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263

Australia Confirms Zaharie Flight-Sim Route to Southern Ocean

In a posting to a section of its website called “Correcting the record,” the Australian Transport Safety Board today confirmed that the FBI found data on MH370 captain Zaharie Shah’s flight simulator hard drives indicating that Zaharie had practiced a one-way flight into the southern Indian Ocean, as I wrote in a story for New York magazine on Friday. Entitled “False and inaccurate media report on the search for MH370,” the post concerns several claims by Australian pilot Byron Bailey in The Australian, including Bailey’s interpretation of the flight-sim data:

Mr Bailey also claims that FBI data from MH370 captain’s home simulator shows that the captain plotted a course to the southern Indian Ocean and that it was a deliberate planned murder/suicide. There is no evidence to support this claim. As Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester said in a statement, the simulator information shows only the possibility of planning. It does not reveal what happened on the night of its disappearance nor where the aircraft is located. While the FBI data provides a piece of information, the best available evidence of the aircraft’s location is based on what we know from the last satellite communications with the aircraft. This is indeed the consensus of international satellite and aircraft specialists.

While ostensibly rebutting Bailey’s claims, the ATSB tacitly acknowledges the fact that the flight-sim data was in fact found by the FBI.

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New York: MH370 Pilot Flew a Suicide Route on His Home Simulator Closely Matching Final Flight

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The route found on the simulator hard drive is red, the suspected route of MH370 in yellow. The orange box is the current search area.

 

New York has obtained a confidential document from the Malaysian police investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that shows that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, conducted a simulated flight deep into the remote southern Indian Ocean less than a month before the plane vanished under uncannily similar circumstances. The revelation, which Malaysia withheld from a lengthy public report on the investigation, is the strongest evidence yet that Zaharie made off with the plane in a premeditated act of mass murder-suicide.

The document presents the findings of the Malaysian police’s investigation into Zaharie. It reveals that after the plane disappeared in March of 2014, Malaysia turned over to the FBI hard drives that Zaharie used to record sessions on an elaborate home-built flight simulator. The FBI was able to recover six deleted data points that had been stored by Microsoft Flight Simulator X program in the weeks before MH370 disappeared, according to the document. Each point records the airplane’s altitude, speed, direction of flight, and other key parameters at a given moment. The document reads, in part:

Based on the Forensics Analysis conducted on the 5 HDDs obtained from the Flight Simulator from MH370 Pilot’s house, we found a flight path, that lead to the Southern Indian Ocean, among the numerous other flight paths charted on the Flight Simulator, that could be of interest, as contained in Table 2.

Taken together, these points show a flight that departs Kuala Lumpur, heads northwest over the Malacca Strait, then turns left and heads south over the Indian Ocean, continuing until fuel exhaustion over an empty stretch of sea.

Search officials believe MH370 followed a similar route, based on signals the plane transmitted to a satellite after ceasing communications and turning off course. The actual and the simulated flights were not identical, though, with the stimulated endpoint some 900 miles from the remote patch of southern ocean area where officials believe the plane went down. Based on the data in the document, here’s a map of the simulated fight compared to the route searchers believe the lost airliner followed (see above).

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9

Popular Mechanics: Where Did the Search for MH370 Go Wrong?

It wasn’t supposed to end like to this. Earlier today, ministers from the three nations responsible for finding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—Australia, China, and Malaysia—announced that they would stop looking for the lost jet once the current 46,000-square-mile search zone is completed this fall. The decision was essentially an acknowledgement that they’d come up empty-handed in their quest to find the plane that disappeared from the face of the Earth in March 2014 with 239 people on board. This after two years of official assurances that success was right around the corner.

Why had they been so confident in the first place? How could they have been wrong? And if the plane isn’t where it was supposed to be, where else could it have gone? We’ve gone through two years of clues and conspiracy theories and false starts. But to understand how we’ve come to this point, it’s necessary to review the clues that search officials possessed, and how they interpreted them.

Calculating the Direction of Flight

There were two reasons why investigators felt certain the plane had flown toward a specific area of the southern Indian Ocean. The first was publicly acknowledged, the second kept secret.

The first reason had to do with signals exchanged between the plane and an Inmarsat satellite. On the night of March 8, 2014, 40 minutes after takeoff, MH370 suddenly went electronically dark over the South China Sea. Every form of communication it had with the outside world was turned off. The plane then pulled a 180, flew back over peninsular Malaysia, headed up the Malacca Strait, and disappeared from radar.

Then, surprisingly, three minutes later, it began communicating again. A piece of equipment in the back of the plane called the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) sent a log-on request to an Inmarsat satellite perched in a geosynchronous orbit high above the Indian Ocean. For the next six hours, the SDU stayed in contact, automatically sending intermittent pings that were automatically recorded by Inmarsat computers on the ground.

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489

How We Know Where MH370 Went

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One of the most misunderstood insights into the riddle of MH370 is how the plane’s final path can be derived from Inmarsat BTO data alone.

Recall that the data, which was generated after someone on board caused the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) to re-logon to the Inmarsat Satellite 3F-1 over the Indian Ocean at 18:25, comes in two flavors. The first, the Burst Timing Offset (BTO) data, reveals how far the plane is from the satellite at a given time. This can be mathematically converted into a set of “ping rings” along which the plane must have been at a given time. The BTO data is very well understood and fairly precise, providing an accuracy of within 10 km.

The second, the Burst Frequency Offset (BFO) data, is more more complicated and much fuzzier than the BTO data; its inherent uncertainties are equivalent to a position error of hundreds of miles. It doesn’t have a single physical correlate but is related to how fast a plane is going, what direction it is headed, and where it is located.

For a time after MH370 disappeared, searchers hoped that they could combine these two data sets to identify the area where the plane issued its final ping. After months of work, however, they determined that this would be impossible. The BFO data is just too vague. However, along with the bad news came some good: it turned out that by the clever use of statistics they could figure out where the plane went using the BTO data alone. The methodology developed by Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and explained in an ATSB report entitled “MH370 – Definition of Underwater Search Areas” released last December.

Many independent researchers do not understand the technique and believe that it is invalid. For instance, reader DennisW recently opined that “The ISAT data cannot, by itself, be used to determine a flight path. One has to invoke additional constraints to derive a terminus.” But I believe that the DSTG position is correct, and that one does not need to invoke arbitrary additional assumptions in order to calculate the plane’s track. I’ll explain why.

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352

Guest Post: Where MH370 Search Area Debris Has Historically Gone

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By MPat

(Note: A comment by reader Lauren H brought my attention to an analysis I’d overlooked by reader MPat. As Lauren H points out, it’s as timely now as it was when MPat first aired it back in March. — JW)

The potential arrival of more debris in the East African region is triggering interest once more in the currents and drift patterns in the SIO. To sense check the concept that debris could drift from the current search area to these regions I did a little research of my own, the premise being that the observed behaviour of real floating objects (and I am considering of course the buoys of the Global Drifter Program) should be a useful indicator of possible drift pathways, as a counterpoint to cell-based drift simulation models (which may be calibrated to high level drifter behaviour but typically lack the resolution to reproduce drifter movement in detail).

The full drifter database contains meta-data and trajectories for almost 19800 buoys worldwide (some 1400 are currently active). The meta-data includes timing of drogue loss, and a ‘death’ code to categorise the end of life status of buoys that cease transmitting. It is clear from this that drogues are typically lost in a surprisingly short timeframe. It is also notable that only 20% of all the buoys have ended their lives by running aground, with 66% simply ceasing transmission for undocumented reasons.

I have filtered out buoys that have at any time in their lives passed through the locality of the current search zone, based on a rectangle bounded by longitudes 88 to 96 degrees and latitudes -32 to -39 degrees. None were present in this area at the time of the crash, but I consider in any case all buoys that have ever been in this location (dates range from 1995 to 2014). There are 177 in this category. Of these, 39 are listed as having subsequently run aground. The locations at which they washed up are shown in the plot above.

Of the 39, 31 beached on East African coastlines, only 7 in Western Australia, and 1 in Sumatra. An example of 3 randomly chosen trajectories from the 31 that drifted west are shown below together with the box defining search locality :

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The average time for buoys to reach their western beaching point after leaving the search box is 534 days (~ 18 months) with minimum 234 days (~ 8 months) and maximum 1263 days (~ 42 months). All but 3 were un-drogued during this journey, and those 3 lost their drogues en-route. For those arriving in Western Australia, the average time to beach was 362 days, with minimum 79 days and maximum 513 days.

If we relax the criterion that the buoys must end by running aground, and simply look at the locations where they eventually stopped transmitting after leaving the search area, we see the following three plots which display the 54 buoys that ended up west of longitude 55 deg (the longitude of Reunion Island),

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the 12 that ended east of longitude 109 deg (coast of Western Australia),

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and the 111 that remained in between:

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Clearly the transport qualities of the ocean currents and weather systems will vary from month to month and year to year. It is also not clear how representative the buoys would be of the drift characteristics of floating debris resulting from a crashed aircraft. Neverthless I believe it is reasonable to propose from the buoy behaviour noted above across a 20 year drifting history that :

i) there is a strong tendency for objects that have been present in the current search area to remain trapped in the mid ocean gyre over extended periods

ii) a proportion, perhaps as high as 10% of robustly floating debris, might be expected to make landfall within 18 months of the crash

iii) the vast majority of the debris making landfall is likely to do so across the coastlines and islands of eastern Africa, with relatively little beaching in Australia.

For what it is worth, I have more background and analysis in a write-up that I hope to post soon.

Please also note that a vastly more expert analysis of drifter behaviour has been performed in October last year by David Griffin of CSIRO, in which he uses composite drifter trajectories to infer a likelihood function for where the MH370 flaperon may have originated. This is well worth a read.

UPDATE 79/2016: Reader Richard Cole has posted a link to a .kml file that shows the trajectories of the drifters that reached Australia. Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like if you drop the file into Google Earth. Interesting to note that the greater part of the debris winds up on the southern coast and Tasmania rather than the western coast.

Google Earth screenshot of Australia

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Further MH370 Drift Analysis Casts Added Doubt on Current Search Area

Brock McEwen has released a new reverse-drift analysis of the MH370 debris that has been found in the western Indian Ocean. The executive summary is below.

Broadly speaking, Brock’s new paper supports the conclusion of his earlier work on the subject, and also parallels the findings of GEOMAR and Météo France, as I’ve written about earlier–namely, that reverse drift analysis suggests that the debris did not originate within the current search zone.

In conducting his analysis, Brock has erroneously included objects found in the Maldives which did not come from MH370, but my understanding is that the inclusion of this bad data did not materially change his results.

The Australian is reporting that “Despite finishing his term as the head of the ATSB without finding MH370, [Martin] Dolan said he remained hopeful the aircraft would be found” and believes the search should continue. The full story is behind a paywall but Amanda Rose has provided a screenshot here. Also of interest in the article is the assertion that, due to bad weather, the search might stretch on through October.

Meanwhile the New Straits Times says that “The ministerial tripartite meeting on the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 will be held on July 19, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said Friday… Liow reportedly said that the meeting would deliberate on the next course of action regarding the search for the aircraft, which went off radar on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board while on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.” China, Malaysia and Australia have long said that the search will end after the current 120,000 sq km search area has been scanned, but some observers hold out hope that the rash of recent debris finds will encourage officials to press on.

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MH370 News Update — UPDATED

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A couple of interesting developments in the MH370 story.

  • A number of independent investigators have been working to determine whether the debris found on Tanzania is from a 777, and if so, which part it corresponds to. Mike Exner (who supplied the link to the image above), Don Thompson, Ge Rijn, Victor Iannello, and Barry Carlson all pitched in and have found that most likely the object is inner 1/3 section of a 777 right outboard flap. Mike and Don have written up a report which you can download here.
  • Victor Iannello has long been working on a post-FMT route by which MH370 could have continued to fly on autopilot without human interference and still wound up outside the current search area. Many have tried to find such routes in the past and found it impossible to make them match the ping rings without arbitrary changes in direction and/or changes in throttle setting. Victor has at last published his route. It achieves changes in direction by having the plane follow a magnetic heading, and achieves the change in speed by imagining that the plane is descending at the lowest possible automatic descent rate of 100 feet per minute. It’s quite a clever piece of work by an ever-creative researcher. Of course, the fact that it is possible does not mean that this is what the plane actually did, as Victor himself has pointed out.

 

Victor magnetic route

  • UPDATE 6/28/16 #2: Mike Exner has informed me “I checked those photos yesterday and confirmed the compressor is a Chinese model powered by 230VAC/50 Hz. Not from any aircraft.” UPDATE 6/28/16: Reader Greg Holwill writes: “I have attached photos of a fridge floating out at sea in Mozambique while fishing… I am situated in Durban in South Africa. The debris is located at my lodge in Mozambique.” Here are some of the photos he sent:

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Possible MH370 Debris Found in Tanzania — UPDATED

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Via alert reader @Susie, photos have emerged on Tanzanian social media of an object that looks very much like a control surface from an airliner. Here’s what Bing Translator makes of the original Kiswahili:

Wing of the plane have been conflict and civilians today in the Indian Ocean on the island of Kojani. Made known is what airlines.

A place where it is believed to the remains of the plane have been caught in the Indian Ocean Island beach in Kojani.

Wing of the plane was found in the island of Kojani, is eliciting a great debate among the inhabitants of the island with many believing it is the wing flight of malaysia which was lost without a known future. Airlines of Malaysia Airlines with type MH370, it had disappeared March 8 in 2014 has never been visible until today.

Though still no certainty is what bird fossils, experts of air travel have started initial stages of the investigation of the wreckage of the plane.

Reports say security officials already have started to investigate the wing and probably not long we get enough information from entities involved

Kojani is a small inhabited island near Pemba, about 50 nautical miles north of Zanzibar and 500 miles north of the beaches in Mozambique where MH370 debris has previously been found. It has been described as “one of the least accessible villages [of Pemba], located on an islet off the eastern coast of the main island. At the last count Kojani was home to more than nine thousand people.” While still south of the equator, it is by far the northernmost debris from MH370 identified so far, if that is indeed what it is.

Pemba 2

Its appearance is strongly reminiscent of the flaperon found on Réunion island, although there seems to be none of the broken-off hinge attachments and so forth that were visible on the ends and underside of the flaperon. Also, there is a very visible waterline, which the flaperon lacked. It would be interesting to know if this waterline corresponds with that observed by the French investigators when they put the flaperon in their test tank in Toulouse.

So what is it, exactly? Commenter @Rob suggests it “Might be a piece of inboard flap.” @Ken Goodwin writes “Though the part has the shape of a wing part. It does not jog the memory. Closed large end with no fittings. Surface with no fittings. ???” Of course it might not be from MH370 at all. But if it is, it breaks from the recent trend of debris items being small enough to hold with one hand.

I hope that somehow this object finds its way into the hands of independent investigators who can examine it before it disappears into the black hole that is the Malaysian investigation.

UPDATE 6/24/16: New photos from Jamilforums below.

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Blaine Alan Gibson Finds 3 Possible MH370 Debris Pieces in Madagascar

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The “second” piece

 

Hot on the heels of a reported possible MH370 piece in South Australia, news reaches us that Blaine Alan Gibson has found three pieces of suspected MH370 debris in Madagascar. This article says, in part:

Three new fragments which could have come from Malaysia Airlines Flight 270 were discovered on the morning of Monday, June 6, on the Island of Nosy Boraha, in the northeast of Madagascar…

These fragments were found by Blaine Alan Gibson, an American businessman, while he was accompanied by a from the France 2 TV show “Complément d’enquête.” They were on a long, almost deserted beach near the village of Sahasifotra, where tons of waste arrive every day from the Indian Ocean.

One piece in particular, 77 cm wide by 50 cm, apparently made by composite materials, strongly resembles another fragment which Gibson found in February on the coast of Mozambique.

” These two fragments are very very similar: the same paint color, the diameter of the attachment holes is identical. and on the back the texture is the same. I believe that it is a piece from MH370,” Blaine Alan Gibson told our colleagues. Two other parts were also found, a smaller panel with the inscription “FB” as well as another plastic part which could be the frame of an economy class seat’s video screen.

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The “first” piece

 

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The “third” piece

UPDATE 6/9/16: Here’s a screengrab of a YouTube video showing a Malaysia Airlines 777 economy class seatback (thanks to reader @sk999). The coat hook in particular looks like a good match for the third piece.

Economy class screen

Here’s an even better shot, via @BBCwestcott. Note the color of the fabric around the “COAT HOOK” button:

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More about African MH370 Debris

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The beach at the mouth of the Klein Brak river. The upright stick marks the spot where Dr Schalk Lückhoff photographed the Rolls-Royce fragment in December. The log in the background on the right shows where Neels Kruger re-discovered it three months later. Photo by Schalk Lückhoff.

 

Some new information about suspected MH370 debris found in Africa:

1) Last month I wrote about a photograph taken of the “Rolls Royce” fragment three months before it was discovered by Neels Kruger and turned over to the authorities. This double discovery struck me as such a remarkable coincidence that I reached out to the man who took the photograph, Schalk Lückhoff, a 73-year-old retired doctor who lives about an hour away from the discovery site. I was fortunate enough to catch Dr Lückhoff just before he left on a monthlong photo safari to Kruger National Park. At the start of the interview I was under the impression that Neels Kruger found the piece the second time at Mossel Bay, 10 km from the Klein Brak River, but as Dr Lückhoff makes clear, this is not the case; Kruger also found the piece at at the mouth of Klein Brak river, about 250 m from where Lückhoff had photographed it. (Klein Brak is within the Mossel Bay municipality, hence the confusion.) Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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