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287

MH370: The Single, Simple Mistake Behind the Search’s Failure

Seabed Constructor sails into Fremantle, Australia. Source: Mike Exner

Experts from all over the world have converged in Perth, Australia, to meet Seabed Constructor, the exploration vessel tasked with finding the wreckage of MH370, after its first stint in the search area. Technical experts and government officials are having meetings and dinners, touring the ship, and doing photo ops. Everything glitters and spirits are high.

Lost in this excited hubub is the fact that the latest search effort has already invalidated the expert analysis that got it launched in the first place.

In a 2016 document entitled “MH370–First Principles Review,” the ATSB explained that, given the absence of wreckage in the orginal 120,000 sq km search, MH370 most likely wound up somewhere near the 7th arc between 33 degrees and 36 degrees south. A subsequent document by the CSIRO entitled “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift–Part III” narrowed the target area considerably. “We think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty,” it stated. “This location is 35.6°S, 92.8°E. Other nearby (within about 50km essentially parallel to the 7th arc) locations east of the 7th arc are also certainly possible, as are (with lower likelihood) a range of locations on the western side of the 7th arc, near 34.7°S 92.6°E and 35.3°S 91.8°E.”

The wording is important, because as the original search area was winding down, Australia, China and Malaysia said that it would only be extended if “credible new information” came to light. The CSIRO’s language sounded like an attempt to make the case that this condition had been met. And indeed, the three specified points were all included the “Primary Search Area” that Seabed Constructor recently focused its efforts on.

However, that area has now been searched. And once again, the plane was not where it was supposed to be. The CSIRO’s “unprecedented precision and certainty” was a mirage.

How is that, time and time again, officials heading up the search for MH370 exude great confidence and then come up empty handed? How can we account for four years of relentless failure?

The answer, it seems to me, is quite simple. Investigators have resolutely failed to grapple with the single most salient clue: The fact that the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) was rebooted. This electronic component is the part of the 777’s sat com system that generated the Inmarsat data that has been the basis of the entire search. There is no known way that it could accidentally turn off and back on again.

If one has no idea how the SDU turned on, then one can have no confidence in the integrity of the data that it generated.

The ATSB has never publicly expressed a theory about what could have caused the reboot, except to say that most likely the power had been turned off and back on again. There was always the possibility that, behind the scenes, they had figured out a way that this could plausibly happen other than being deliberately tampered with.

Just today, however, I received confirmation that the ATSB is in fact befuddled. Mike Exner is a stalwart of the Independent Group who is currently visiting Perth, where he has had dinner with employees of Ocean Infinity and Fugro, as well as members of the ATSB and the DSTG. In response to my assertion that investigators “had never stopped to ask how on earth the SDU… came to be turned back on,” Exner tweeted that “Everyone is well aware of the question. We have all asked ourselves and others how it happened.” However, Mike writes, “no one has the answer.”

One might forgive the expenditure of vast wealth and manpower based on data of dubious provenance if there was other evidence that independently supported it. But the contrary is the case: debris collected in the western Indian Ocean shows no signs of having drifted from the search zone, as I wrote in my previous post. It is increasingly clear that the plane did not go where the Inmarsat data suggests it did. The fishiness of the Inmarsat data, and the fishiness of the SDU reboot that created it, are all of a piece.

Soon, Seabed Constructor will return to the search area; some weeks or months after that, it will leave again, empty handed. When it does, people all over the world will ask: How could they have failed yet again?

The answer will be simple. It is this: Investigators never established the provenance of the  evidence that they based their search on.

27

MH370 Debris Fouling Supports Spoof Scenario

Petaloconchus renisectus

The essence of the mystery of MH370 is this: was the missing Malaysian airliner hijacked by a suicidal pilot and flown into the remote southern Indian Ocean, or did it fall victim to sophisticated hijackers who spoofed its satcom satellite signal to fool investigators into looking in the wrong place?

To resolve the issue we have two sets of clues. The first is the aforementioned satellite signal data, better known as the Inmarsat BFO and BTO data. The second is the collection of 20-odd pieces of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean from July, 2015 onwards.

Inmarsat Data

Using advanced mathematical methods, its possible to derive a probability distribution from the Inmarsat data showing where the plane might have wound up, assuming the data had not been spoofed. Under the leadership of the Australia Transport Safety Board (ATSB) more than $150 million has been spent searching this area, and the plane was not there. This suggests that the data was spoofed. A further area where some mathematics suggest the plane might possibly have wound up is currently being searched. If the plane is not there, either, then this will lend further weight to the conclusion that the data was spoofed.

Aircraft Debris

Examination of the debris provides an avenue to independently check this conclusion.

Debris which floats across oceans collects a wide variety of marine organisms as it travels, allowing scientists to understand how long it has been in the water and where it has traveled from, as I’ve written about previously. Aircraft wreckage which entered the water in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean as a result of a crash on March 8, 2014 should for the most part be richly covered in a variety of organisms. However, this was not observed; most of the pieces had little or no visible biofouling.

A notable exception was the flaperon which washed ashore on Réunion Island in July, 2015, which had a rich covering of marine biofouling. However, the age of the barnacles did not match the length of time the piece was supposed to have been in the water. According to the final report issued by the ATSB, “The Operational Search for MH370,” on October 3, 2017: “the specimens analysed here were quite young, perhaps less than one month.”

Another anomaly regarding the biofouling of the flaperon was the fact that during flotation tests, the flaperon was found to float about half out of the water. This is difficult to reconcile with the settlement pattern of Lepas, which cover every part of the item. Since Lepas only attach and thrive under water, this suggests that the flaperon did not float freely during its time in the water.

A third anomaly was the finding, based on the chemical composition of the shell, that the Lepas growing on the flaperon spent much of their lives in water that was between 18 and 20 degrees. It would not have been possible for the flaperon to float from such distant, cold water to its time and place of discovery by natural means.

Australia’s final report also included analysis of the biofouling of debris. Scientists at Geoscience Australia scrutinized four pieces: the flap fairing found by Liam Lötter in Mozambique (designated Item 2), the fragment of horizontal stabilizer with the words “No Step” found by Blaine Alan Gibson in Mozambique (Item 3), the piece of engine cowling found in Mossel Bay, South Africa (Item 4), and a section of an interior wall found on Rodrigues Island (Item 5).

Given the ATSB’s confidence that the plane had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean at the start of the southern autumn near 36 degrees south, the researchers should have found marine life endemic to the temperate zone. But the scientists found no such thing. Instead, every single specimen they were able to identify was native to the tropical zone of the Indian Ocean.

Like the flaperon, Item 5 came ashore with a healthy population of Lepas barnacles. And like those on the flaperon, these were found to be less than two months old.

Particular puzzling was the assemblage of organisms found on No Step. Two-thirds of the species found on it live only close to shore and could not have been picked up in the open sea. “The natural habitat of the recovered molluscs is shallow water, on clean coral sand or in seagrass meadows,” the investigators reported. “None of them could or would ever attach to drifting debris.” The only way the investigators could make sense of this was to assume that it had picked up the shells of these creatures from the sand when it had come ashore.

The one-third of the molluscs found on No Step that plausibly could have attached in the open water were all “juveniles at approximately two months old.”

Only two specimens, a sea snail of the species Petaloconchus renisectus and a tube worm of the serpulid family, looked to be more than two months old. The former appeared to be six to eight months old; the latter, eight to twelve months old. Strangely, both types of animal are usually found living on the seabed rather than floating debris.

I reached out to marine biologist Scott Bryan, who has studied out pieces of volcanic pumice called clasts become progressively settled by marine organisms after they get blasted out of volcanoes and land in the sea. Some of the clasts he studied had floated from Tonga to Australia and had serpulids living on them. “The serpulids got recruited when the pumice got close to the coast or islands,” he explained via email. “We had a significant number of serpulids on pumice we collected around the Vava’u islands in Tonga, so not very far away from Home Reef (100 km or so). So the interpretation is the serpulids were locally recruited around the islands… serpulids love hard surfaces and often are found on rocky coasts in the tidal zone. So the pumice needed to encounter rocky islands more than sandy islands or potentially reefs.”

Part of Réunion’s shore is rocky. It’s possible to imagine that “No Step” traveled westward from an impact zone in the eastern Indian Ocean, fetched up near Réunion, picked up the serpulid and the Petaloconchus, then drifting the rest of the way.

 

But this still leaves question marks about the absence of temperate biofouling and the lack of organisms of the correct age.

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Malaysia Triples Described MH370 Search Area

31 January 2018: Today the Malaysian government released its first weekly report on the progress of Ocean Infinity’s seabed search for the wreckage of MH370, available here. It includes the chart shown above, which includes not only the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary zones of the 25,000 square kilometer search area originally described in Malaysia’s announcement of the search (see below) but also supplementary areas that are collectively more than twice as large, and stretch far beyond Broken Ridge to 29 degrees south latitude.

Before the release of this new report, Malaysia hadn’t signaled that it would be issuing updates on the search progress, let alone regular weekly ones, so its appearance is a welcome development.

The report notes that that first section of the search, namely the outermost portion of the Primary Search Area, has been completed without finding any wreckage. This section had previously been identified by Australian scientists as the most likely endpoint for MH370’s flight.

As I write this, the scan of the innermost section of the Primary Search Area has been completed, but the assessment has not yet been released. However, the fact that Seabed Constructor has moved on to another area suggests that probably nothing was found there, either. A big caveat: we don’t really know how long it takes the search team to assess the data collected during each pass.

A failure to find any wreckage in the Primary Search Area would come as a disappointment to David Griffin and his team at Australia’s CSIRO, who delclared in a June, 2017 report that after analyzing satellite imagery and drift patterns “we think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty.” The report specified three target points, all located within the Primary Search Area.

It’s worth noting that there are three compelling reasons to believe that MH370 did not crash in either of the newly designated supplementary search areas, which lie between 29 degrees and 32.5 degrees south latitude:

  1. The area was searched by the air in March, 2014, and no debris was spotted. (see below)
  2. It does not fit with debris drift modeling. Wreckage which entered the sea at this latitude would have reached the western Indian Ocean too quickly.
  3. An endpoint this far north does not match analysis of the Inmarsat signals carried out by Australia’s DSTG.

 

Left: Black rectangles show the extent of aerial searches in March, 2014. Right: Based on these searches officials calculate that wreckage from an impact between 29 deg S and 33 deg S almost certainly would have been spotted.

PS: While I’m at it, here’s my latest theory for why Paul Marshall is being so secretive about backing the latest search for MH370: he and Anthony Clake are treasure hunters. They’ve salvaged historical wrecks for bullion in the past, and this suggests that their interest in MH370 is primarily for financial gain. Treasure hunters tend to be seen by marine archaeologists as plunderers, so they are used to negative press. I think that if Ocean Infinity is successful, then Marshall understands that it will be open to portrayal in the media as having profited from a tragedy.

PPS: On Twitter Kevin Rupp (@LabratSR) has posted an image showing that Seabed Constructor is expected to arrive in Perth on February 8–that’s a week from Friday. Allowing for a few days’ transit time en route, there should be time for the ship to make some good progress into the Secondary Search Area before it departs on the 1200 nm trip.

59

I’m Looking at You, Paul Marshall

Today, January 27, 2018, Sky News has published an article under the headline “Revealed: City tycoon funds ‘final’ search for doomed MH370.” It begins:

A London-based hedge fund millionaire is helping to finance the “final” search for the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft which disappeared nearly four years‎ ago, in a bid to solve one of modern aviation’s greatest mysteries. Sky News has learnt that Anthony Clake, an executive at Marshall Wace Asset Management, is the key figure behind Ocean Infinity, the subsea exploration company which won the contract to hunt for the whereabouts of Flight MH370. ‎Mr Clake, who ‎oversees billions of pounds of clients’ money at Marshall Wace, is understood to have invested in Ocean Infinity after being impressed by its advanced technology.

The piece goes on:

Mr Clake’s involvement ‎in the hunt for MH370 is restricted to a financing role at Ocean Infinity, and he has no day-to-day role in the operation. “Anthony Clake has made a private investment in Ocean Infinity and is one of a number of shareholders in the company,” the spokesman said.

Color me suspicious. Clake works for Marshall Wace, which was founded by Paul Marshall, who is also the owner of two companies which each of a sole other board member apart from him: the two listed directors of Ocean Infinity. Clake is described as a millionaire; Marshall is the tenth richest hedge fund manager in Britain. This story doesn’t say that Clake isn’t the sold investor, but one of several. It seems increasingly inconceivable to me that Paul Marshall isn’t another, and probably main, one–notwithstanding the denial given to me by his publicist. As to why he’s being so secretive, I can’t begin to guess.

UPDATE 1/28/18 12:10 EST: The remarkable @oceankoto has uncovered this gem from the Telegraph circa 2012:

Hedge fund managers Anthony Clake and Paul Marshall, a Liberal Democrat donor, told The Times they had invested in several shipwreck salvage companies, including some Robert Fraser firms, and in total had found 11 wrecks and a haul of silver.

11

New York: The Mysterious New Search for MH370

This much we know: Out in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean, a 379-foot exploration ship called the Seabed Constructor has started searching an area that may be the final resting place of MH370, the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished in 2014 with 239 souls aboard. The ship arrived in the search zone on Sunday, and, given the rate at which the vessel’s swarm of eight autonomous subs can scan the seabed, could finish its work in as little as three weeks.

Just about everything else about the project is shrouded in mystery, including who’s carrying it out and why.

The search for MH370 was done and dusted as of last January, when Australia announced that its three-year, $150 million effort to scan 46,000 square miles of seabed had found no sign of the plane. The search zone had been demarcated by scientists using signals sent between the plane and a communications satellite after it disappeared from radar. The signals suggested that the plane turned south west of the Malacca Strait and flew in a straight line until it ran out of fuel, then nosedived into the sea. At the start of the search officials were so confident in their analysis that one boasted that they had a bottle of Moët “chilling nicely” — but once they were proven wrong, Australia seemed eager to close the case and move on.

In a final report issued last October, officials lamented their failure to find the plane, a turn of events they labeled “almost inconceivable.” To explain the plane’s absence, officials surmised that something peculiar must have happened. Perhaps whoever was flying the plane descended and then flew in circles for a while before heading south. If that was the case, the plane could have ended up in a 25,000 square kilometer area to the north of the completed search area. But Malaysia, the country ultimately responsible for the search, didn’t feel confident enough in the idea to green light a continuation.

Then last August a previously unknown company called Ocean Infinity stepped forward and offered to restart the search on its own dime, with payment only if it found the plane. The deal seemed to be a no-brainer for Malaysia, but negotiations dragged on until earlier this month. Under the terms of the final deal Malaysia will pay Ocean Infinity anywhere from $20 to $70 million, depending on how much seabed it has to search.

This kind of deal is called “no cure — no pay” in the salvage business. Under this kind of arrangement a salvor might, for example, receive a portion of the crude oil recovered from a grounded tanker but get nothing if it fails to produce anything. The current situation falls far outside this model, of course. But given Malaysia’s sense that it had just wasted a lot of money on a pointless search, “no cure — no pay” might have been the only way for Ocean Infinity to lure them into a contract.

It’s a high-risk gambit. The payout is not considerably large considering that the effort will likely cost tens of millions of dollars to mount. And the odds are long. Much of the new search zone was already scanned during an early phase of the first seabed search, before Australian scientists refined their calculations and moved their focus further south. In the highest-priority part of the new search zone, for instance, everything within 20 miles of the arc along which the plane sent its final satellite signal has already been searched and ruled out. It’s not clear how the plane could have flown further than that, since at that moment it was plummeting straight down toward the sea.

Given the long odds, it’s striking that anyone would want to roll the dice.

Some have speculated that the effort is essentially an act of charity by deep-pocketed philanthropists. But it would seem strange for do-gooders to keep their operation shrouded in as much secrecy as the group behind the Seabed Constructor has — basically we know nothing about it.

Another possibility is that the backers’ ultimate motive is to garner publicity for Ocean Infinity so that it can win contracts in the undersea-exploration industry. There are two flaws in this theory though: this industry is in a severe slump right now, with few jobs available; and, it’s a sector where capabilities and price, not branding and exposure, are the key to gaining customers.

A third explanation is that the backers don’t think their odds of finding the plane are long — either because they are clueless or because they possess some information that the rest of us don’t.

Or perhaps there is something else going on that we could never guess from the outside. That’s entirely possible, too — if a little unnerving.

The saga of MH370 is full of unanswered questions, and this is another one.

Knowing the identity of the backers might help clarify the motives. But Ocean Infinity’s publicist will only say that “It’s a private company owned by its shareholders and we don’t wish to say any more on that.” The Australian reported that Ocean Infinity is owned “by a number of British investors.”

Ocean Infinity was registered in Delaware on June 9, 2017, and in Texas 21 days later. It leases Seabed Constructor from Swire Seabed, a subsidiary of the London-based Swire Group conglomerate, and employs a Louisiana company to operate the swarm of undersea robots that will scan the seabed.

The company’s Texas filing lists its directors as Oliver Plunkett, 45, and Ross Hyett, 64. Both men are based in London and work in the wealth-management field, finding investments for high-net-worth clients. Each serves on the board of a private company owned by Paul Roderick Clucas Marshall, a British hedge-fund manager worth an estimated $683 million. Marshall has long been active in the Liberal Democrats party (and is the father of Mumford & Sons member Winston Marshall). Marshall’s publicist denies that he is behind Ocean Infinity, however.

As the story unfolds new strange angles continue to emerge. With Seabed Constructor approaching the search zone last weekend, users of a ship-tracking site noticed that another vessel, the 312-foot Maersk Mariner, had left the Australian port of Fremantle in western Australia and was heading for a rendezvous. The Mariner is a so-called anchor-handling vessel designed to support offshore oil drilling. The purpose of its current mission is so far unclear.

As with everything else, Ocean Infinity is staying tight-lipped. The company releases official statements only infrequently, apparently preferring to communicate via leaks to a small number of journalists and independent researchers who will occasionally drop a tidbit on Twitter or personal web sites. Some of these people claim to have been told the nature of the project’s funding off the record, and refuse to divulge it; others say they have chosen not to ask. This, unfortunately, is par for the course for the shadowy saga of MH370. If the vanishing of 239 passengers and crew is a profoundly discomfiting eventuality, so too is the years-long bungling by search officials, and the chronic inability of the world’s journalists and investigators to press for satisfying answers.

Given the strangeness of the mission and the consensual fog that lies over it, it’s frankly hard to know what to make of Ocean Infinity’s mission. But this state of uncertainty can’t go on forever. Malaysia has given the company a hard deadline of 90 days to wrap the project up. By then we should either have achieved some clarity, or another strange chapter of this saga will have been wrapped up and shipped off to cold storage.

At so that, belatedly, will be that. When they wrote their report delineating the new 25,000 square kilometer search zone, Australian scientists wrote that if the plane is not found in this area they have no other ideas about where to look. No theories about what happened, no explanation as to why — they’ll just have to close their files once more and shrug, as baffled as when they began.

249

About the New MH370 Search — UPDATED

The Economist has just published an article about Ocean Infinity with the headline: “A fantastical ship has set out to seek Malaysian Airlines flight 370.” The piece reports that “Contracts have yet to be signed, but Oliver Plunkett, Ocean Infinity’s boss, has decided to go ahead anyway…”

I was emailing earlier today with Mark Antelme of Celicourt Communications, who handles public relations for Ocean Infinity, and he says that “without a contract we’re not going to conduct a search. That said, we are very hopeful of the contract being awarded soon (which is why the vessel is where it is).”

UPDATE 1/12: I don’t like to substantially change a piece after I put it up, and don’t think I have done so before, because it feels like rewriting history, but in this case I have heavily revised this piece to reflect the fact that most of my concerns about the Economist piece were either fixed or were rendered moot by subsequent events, and leaving it up in its original form was causing psychic trauma for the author of the Economist piece, Hal Hodson. Whether or not Ocean Infinity was sincere about its claim that it would carry out the search without a contract, the contract has been signed, and so the road to a second seabed search is open.

I still take issue with the with this final sentence:

“As the oceans are watched with ever closer scrutiny, from space and the depths, it is increasingly difficult for anything to get lost in the first place.”

It’s important that the world not overlook the fact  that things are vanishing without a trace at an accelerating pace. In 2016, an Antonov An-32 belonging to the Indian Air Force disappeared over the Bay of Bengal; less than two months ago, the Argentinian sub San Juan went missing during a training exercise. We should perhaps try to figure out what made these things happen before getting too smug about them not happening again.

UPDATE 1/2: Shortly after I posted the above, the ship headed out to sea and  is currently (21:49 GMT, 2 Jan 2018) on a heading of 147. I’ll seek clarification from Mark Antelme about the discrepancy between what he told me and what Plunkett apparently told the Economist.

I’d like to add that I also take exception to this statement:

“Seabed Constructor is the most advanced civilian survey vessel on the planet today. If its array of technology cannot find MH370, then it is likely that nothing will, and that the mystery of MH370 may never be solved.”

If Seabed Constructor looks for the plane in the designated search area and fails to find it, that will be due to the fact that the plane is not in the designated search area, not because the technology is lacking in some way. Indeed, as I’ve written in earlier posts, there are many good reasons to doubt that the designated search area is correct.

UPDATE 2: I’ve just heard back from Mark Antelme. Regarding the Economist quote, “Contracts have yet to be signed, but Oliver Plunkett, Ocean Infinity’s boss, has decided to go ahead anyway…” he writes, “…in getting the vessel in position… is how it should be read. I think that’s consistent with our exchange.”

In other words, the company is clearly signaling that it will NOT conduct the seabed search until it has the contract nailed down with Malaysia. However, it apparently is going to position the ship so that it can be in place in the event that that happens.

This makes sense from the perspective of wanting to make the most of a limited search season, but it would seem a rather terrible strategy from a negotiating perspective. Leasing the ship and crew and getting it into position means an outlay of a significant amount of money, so by the time they arrive on station the company will have a strong incentive not to walk away from the table, no matter what terms Malaysia offers.

Of course, all of this is academic if the airplane is not in the search area, since in that case Ocean Infinity would not get paid anyway. An analysis conducted by Australian scientists during the official seabed search calculated that there was effectively a zero percent chance that the plane could have come to rest where the planned search is going to focus.

UPDATE 3: [3 Jan 2018, 10:00 GMT] The Economist’s story has escaped into the broader media ecosystem, with a number of mainstream publications, including The Guardian, picking up a story by the Australian Associated Press which states that “the search for MH370 is back on with the ship Seabed Constructor sailing from Durban today for the search area.” Perth Now has its own story. Both seem to be repeating the Economist’s claim without having done any additional reporting.

A check of Marine Traffic shows that Seabed Constructor has spent the last nine hours holding position 30 nautical miles off the coast of South Africa.

Since I’ve identified a number of inaccuracies in the original article, let me restate what is the core issue here. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for Ocean Infinity to sign the contract with Malaysia and officially restart the search. The Economist is reporting that both of these things have happened. Ocean Infinity’s spokesman tells me that they have not.

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that either of these things could have happened without either Ocean Infinity or the Malaysian government releasing a statement.

Thus, the Economist has reported a major development that appears not to have occurred.

 

 

 

 

202

How Zaharie Shah Navigated His Flight Sim–& What It Signifies for MH370

Screenshot of the PSS 777 cockpit

There are three basic ways to fly a Boeing 777. The first is traditional hand-flying: manipulating the yoke to change pitch and bank. This is a fun way to fly a plane in a simulator, but in practice, pilots don’t do this in commercial jets at altitude because it is inefficient and requires too much attention. Which leads us to the second way to fly the plane: by using the autopilot to fly from waypoint to waypoint. This is called LNAV, for lateral navigation, and is the way that pilots generally fly commercial routes. The path from airport to airport consists of a series of such waypoints, which the pilots plug into the flight management computer so the plane can fly itself.

The third way is to use the autopilot, but in a different way. By selecting HDG (heading) or TRK (track) hold, pilots can aim the plane in a certain direction and let it fly straight.

You can use any of these in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004, the program that MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah use to practice flying a 777 five weeks before the plane disappeared. You can also use a fourth. By opening the map display panel, you can use your mouse to physically drage the plane to a new location.

Looking at the data recovered from Zaharie Shah’s flight simulator, it seems that he used at least three and possibly all four of these techniques during his session that ended with the plane above the southern Indian Ocean with no fuel.

— At point 3N, the plane is close to airway R467, with a heading that is close to what would be required to reach the next waypoint. It’s possible that at this point he was flying the plane using LNAV.

— Between 5N and 10N, the variable which records the maximum G force that the plane has experienced jumps from 1.4 to 2.2, and the minimum G force descreases from 0.6 to 0.1. These are accelerations that will never be experienced by a plane flying on autopilot, so we can infer that Shah was hand-flying the plane.

— At point 10N the plane is located is 13 nautical miles from airway N877 on a heading of 255.5. It’s been suggested that the plane could have reached this point if it were flying along that airway, and then the active waypoint were changed from DOTEN to a point somewhere in the south. However I have run the simulation in a Boeing PSS 777-200LR and found that if that manoever is performed the plane will enter a left bank of 20 degrees (as observed) and achieve a heading of 255.5 about 6 nautical miles from the airway. It seems impossible, then, that the plane could have been flying along airway N877, and since there is no other route it could have been turning away from, I assume that Shah was flying in HDG or TRK mode, which also make turns by putting the plane in a 20-degree bank.

— Between 10N and 45N, the plane moved a distance that is not commensurate with the quantity of fuel burned. The only plausible explanation is that the plane was moved on the simulator’s map display.

The upshot of all of this is that the recovered flight simulator data tells us that Zaharie Shah did not practice flying a 777 to fuel exhaustion in the southern Indian Ocean on autopilot. Instead, he moved the plane manually to the southern Indian Ocean, altered the setting of the fuel load to zero, and then hand-flew a gliding descent.

Given this understanding, the flight simulator session shows significantly less similarity to the accident scenario than was originally believed. Could its uncannily resemblance to MH370’s eventual disappearance be merely a coincidence? A hallmark of a coincidence is that it’s an outlier, with no other similar or corroborating evidence. And that’s exactly the situation here. Nothing else found on Shah’s computer, or uncovered by the Royal Malaysian Police investigation into his personal or professional life, suggests his guilt. As a piece of evidence, the simulator data looks shaky, and all the more so the closer you inspect it.

65

Does the MH370 Captain’s Flight Simulator Prove His Guilt?

Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah in front of his flight simulator

In the months after the disappearance of MH370, Malaysian police searched for any clues that might suggest that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was the culprit. This would have been the simplest explanation for why the Boeing 777 suddenly went electronically dark and pulled a U-turn forty minutes into its flight, and scarcely a minute after Shah’s voice was heard over the radio calmly telling air traffic controllers “Good night, Malaysia 370.” But to their chagrin, the evidence was slim. Zaharie had left no note. His family and friends had noticed no sign of mental disturbance. There was no evidence of political or religious extremism or of marital discord. He was under no financial pressure. He just didn’t fit the profile of someone who would kill hundreds of innocent people and take his own life in the process.

The police did find,  however, a single piece of evidence pointing at Shah. In his home they found a hard drive that contained a flight simulation program as well as data points created when he saved simulated flights. Five data points recorded on February 2, 2014, were of particular interest. It looked like they came from a single 777 flight that went up the Malacca Strait, passed the tip of Sumatra, then turned south and wound up with zero fuel over the remote southern Indian Ocean. This route so uncannily resembled the flight path deduced from MH370’s radar track and then satcom symbols that it was taken by many as smoking-gun evidence that Shah had practiced absconding with the plane. Some even believe that the flight-sim files could offer clues as to where to find the plane. (Indeed, the discovery of the flight sim files was one of the reasons that the authorities shifted the surface search area in mid-April 2014.)

Last November, the secret Malaysian report detailing these findings were leaked to the public, and last month Australia’s final report on its MH370 investigation, “The Operational Search for MH370,” revealed further details, so now we can more fully examine the data taken from Shah’s flight simulator in hopes of understanding, first, what exactly Shah was doing during that simulated flight, and second, what his motivation might have been for carrying it out.

Here’s what we know.

What Shah was simulating. By examining some of the parameters recovered from the hard drive, we can tell that the five points in question were all created during a flight or sequence of flights. That is to say, either Zaharie could have been saving each file from a single continuous simulation session, or he could have initiated new flights from previously created save points. It’s important to note, however, that the save-points were not made in the course of a single continuously-flown flight, because the fuel levels do not match the distance traveled. It appears, rather, that in between save points Zaharie either manually changed the plane’s location, altered fuel levels, or both.

An especially important point to note is that the save files were not created while Shah was was using the autopilot. None of the save locations is on an airway, nor located between one navigational waypoint and the next. (We have to infer that the autopilot was disengaged, rather than observe it directly from the relevant parameters, because for some reason these parameters were not part of any of the retrieved files–and this appears to me to be something of a mystery, since the Australian report describes four of the data files as “complete.”)

The final two save points deserve special attention. They are located just 2 nautical miles apart in the far southern Indian Ocean. In both data files the plane has zero fuel and zero engine thrust. In the first, the plane is at 37,651 feet and flying at approximately 198 knots indicated airspeed, which is close to the speed recommended in the 777 Flight Crew Operating Manual in the event a plane loses both engines. In the second, the plane is flying much the same way but the altitude has manually adjusted to 4000 feet. In both cases the plane is actually in a climb. The fact that the plane is gaining altitude in both cases is consistent with a pilot who is hand-flying the airplane and so unable to prevent temporary departures from ideal speed and glideslope. In other words, as the plane gets going too fast he pulls the nose up, and if it starts going too slow he puts the nose down. It’s difficult and requires constant attention–the kind of thing that’s fun for a little while as recreation and dreadful if you have to do it for a long time as part of your job.

What Shah’s motivation was. There are many reasons why people carry out simulated flights. When they do, the state of the aircraft at the moment the flight is saved should display certain characteristics that will offer a hint at the user’s motivation. If one wants to hone one’s skill at a particular maneuver, for instance, the saved file should show the plane either carrying that maneuver out or setting up for it. If the goal is to practice for an upcoming real-world flight, one would expect to see the plane flying in a way that conforms with operational practice.

Let’s apply this idea to Shah’s flight-sim files. One theory that has been mooted is that Shah conducted the simulated flight up the Malacca Strait as practice for an upcoming flight to Mecca. Page 99 of Australia’s final report notes: “On the day the simulation was conducted the PIC [Shah] was on a rostered day of leave. The following day the PIC was rostered to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Denpasar, Bali and return the same day. On 4 February 2014 the PIC was rostered to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The first three data points recovered from the simulator were consistent with the route from Kuala Lumpur to Jeddah.”

The problem with this explanation is that an actual flight to Jeddah would necessarily be carried out on autopilot, rather than by hand as the simulator session was flown. It’s possible that Shah was curious to see what it would be like to try to carry out such a long-haul flight with hand steering. It does not seem that he was trying to create a realistic simulacrum of an upcoming flight, however.

By the same logic, it does not seem likely that Shah was practicing the disappearance flight, either, since that, too, appears to have been carried out on autopilot.

So, then, the heart of the matter: what was Shah trying to experience at the two final save points?

One theory is that he wanted to know what it would be like to point his plane into the remote ocean and just sit and wait for it to run out of fuel. But we know that he didn’t do this, because the distance traveled by the simulated flight doesn’t match the plane’s fuel load and burn rate. He got to these end points by manually moving the plane in map mode, not by laboriously flying there. His motivation must have involved doing something at those spots, rather than the process of getting there.

This also rules out the theory that Shah was exploring putting the plane on an autopilot track to Antarctica.

To me, one plausible explanation is that Shah wanted to practice responding to the loss of both engines. This is something that happens on occasion, not always with disastrous results.  On July 23, 1983, an Air Canada 767 en route from Montreal to Edmonton ran out of fuel at 41,000 feet due to an improperly calculated fuel load. Thanks to their amazing airmanship, the pilots managed to guide the plane to a safe landing onto the only possible landing spot, a disused air base near Gimli, Manitoba, that had been turned into a drag-racing strip. In the aviation world, this legendary feat has been memorialized as the “Gimli Glider.”

The second of these save points reminds me of “The Miracle on the Hudson,” the 2009 incident in which a US Airways A320 hit a flock of geese that destroyed both its engines and then glided to a safe ditching. That descent began at 3,060 feet, an altitude similar to the one selected in the simulator.

If it’s true that Shah was practicing emergency procedures on February 2, rather than planning his demise, it must be acknowledged as a freakish coincidence that the simulated flight’s end so eerily foreshadowed MH370’s presumed end. But there are mitigating factors. For one thing, Shah was a flight-sim enthusiast who flew many kinds of aircraft in many locations under many circumstances. Investigators found data files for more than 600 simulated flights on various hard drives in his home. Given that number, it would frankly be surprising if one or two of them didn’t resemble the accident flight in some way.

Also, bear in mind that Shah’s apparent suicide run into the southern Indian Ocean wasn’t his final simulation. On the same day that he practiced engine-out procedure on the 777, he also flew a historical propellor transport, the DC-3. And three weeks later, he played with a Boeing 737. This is hardly the behavior of a man with a monomaniacal obsession with his upcoming demise.

We’ll probably never know for sure why Shah decided to simulate an engine-out descent over the remote southern Indian Ocean scarcely a month before MH370 disappeared. But if we look at the entirety of the evidence collected by the police–and indeed even if we look only at the evidence contained on Shah’s various hard drives–then the flight sim data comes to seem an unconvincing smoking gun.

197

Malaysia Looks Set to Restart MH370 Search – UPDATED

Many thanks to reader @David who provided the link to the following statement issued today, October 19, 2017, by Australia’s Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester:

I acknowledge the announcement that the Malaysian Government is entering into an agreement with Ocean Infinity, to search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The Malaysian Government has accepted an offer from Ocean Infinity to search for the missing plane, entering into a ‘no find no fee’ arrangement.

Malaysia’s decision to proceed with the search shows the commitment to find MH370.

While I am hopeful of a successful search, I’m conscious of not raising hopes for the loved ones of those on board.

Ocean Infinity will focus on searching the seafloor in an area that has previously been identified by experts as the next most likely location to find MH370.
Australia, at Malaysia’s request, will provide technical assistance to the Malaysian Government and Ocean Infinity.

No new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft, however data collected during the previous search will be provided.

As always our thoughts are with the families and friends. I hope that this new search will bring answers, both for the next of kin and for the rest of the world.

From the language it seems that Australia is at an arm’s length from this deal. It sounds like, despite having been put in charge of the original seabed search, they are not party to this deal. What’s more, in being “conscious of not raising hopes for the loved ones of those on board” he sounds rather skeptical of the odds of success. I find this a little surprising given the tone of recent Australian pronouncements, such as the statement in the CSIRO’s “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift – Part II” report that “we are now even more confident that the aircraft is within the new search area identified and recommended in the MH370 First Principles Review.”

Worth noting that Malaysia has not finalized a deal. Several news outlets are reporting that “the Malaysian Government has confirmed it has chosen a company [Ocean Infinity] to begin a new search for MH370 and is now negotiating the terms of the deal.”

So what, you ask, is Ocean Infinity? The Houston-based company seems to have sprung into existence recently; the oldest article I could find about the company was from last October. It owns a fleet of AUVs but leases its support ship from Swire Seabed, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong conglomerate. According to one source,

Swire Seabed already has a six-year contract in place for its new vessel with UK-based mapping company Ocean Infinity, the owner of the AUVs and USVs. The vessel will serve as the host for the multiple AUV operations in a combined venture between Ocean Infinity, with Swire Seabed providing survey processing and project management, and SeaTrepid DeepSea of Louisiana conducting operations of the AUVs.

Looks like somebody’s looking to gamble a lot of money on long odds. But whose money, exactly, is at stake?

UPDATE 10/21/17: I just received an email from Ocean Infinity’s media relations rep, Mark Antelme of Celicourt Communications. He says:

Thanks for getting in touch with the team.  At this stage, all we can really say (as a company spokesperson) is:

“Ocean Infinity are not yet able to confirm the final award of a contract to help in the search for MH370, but good progress has been made.  We remain optimistic that we will be able to try and help provide some answers to those who have been affected by this tragedy.”

There is a fair amount of info on the company here:  https://oceaninfinity.com/

Otherwise, we hope to be able to update people on the contract award over the coming days and we will make sure you receive any communication from us.

I wonder what the sticking points are.

185

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.”

Budget

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.

Radar

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.

Debris

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.

Remarkably:

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.

Acknowledgements

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.