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19

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.

77

Update on MH370 Drift Modeling Enigma

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

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

He wrote, for instance, that:

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

He also wrote that:

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

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

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

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

Australian officials remain puzzlingly unwillingly to acknowledge the issue.

38

Details Emerge in Fatal Icon Crash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

125

Nowhere Left to Look for MH370

Image pilfered from Victor Iannello

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

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

Turns out, it’s not so easy to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  • Low-windage debris would have reached the coast of southern Africa in early 2015, and the flaperon would have arrived in Réunion late 2014. Both are way too early.
  • This endpoint was calculated as having a zero percent probability in the DSTG Bayesian analysis of the Inmarsat data.
44

Australian Scientists Release Meaty MH370 Report

The Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB), the organization overseeing the now-suspended ocean search for MH370, has just released a meaty drift-modeling report put together by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a scientific research arm of the Australian government, entitled “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift – Part II.” It provides a fascinating level of detail into the research previously detailed by the CSIRO. Most media write-ups of the report emphasize the CSIRO’s own top-line assessment of the work’s significance, namely that “The only thing that our recent work changes is our confidence in the accuracy of the estimated location, which is within the new search area identified and recommended by the First Principles Review.” However, I think it would be more accurate to say that this newly detailed view of the CSIRO’s research points up what a baffling picture the combined evidence presents. To wit:

FLOAT TESTS. Previously, the ATSB had released details of float tests involving replica flaperons. It turns out that these in fact did not float very much like the flaperon retrieved from Réunion and tested in a flotation tank in France. To obtain better data, the CSIRO scientists obtained an actual 777 flaperon and cut it down to the exact (within 2 cm) shape of the real flaperon. (Neat video here shows exactly what part of the trailing edge came away; pity that no analysis has been done to explain what kind of impact might have produced this result.) The cut-down flaperon turned out to float very much like the original, unlike the replicas, as you can see in the image above.

This cut-down flaperon was put out to sea and its drifting characteristics measured. This data was then entered into CSIRO’s drift models. It turned out that the trajectories starting from the previously identified high-probability search area near 35 degrees south were now more likely to impact Réunion Island. Thus, CSIRO scientists were heartened that their previous conclusions were reinforced.

However, I see some other interesting aspects of this work that have not received much attention. For instance, check out these photographs of the cut-down flaperon’s trailing edges:

Hello! The majority of the trailing edge is above the waterline, regardless of the flaperon’s orientation. We already knew this, based on images of the French flotation tests, but the new view is clearer than ever. This is simply impossible to reconcile with the heavy incrustation of the Réunion flaperon’s trailing edge. Previously released videos have suggested that in windy conditions, this part of the flaperon could be periodically immersed, but videos attached to the new report show that in light wind they will stay high and dry for extended periods. Lepas barnacles cannot survive and grow under these conditions.

Intriguingly, the report mentions that four replica flaperons that had been outfitted with telemetry were allowed to float in the open sea for an extended amount of time, but no mention was made of what biofouling they experienced. I would be very curious to know.

DRIFT MODELING. Using the new flaperon drift data, CSIRO asked: presuming an entry point at any given location along the seventh arc, how long would it take a piece of debris to reach Réunion, the coast of Africa, and the coast of Australia? Their results are shown below.

The red-and-white vertical line in the central image shows the arrival time at Réunion. It appears that this is roughly consistent with a start point anywhere between 30S and 40S. Further north, and it would have arrived earlier; further south, and it wouldn’t have gotten there at all. So that’s all good.

Note, however, that debris starting in that range should have arrived in Africa even earlier. In fact, debris only started turning up about five months later. So that’s a bit of a puzzle.

Note also that debris entering the water at south of about 36S should have washed up in Western Australia. Intriguingly, debris that entered around 34S should have also hit Australia. Thus, it seems to CSIRO that there is a fairly narrow window of entry points around 35S that is consistent with both the presence of debris on Réunion and the absence of debris in Australia.

IMPACT OF SURFACE SEARCH. Confoundingly, the document also includes a graphic showing the estimated probability that debris from any given entry point would have been spotted during the extensive surface search conducted by ships and airplanes in the months immediately after the disappearance. This is a bit of a shocker: CSIRO asserts that if the plane impacted north of 33S, there is essentially a 100 percent chance it would have been spotted.

Taken together, these newly released bits of information explain why CSIRO feels reinforced confidence that the plane likely hit the water in a fairly narrow band near 35 degrees south. A problem, as the report acknowledges, is that this area has already been searched up to about 20 nautical miles inside and outside the 7th arc. Presuming that the plane was in a nearly vertical dive at the time of the 7th arc, it is hard to see how it is possible that it came to rest further than this.

The report’s executive summary suggests that it is physically possible that the aircraft could have reached some small distance beyond this:

The new search area, near 35°S, comprises thin strips either side of the previously-searched strip close to the 7th arc. If the aircraft is not found there, then the rest of the search area is still likely to contain the plane. The available evidence suggests that all other regions are unlikely.

I find it very interesting that the CSIRO is saying that, in essence, there is no other plausible end point that fits with the data in hand. The aircraft must be here, or else…

To my mind, the high-and-dry trailing edge of the flaperon suggests that “or else” should receive some decent consideration.

PS: A reasonable question to ask is: Why wasn’t this area searched? The short answer is that it was, but only partially. The area was within the initial search zone, such that “between latitudes 32.8°S and 36°S along the 7th arc the area has been searched to widths which vary from ~12 to 17 NM to the east and ~10 to 21 NM to the west of the 7th arc,” as reported in the First Principles Review.

Eventually the DSTG refined their analysis and concluded that a Bayesian analysis of possible flight paths suggested that an endpoint north of 35.5S was unlikely, so subsequent efforts were concentrated on an area south of 36S.

The First Principles Review also reports that ATSB investigators concluded that the wreckage could not reasonably lie more than 25 nautical miles from the 7th arc.

The distance from 34S to 36S is 350 kilometers. If we say that the area remaining to be searched inside the arc is 10 nm, or 18.5 km, wide, and that the area outside the arc is about the same, then the total area remaining to be searched is roughly 13,000 square kilometers, or about 1/10th of the area searched so far.

But, as I’ve written before, the ATSB realized this quite a while before they ran out of time and money for the seabed search, and they made no effort to look there (except a little bit at the very end).

I personally wonder how at downward-plunging plane could get even 10 nm from the 7th arc. But it’s worth bearing in mind that what the Inmarsat analyis tells us, and what the seabed search tells us, and what the drift analysis tells us, don’t get along very well with one another.

 

57

Andreas Lubitz’s Family Disputes Germanwings Suicide Scenario

On Friday, March 24, the third anniversary of the crash of Germanwings 9525 into the French Alps, the father of the pilot who is believed to have crashed the plane, Andreas Lubitz, held a lengthy press conference to proclaim his son’s innocence. The majority of the talking was done by a German aviation journalist, Tim van Beveren. The media widely reported that the event took place but ignored what was said. The popular consensus has long been that Lubitz was guilty, and so the general tone of the coverage was scathing. (In my 2015 Kindle Single, Fatal Descent, I also concluded that Lubitz was responsible for the fatal plunge.) I think it is irresponsible to dismiss an assertion without bothering to listen to it, so I’m grateful to reader Robert Pete for sending me the following synopsis of the press conference, which I’m passing along verbatim.

The father of the co-pilot of the Germanwings flight which crashed asked an aviation expert (T van Br) to investigate what actually happened. He had tried unsuccessfully himself to investigate. The press conference presented the findings.

1. The father represented that his son, the pilot, had been treated for depression in 2008-2009 and had been able to fully recover.

2. The French authorities released a statement 48 hours after the crash which presented the thesis that the co-pilot was a depressive mass-murderer who had with intent and preparation locked the captain outside, put the plane into descent, and crashed it into the mountainside.

3. This thesis has not been altered to the present day.

4. The co-pilot’s family is in search of the truth. If their son was guilty of such an act or not, they want to know.

5. The attorney for the press conference explained that they feel that the thesis presented by the French authorities is incorrect.

6. Herr van B presented his credentials to undertake this investigation for the co-pilot’s family.

7. His first point was that the authorities did not know WHO was in the cockpit when they released their statement 48 hours after the crash. 2 months later they knew the person in the cockpit was alive, but they did not know if he was conscious. They still do not know who was in the cockpit.

8. Hr v B explained that the investigation was run by 2 engineers. One trained in aviation. The second in electronics. No human-factor experts have ever been able to listen to the flight data recorders.

9. Hr v B showed the airplane flight certificate. It was unusual in several ways: it was issued the day before the crash, it was altered with handwritten changes, it had been due to expire in 11 days, it was extended for less than 1 year (contrary to rule), and the signature did not match the printed name. The irregularities with the certificate were never followed up in the investigation.

10. The flight data recorder was originally reported as burned. 9 days after the accident it was found under some rocks. The data was read, but never published. But some inconsistencies are present. The maneuvers suggested in the thesis (shutting the door and selecting Descent in 1 second) were tried in a flight simulator. Not realistic to do. Also, the recorders showed the plane to be in Open Descent mode and Descent mode simultaneously, which is impossible to have. So there are some unresolved problems here.

11. As to the cockpit door. Entry is allowed by pushing the latch after getting a knock. It is not necessary to latch the door. There is a keypad, through which some can ring or use emergency code access. This plane had the emergency code access fail while on the ground days before the accident, causing mechanics to be summoned. This was reported to Hr v B 2 days after the crash. He passed it to the authorities. It was never investigated. There is no evidence in the report that the co-pilot barred the door to the pilot.

12. The weather map for that day is in the report. It shows a low-level, high-velocity jet stream in that same area. Other pilots who flew that route descended to a lower altitude because of its presence. The flight data recording is missing the parameter normally present which records the G-force.

13. The report says the pilot suffered a heavy psychotic attack which disrupted his capability and his sense of reality. This was written by engineers, since no human-factor experts have yet to hear/see the evidence. Human factor experts interviewed by Hr v B say that this statement is highly speculative and cannot be based on factual data.

14.. Nevertheless, IF the statement were correct, then the accident report is mis-categorized. Since then the accident should be regarded as the incapicitation of the crew.

15. When the Duesseldorf Criminal Police investigated the co-pilot’s dwelling, his life-partner (sig other) was not present. Statements she supposedly made are not correct. They found one Ipad the first day they searched. They found a second one the next day. A third Ipad was turned over to the police by a third party AFTER the French police had announced that the plane was flown into the side of the mountain by a chronic depressive as a suicide act. The third Ipad is the one that had his Internet history of browsing for cockpit door info. These messages also came without the check numbers to tie them to the actual Ipad.

That’s what was covered at the press conference in Berlin. Hr v B concluded by saying that there exists no motive for the crash. He has none to offer. He only wants the investigation to continue. Settling for the thesis offered by the French authorities 48 hours after the crash seems to be wrong, in view of the evidence we know of now and in view of the lack of human-factor experts to participate.

UPDATE: The Aviation Herald has published a lengthy elucidation of these issues, including a response from the BEA, which states, “What was presented or suggested is incompatible with the factual and recorded data contained in the final report of the BEA.”

Personally, while there may have been flaws or even inconsistencies in the official report, I find it hard to imagine what an alternative explanation for this crash might look like.

52

The Outline: When Machines Go Rogue

Midnight, January 8, 2016. High above the snow-covered tundra of arctic Sweden, a Canadair CRJ-200 cargo jet made a beeline through the -76 degree air. Inside the cockpit, the pilot in command studied the approach information for Tromsø, Norway. His eyes flickered up from his reading to the primary flight display, an iPad-size rectangle on the left side of his control panel, where the indicator that showed how high the nose was pointing above the horizon had started to creep upward.

Not good.

The pilot felt no sense of movement, but that didn’t matter: One of the first things he’d been taught was that without being able to see the ground, it’s almost impossible to accurately judge whether you’re climbing or turning. A pilot must trust his instruments completely.

A klaxon sounded: The autopilot had turned itself off. There was no time to think. If the nose went too high, it could result in a deadly stall. On the display, a bright red arrow pointed downward: Descend! The pilot pushed forward on the controls, yet still the display said the nose was too high. He pushed more. Manuals and binders rose up into the air and clattered onto the ceiling. He was hanging in his shoulder straps as though upside down. An audio clacker went off: The plane had exceeded its maximum operating speed.

“Help me!” the pilot said.

“I’m trying!” the co-pilot called out.

What the pilot did not comprehend was that his plane had already lost nearly two miles of altitude and was pointed almost straight down. Forty seconds before, the automated system that guided the plane had suffered a partial malfunction, causing it to display an erroneous reading. Now the plane was hurtling toward the frozen landscape at 584 mph. At this rate, impact was less than 30 seconds away. And the pilot had no idea what was really going on.

The co-pilot toggled the radio. “Mayday, Air Sweden 294!”

Read the rest of this entry »

169

First MH17 Perpetrator Identified

On the morning of July 17, 2014, Ukrainian intelligence recorded a cell phone conversation between a military intelligence officer with the code name “Khmuryi and a fighter with the Russian-backed separatists forces, code name “Buryat,” who was in command of a flat-bed truck carrying a Buk antiaircraft missile launcher. The Ukrainians subsequently released audio and a transcript:

BURYAT: Where should we load this beauty, Nikolayevich?

KHMURYI: Which one? That one?

BURYAT: Yes, yes, the one that I brought. I am already in Donetsk.

KHMURYI: Is this the one that I am thinking about? The one ‘B’… ‘M’?

BURYAT: Yes, yes, yes. ‘Buk,’ ‘Buk.’

KHMURYI: Is it on a hauler?

BURYAT. Yes, it is on this one. We need to unload it somewhere and hide it.

KHMURYI: Is it with a crew?

BURYAT: Yes, with the crew.

KHMURYI: Don’t hide it anywhere, it will now go over there.

As extensive reporting by Bellingcat has subsequently made clear, the missile launcher had been sent over from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade the night before. Transfered to a field near the village of Snizhne, it sat for several hours, then picked off MH17. That night it was shipped back across the border.

Last week, Bellingcat released a report identifying “Khmuryi” as Sergey Nikolaevich Dubinsky, a major general in the GRU special forces. His photograph is above. This is the first time an individual participant in the shoot-down of MH17 has been identified by name.

To this day, it remains unclear exactly what Russia sought to achieve by destroying MH17. But the circumstances are coming ever more sharply into focus. Within minutes of destroying the civilian airliner, Russia launched a disinformation campaign that succeeded in misleading a large majority of Western observers into believing that the 777 had been shot down by accident by incompetent militiamen who had gotten their hands on a Buk by accident. On CNN, where I was still under contract at the time, this line was parroted reflexively. It was lamentable to me, and remains lamentable, that this “common sense” view was hewed to so narrowly. This kind of lock-step groupthink among the media is part of the reason that Russia’s misinformation campaign since 2014 has been so successful.

Bellingcat’s efforts, however, offer some grounds for optimism. To paraphrase Lincoln, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Dogged research by Elliot Higgins and his crew, paralleled by the investigative efforts of Dutch investigators, are slowly bringing to light those responsible for this war crime.

MH370 is a more difficult case, but the fundamentals are similar. A plane comes to grief; a flurry of implausible theories swirl. The public and the media alike are thoroughly confused. But quietly, step by step, the facts are laid bare. It’s only a matter of time before, like Dubinsky, the names and faces of the perpetrators are revealed to the public.

UPDATE: Bellingcat has published further insights into Dubinsky’s role based on new information that has surfaced as a result of the report discussed here.

72

Further Clarity on MH370 Flight Path Modeling

Over the last three years, Inmarsat, the ATSB, and the DSTG have been commendably proactive in explaining the mathematical process by which they deduced MH370’s most likely endpoint from the Inmarsat data. The most recent installment, “The Use of Burst Frequency Offsets in the Search for MH370″ by Ian D. Holland, continues that tradition by shedding light specifically on the BFO analysis. All told, it reinforces the impression that the team had good reasons for thinking that the plane would be found in the 120,000 sq km search box. This, of course, only deepens the riddle of why it wasn’t.

Holland’s paper gets into some pretty dense math but a couple of points stand out. On page 6 we read:

Since the mean of the BFOs from the 18:39- 18:41Z call attempt are in broad agreement with the linear trend observed in the BFOs from 19:41Z to 00:11Z (for which the BTOs themselves were consistent with straight and level flight [1]), this supports the finding in [1] that there were most- likely no major turns after the unanswered call attempt (see ([1], Fig. 10.5)).

This is a familiar idea: that the BFO value at 18:40 indicates that the plane, if flying level, was already heading south at that time, and that the FMT had already occurred. This was long accepted as being almost certainly true. But as Victor Iannello recently pointed out on his newly started blog, if the plane turned before 18:40, then its wreckage would have been found in the SIO search area. Therefore, he proposes an alternative that originally seemed less likely: that the plane was in a steady, 2900 feet per minute descent.

Why would whoever was flying MH370 want to descend in such a fashion? Iannello proposes that they might have been setting up for a landing at Car Nicobar airstrip in the Andaman Islands. Perhaps the plane descended for a while — at this rate, getting down from 35,000 o 20,000 would take about five minutes — and then the pilot changed his mind and flew south into the SIO instead.

However, as I’ve pointed out before, if the plane flew straight after 18:40 then the geometry of the BTO rings itself suggests what speed the plane was flying at. The reason is that the 19:40 and 20:40 rings are quite close together, and so there is a small angular distance between, say, a 400 knot path and a 500 knot path. This small angular distance means that the intersection of these paths with the 22:40 and 00:11 rings are spaced at very similar distances. The upshot is that the BTO rings themselves imply a speed of about 480 knots. This is not dissimilar to the speed seen on the radar track, about 500 knots.

To fly this fast without burning all its fuel before 0:11, 9M-MRO must necessarily have been flying at or close to normal cruise altitude.

What Iannello is effectively proposing, then, is that MH370 flew fast and high, then descended, then climbed and flew fast and high again. It is not easy to see what such a dive-and-climb might have accomplished. That is not to say it didn’t happen. But it does run counter to the behavior that the plane otherwise exhibited, which seems to have been geared toward getting where it was going rather quickly.

Another thing I found interesting about the paper was the amount of attention given to the question of the anomalous BFO value at 18:25:27. Apparently a body within the official search effort called the “MH370 Flight Path Reconstruction Group – SATCOM Subgroup” produced a whole paper on this topic; it has not been released to the public but Holland refers to it no less than 7 times, as sk999 has pointed out. We’ve known for some time that the ATSB was unable to find a reason for this value. This struck me as suspicious and I wondered if it might be evidence that the SDU has been tampered with. In this paper we learn for the first time that a study of 20 previous 9M-MRO logins found that one similar anomalous value. (Previous reports have stated that login requests in mid-flight are extremely rare, so we can assume these occurred during normal power-up sequences on the ground.) Unfortunately, Holland doesn’t say anything about what the circumstances were. The implication however is that this kind of anomaly can arise innocently.

Finally, Holland also touches upon the issue of the rate of acceleration implied by the final two BFO data points: 0.68 g. Again, we’ve discussed this before on this blog, but since Holland revisits it I think it bears repeating. This is an extremely high rate of acceleration — two-thirds of what the plane would experience if it was free-falling in a vacuum. With no engines to hasten its descent, the plane must have been pointed nearly vertically down. With its velocity increasing at such a rate, the plane must have impacted the surface quite soon after, therefore it couldn’t be very far from the 7th arc.

My overall impression upon reading this report was: Wow, this is extremely solid work. The DSTG’s analysis of the Inmarsat provides a very compelling case for where the plane went in the southern Indian Ocean. I wouldn’t want to bet against this, I thought.

Then I remembered that their predicted area has already been searched and nothing was found.

 

 

215

MH370: Triumph of the Weird

Well, here we are in cold-case land, scratching our heads. Some $150 million has been spent and no plane. Where does that leave us?

For one thing, with radically altered probabilities of what might have happened.

Imagine that we dial the clock back to August, 2015. You’re Warren Truss and this the story that your data is telling you:

Based on this default story, you’ve concluded that there’s a 97 percent chance that the aircraft hit the ocean within a 120,000 sq km box. What about the other 3 percent? Let’s imagine there’s a 2 percent chance that it’s somewhere else in the SIO, and a small but finite chance — let’s say 1 percent — that, for unkonwn and uncalculable reasons, the plane didn’t go into the SIO at all.

Time goes by. You search out all but the 1 percent of the search box that your sonar equipment can’t image (e.g. seabed crevasses), throw up your hands, and call it off.

So this is how things now stand: Of the orginal 100 percent, 96 percent has been scanned and ruled out. Here’s how remaining probabilities now stack up:

Of course, these are all very rough numbers. The point being, no matter how you slice it, the scenario that was once nearly a dead certainty (flying into the SIO search box) is now less than an even bet, and outcomes that once barely merited an asterisk are now not only possible but probable.

The most probable category, according to this rough calculation, would be scenarios of the second variety. But if the data is valid, how could the default story be wrong? How could the plane have wound up somewhere in the SIO outside the search box? To square that circle, you have to choose one of the assumptions above and bend it. For instance, one might imagine that the 18:40 BFO value was not caused by the plane flying south, but by a plane that descended–perhaps, say, for a descent into Car Nicobar–and then changed plans and flew instead to, say, Antarctica. Or maybe the plane didn’t fly straight and fast, but flew slowly in a curve toward the Cocos Islands, creating a pattern of ping rings that only happened to look similar to those generated by a plane flying fast and straight.

Such eventualities are so unlikely that, back when the search box was being drawn, it was easy to simply discard them. But now that the most reasonable options are off the table, this very geographically dispersed (and hence impractical to search) population of possible endpoints collectively adds up to “very likely.”

Then again, it’s also now significantly more plausible that the plane didn’t go south at all, or that if it did it wound up in the search box but then fell into an unscannable crevasse.

Whatever happened to MH370, it wasn’t the default story told by the data, but rather something that in the summer of 2015 would have been discarded as hopelessly implausible.