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Overheating Datacenter and Toilet Pipes: a Surprising Piece of the MH370 Disappearance Story

MH370When flight MH370 vanished in 2014, I was fascinated.

You probably remember the story: a Boeing 777 flying from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia to Beijing, China disappeared in mid-flight.  After an intense search, the tiniest of clues – handshake signals from the plane to a satellite service that it didn’t have a subscription to – allowed clever engineers to determine the plane’s route.  There were wild theories about CIA hijackings and Russian spy missions but in the end, the most likely explanation is that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah committed suicide by flying the huge airliner deep into the Southern Indian Ocean and crashing it into the sea.

That’s the conclusion a recent Netflix documentary came to and I personally have not seen any competing explanations that fit the facts better than this narrative.  We don’t know everything we’d like to know – in particular, we have no cockpit flight recorder or fight data recorder, and even if they are someday dragged off the bottom of the ocean, they may be useless because they have a limited recording span and the interesting parts are long before the plane finally crashes.

While the Netflix documentary is very good, there is an even better one you can watch for free on YouTube entitled “What Netflix got WRONG – Malaysian Flight 370” by Green Sky Aviation.  It goes minute-by-minute through flight, narrating what the pilot, co-pilot, ground control, military radars, and other actors did.  By necessity, some of it is speculative, but it is very logical and well-reasoned.

And there is a surprising IT angle to the doomed flight.

Overheating Datacenter

Modern airliners have mini datacenters inside them, typically housed in electronics bays that are accessible in-flight through a removable floor panel and ladder.  On MH370’s Boeing 777, there is a large electronics bay crammed with computers under the cockpit.

To prevent various satellite and VHF communication systems from working, Captain Zaharie turned off the plane’s main electrical power bus.  By design, a smaller subset of electronics continued to function, but this also began a race against time for the villain.

The electronic bays’ computers, generate heat and must be cooled.  By powering off the main electrical power, the cooling fans for these systems had been turned off.  Zaharie knew that there was a limited time before the ship’s computers overheated, which would disable critical displays, autopilot, and other flight controls he needed to complete his plan.

Hence, his plan had to account for when to restore power the main plane’s electronics, which he did after he’d crossed back over Malaysia.  Unbeknowst to him, restoring power caused the satellite communication system to reboot, which were the key link in establishing the satellite-tracking Inmarsat was later able to perform.

Had there been no risk of overheating, Zaharie would not have needed to restore power, and the plane would never have been tracked to its deepwater destination.

The inside of the 777 electronics bay is quite interesting, with over 150 computers (details here in this Boeing document).  You can watch a short tour by an aircraft mechanic here.  Most datacenters I’ve been in don’t have toilet disposal lines running over the racks!



1 Comment

  1. That’s amazing! They’re exactly what I was looking for! I thank you all for sharing these wonderful and satisfying experiences with me! Now let’s go with family and friends.

    December 20, 2023 @ 2:37 am | Reply

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