Friends have been asking me, usually prefaced with “I’m not typically prone to conspiracy theory,” about the difficulty of stealing and hiding a Boeing 777. I’m hoping this is because of my experience as an airline pilot and not because they think that I am an expert on stealing and hiding things…
Anyway, one question that they seem to have is how big an airport one needs for such an airplane. If you want to land in bad weather, with lots of safety margin, and have a nice terminal for passengers, the number of places where a B777 could be landed is pretty small. FAR 121.195 requires that a turbojet be able to land in 60 percent of the available runway. You need to assume that the thrust reversers have failed and the plane can be stopped only with brakes (plus spoilers that pop out of the wings, typically, to destroy lift and make the brakes more effective). Pilots don’t even try to land on the first 1000′, since a wind variation or pilot error might result in landing a bit short. Thus if one is going to land and roll 5000′ one needs a 10,000′ runway to be legal. (See this posting about my LaGuardia landing for why this FAA rule is prudent.) For departure you need to be able to accelerate to about 180 mph, lose an engine, think for one second, hit the brakes, and stop without running off the runway (or a special overrun area beyond). Alternatively you must be able to accelerate to about 180 mph, lose an engine (i.e., half of your power), and continue the takeoff with that one engine, clearing whatever obstacles are beyond the runway.
What if you are willing to assume that you’ll make a reasonably competent landing and that the thrust reversers will function normally? Certainly a B777 could be landed in 5000′ of runway (less than one mile). See this article on how a Boeing 747 was landed at a ridiculously small airport in South Africa. The calculated landing roll, without reverse thrust, was 3000′ (the article says “landing distance” so this might actually be 1000′ of flying and then 2000′ of rolling). An Air Canada crew managed land a Boeing 767 at an abandoned airport that originally had a 6800′ runway (Wikipedia) despite a lack of engine power that limited their use of flight controls and therefore necessitated a higher-than-normal approach speed.
Could you take off again from a short runway? Sure. In this test flight, a journalist reports lifting off in a 777 about 3300′ down the runway. A Southwest Airlines B737 joined the Cessna crowd at an airport with a 3700′ runway and took off again without incident (story).
I don’t have any special knowledge about Malaysia 370, but it would definitely be possible to land such a plane at an out-of-the-way or decommissioned airport, refuel it, and take off again.
What could a person do with a stolen Boeing 777? The parts don’t have as much commercial value as one might think, due to the fact that operators in most countries need to comply with a lot of regulations regarding the serial numbers and provenance of all of the parts that are placed onto a certified aircraft, particularly one of “transport class.” Countries that the U.S. government doesn’t like, such as Iran, have trouble operating Boeing airplanes because we make it tough for them to get spare parts (see Wikipedia story on Iran Air).
Those are the answers that I’ve given to friends. I’m about as confused by the situation as anyone else, however. Certainly my personal hope is that the plane is parked under a tarp somewhere and the passengers will eventually return home.