATC transmissions cited above are out of the ordinary (and thus a possible precursor of what was to come).


background information:

What are some important things controllers usually expect you to read back?
• Clearances: headings, vectors, altitudes, transponder codes, and radio frequencies. (a288)

« The last radio transmission “Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero” was spoken by the PIC. However, he did not readback the assigned frequency, which was inconsistent with radio-telephony procedures. » (safety investigation report, p.431)


questions

  • Please cite what (if any) ATC rules have not been followed.

  • From your experience as flight controllers or pilots, how unusual is that ? Is this rather unheard of or occurring fairly regularly ?

  • Is the handoff procedure described below by the 767 Captain technically correct and does the missing step 3 permit the conclusion that step 2 was not executed either ?

@Edward_767, a 767 captain, has closely studied the audio recordings of the MH370 radio transmissions. He is convinced that the second altitude call at 01:07:55 was NOT made by the Captain, but by the First Officer, possibly because the captain was not in the cockpit at that time. His theory is that the first officer made the call because he was not sure whether the captain had made the previous altitude call at 01:01:14.

He makes another interesting observation regarding the final exchange where MH370 is handed off to HCM. He states that the typical radio procedure would be to

  1. receive the new frequency (in this case, 120.9 MHz)
  2. dial it into the radio as the standby frequency
  3. read back what frequency was dialed in as part of the confirmation of the handoff
  4. listen for the final transmission
  5. hit the radio switch which swaps the active and standby frequencies
  6. and call ATC on the new frequency.

In the transmission that acknowledged the handoff to HCM, the captain did not read back the frequency. Ed believes this is because the new frequency was never dialed into the radio, as the captain never anticipated making a call to HCM ATC. Ed believes the missing frequency during the acknowledgement of the handoff is yet another red flag.

The time between the 2 transmissions would be less than 15 seconds. It was 13 seconds at MH370’s previous controller handoff, where the new frequency was read back. At the handoff between Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh, the pilot acknowledged the handoff, but never read back the new frequency, and the call to Ho Chi Minh was not made. That leaves a window of only about 15 seconds for the abnormal event that caused the turn back.


ATC transmission log (full transcript incl. taxiing here)

img

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    $\begingroup$ I'm borderline on whether to close this question as "primarily opinion-based". Is this covered in the investigation report or should the community answer? My answer is "a bit out of the ordinary but not alarming unusual", but everyone's ATC experience is different. $\endgroup$ – kevin Dec 13 '18 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is opinion based @kevin. Personally I think that analysis is reaching, the exchange seems pretty normal to me, however I don't think there are good answers. MH370 should have read back the frequency but the fact they didn't means very little to me. $\endgroup$ – GdD Dec 13 '18 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ I am not asking for an opinion. The question "was this ATC exchange rude" would be opinion-based. This question, on the other hand, is factual. It asks would rules were violated and asks how often this occurs, which is based on a specific number – just as much as "how often overbooking occurs" is a concrete number. Although the latter is easier to state numerically, approximations can be given for the former. As such it is not opinion-based, but based on experience and a concrete number. $\endgroup$ – summerrain Dec 13 '18 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ I believe that this question can be answered in satisfactory way without too much opinion. Deviation from standard phraseology and procedures is not good, but it happens all the time. There are certain circumstances where such deviations become the new normal. Somebody could analyse whether this is such a situation and present their findings in an answer. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Dec 13 '18 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ "Deviation from standard phraseology and procedures is not good, but it happens all the time." is in fact a non-opinion-based answer to the question. This should not have been closed on that basis. $\endgroup$ – Daniele Procida Dec 13 '18 at 17:16
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I have not heard the actual audio in context; I've only read the transcripts.

However, from the transcripts, I see the timing between some of their calls as a bit confusing and unusual.

01:01:14 | MH370 | Malaysian 3 7 0 maintaining level 3 5 0
This is slightly odd, because 11 minutes earlier they were told to climb to 350. I do not think it is common to report when you have finished your climb. ATC can see you leveling off at your assigned altitude.

Because of this unexpected, slightly odd call, ATC responds with:
01:01:19 | ATC | Malaysian 3 7 0
("You called me. ATC is here; I hear you loud-and-clear; Go ahead: What is your request?")

There is no response for 6 and a half minutes. This could reasonably be because MH370 has no request, and doesn't need anything from ATC, or perhaps they are having radio difficulty and did not hear ATC's call? The most extreme interpretation would be that there is currently something happening in the cockpit that is distracting them. Perhaps a lack of oxygen? Or some other distraction?

After 6 and half minutes, MH370 makes the same call again:
01:07:55 | MH370 | Malaysian...3 7 0 maintaining level 3 5 0

Again, this reads like the preface to a request. Perhaps they didn't hear ATC last time, and are calling in again with a request? Perhaps they're suffering from hypoxia, and don't even remember that they already reported in?

ATC quickly responds the same way again:
01:08:00 | ATC | Malaysian 3 7 0
(I'm still here, I still hear you. Go ahead with your request.)

Silence again for 11 minutes, before ATC gives them a normal instruction to change to the next frequency. MH370 responds normally by acknowledging the instruction. At this point, we have confidence that their radio is working, and can probably rule out technical problems for the earlier lack of a request.

Technically, they should read back the frequency, but it is not at all unusual for a pilot to just acknowledge when he is confident he copied it right, such as a crystal clear transmission, or a route he's flown many times and a frequency he knows well. Or, the lack of confirmation could indicate hypoxia or another mental impairment. Or that he has no intention of copying the frequency or changing to it.

My biggest point of concern and confusion is that MH370 twice reports their altitude, which sounds like they're calling ATC to make a request, and then says nothing more for 6 and 11 minutes. The significance of this is not at all clear. Either hypoxia or radio/electrical problems would explain this. A cockpit struggle does not seem apparent, but some sort of distraction in the cockpit could cause them to start a conversation but never complete it.

My personal opinion, without much supporting evidence, is mental impairment, potentially due to failed pressurization, carbon monoxide, or other contamination like engine-oil in bleed air, which has been known to cause neurological damage.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for the last paragraph. (The rest at least explains what may classify the radio calls being characterized as unusual, and thanks for taking the time to do that). $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 14 '18 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ Though those transmissions are slightly odd, I feel like almost any aviation transcript will have some idiosyncracies that can be made significant with a small amount of peridolia and post-hoc reasoning. Good answer, though. $\endgroup$ – 0xDBFB7 Dec 14 '18 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for your thoughtful, excellent analysis $\endgroup$ – summerrain Jan 2 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ Agree with @KorvinStarmast, downvoted because of speculations. Besides, reporting reaching a cleared level is completely normal in many parts of the world, especially areas where radar coverage might be limited. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jan 2 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ I don't agree that speculations warrant downvotes if they are marked as such and are carefully presented in the form of different and competing possibilities, as is the case here. $\endgroup$ – summerrain Jan 2 at 11:27
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Please cite what (if any) ATC rules have not been followed.

No ICAO recommendations were explicitly broken. Whether or not the local authorities require the pilots to read back a newly assigned radio frequency, I do not know, you will need to refer to the local laws to determine that.

It is likely that reading back new radio frequencies is mandatory, but not doing so is not a major violation in any case.

From your experience as flight controllers or pilots, how unusual is that ? Is this rather unheard of or occurring fairly regularly?

Slightly unusual. Pilots will normally read back newly assigned radio frequencies, but every once in a while, for some reason or another, they miss doing so. Typically happens with local pilots who are very familiar with which radio frequencies they expect to use during a flight.

As for the level report ("maintaining level 350"), not unusual at all. Local rules may even require pilots to report reaching a cleared level. Especially in parts of the world where radar coverage is limited (such as over the ocean), pilots are probably used to having to report reaching a cleared level, so they will do it out of habit even if the rules do not require it. The fact that they do it twice? Meh, they probably weren't sure if they had done it already, so opted for the safe choice of doing it again. This is very typical within aviation - if you are unsure, better safe than sorry.

Is the handoff procedure described below by the 767 Captain technically correct and does the missing step 3 permit the conclusion that step 2 was not executed either ?

Yes, the procedure is correct. No, missing step 3 does not permit the conclusion that step 2 was missed.

In conclusion, the radio transmissions you mention are in no way unusual enough to suggest, on their own, that anything was wrong.

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