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MH370: Mission Accomplished

Three years, six months, and 26 days ago, a sophisticated hijacker (or hijackers) made of with a Malaysia Airlines 777 with 239 people aboard. In the course of doing so he, she or they expended considerable effort to befuddle pursuers. Today, that effort has officially been crowned with success. The Australian agency charged with the conducting the pursuit, the Australian Transport Safety Board, has thrown in the towel. In a final report issued today, The Operational Search for MH370, it stated that “we share your profound and prolonged grief, and deeply regret that we have not been able to locate the aircraft.”

There’s a good deal of material here–the whole report is 440 pages long–and I’d like to boil down the key takeaways.

Major omission

As I’ve said many times before, the key clue in the disappearance of MH370 is the fact that the Satellite Data Unit–the piece of equipment which generated the all-important Inmarsat data–was turned off and then back on again at 18:25. This process cannot happen accidentally, and is beyond the ken even of most experienced airline captains, and thus provides powerful evidence that the disappearance was the work of sophisticated operators. This document does not even mention the SDU reboot. Only by ignoring it can the ATSB can maintain a state of indeterminacy as to “whether or not the loss of MH370 was the result of deliberate action by one or more individuals, or the result of a series of unforeseen events or technical failures.”


Various figures have been thrown around for the total cost, but on page 7 we actually get an official tabulation: $198 million Australian, or US$155 million.


One of the most significant revelations in the new report comes in this paragraph on page 10:

Radar data shows the aircraft then headed to the northwest, eventually aligning with published air route N571 from IFR waypoint VAMPI. The validity of this section of the radar data was verified using the track of a commercial flight that followed N571 about 33 NM behind MH370. The aircraft continued to the northwest until a final radar position for the aircraft was recorded approximately 10 NM beyond IFR waypoint MEKAR at 1822:12

This seems to be a validation of the “Lido Hotel” image, showing near-continuous radar coverage of the plane as it flew up the Malacca Strait, and is a direction contradiction of the description provided by the DSTG in their “Bayesian Method” report, which unequivocally stated that

The radar data contains regular estimates of latitude, longitude and altitude at 10 s intervals from 16:42:27 to 18:01:49. A single additional latitude and longitude position was reported at 18:22:12.

This description now seems like a deliberate misrepresentation. To what end? It seems to me that the DSTG’s characterization makes it easier to discard the radar data after 18:01:49. By doing so, they were able to avoid concluding that the plane was turning rightward, to the northwest, between the final radar return and the first ping. This, in turn, would alter the calculated probability distribution such that routes to the north would be more prevalent vis a vis those to the south.

Flight Simulator

On page 98, the report describes the data recovered from Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s flight simulator, without reaching any firm conclusions about the implications for the investigation. It states that the simulated flight was conducted on February 2, 2014, but doesn’t state the reason for believing this. Curiously, the report then almost immediately describes this date as “six weeks before the accident flight,” when of course February 2 is less than five weeks before March 8. Also, the report mischaracterizes the simulation data points as showing a continuous flight up the Malacca Strait and then down into the southern Indian Ocean. In fact the data points show a series of iteratively spawned flights with altitude, location, and fuel loads changed between flight segments.

The report comes to no conclusion as to whether the existence of this data points to Zaharie’s culpability.


The report spends considerable time weighing the possibility that the pilot carried out a long controlled dive followed by a ditch in the ocean, but ultimately concludes that the plane hit with considerable velocity, as stated on page 101: “While no firm conclusions could be drawn given the limited amount of debris, the type, size and origin on the aircraft of these items generally indicated that there was a significant amount of energy at the time the aircraft impacted the water, not consistent with a successful controlled ditching.” This would tend to put the plane’s final resting place close to the 7th arc.

Barnacle temperature analysis

There was not, unsurprisingly, any mention of  the distribution of the barnacles around the entire surface of the flaperon, nor was there any attempt to grapple with the fact that his distribution is not commensurate with the flotation test results which show that the piece rode high in the water. As with the SDU reboot, the default setting of the ATSB appears to be ignore whatever evidence counterindicates its narrative.

One of the surprises for me was the revelation that the Réunion barnacle shell sent to Australian scientist Paul De Deckker was among the largest found on the flaperon (page 107). This shell had previously been described as 25 mm in length, whereas one of the leaked French reports described the largest barnacle as 39 mm. The former is much closer to the measurement I came up with through my own informal image analysis back in 2015 (23mm), and revives my questions about the age of the barnacles. Indeed, De Deckker writes on page 14 of his attached report (Appendix F) that “It could be assumed the specimens analysed here were quite young, perhaps less than one month.”

I hope to return to the topic of De Deckker’s temperature analysis in the near future.

Appendix G

The ATSB had long signaled that it would ultimately release the results of a biological examination of aircraft debris, and that came in the form of the attached report “Summary of Analyses Undertaken on Debris Recovered During the Search for Flight MH370.”

One aspect of the examination dealt with sediment found within the pieces, to see if they had come ashore and then been washed back out to sea before coming to shore once more. I imagine that if this had been found to have been the case, then it would explain the relative absence of marine life on some of the pieces. But in the event, no evidence was found than any of the pieces had come to shore more than once.

Another aspect was to try to gauge the age of marine organisms found on the pieces, in order to judge how long they had been in the water. Obviously, the presumption was that they had been in the water since the crash, about two years previous. But between the Liam Lotter’s flap track fairing (item 2) and Blaine Gibson’s “No Step” (item 3) only a single specimen, of the species Petaloconchus renisectus, appeared to be more than two months old. This individual was judged to be 8-12 months old. Likewise, the barnacles found on Item 5, the door stowage closet, had been growing “likely between 45 to 50 days.” What happened to the sealife that we would expect to have colonized the objects during their first year in the water? Either it vanished without a trace or it was never there in the first place, for some reason.

A third aspect of the examination was to determine what part of the ocean the pieces had traveled through, based on the types of species they contained. Only tropical species were found, with no trace of colonization in the cooler waters where the plane is presumed to have impacted.


About two-thirds of the molluscs recovered from Items 2 and 3 must have been lodged onto the aircraft part(s) by waves when /they drifted ashore or were cast up on the beach(es) or by accidental human contamination [as in dragging the wreckage across the beach during its recovery]. Any handful of sediment, even a small one, from a tropical locality in the Indian Ocean would contain a very high diversity [hundreds] of dead shells of such species.. The natural habitat of the recovered molluscs is shallow water, on clean coral sand or in seagrass meadows. None of them could or would ever attach to drifting debris.

In other words, none of the sealife on these objects indicated that they had floated large distances across the open ocean. So much of it was indigenous to near-shore habitats that the scientists examining it assumed that it must be due to contamination.


However one might feel about the perpetrators of MH370, one has to admit a grudging admiration for the audacity of their feat. They managed to make a massive airplane disappear into thin air, and to defeat the best efforts of the world’s leading aviation experts to figure out what they had done. I would call it the greatest magic trick of all time. Needless to say, achievements of this scale cannot be accomplished without some skilled help. The latest report takes time on page 120 to offer special recognition to some familiar names, including Mike Exner, Victor Iannello, Don Thompson, Richard Godfrey, and of course Blaine Alan Gibson. Their determination to keep all eyes focused on the official narrative helped prevent the ATSB, the press, and the general public from asking the hard questions that might have prevented the current outcome.


Seven Reasons Why MH370 Isn’t in the Southern Indian Ocean

In the wake of last week’s reports by the Australian Transport Safety Board, several mainstream journalists have published articles urging officials to resume searching the seabed in order to find the plane’s wreckage and thereby solve the mystery. The unanimity of the swelling chorus gives the impression that all reasonable people agree.

However, MH370 is a highly technical mystery, and a proper understanding of what may and may not have happened to it is impossible without a grasp of the science behind the evidence in hand. Simply put, the data that we have now gathere collectively weighs heavily against the idea that the plane flew into the southern Indian Ocean. The Australian authorities apparently understand this evidence better than the journalists, which is why they are declining to press forward.

Since I have covered this material in depth elsewhere in this blog, here I will just present a bullet-point list of why MH370 does not now appear to have flown into the southern Indian Ocean.

1– The absence of wreckage in the ATSB search zone. Using Inmarsat data and detailed knowledge of 777 aeronautics and avionics, Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Group were able to generate a robust statistical model of where the plane might have flown, assuming that it turned south after disappearing from Malaysian primary radar. A measure of their confidence in this model is the fact that the Malaysian, Chinese and Australian governments then spent some $150 million searching this vast, deep abyss. Yet no sign of the plane was there. Remarkably, many commentators shrug off this absence of no big deal. It is a big deal. If the plane had turned south, it should have been there. Indeed, in order to come up with a scenario in which the plane turned south but then arrived outside the search area one must presumed a series of bizarre and statistically improbable turns and descents. I liken this to opening a lock without knowing the combination: physically possible, but statistically equivalent to impossible. I wrote more about this topic in the post “Further Clarity on MH370 Flight Modeling.

2– The reboot of the SDU. During the first hour or so of flight MH370, a piece of equipment called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU, was turned off. Then, at 18:25, it came back on and reconnected with an Inmarsat satellite. It was only because of this re-logon that investigators were able to obtain the seven “pings” that told them everything they know about the last six hours of the flight. As I wrote in my post The SDU Re-logon: A Small Detail That Tells Us So Much About the Fate of MH370, the SDU essentially cannot come back on either accidentally or as a result of some other plausible course of action by the pilot. The fact that it was turned off, then on suggests that whoever took the plane had a sophisticated knowledge of the aircraft’s electrical systems and tampered with the system that generated the signal that ultimately led investigators to assume that the plane went south. Obviously, then, this assumption needs to be interrogated.

3– Final observed turn was to the north. At 18:22, MH370 appeared for the last time as a blip on a military radar screen. Three minutes later, it transmitted a ping that allowed investigators to place it on an arc. By integrating these two pieces of information, it is possible to determine that during that interval MH370 turned to the northwest. I discuss this in more detail here: How MH370 Got Away. The fact that the plane was turning to the north fits better with a northern than a southern route.

4– Debris inconsistencies. On July 31, 2015, the first piece of MH370 debris was discovered on the French island of La Réunion. For many, this erased any doubt that the plane had ended up in the southern Indian Ocean. When French officials examined it, however, they encountered an inexplicable anomaly. The fact that every surface had been populated by barnacles indicated that the piece had drifted somehow wholly submerged. Yet when they tested it in a flotation tank, it floated quite high in the water (as seen above; this image is of an actual 777 flaperon cut to the same size). No one has suggested a natural means by which this could have happened; as I wrote in How the MH370 Flaperon Floated, the obvious explanation is that it spent months artificially tethered under the water. Later, other anomalies emerged. Chemical tests conducted on a barnacle shell from the flaperon found that it grew most of its life in water cooler than that experienced by real objects floating to Réunion. And many of the other pieces that turned up were so devoid of marine biofouling that experts said they couldn’t have been afloat for more than a few weeks.

5– Drift studies inconsistent with any single crash point. As I discussed in “Nowhere to Look for MH370″ and “Update on MH370 Drift Modeling Enigma,” an arm of the Australian government called the CSIRO has done considerable work trying to figure out how debris might have drifted from somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean to the shores of Africa and the islands of the western Indian Ocean. To make a long story short, there is no point from which debris would be expected to arrive at the spots where it was found in the correct time interval.

6– No consistent end-of-flight scenario. Frequency data from the 7th and final Inmarsat ping indicate that MH370 was in a steep an accelerating dive. Yet the only way the plane’s wreckage could have escaped detection until now is if it glided beyond the area already searched by sonar. This inconsistency has long been known, and was reiterated in the most recent CSIRO paper. It was compounded by a report issued by the Malaysian government earlier this year called the “Debris Examination Report,” as I discussed in “Reading the Secrets of MH370’s Debris.” There is also puzzlement over how the flaperon could have become physically separated from the plane.

7– Doubts about the provenance of the debris. As I’ve explained in previous posts, there are some glaring red flags in the way that most of the pieces of MH370 were collected.

These seven reasons are all predicated on evidence that has to do with MH370 itself. There is, however, an eighth reason that has to do with a separate event four and a half months later. On July 17, 2014, a missile launcher from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, one of only 14 sister ships to MH370. At first many assumed that the shootdown was an accident perpetrated by confused militiamen, but we now know that the operation was coordinated by the GRU (Russian military intelligence), and was subsequently the subject of an intense disinformation campaign by the GRU. As for the motive, we have no idea. Nor do we have any idea why the Russians would want to hijack MH370. But statistically, 100% of Malaysia Airlines 777-200ERs that come to grief in flight and whose cause is known have fallen victim to Russian military intelligence. If we are to let reason be our guide, that should be the first place to look in trying to solve the MH370 mystery, not the last.


Australia Issues Perplexing New MH370 Report

Garbage in, garbage out.

Earlier today, the Australian Safety Transport Board released a pair of reports that are being billed as a significant new development in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, MH370. The Adelaide Advertiser described it as “an explosive new report that effectively narrows the search zone for the missing plane down to an area half the size of Melbourne.”

The first report was produced by Geoscience Australia, a government research body, and is entitled “Summary of imagery analyses for non-natural objects in support of the search for Flight MH370.” It describes a number of pale blobs seen in French satellite imagery taken two weeks after the plane’s 2014 disappearance in the vicinity of the area that the ATSB now considers its most likely crash site.

The second report, “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift – Part III,” was produced by another arm of the Australian government, the CSIRO. It builds on the information presented in the first report to claim that the new information effectively narrows down the range of possible endpoints to an area east of the 7th arc just 50 km long.

Indeed, the CSIRO paper states: “we think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty. This location is 35.6°S, 92.8°E.”

It certainly sounds like something important has transpired. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it is that confidence on the part of Australian investigators correlates poorly with their ultimate success. And here, in particular, we have an example of big talk with little to back it up.

Everything hinges on the satellite imagery. In the early days of the mystery, there were a great number of reports of what appeared to be debris spotted by satellites. None of them resulted in debris being located on the surface. Many of these suspicious-looking objects, as I recall, turned out to be white caps. The effort to find traces of the plane by satellite proved so fruitless that I thought it had been abandoned.

The Geoscience Australia paper makes no convincing argument that the blobs seen in the image are man-made, let alone that they have to do with MH370. The only reason to suspect that might be the case is if you assume that the plane went missing in the area. To then use these presumed potential MH370 bits to validate your search area is then a good example of petitio principii, or begging the question.

In the course of their discussion, CSIRO authors Griffin and Oke highlight in passing a major problem with the ATSB’s new preferred search area: it stands at odds with the board’s own conclusions about how the flight ended. They write: “If impact was between 36°S and 32°S, as concluded by the First Principles Review, the aircraft must (obviously) be farther from the 7th arc than the region that has been searched, but still within a distance that it could have glided after commencement of descent.” The key word being “glided.” Griffin and Oke recognize that the only way that the plane could have gotten beyond the already-searched area is if it glided, which requires conscious piloting. This contradicts the previous ATSB conclusion that, based on the BFO data, the plane was in a high-speed plunge as it transmitted the final ping, and was probably not under the control of a conscious pilot.

Why were these paper released? I’d put it down to an effort by the Australian government to be seen as prodding the Malaysians to re-start the seabed search. Personally, I would like to see this happen, because all the evidence points to it being a failure, and once everyone recognizes that the plane didn’t go into the southern Indian Ocean, we can start to make progress.

I fear, however, that Malaysia will see this latest effort for the hot mess that it is, and remain unmoved.


Men’s Journal: The Last Voyage of the SS El Faro

It started as a dip of low pressure over the Atlantic that gathered a loose circle of sluggish wind. Ruffled, the summer-warmed sea released more moisture as vapor and the pressure went down a bit further. The wind picked up, driving big waves and unleashing more moisture and heat. During the next few days, this chain reaction turned into an atmospheric buzz saw that spanned hundreds of miles: Hurricane Joaquin.

As the Category 4 storm bore down on the Bahamas with winds peaking at 140 miles an hour, people evacuated and vessels raced for safety. But one ship did not. On October 1, 2015, the SS El Faro — a cargo carrier whose veteran 33-member crew enjoyed modern navigation and weather technology — sailed into the raging heart of the storm. Everyone aboard perished in what ranks as the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were left to grapple with a seemingly unanswerable question: Why?

The NTSB launched one of the most comprehensive inquiries in its 50-year history, interviewing dozens of experts and colleagues, friends, and family members of the crew. Then, last August, came the crucial discovery: A robot submersible retrieved El Faro’s voyage data recorder from the three-mile-deep seabed. The black box contained everything that was said on the ship’s bridge, right up to its final moments afloat.

The transcript reveals a narrative that unfolds in almost cinematic detail, with foreshadowing, tension, courage, and hubris. Like most tragedies, no one factor brought on the disaster — but human error was chief among the problems. This is the answer to the riddle of El Faro’s baffling final path, in the words of the crew members themselves.

Read the whole story at Men’s Journal.


Russia Suspected in GPS Satellite Signal Spoof

The website The Maritime Executive has a story up about an apparently successful bid by Russia to scramble GPS signals in the Black Sea–for reasons unknown:

An apparent mass and blatant, GPS spoofing attack involving over 20 vessels in the Black Sea last month has navigation experts and maritime executives scratching their heads.

The event first came to public notice via a relatively innocuous safety alert from the U.S. Maritime Administration:

“A maritime incident has been reported in the Black Sea in the vicinity of position 44-15.7N, 037-32.9E on June 22, 2017 at 0710 GMT. This incident has not been confirmed. The nature of the incident is reported as GPS interference. Exercise caution when transiting this area.”

But the backstory is way more interesting and disturbing. On June 22 a vessel reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center:

“GPS equipment unable to obtain GPS signal intermittently since nearing coast of Novorossiysk, Russia. Now displays HDOP 0.8 accuracy within 100m, but given location is actually 25 nautical miles off; GPS display…”

After confirming that there were no anomalies with GPS signals, space weather or tests on-going, the Coast Guard advised the master that GPS accuracy in his area should be three meters and advised him to check his software updates.

The master replied:

“Thank you for your below answer, nevertheless I confirm my GPS equipment is fine.

“We run self test few times and all is working good.

“I confirm all ships in the area (more than 20 ships) have the same problem.” 

The article goes on to describe further details of the incident, and to note that hundreds of thousands of cell phone towers in Russia are equipped with GPS jamming devices as a defense against US missiles–and also that Russia has previously jammed GPS signals in Russia and in Ukraine.

Point being, we should not underestimate Russia’s capabilities when it comes to spoofing satellite signals.


How Did MH370’s Flaperon Come Off?

In my last post, I reviewed Malaysia’s analysis of the MH370 debris its investigators have gathered. Not included in that study was the flaperon found on Réunion, as it is being held by the French. So today I’d like to look at what the damage patterns seen on the flaperon suggest about the crash, based on the work done by IG member Tom Kenyon and by a reader of this blog, @HB.

On February 3 of this year, Kenyon released an updated version of his report “MH370 Flaperon Failure Analysis” in which he gives an overview of the flaperon’s structure and how it was damaged. He notes that of the six main structural attachment points of the aircraft, the two biggest and most significant are the flaperon hinges (pictured above). They snapped in the middle:

The lesser attachment points failed in a similar way. That is to say, they did not rip away the flaperon structure to which they were attached.

Kenyon observes:

The location of the failure points of Flaperon hinges is consistent with a large singular lateral force or repetitive lateral (or torsional) movement of the hinges in the inboard/outboard direction. If Flaperon was separated from the Flaperon hinge with forces in forward/aft direction or by applying forces to the Flaperon in the extreme rotated up/down direction (beyond structural stops) then deformation of the Flaperon structure due to such forces would be evident. Significant and permanent deformation of the Flaperon structure does not appear to be present in photographs of the Flaperon.

Recall that two scenarios have been proposed for the flaperon coming off 9M-MRO: either the plane hit the water, or it came off as the result of flutter in a high-speed dive. Neither event could reasonably be expect to produce a primarily lateral (that is side-to-side) force on the flaperon of the kind Kenyon describes.

To raise the level of perplexity, Kenyon points out in other crashes involving 777s, failures didn’t occur at the hinges; rather, the hinges remained intact and the material to which they were attached broke. That is to say, hinges are stronger than the flaperon proper. Here’s an example from MH17:

Kenyon concludes that:

No significant evidence of secondary structural damage excludes a massive trailing edge strike and leads the author to conclude that the Flaperon separated from MH370 while in the air and did not separate from the wing due to striking water or land.

In other words, since the damage isn’t consistent with a crash into the sea, we can deduce that flaperon must have come off in the air. The only conceivable cause would be high-speed flutter. However, on closer inspection the evidence seems to rule out flutter, as well.

The reader who goes by the handle @HB is an expert in quantitative risk assessment in the transportation industry and has extensive experience with composite materials. In a comment to the last post, he observed:

For the flaperon… the lift/drag load is normally passed on the honeycomb panel over the exposed surface area then the primary stucture of the component (the aluminum frame of the flaperon) then the hinges then the primary aluminum stucture of the wing.

In a nut shell, those panels are not designed to sustain any in-plane loads either compressive or tensile. They are just designed to resist bending due to uniform lift load on the surface (top FRP layer in tension and bottom FRP layer in compression, the honeycomb is basically maintaining the distance between the layers without much strength).Those panels can arguably take a little bit of shear load due to drag forces on the top skin (top and bottom forces in opposite direction) but not much due to limits in the honeycomb strength.

The second thing to consider are the GRP properties. The GRP is very tough in tensile mode, much stronger than Steel. In compression mode, it buckles easily and only the honeycomb is preventing this. This is by far the weakest failure mode. If it fails, you will see fibres pulled out link strings on a rope failing under tension. For the skin under compression, you will see sign of compression on the honeycomb but the fibres will have to be pulled out as well. Also, a perfect manufacturing does not exist, there are always delamination (small bonding defects) between the honeycomb and the GRP skin to weaken further the compressive strength.

The hinges are usually much stronger as all the load is passing through them (analogy door hinges).

So you could imagine, if there is a large impact the hinges are expected to fail last. The part of the skin that will buckle is expected to fail first.

@HB here is agreeing with Kenyon: it is baffling that the flaperon came off the plane due to failure within the hinges. But @HB goes further, arguing that this type of damage is inconsistent with flutter:

I would tend to agree that the hinges have been subject to cyclic fatigue… the hinges appear to have been subject to cyclic lateral forces which are not expected in any accidental circumstances (take door hinges, for instance, and imagine the hinge fail after 50 times someone is trying to burst through – you can try at home but it is very unlikely to happen). This of course requires a closer look by experts to double confirm. I cannot think myself of any possible lateral force on this part in the first place but a lateral force that will fail the hinges and not the skin which is weaker is very hard to explain. Try with a wooden door and tell me if you manage.

In a followup comment, @HB observes that even under very strong oscillation the flaperon should not be expected to disintegrate. “If hydraulic power is on, fluttering is unlikely to cause any disintegration. If off, fluttering forces are up and down and the hinges are free to move. Lateral forces, I think, would be small in comparison with the vertical forces and not be strong enough to cause fatigue on the hinges.”

Kenyon concludes his report with a list of six questions and issues generated from his analysis. While all are worthwhile, one stands out to me as particularly urgent:

• Why are the official investigators silent on releasing preliminary reports on their Flaperon analysis? Why would France’s Direction générale de l’armement / Techniques aéronautiques (DGA) release photographic data to ATSB and yet chose not to make Flaperon Analysis findings public after such a long period of elapsed time?

To sum up, a close examination of the flaperon’s breakage points does not yield any comprehensible explanation for how it came off the plane, commensurate with a terminal plunge into the southern Indian Ocean.

This is baffling but unsurprising. Every time we look at the debris data carefully, we find that it contradicts expectations. The barnacle distribution doesn’t match the flotation tests. The barnacle paleothermetry doesn’t match the drift modelling. The failure analysis doesn’t match the BFO data. And on and on.

Something is seriously amiss.


Reading the Secrets of MH370 Debris

Black box data is the ne plus ultra of aircraft accident investigation. But it is not the only kind of physical evidence. Pieces of debris—in particular, their dents and fractures — can tell a vivid story by themselves.

There are five basic ways that an object can break. The two most important for our present discussion are tension and compression. A tension failure occurs when something is pulled apart—think of pulling the ends of a piece of string until it snaps. Compression is the opposite; it’s what happens when something is crushed by a weight or smashed in an impact.

When a plane crashes, it’s common for all different parts to exhibit different kinds of failure. Imagine a plane whose wingtip hits a tree. The impact would crush the leading edge of the wingtip—compression failure—and then wrench the wing backwards from the body of the plane, causing a tension failure at the forward wing root and compression failure at the aft end.

By collecting many pieces of debris after a crash, investigators can place the mechanical failures in a chronological order to tell a story that makes sense, much as you might arrange magnetic words on a refrigerator. This is how the mystery of TWA 800 was solved. When the fuel tank exploded, the pressure pushed the fuselage skin outward so that it came apart like a balloon popping. The plane broke into two major parts that smashed apart when they hit the ocean. Thus tension failures predominated in the first phase of the catastrophe and compression failures predominated later.

So now let’s turn to the issue at hand. What story do the pieces of MH370 debris tell?

In April of this year the Malaysian government published a “Debris Examination Report” describing the 20 pieces of debris that were deemed either confirmed, highly likely or likely to have come from the plane. For 12 of them, investigators were able to discern the nature of the mechanical failure. Some key excerpts:

Item 6 (right engine fan cowl): “The fracture on the laminate appears to be more likely a tension failure. The honeycomb core was intact and there was no significant crush on the honeycomb core.”

Item 7 (wing-to-body fairing): “The fibres appeared to have been pulled away and there were no visible kink on the fibres. The core was not crushed; it had fractured along the skin fracture line.”

Item 8 (flap support fairing tail cone): “The fracture line on the part showed the fibers to be ‘pulled out’ showing tension failure. Most of the core was intact and there was no sign of excessive crush.”

Item 9 (Upper Fixed Panel forward of the flaperon, left side): “The fracture lines showed that the fibres were pulled but there were no signs they were kinked. The core was intact and had not crushed”

Item 12 (poss. wing or horizontal stabilizer panel): “The carbon fibre laminate had fractured and appeared to have pulled out but there was no crush on the core.”

Item 15 (Upper Fixed Panel forward of the flaperon, right side): “The outboard section had the fasteners torn out with some of the fastener holes still recognizable. The inboard section was observed to have signs of ‘net tension’ failure as it had fractured along the fastener holes.

Item 18 (Right Hand Nose Gear Forward Door): “Close visual examination of the fracture lines showed the fibers were pulled and there was no sign of kink.”

Item 20 (right aft wing to body fairing): “This part was fractured on all sides. Visual examination of the fracture lines indicated that the fibers appeared to have pulled away with no sign of kink on the fibers.”

Item 22 (right vertical stabilizer panel): “The outer skin had slightly buckled and dented but the inner skin was fractured in several places…. The internal laminate seems to be squashed.”

Item 23 (aircraft interior): “The fractured fibres on the item indicated the fibres were pulled out which could indicate tension failure on its structure.”

Item 26 (right aileron): “The fitting on the debris appeared to have suffered a tension overload fracture.”

Item 27 (fixed, forward No. 7 flap support fairing): “One of the frames was completely detached from the skin. It may be due to fasteners pull through as the fasteners’ holes appeared to be torn off with diameters larger than the fasteners.”

Note that all of these but one failed under tension. The exception is item 22, which came from the tail—specifically, from near the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer.

It’s particularly remarkable that Item 18, the nose gear door, failed under tension. (Image at top) If, as the Australian authorities believe, the plane hit the sea surface after a high-speed descent, this part of the plane would have felt the full brunt of impact.


Bill Waldock, a professor at Embry Riddle University who teaches accident-scene investigation, says that if MH370 hit the water in a high-speed dive, you would expect to see a lot of compression, “particularly up toward the front part. The frontal areas on the airplane, like the nose, front fuselage, leading edge of the wings, that’s where you’d find it most.”

I spoke to a person who is involved in the MH370 investigation, and was told that officials believe that that observed patterns of debris damage “don’t tell a story… we don’t have any information that suggests how the airplane may have impacted the water.” Asked what kind of impact scenario might cause the nose-gear door to fail under tension, it was suggested that if the gear was deployed at high speed, this could cause the door to be ripped off.

This explanation is problematic, however. According to 777 documentation, the landing gear doors are designed to open safely at speeds as high at Mach 0.82 — a normal cruise speed. The plane would have to have been traveling very fast for the door to have been ripped off. And to be deployed at the end of the flight would require a deliberate act in the cockpit shortly before (or during) the terminal plunge.

The experts I’ve talked to are puzzled by the debris damage and unable to articulate a scenario that explains it. “The evidence is ambiguous,” Waldock says.

In a blog post earlier this month, Ben Sandilands wrote, “Don Thompson, who has taken part in various Independent Group studies of the mystery of the loss of the Malaysia Airlines in 2014, says some of these findings support a mid-air failure of parts of the jet rather than an impact with the surface of the south Indian Ocean.”

A mid-air failure, of course, is inconsistent with the analysis of the Inmarsat data carried out by Australian investigators. So once again, new evidence creates more questions than answers.

UPDATE 5/24/17: Via @ALSM, here’s a diagram of the front landing gear and doors:

UPDATE 5/25/17: In the comments, we discussed the possibility that the front gear door could have come off in the process of a high-speed dive. @ALSM speculated that the loss of engine power upon fuel exhaustion could have led to loss of hydraulic pressure, which could have allowed the gear doors to open spontaneously, and then be ripped off in the high-speed airstream. But he reported that Don Thompson had dug into the documentation and confirmed that following a loss of hydraulic power the gear would remain stowed and locked. Thus it seems unlikely that the gear door could have spontaneously detached in flight, even during a high-speed descent.

UPDATE 5/25/17: There’s been some discussion in the comments about flutter as a potential cause of inflight breakup, so I thought it would be apropos to add a bit more of my conversation with the accident investigator involved in the MH370 inquiry.

Q: Does the MH370 flaperon look like flutter to you?

A: In a classic sense, no, but where you would be looking for flutter would be on the stops, on the mechanical stops that are up on the wing, so the part of that piece that came out. And in looking at that piece, you’ve got different types of failures of the composite skin that don’t appear to be flutter.

Q: What does it look like?

It just looks like kind of an impact-type separation. So it looks like you’ve drug that thing either in the water or on the ground or something. But it’s a little hard with that one because you don’t have any other wreckage, so, one of the keys — you don’t base anything on one small piece, you’re trying to look at kind of the macroscopic view of all the wreckage to make sure that, “Oh, if I think this is flutter do I see the signatures elsewhere on the airplane?” Typically we won’t base it on one piece like the flaperon.

To provide some context, we had earlier talked about the phenomenon of flutter in general:

Q: I can think of a couple of cases where there was flutter, where the plane got into a high speed descent and stuff got ripped off.

A: Yup.

Q: Where would that fall in the bestiary of failures that we talked about earlier?

A: So flutter’s kind of a unique thing, and it’s based on aircraft speed and structural stiffness. So, you know, when those two things meet you get this excitation, an aerodynamic excitation of a control surface which will become dynamically unstable and start going full deflection. So for a flutter case you generally look at the control stops—so there’s mechanical stops on all the flight controls—and you look for a hammering effect on the stops. So repeated impacts on the stop will tell you that, hey, maybe you’ve got a flutter event.

Q: But if you see the piece—there was a China Airlines incident, the elevator was shredded, or part of it was ripped off. What would that look like?

A: Mm-hmm. You know, it’s going to be different for every single case. Sometimes that flutter will generate the load in the attachment points, break the attachment points, and other times it will tear the skin of the control surface, and so you’ll see this tearing of the skin and the separation of rivet lines, and everything. I’ve seen both. I’ve seen a control surface that comes apart at the rivets, and flutters that way, and I’ve seen them where it generates loads to break the attachment points. It depends on the loads that are created and how they’re distributed throughout the structure.

For his part, Bill Waldock told me that the tensional failure of the collected debris implies a shallow-angle impact. Both experts, in other words, believe the debris is most consistent with a more or less horizontal (rather than high-speed vertical) entry into the water.

This is not consistent with the ATSB’s interpretation of the BFO data unless we posit some kind of end-of-flight struggle, à la Egyptair 990, or last-minute change-of-heart by a suicidal pilot. Either seems like a stretch to me.


Update on MH370 Drift Modeling Enigma

Last month I wrote, in a post entitled “Nowhere Left to Look for MH370,” that recently refined drift models produced by Australia’s CSIRO contradicts both their own premise (that the plane crashed on the 7th arc between 34S and 36S) and an alternative idea presented by intependent researchers (that the plane crashed near 30S).

I’ve only just become aware that CSIRO director David Griffin weighed in on the matter a few weeks ago in a letter to Victor Iannello, which Victor published on his blog. He essentially confirmed the points I raised.

He wrote, for instance, that:

As you correctly pointed out, a 30S crash site would, according to our model, have resulted in debris washing up on Madagascan and Tanzanian shores a full year earlier than was observed. That is a discrepancy that is hard to set aside.

He also wrote that:

The other factor against 30S that we find very hard to discount is that 30S is right in the middle of the zone targeted most heavily by the surface search in 2014. This is the “other evidence” that Richard overlooked. Please see Section 4 of our Dec report, and Fig 4.2 of the April report.

Griffin also defends, rather weakly in my estimation, the idea that the early arrival of the “Roy” piece in South Africa does not contradict his preferred 34s-36S crash point. However, I don’t think this really matters, since there is so much other compelling evidence against it.

The conundrum, therefore, becomes even more impenetrable than before: the evidence indicates that the plane did not go into either of these “hot spots.” And it indicates even more strongly that it did not go anywhere else in the southern Indian Ocean.

The way to solve conundrums is to open up your thinking and to check for implicit assumptions that my be incorrect. In this case, the obvious follow-up question is: is it possible, given the data in hand, that the plane could have gone somewhere else?

Australian officials remain puzzlingly unwillingly to acknowledge the issue.


Details Emerge in Fatal Icon Crash

The aviation world was rocked Monday when acclaimed aeronautical engineer Jon Karkow and fellow Icon Aircraft employee Cagri Sever died in a crash of an Icon A5 amphibious plane on the shores of Lake Berryessa in Napa, California. The A5, which has received FAA certification but not yet reached market, has been one of the most hotly anticipated aircraft designs in recent years, with its sleek appearance and advanced safety features key selling points.

According to NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson, the flight departed from Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville. Karkow, Icon’s lead test pilot as well a designer, was giving an introductory flight to the newly-hired Sever. A boater on the lake saw the plane flying 30 to 50 feet above the water. It passed into a cove, and the witness heard the engine rev higher as the plane pitched up into a climb. It turned left and passed out of sight. Then the boater heard the crash.

The plane had come to rest on the shore with the left wing in the water and the rest on land.

The cause of the crash was not immediately apparent. There was no fire, and all of the pieces of the plane were accounted for at the crash site. The plane did not strike a power line, as some had feared, given its low altitude.

NTSB investigators are now writing up a preliminary report, to be issued tomorrow or Saturday. (UPDATE: It’s now available here.)

It is of course impossible to understand the cause of a crash without a full investigation. One possible scenario that investigators will likely explore is the possibility that the pilot pulled up too steeply at the edge of the lake and caused an accelerated aerodynamic stall. In this condition a too-high angle between the wing and the relative wind causes the former to abruptly lose lift. At the accident airplane’s low altitude, there would be little room to recover.

It is common practice for floatplanes to climb steeply when transitioning from low-level flight over water to flight over land, in order to avoid hitting obstacles such as powerlines.

The Icon A5, a sleek and sexy sport plane with seats for two, has generated enormous interest in the media, and was nominated for a Collier Trophy last year. More than 1,000 customers have reportedly laid down deposits. But the company has lately been troubled by production problems, and this crash will add significantly to its woes. Apart from the human tragedy, the accident will add expense and delay to the program as the company struggles to address whatever problems caused the crash.

Safety has been one of the primary selling points of the Icon; the company claimed that its design minimized the danger of spinning and stalling. A fatal crash is not a good look—especially if that crash turns out to have been caused by the very aerodynamic condition the plane is supposedly immune from.

If so, the story of Icon will go down as one of the dangers of engineering for safety: as with the Titanic, if you believe that you’re safe from danger, there’s an incentive to flirt with it.


Nowhere Left to Look for MH370

Image pilfered from Victor Iannello

The suspension of the search for MH370 has been frustrating for many who care deeply about finding the plane. They feel that solving the mystery is essential not just for the emotional well-being of the passengers’ relatives but to protect the safety of the flying public. One group of MH370 relatives has gone so far as to raise money to fund a search on their own.

Assuming one were to raise the money, though, the question would then become: where to look?

Turns out, it’s not so easy to say.

Officially, of course, Australia says it knows where the plane most likely went. As I wrote in my last post, they’ve released a CSIRO report that uses drift modeling and other techniques to argue that the only plausible endpoint is on the 7th arc between 34 and 36 degrees south.

But as Victor Iannello points out in a recent post on his blog, there are some holes in the CSIRO’s logic. For one thing, according to their drift modeling, no-windage debris that enters the water at 35S will reach the shores of Western Australia in fairly significant quantities, but will not reach the South African coast by December 2015, when the real stuff started to turn up there. (You can play around with the kmz files that the CSIRO has made available online; say what you want about the Australians, they have been fabulous about explaining their work and making gobs of data available to the public.)

There’s another problem: the area between 34S and 36S has been searched out to 10 nm and beyond. I am very skeptical that a plane last spotted accelerating downward at 0.6 g, and already descending at 15,000 fpm, could possibly travel anywhere near as much as 10 nm. If anyone has produced flight sim runs that accomplish this, I would very much like to see it. (The IG said as much in their September 2014 paper.)

I’d add my own third reason to suspect that no wreckage would be found in the ATSB’s new search zone: it doesn’t play well with the DSTG’s Bayesian analysis of the BTO data, which is why it was excluded from the 120,000 sq km seabed search as it was ultimately defined.

So if not the ATSB’s new area, then where? South of 39.5S is ruled out because the plane couldn’t fly that far. 36S to 39.5S is ruled out because it’s been searched. 34S to 36S is ruled out for the reasons discussed above. And north of 34S is ruled out because the debris would have been spotted during the surface search.

This is where we stand, three years after the disappearance: with lots of different kinds of clues delimiting where the plane could have gone, it’s hard to make a plausible case that MH370 went anywhere.

UPDATE: Elle Hunt has written a story in the Guardian about Victor’s criticism of the ATSB’s new search zone. Unfortunately it takes seriously the idea that 30S is a plausible alternative. In addition to the ATSB’s assertion that the debris here would have been spotted during the surface search phase, there are the additional problems that:


  • Low-windage debris would have reached the coast of southern Africa in early 2015, and the flaperon would have arrived in Réunion late 2014. Both are way too early.
  • This endpoint was calculated as having a zero percent probability in the DSTG Bayesian analysis of the Inmarsat data.