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Minor MH370 Mysteries, #1: The Case of the Wayward Etihad A330 — UPDATED

UPDATED 1/29/16: Here’s an image from Victor Iannello showing how EY440 diverted from its normal flight path about two minutes after takeoff on January 7, when it was still climbing and at an altitude of 5000 feet:

EY440 Departure

Just to clear up any potential confusion, it seems most likely that this incident does not have anything to do with MH370, but it’s very interesting in its own right. What is the dynamic at work here? Is it part of a trend? If so, does it potentially represent a system-wide vulnerability?

Here’s another image from Victor showing the plane’s continued path over Malay Peninsula. He writes: “I re-examined the FlightAware ADS-B data and noticed that there is a gap starting at BIBAN and ending at Kota Bharu. The FlightRadar24 coverage looks more comprehensive than the FlightAware data, especially in the South China Sea (SCS). I have re-plotted the flight path such that each underlying FlightAware data point is shown, and estimated the path in the SCS from the FlightRadar24 video. The path does indeed seem to follow airways across the SCS. (It would be helpful to have the underlying FR24 data.) The route seems to be ANHOA-L637-BIBAN-L637-BITOD-M765-IGARI-M765-Kota Bharu-B219-Penang-G468-GUNIP-HOLD-Langkawi-B579-Phuket.”

EY440 Flight Path w data


The case of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is an incredible strange one, as we all know. But what only the true obsessives know is that orbiting around the giant mystery is an Oort Cloud of lesser enigmas. I’d like to briefly diverge from this blog’s main line of inquiry to cast a glance at some of these issues.

My first installment concerns Etihad Airways Flight 440, which took off on January 7 for Ho Chi Minh City bound for Abu Dhabi. Scheduled to depart at 20:10 UTC, it actually left 13 minutes early. Then, instead of flying along its normal route, to the northwest, it flew almost due south, crossed waypoint IGARI, then flew along the Thai/Malaysia border to the Malacca Straits, where it flew in circles for an hour before finally heading off in the direction of Abu Dhabi. By this point, however, the plane no longer had the fuel to reach Abu Dhabi, so it stopped to refuel in Bombay and reached its destination many hours late, leaving some passengers irate. (Special thanks to reader @Sajid UK for bringing this to our collective attention via the comment section.)

This is all very strange, but what makes it interesting to the MH370 crowd is the fact that a portion of its bizarre route was an exact match with that taken by the Malaysian 777 when it initially took a runner. Had EY440 been taking part in some kind of experiment to recreate MH370’s route, perhaps to get a better understanding of the Inmarsat data or the radar data?

We may never know. Katie Connell, who heads up Etihad’s media relations for North America, was very friendly when I called her and asked her what had happened. She said she’d check with her colleagues at the head office in Abu Dhabi. “It was simply a scheduling decision by ops that was later adjusted,” she wrote me in a text earlier today. I wrote back, asking if her contacts had been able to explain why the plane had flown south instead of northwest, and why it had flown a holding pattern over the Malacca Strait. She answered: “No; I did not get into that level of detail. I go with what my folks said.”

So there you have it. Make of it what you will. Read the rest of this entry »


Could Gulf of Thailand Debris Come From MH370? — UPDATED


According to FelineNut, who I generally regard as extremely unreliable, Thai media are reporting that a piece of debris has been found off the coast of southern Thailand, not from from the Malaysian border, the Gulf of Thailand. I have no idea how debris from a single crash could wind up in both Réunion Island and the Gulf of Thailand; I certainly have not seen any drift models with endpoints in both places. (Apparently the current through the Malacca Strait runs from southeast to northwest, so it couldn’t have come via that route from the Indian Ocean; maybe through the Sunda Strait?) On the other hand, the piece does look aircraft-like (though perhaps a bit more like a section of rocket casing, as was recently recovered off the UK coast), and the marine life on it is strikingly reminiscent of that on the Réunion flaperon, with scattered clumps of goose barnacles and patchy brown algal film. I’ve spent a short while doing Bing and Google image searches but haven’t found any shots of a Rolls-Royce Trent engine that match what we’re seeing here. Any thoughts?

UPDATE: Reader Gysbreght has just pointed out that AirAsia 8501, and A320, crashed about 800 nautical miles on December 28, 2014. If this is indeed a piece of jet-engine cowling, that would seem a more likely source. Debris from that crash had previously been discovered at a distance of several hundred miles. (Gerry Soejatman points out that the currents in the vicinity of the QZ8501 crash site flow to the southeast, meaning that if this piece did come from that plane it must have taken a rather circuitous journey–not impossible, given that more than a year has passed.)

UPDATE #2: Thanks to some excellent detective work by the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Ostrower, it now appears clear that the debris is from a Japanese rocket. Gerry Soejatman has a nice blog post about it here.


A Couple of MH370 Things

There have been a number of interesting developments in MH370 land:

NEW MH370 PATH ANALYSIS by frequent commenter sk999 has impressed a lot of the old hands. Using somewhat different statistical techniques than the ATSB and IG before him, sk999 analyzes the Inmarsat data to assess where the plane would wind up under various autopilot modes. His results generally jibe with his predecessors’ work and add more weight to the idea that if the ATSB really believes that the plane was flying on autopilot-only, they would be better served by searching further to the north along the arc, beyond the limits of the current search box (though not north of Broken Ridge), rather than further away from the 7th arc as currently planned. What’s also notable, in my opinion, is sk999’s very clear elucidation of the problems with the routes that he assesses; for instance, he points out that all of the routes have problems accounting for speed inconsistencies in the 90 minutes between the fifth and sixth ping. These discrepencies are too large to be easily explained away as being due to inaccuracies in the winds-aloft data. Sk999’s frankness about these issues is refreshing; in the past, there has often been a tendency by those describing possible routes to adopt a position of, “Hey, here’s a route I came up with, it works really well, take my word for it.” (I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone.)

NAJIB IS IN TROUBLE and at last it looks like he may have to go. Is it possible that his ouster will lead to disclosures about what really happened in the aftermath of MH370’s disappearance? In a report last year, ICAO offered an uncharasterically harsh assessment of Malaysian government interference in the search process. Among their most glaring sins: allowing the search to proceed in the South China Sea for a week even though the military had spotted the plane turning toward the Andaman Sea the night of the disappearance; refusing to pass along crucial Inmarsat data to Australian officials who were tasked with searching the ocean for the plane; and lying about the determination that the flaperon had come from MH370 (it did, but that hadn’t yet been determined at that point). What the heck??

THE ATSB zinged airline pilot Byron Bailey, who wrote an error-filled article in the newspaper The Australian arguing that the only possible explanation for the disappearance of MH370 was pilot suicide. The ATSB had never before gone after an article in such detail before; they didn’t even touch Clive Irving’s piece in the Daily Beast, which was much worse (but which, on the other hand, was friendlier to the ghost-ship scenario that the ATSB still favors.) Personally I think it’s great to see the ATSB engage with the media coverage in this way; there’s too much nonsense about MH370 being peddled in the general media. Bailey responded to the ATSB critique with a second piece in The Australian.

THE ATSB ALSO perked up my ears with their response to an inquiry from reader Susie Crowe, who asked ATSB spokesman Dan O’Malley whether the Australians had received information from the French regarding their investigation into the Réunion Island flaperon. O’Malley replied, “The ATSB looks forward to receiving the report on the flaperon from the French judicial authorities, once it is completed.” In other words, Australia is spending over $100 million in taxpayer money to dispatch search crews to one of the most difficult and dangerous stretches of ocean in the world, and the French have not even shared with them information about the flaperon that might indicate whether or not they are looking in the right place! To which I might add: !!!!!!


Unscientific MH370 Reader Poll

It’s been almost two years since MH370, and the worldwide search into the greatest mystery in the history of aviation is looking a little ragged. Nothing has been found on the seabed where satellite analytics said the plane must have gone. Only a single piece of debris has turned up, and it’s under lock and key in France. Some are starting to grumble that we’re reaching the end of profitable inquiry. Others say, maybe it’s time to consider a broader range of possible fates for the missing plane. To get a sense of the mood of the room (as it were) I’d like to pose a question to readers:

If the search of the seabed comes up empty, no further debris is found, and investigators find significant problems with the flaperon (such as proof that the barnacles are less than a year old, or that the the barnacle species mix indicates it didn’t originate on the 7th arc), would you be willing to seriously consider the possibility that the satellite signal was deliberately tampered with and that the plane went somewhere else other than the southern Indian Ocean?
  1. No, this is an unreasonable idea. Tampering with the satellite signal would be so complicated that no one could have attempted it, and in fact it might even just be totally impossible. The plane must have been on the seventh arc somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere at 0:19. Occam’s razor.
  2. Yes, and in fact we should disregard satcom data entirely. Maybe it was corrupted deliberately by Inmarsat or a Western intelligence agency, and maybe the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. The plane could be anywhere.
  3. Yes, but we can’t disregard the satellite data entirely. The data is not illusory, it had to be generated by some physical process that originated on the airplane, and analyzing it might help us understand where the plane went.
  4. None of the above. (Explain).

Please answer in comments, and feel free to be as verbose as you wish.


Can We Rule Out a Ghost-Ship Endgame for MH370?

Since October, 2014, the search for MH370 has been guided by the assumption that sometime after it disappeared from Malaysian radar screens over the Malacca Strait it turned south and flew straight and fast into the Southern Indian Ocean on autopilot. The ATSB, which is conducting the search, has always been agnostic as to why exactly the plane would have done such a thing—maybe the pilots succumbed to hypoxia, or fire, or committed suicide—but the underlying assumption is that the plane would have flown its last few hours without control from a human being: that is to say, it flew as a “ghost ship” until it ran out of fuel shortly before 0:19 on the morning of March 8 and spiralled into the sea.

Analysis of the satcom signals received up to that point, combined with understanding of how 777s fly, indicate that a “ghost ship” plane should have wound up somewhere in a box 40 nautical miles wide and 400 miles long. As I’ve described earlier, the highest-probability areas of this box have already been searched and no aircraft wreckage has been found.

Previously, I’ve suggested this means that the plane did not fly to the current search area. On January 5, several members of the Independent group published an article on Duncan Steel’s website that agreed with this premise:

we now have a new piece of information. Simply: the aircraft has not been found within the priority search zone. If that continues to be the case then we must consider other possibilities which might conform to the known data (Inmarsat BTO and BFO values, and the fuel limits which can work either way, either setting a range limit or else requiring fuel to be burnt more quickly per unit distance) and lead to a revised end-point for MH370 that is outside of the search zone, and north of it (given that the fuel limitation prohibits end points further south).

The question I’d like to address today is whether the absence of MH370 from the current search area means that the plane COULDN’T have flown to its endpoint on autopilot alone. The reason such a suspicion might arise is that to reach an endpoint north of the current search box the plane would have to have flown a course that was either curving steadily to the left, or slowly decreasing in spead, or a little of both. But the 777 autopilot cannot be programmed to fly in a curve or to steadily decrease the thrust of the engines.

At first blush, then, the answer would be: no. MH370 couldn’t have flown to its endpoint without a human at the controls. That means that one of three things might have happened: 1) The perpetrator took the plane on a slow, curving course to the northeast; 2) The plane hit the 7th arc over the current search area but held it in a glide so that it wound up beyond the current search; or 3) The plane was commandeered by someone who managed to spoof the signal so that it wound up going north instead of south. The first two scenarios presupposes a suicidal pilot, most likely Zaharie; the third requires demonically clever perpetrators. Which of these scenarios is more likely should become more apparent if and when we get to see the results of the examination of the flaperon held by French criminal investigators since its discovery on the island of Réunion last July.

Coincidentally, this would also rule out “hero pilot” scenarios that have remained proven remarkably popular despite the vast weight of evidence against them.

However, the case is not closed.

Read the rest of this entry »


Free the Flaperon!

SchifferWith every passing day, the odds go down that searchers will find the wreckage of MH370 on the Indian Ocean seabed. (Indeed, many independent researchers suspect that the game is essentially over.) If nothing comes up before the search’s scheduled wrap date this June, then the entire case will hang on a single piece of physical evidence: the flaperon that washed up in Reunion Island last July and is now being held by French judicial authorities at a facility near Toulouse, France.

The good news is that the flaperon could provide a wealth of information. I’ve seen photographs of the serial numbers located inside the plane, and I’m convinced that, despite my previously expressed reservations, they do indeed prove that the piece came from MH370. And experts have told me that the sea life found growing on it offers a number of different clues about the airplane’s fate.

The bad news is that the French authorities have apparently made little effort to follow up.

As I’ve described earlier, the predominant form of life growing on the flaperon is an accumulation of goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. In all the world, the number of marine biologists who study these animals is tiny; those who have carried out peer-reviewed research specifically on animals of the genus Lepas could fit in an elevator. Each has contributed something unique to the field; each has a unique body of experience with which to inform the investigation of this important Lepas population. Yet the French authorities have reached out to none of them. (I have been informed that they have contacted two French marine biologists, one of whom is unknown to me and the other of which is an expert in crustaceans of the southern ocean; Lepas belong within this much broader category of animal.)

That’s a shame, because only by tapping the world’s leading experts in this little-understood species can we hope to wrest the most information from this solitary piece of evicence. Here’s what we could learn:

  • Hans-Georg Herbig and Philipp Schiffer in Germany of the University of Cologne have carried out genetic analysis of the world’s Lepas species to understand their geographic distribution. By examining the animals on the flaperon up close they could determine the mix of species growing on it, they could derive a sense of were the flaperon has drifted. The image above shows Dr. Schiffer’s best guess of the identities of some barnacles in one small section, based on photographic imagery alone.
  • Knowing the species of the barnacles, and measuring their exact size, would allow scientists to gauge their age, and hence the amount of time that the flaperon has been in the water. Such an analysis has been performed forensically before: Cynthia Venn, a professor of environmental science at Bloomsburg University, helped Italian researchers identify the how long a corpse had been floating in the Adriatic Sea, as described in their paper “Evaluation of the floating time of a corpse found in a marine environment using the barnacle Lepas anatifera.”
  • By measuring the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the animals’ shells, scientists could determine the temperature of the water through which they traveled as they grew. “All one needs in an appropriate shell, a fine dental bit in a handheld Dermel drill, a calculator and  access to a mass spectrometer,” says legendary marine biologist Bill Newman, who helped pioneer the technique at the Scripps Instition of Oceanography in La Jolla. In the past, this technique has been used to track the passage of barnacle-encrusted sea turtles and whales. But again, it would require access to the flaperon barnacles.

Why haven’t the authorities been more proactive in seeking help from the world’s small band of Lepas experts? One possible answer is that they’re befuddled. As I’ve described earlier, photographic analysis of the barnacles’ size seems to suggest that they are only about four to six months old. This is hard to reconcile with a presumed crash date 16 months before the flaperon’s discovery. Something weird might be going on—which would not be that surprising, given that the case of MH370 has been tinged with weirdness from day one.

After nearly two years of frustration, the key to the entire mystery may well lie in this single two-meter long wing fragment. But if the authorities don’t examine it—and publish their findings—we’ll never know.

PS: In my aforementioned piece about the barnacle distribution on the Reunion flaperon, I argued that the piece must have been completely submerged for months—an impossibility without human intervention. However, it’s been pointed out to me that barnacles sometimes grow on surfaces that are only intermittently awash. A very vivid example of this is a section of SpaceX rocket that was found floating off the coast of Great Britain last November. The piece (pictured below) had spent 14 months floating across the Atlantic with its top surface apparently above the waterline, yet sufficiently awash to support a healthy population of Lepas.


A section of rocket casing found floating in the Atlantic after 14 months.

While this suggests that the Reunion flaperon could have accumulated its load of Lepas while floating free, it also provides another example of how thickly covered by large barnacles a piece can be after more than a year in the ocean.


MH370 Seabed Search Concentrates on Low-Probability Area — UPDATED

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 4.14.52 PM

click to enlarge

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, by its own calculations the ATSB has already searched most of the high-probability areas of the Indian Ocean seabed in its quest to find the wreckage of MH370. The only remaining area of relatively high probability that has not been searched is a stretch along the inside the 7th arc.

(In the image above, the area that had been searched prior to the release of the ATSB’s December 3 report is outlined in black.)

Yet this is not where the search is currently underway. According to ship-tracking conducted by Mike Chillit, Fugro Discovery has spent the weeks since the ATSB issued its report searching an area 40 nautical miles beyond the 7th arc, in the pale blue “low probability” area of the ATSB’s heat map.

It’s hard to understand why.

UPDATE 12-22-2015: I was delighted to learn that Richard Cole is back on the case, paralleling Mike Chillit’s work by collecting and collating ship-movement data in order to understand what areas have already been searched. Richard has given me permission to reproduce one of his charts, which shows the situation much more clearly than my amateur effort above. I’ve outlined the area already searched in light blue. One thing I notice looking at this is that the unsearched high-probability area near 87.5 N 37.5 S hasn’t even been bathymetrically scanned yet! Click to enlarge:

Richard Cole 2015-12-22



“The Plane That Wasn’t There” Audiobook Giveaway — UPDATED x3

It’s the holiday season, and I’d like to express my gratitude for the community of fellow obsessives who have helped turn over every conceivable stone in an attempt to solve the mystery of MH370 (and a few other aviation tragedies along the way). Audible has given me ten copies of the audiobook edition of “The Plane That Wasn’t There: Why We Haven’t Found MH370” and I’d like to pass them on to readers of this blog. I’ll send a redemption code to the first ten people who ask for one in the comment section. (If you’ve already read the Kindle Single, you can pass along the code to someone else as a present.)

UPDATE 12-17-15: They’re all gone. Thanks, everybody.

UPDATE 12-18-15: Okay, starting now, I’ll give a copy of the audiobook edition of “Fatal Descent: Andreas Lubitz and the Crash of Germanwings Flight 9525” to the first ten commenters who ask for it.

UPDATE 12-18-15: Once again they’re all gone. Happy holidays!


How Wide Should the MH370 Search Area Be?

At a press conference earlier this month, Australian officials released a new report updating the scientific rationale for their continuing search of the southern Indian Ocean, which is expected to wrap up no later than June, 2016 after the expenditure of an estimated $130 million. “We have a high level of confidence that we are searching in the right area,” declared Assistant Minister for Defence Darren Chester.

As a result of this new analysis, the width of the area to be searched has expanded: from 20 nautical miles inside the 7th arc and 30 nm outside, to 40 nm inside the arc and 40 nm outside.

The key piece of data deployed to justify this reassessment was the newly announced finding that that the satellite data unit (SDU) requires only 120 seconds from fuel exhaustion to first log-on attempt, rather than the 220 seconds cited in earlier reports.

Assuming that the plane was operating as a “ghost ship” without a conscious pilot at the controls, its final moments played out like this:

  • 00:11:00 Transmission from SDU to [ground station]. Hourly ping as previously described.
  • 00:17:30 Approximate APU start time. APU requires approximately 60 seconds to provide electrical power.
  • 00:18:30 Approximate time of SDU power restoration. SDU required approximately 60 seconds after power application to begin transmitting a log-on request.
  • 00:19:29 SDU initiated log-on request. SDU began log-on process to satellite system.
  • 00:19:37 Log-on request complete. SDU successfully logged onto satellite system.
  • 00:21:06 Expected IFE [Inflight Entertainment System] set up of first ground connection. IFE set up request did not occur.

Here’s a nice visualization, from page 11 of the report:

Read the rest of this entry »


MH370 Debris Drift Analysis by Brock McEwen

What does the fact that a piece of MH370 washed up on Reunion Island tell us about the plane’s likely impact point? For the last few months independent researcher Brock McEwen has been hounding the ocean drift modelers of the world in an effort to shed light on that question. After carefully analyzing the results of nine drift models–CSIRO, UWA, GEMS, Deltares, GEOMAR, ICMAT, Adrift, IPRC, and OM–Brock, a trained statistician, concludes that taken together they suggest:

  • Without implausibly strong wind effects debris could not have reached Reunion Island from the current search area.
  • Before debris could have reached Reunion Island, other pieces should have washed up in Western Australia and on other shorelines in the Indian Ocean.

These points undermine the claim put forward in the most recent ATSB report that “the location of the recovered debris is consistent with drift modelling predictions of objects starting in the areas identified as possibly containing MH370.”

The entire report can be found here.

I hope that officials investigating the crash, whether they be in Australia, Malaysia, France, or elsewhere, take heed of Brock’s significant contribution. The evidence has long been mounting that the authorities are looking for the plane in the wrong place.