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Assigning Blame for MH17

The Buk missile launcher suspected of downing MH17. Source: Bellingcat.

The Buk missile launcher suspected of downing MH17. Source: Bellingcat.

In the aftermath of the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Donetsk region of Ukraine last July, two parallel investigations were launched by the Dutch governmment: one a civil inquiry to establish the cause of the incident, the other a criminal inquiry to establish responsibility. The first was completed last month, when the Dutch Safety Board released a report entitled “Crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.” It concluded that the plane had been struck by a missile fired by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher. Responsibility for the deed has yet to be assigned; the Dutch prosecutor’s office is expected to release its findings next year.

Those findings, I think, will surprise many people.

The commonly accepted scenario is that rebels obtained a Buk missile launcher and, believing that they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport, fired upon and destroyed a Malaysia Airlines 777 by mistake. In this telling, no one was truly to blame—it was all a big mistake, the kind of tragic misunderstanding that is all to common in war.

There is ample evidence for this narrative. Russian media reported that on June 29 the rebels had captured a Buk missile launcher. On July 14, a Ukrainian Antonov An-26 military transport plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine while flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet. On July 16, a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 attack jet was shot down while flying at a similar altitude. Then, on July 17, a rebel commander named Igor Girkin boasted on social media that his forces had shot down another Antonov-26 transport plane belonging to the Ukrainian military. Girkin, a colonel in Russian military intelligence declared that “In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26.”

The post was soon after deleted, but not before it was picked up by mainstream Russian media.

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The FBI’s File on MH370

FBI MH370 FOIA 0001In the immediate aftermath of MH370’s disappearance, California attorney (and noted birther) Orly Taitz filed a FOIA request with the National Security Agency to find out what the organization had about the missing plane in its files. Unsurprisingly, the NSA wouldn’t say; they wouldn’t even confirm that they had a file at all. As grounds, they claimed that “FOIA does not apply to matters that are specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign relations…”

The NSA’s response presents an interesting logical puzzle. If the NSA doesn’t have any material relating to MH370, then surely it would not violate national defense or foreign relations to say so. So presumably the NSA does have such material. Yet in response to Taitz’s inquiry they specifically emphasize that they might not. While it’s hard to say for sure which is the case, it sure smells like the NSA has something they don’t want to talk about. (“Typically when the government does not have any records, it would respond to FOIA request attesting that there are no records in question,” Taitz writes.) If I had to guess, I’d hazard that it might have to do with the radar and signal-detection capabilities of the US and its allies in the area where MH370 disappeared.

In the spirit of Taitz’s inquiry, I recently submitted my own FOIA request to the FBI to see what would turn up. Two weeks ago, I received a reply. The FBI, too, said it could not turn over material to me, stating:

“The material you requested is located in an investigative file which is exempt from disclosure pursuant to 5 U.S.C. §  552 (b)(7)(A).  5 U.S.C. §  552 (b)(7)(A) exempts from disclosure:

records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information… could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings…”

You can see the whole letter I received from them here: Page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4.

Later in the same letter the FBI asserts that “this is a standard notification that is given to all our requesters and should not be taken as an indication that excluded records do, or do not, exist.” So again we run into the same logical conundrum as with Taitz’s NSA reply. If we assume that, in order for its contents to be categorized as non-disclosable, the file had to exist, then I take this to mean that the FBI has an investigation open into the hijacking of MH370. This by itself doesn’t necessarily mean that the plane was taken by third parties rather than the captain; the FBI was involved in the investigation of EgyptAir flight 990, which was ultimately deemed (by the US) a case of pilot suicide. The fact that they are considering enforcement proceedings, however, suggests that they believe that there are entities out there in the world against whom such proceedings could be brought.



New York: What Brought Down the Russian Metrojet Flight Over Egypt?

Twenty-three minutes after takeoff this past Saturday, shortly after reaching an altitude of 31,000 feet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, an Airbus A321 flying as Metrojet Flight 9268 abruptly plummeted and crashed, killing all 224 passengers and crew. The suddenness of the loss of communications, the rapidity with which the plane descended, and the size of the area across which the wreckage was scattered indicate that the plane experienced a sudden, catastrophic structural failure at high altitude. But what does that tell us in practical terms?

Given Russian aviation’s rather poor reputation for maintenance, one immediately obvious possibility was that the plane had suffered a severe malfunction. Receiving particular scrutiny was the fact that in 2001 the aircraft’s tail had been repaired after being damaged in a rough landing. This suggested a possible parallel with China Airlines Flight 611, which suffered a catastrophic decompression 20 minutes after taking off from Taipei in 2002. In that case, too, the aircraft’s tail had been fixed after a rough landing years before. When the faulty repair job failed, the airplane was ripped apart with such force that the pilots had no time to make a Mayday call.

Parallels might also be seen with TWA 800, which crashed off the coast of Long Island in 1996. In that case, NTSB investigators concluded that the plane had exploded after faulty wiring caused fumes in a fuel tank to explode, leaving the plane’s pilots no time to radio for help or try to steer the plane to safety.

On Saturday, the New York Times published a story on the Metrojet tragedy that noted that “the fuel tank on one of its planes exploded before departure from the Siberian city of Surgut in 2011, and the ensuing fire killed three people.” That makes it sound like Metrojet planes have a history of exploding fuel tanks, but that’s not really the case: What actually happened in the Surgut incident is that one of the plane’s engines first caught fire, and that fire subsequently caused the fuel tank to explode some minutes later. That is to say, fire preceded explosion, not vice versa. An engine catching fire in flight can be swiftly catastrophic — such an event downed Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 and effectively ended the Concorde’s career — but not swiftly enough to prevent a distress call.

It’s worth noting, too, that in the wake of TWA 800 industry-wide design changes were made to fix the problem, and no similar accidents have occurred in the two decades since.

If mechanical failure did not bring down Metrojet 9268, the other possibility is malice.

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How the MH370 Flaperon Floated — UPDATED

1 JTD CD Boat hull surf 2 Pleus 061512 small

Fig. 1: A population of Lepas goose barnacles growing on a skiff carried out to sea by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami.

Goose barnacles of the genus Lepas live exclusively on debris floating in the open ocean. Like other barnacles, their larvae spend the early part of their life swimming freely and then, in a final larval phase called the cyprid stage, search out a floating object on which to settle. Once they find a suitable object, says marine biologist Hank Carson, “cyprids in general do do a fair bit of exploration for that cementation spot” upon it, and with good reason: they’ll spend the rest of their life there. Among the criteria they assess is how crowded a spot is, what the underlying substrate consists of, and how deep it is. Once satisfied, they glue their heads in place.

In general Lepas barnacles like to spread out, and prefer a spot in the shade; they grow best away from the top of the water column. The reason is that close to the waterline, the rising and falling of waves periodically exposes the animals to the air, which interferes with their feeding. It’s unhealthy for them in other ways, too. “The uppermost centimeters of water are normally a quite harsh environment with strongly changing ecological parameters, like water temperature, salinity (heavy rains or intense evaporation in tropical areas). Moreover they are subjected to intensive UV radiation,” says Hans-Georg Herbig of the Institut für Geologie und Mineralogie in Cologne, Germany. “From several organism groups it is known that they avoid the uppermost centimeters of the water column.”

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Guest Post: On the possible interpretation of abnormal BFO values

Oleksandr fig 2

By Oleksandr N.

[Note: Oleksandr originally posted a link to this intriguing paper in the comments section, where it has generated a considerable amount of discussion. Oleksandr has developed one of the most intriguing hypotheses about the Inmarsat data to emerge in a long time. In a nutshell, he suggests that data that has long been viewed as spurious might in fact be an important clue as to what the plane was doing during two crucial and as-yet poorly understood periods of its final flight. — JW]



There are two obviously abnormal BFO values of 273 Hz (18:25:34.461 UTC) and -2 Hz (00:19:37.443 UTC) recorded by Inmarsat. The first of them is inconsistent with the other BFO records in the same cluster of BFOs 18:25 – 18:27, and it is also inconsistent with the known heading and speed of the aircraft by 18:22.
The second abnormal BFO value of -2 Hz considerably differs from the BFO value of 182 Hz just 8 seconds earlier. Should this value be correct, it would imply an extreme descent rate (~15,000 ft /min).
While attempts took place to explain the BFO of 273 Hz as a result of some maneuver, such as a lateral offset, the second anomalous value of -2 Hz is widely believed to be erroneous.
This technical note provides an alternative view, suggesting that both the anomalous BTO values are valid, but they are the results of the inability of AES to apply Doppler compensation due to missing position/velocity data.

You can find the whole paper here.



Guest Editorial: Why This Plague of False Information?

By Victor Iannello

Don’t be fooled by claims of the red tape causing the delay in the determination of the provenance of the flaperon.

Boeing and the NTSB were parties to the investigation when the flaperon was first brought to Toulouse. It is very unlikely that the Spanish subcontractor ADS-SAU did not immediately turn over all documentation when requested by Boeing. The investigators had to know soon after the start of the investigation what the provenance of the part is, whether or not that determination was made public.

I have said before and continue to believe that there was an attempt to delay the release of the results of the investigation in parallel with planting a seed of doubt regarding the provenance of the part. Just look at the series of events this week. First the claim that Spanish vacation schedules have delayed the identification of the part. Then the claim that the identification was not possible. This was followed by the claim that the flaperon was certainly from MH370.

The pattern of leaking contradictory or false information to the media from off-the-record sources continued in full force this week. I believe this is a story in its own right that should be getting a lot of attention. Perhaps when enough journalists are made to look foolish by reporting contradicting statements, their “reputation instincts” will kick in and compel them to dig deeper.

We who are following this incident should demand that more facts be fully disclosed. Technical reports should be released so that we are not parsing statements from a judge-prosecutor to understand the true meaning of what was written. And journalists should not blindly report statements without attribution.


Text of French President’s Announcement

Thanks to @HippyGirl for turning me onto this official announcement:

Le président de la République a reçu les familles des quatre passagers français qui se trouvaient à bord du vol MH370 de la compagnie Malaysia Airlines disparu le 8 mars 2014.

Le chef de l’Etat a exprimé le soutien de la Nation dans la douloureuse épreuve des familles de victimes qui restent dans l’incertitude sur les circonstances précises de cette disparition.

Au lendemain de la confirmation que le fragment d’aile découvert à la Réunion le 29 juillet dernier correspond à celui du vol MH370, il a fait avec les familles un point sur les recherches entreprises.

Il les a assurées de la mobilisation des services de l’Etat en appui des procédures judiciaires en cours en France comme à l’étranger pour permettre de faire toute la lumière sur cette catastrophe aérienne.

Les efforts de notre diplomatie seront poursuivis pour que la mobilisation et la coopération de toutes les parties prenantes permettent d’assurer le plus rapidement possible les progrès de l’enquête.

Translation after the jump. As ever, corrections appreciated.

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Text of French Prosecutor’s Announcement Confirming Flaperon Link to MH370

Florence de Changy has provided me with the text of the announcement released today, September 3, 2015:

Dans le cadre de l’information judiciaire relative à la disparition du vol MH 370 de la Malaysia Airlines le 8 mars 2014, les opérations d’expertises initiées le 5 août 2015, suite à la découverte du flaperon à La Réunion le 29 juillet 2015, ont permis de relever -au moyen d’un endoscope- trois numéros à l’intérieur du flaperon.

Il est apparu que ces trois numéros pouvaient correspondre à la référence de la fabrication de pièces confiée en sous-traitance par la société Boeing à la société Airbus Defense and Space (ADS-SAU), sise à Séville (ESPAGNE).

Ce jour, sur commission rogatoire internationale auprès des autorités judiciaires espagnoles, le magistrat instructeur -assisté de l’expert en aéronautique missionné-, s’estrendu à Séville aux fins de recueillir toutes données utiles.

La communication immédiate des données relatives aux commandes et fabrication des pièces de l’aéronef, explicitée par l’audition d’un technicien de la société ADS-SAU, permet d’associer formellement l’un des trois numéros relevés à l’intérieur du flaperon au numéro de série du flaperon du boeing 777 du vol MH 370.

Ainsi, il est aujourd’hui possible d’affirmer avec certitude que le flaperon découvert à La Réunion le 29 juillet 2015 correspond à celui du vol MH 370.

Translation after the jump. Thanks to @Ghysbreght for the translation help.

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Translation: “Simulations Call MH370 Search Strategy Into Question” (Der Spiegel)

[Note: the following is a translation from an article published by Spiegel Online on Friday. Thanks to @littlefoot (Sabine Lechtenfeld) for her assistance.]

by Christoph Seidler

What happened to the missing Boeing 777 of flight MH370? The aircraft with 239 people on board has been missing since March 8, 2014. As the end of July, a piece of wreckage washed up on the French island of La vunion, giving investigators that the wing flap might help solve the riddle–among other things, because it could show how the piece of debris made its way across the Indian Ocean.  And that, in turn, should provide a clue to at least the general area that the plane went down.

Now computer calculations by German oceanographer suggest that perhaps the search for the Malaysia Airlines aircraft has been carried out in the wrong area. Until now, says Andreas Villwock of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, it’s been assumed that MH370 had crashed far south of the equator at 35 degrees latitude. Computer models by his colleagues show, however, that the debris  “probably comes from the eastern equatorial Indian Ocean,” far from the nothern end of the current search area.

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The Growth of Sea Life on Indian Ocean Flotsam


After eight months adrift in the southern Indian Ocean. Click to enlarge

To understand what the barnacles growing on the Reunion flaperon can tell us about its history in the ocean, it’s important to have other pieces of flotsam to compare it with. Earlier, I posted a picture of a boat that had drifted across the north Pacific for about the same length of time as has elapsed since the disappearance of MH370. The density of sea life was far higher. But perhaps that’s due to the fact that it was immersed in relatively nutrient-rich waters. A more useful comparison might be to debris that has drifted in the Indian Ocean.

In May of 2013 a LeisureCat Sportsfisher motorboat capsized in a storm off the northwestern coast of Australia and drifted out to sea. (Many thanks to @Matty for bringing this up in the comments section.) Eight months later, it washed up on the shores of Mayotte Island, off the coast of Madagascar, as seen above. To put it in context, it started drifting 1700 nautical miles northeast of the current search area, and wound up 800 nautical miles northwest of Reunion.

One striking difference with the Reunion flaperon is the presence of an obvious waterline, above which no marine growth is present. You can see the barnacles and algae more clearly in the picture below:

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