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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

22

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.

4

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.

67

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.

288

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.

312

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.