The Triple-Disappearing Airplane

Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters, via
Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters, via

A hundred days have passed since MH370 went missing — and while air and sea search operations have been put on hold, hope springs eternal. Today, the BBC is reporting that Inmarsat remains confident that its analysis of the satellite data will lead to the plane, saying that the authorities never searched the area of highest probability because they were distracted by the underwater acoustic pings that turned out not to have come from MH370’s black boxes. Once a new search gets underway, it will explore an area that conforms much better to the likely speed and heading of the missing plane:

By modelling a flight with a constant speed and a constant heading consistent with the plane being flown by autopilot – the team found one flight path that lined up with all its data. “We can identify a path that matches exactly with all those frequency measurements and with the timing measurements and lands on the final arc at a particular location, which then gives us a sort of a hotspot area on the final arc where we believe the most likely area is,” said Mr Ashton.

Unfortunately, it will be several months before such a search of this new area can get underway, since the survey of the ocean floor will be required to figure out how deep it is and what kind of underwater technology should be used. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Australian organization leading the search described a more complex and ambiguous state of affairs, telling the AFP that experts were still struggling to narrow down the highest-probability search area, taking into consideration not just the satellite data but also “aircraft performance data [and] a range of other information.”

What other information? Your guess is as good as mine. As I wrote last week in Slate, Inmarsat has by now leaked enough clues about MH370’s electronic Inmarsat “handshakes” that outsiders can now understand why, mathematically, the plane must have gone south. Yet we have not the slightest hint of what sequence of events might have taken it there. We don’t even know how it could have navigated southward. An airliner like the 777 doesn’t just wing off in random directions like a paper airplane; its Flight Management System would have been following a series of waypoints or a compass heading. Yet its range of possible courses doesn’t seem to match up with any particular heading or waypoint. (The last search area matched up with a flight route that tracked waypoints between the Cocos Islands and Australia, which is likely one of the reasons it seemed so appealing to authorities, but as we now know, that came up empty.)

MH370 looks to be a unique case not just in aviation history. No machine this big, no group of human beings this large, vanished so completely and so mysteriously since the advent of modern technology. What’s more, MH370 didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

The first disappearance, of course, was when it vanished from air traffic controllers’ screens in the early morning hours of March 8, apparently after someone turned off its transponder and automatic status-reporting equipment, and took a hard left turn. Based on the speed and precision of its navigation, the plane almost certainly was under human control.

The second disappearance occurred about an hour later, as the plane slipped beyond the range of military radar. Minutes later, some kind of unknown event caused the plane to transmit a mysterious triple burst of electronic signals to the Inmarsat satellite. At around the same time, the plane took another radical course change, pivoting from a northwest heading toward mainland Asia to a southwestern course that would take it over western Indonesia and out into the open ocean. Based on the slim evidence of subsequent Inmarsat pings, the plane seems to have flown in a simple straight line, so it may not have been under human control at that point.

Then it disappeared a third and final time, this time leaving not a single clue.

What has made the case so difficult to understand isn’t just the scarcity of information concerning its fate, but the superabundance of false clues. In the months that followed the disappearance, I had a front row seat to the flood of bad data as I covered the story for Slate and CNN. Day by day, new developments would come in from sources all around the world, and the challenge was to figure out which would turn out to be erroneous. What to make of reports that the plane had climbed to 45,000 feet after its initial turn, then precipitously dived (faster, it turned out, than the laws of physics would allow)? How excited should we be about the debris that satellites had spotted floating in the southern Indian Ocean (yet never was to be seen again)? How soon before searchers tracked down the sounds coming from the black box acoustic pingers (which turned out not to have come from the black boxes at all)?

The fog of misinformation was made worse by the Malaysian and Australian authorities. Faced with an ever-rising chorus of demands that they explain the search operation, they dragged their heels in releasing basic information, left simple questions unanswered, were slow to correct mistakes, and left huge gaps in the data that they did ultimately release.

The resulting uncertainty created a playground for amateur theorizers of every stripe, from earnest to wackadoodle. MH370 was a supermarket of facts to pick and choose from as one’s pet theory required. And the Internet gave everyone a chance to go viral in an instant. One of the more intriguing scenarios was put forward by Keith Ledgerwood, who posited that the plane had flown north and evaded radar by shadowing a Singapore Airlines flight. (The flight path turned out not to match the Inmarsat data.) Another that got a lot of play was the theory by Christian Goodfellow that the plane’s initial turn had been made because the flight crew was trying to get the burning airplane to an emergency landing in Langkawi, Malaysia. (Burning planes don’t fly for eight hours.)

Vehement passion was, alas, all too common as theories multiplied. I and everyone else who was publicly associated with MH370 was bombarded by emails, tweets, and blog comments offering evidence that solved the mystery once and for all. I soon formed a Pavlovian aversion to the name Tomnod, a crowdsourcing website that parceled out satellite images for the public to pore over. It was remarkable how many clouds, whitecaps, and forest canopies people could mistake for a 777 fuselage, and then proselytize for with deranged fervor. It always baffled me how people could get so attached to their ideas about an incident in which they had no personal stakes.

In time, though, the number of theories circulating has dwindled. With Ledgerwood’s and Goodfellow’s theories debunked, no one has been able to come up with a replacement that fits with what eventually emerged as the canonical set of credible facts. To be sure, there’s still a vast army of believers, waving their Tomnod printouts and furiously typing half-literate emails about ACARS data buses. But each is a lone voice shouting into a sea of skepticism.

Even the small cadre of independent experts who have come together to decipher Inmarsat’s data seem to be at loggerheads. Each has made a tentative stab at interpreting the “raw data” released by the satellite company, but the unanswered questions remain so numerous that the group can’t form a consensus about the plane’s fate. The officials looking for the plane don’t seem to be doing much better; recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal goes even further than the AFP report I cited earlier in portraying a team riven by fundamental differences of opinion as to where it should look.

A hundred days, and counting…

This post was adapted from an earlier version published on

552 thoughts on “The Triple-Disappearing Airplane”

  1. @JS, I followed your conversation with Alex Siew at tmf associates. It was very interesting. While I certainly don’t believe Alex’s early contention, that the plane never moved after an early crash and that the satellite iself produced the BTO’s with it’s movement in the sky, it’s noteworthy nevertheless that the plane’s purported route from 18:25 onwards first northwestwards, then with it’s southern turn, mimics the movement of the satellite. This could simply be a coincidence. Or it could be an indication that the pings were manipulated somehow. We really need an expert’s input, whether this is possible at all, and how difficult it is. If it is possible but requires a high level of sophistication, it could be a hint to possible perpetrators.

  2. Hi Littlefoot, and thanks. I don’t subscribe to Alex’s floating SDU theory, but I admit it can’t be ruled out. I watched on live TV a US Airways plane float down the Hudson for hours, so anything is possible.

    The problem with the coincidences is that there really isn’t a coincidence. The path plotted by the BTOs can be explained by so many different theories. That path becomes more of a “default” than some mystical route.

    For example, those BTOs would be generated by:

    1. MH370 heading towards the SIO on autopilot
    2. A misidentified SDU heading from JED-JNB (which matches BFOs as well)
    3. A misidentified SDU heading in almost any formulaic route – any arc or line (the shape is dependent on speed) (though most of these do not yield BFO matches)
    4. A manually generated (spoofed) signal, whose creator chose the simplest path possible – 180 South – and the hardest place to search.
    5. A misinterpreted satellite log file (logging something other than BTO – you can obtain these BTO values using the satellite position or even the time of day with the right co-efficients.)
    6. A miscalculated BTO prior to logging – such as a sign inversion or a bad co-efficient.
    7. A plane floating for hours requires one of the above as well.
    8. A plane sitting at an airport (also requires one of the above.)

    The reason is pretty simple – any object moving in relation to another object will be approaching, then receding. That motion will create a curved set of points. The only meaning to these points come from the co-efficients – such as the value used as the “nominal terminal.”

    So my conclusion at this point is, well, great, we have 7 points along an arc. We have no data from previous MH370 flights, no data from any other flights under similar satellite positions. We have weak precendents for every one of the scenarios above except the spoofing, but it’s widely admitted that spoofing a signal is within the capabilities of any state actor, and probably any individual who can obtain an SDU.

    I would suggest that they all go back to the drawing board, and just confirm even the most fundamental part of this equation – that a plane causes BTO values to be logged, and those correlate to location. I mean correlate WELL, not just 17 points while the plane was moving around the airport but on some long routes. Maybe even they could publish the real equation instead of the “demo” equation they derived from the airport BTOs.

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