What Could Have Happened to MH370?

MH021 estimated track
source: Australian Transportation Safety Board

It’s been two months since I last posted about MH370, so I think I’m overdue for an update. The big news that’s happened in the meantime is that on June 26th, the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) released a report that laid out in admirable detail what the authorities felt they knew about the circumstance of MH370’s disappearance and how they had come to narrow down its likely location to the current search area. We now have a much clearer understanding of just what Inmarsat’s data reveals about the last four hours of the flight.

In the report, the ATSB explains that sometime after the plane vanished from radar screens at 18:22 GMT, whoever was in control  most likely became incapacitated and the plane flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the depths of the Indian Ocean some time after 0:19 GMT. Its impact point, according to the ATSB’s calculations, was most likely somewhere in a region 1,000 miles off the coast of Western Australia.

As you’ll notice, that last sentence is extremely vague. The reason is that, as we now understand, the data is incapable of telling where the plane went with any degree of certainty. That is to say, you cannot recreate the airplane’s flight path using Inmarsat data alone. This is kind of a shocker, because for months now, Inmarsat has been telling the public that their mathematical wizardry had allowed them essentially to solve for the plane’s final location. This turns out to be false. For any given flight path, we can now calculate the expected BTO and BFO values; but given a set of BFO and BTO values, we cannot derive a unique flight path.

Take a look at the route chart at the top of this post, which comes from page 31 of the ATSB report. It shows the actual path of a Malaysia Airline jet that flew on the same day at MH370, as well as an “estimated” path generated from the BFO and BTO data recorded from that same airpline. If you’re like me, when you first saw this chart, you assumed that Inmarsat had decoded the BFO and BTO data so thoroughly that they could generate specific flight paths like this one. Give them BFO and BTO data, and they could draw you a line on the map; no wonder they say they know exactly where to spend $56 million scouring the sea bed. But if you read the accompanying text, what it says is: “Using only the starting location and an equivalent number, and approximate time spacing, of BFO and BTO values as the accident flight, predicted paths were created and compared against the actual flight paths.” Reading between the lines, the ATSB was able to generate not just the route illustrated here, but dozens or possibly hundreds, and chose this one as the most promising for MH021.

There’s another disappointing realization embedded in the ATSB report. Many have long assumed that before its final straight leg to the south, the plane made a single turn from its northwest heading. However, as the ATSB report makes clear, the data that Inmarsat received from MH370 does not actually allow such a simple scenario. If the plane flew straight on its final leg, then between 18:22, when the plane vanished from above the Malacca Strait, and 19:41, when the first “handshake” ping was detected, the plane would have had to have taken a long time to fly a short distance, as the chart from the Independent Group experts illustrates:












In order to fit all the data points, then, the plane would have to have loitered near the Malacca Strait for the better part of an hour before heading south. It could have flown around in circles, or it could have landed somewhere, waited, and then taken off again. Or, alternatively, the plane didn’t loiter, and did take a single leftward turn — but then, instead of flying straight, followed a curving path during its final hours. Either way, rather than a simple turn and straight-ahead run, “The data suggests that a more complicated path was followed, which may have included changes in speed, direction, and altitude,” as  Victor Iannello puts it.

In short, whatever happened to MH370 had to be more complex, and more puzzling, than the scenario that the authorities initially expected. All of which makes it harder to come up with a convincing explanation for what might have happened aboard the missing airliner that night.

Given all that, I think it’s an appropriate time to recognize that we’ve wrung out everything we can from the data on hand, and see what we can make of it. So I’d like to throw open the doors. Do you have theories that you’ve been cooking up about MH370 that you’d like to share with the world? If so, feel free to let loose in the comments section. Or if your ideas require more space, write it up your theory in whatever form you like and shoot me a note via email form on this website. If it’s fit for human consumption I’ll give it a page and link to it from here.

I’ve already started compiling scenarios, and here’s what I’ve gotten so far. In each case, clicking on the headline will take you to a separate page devoted to that theory. You can comment about each one either on its page or here. And if you’ve got your own (reasonably non-insane) theory you’d like to put out there, just let me know.

Victor has come up with a scenario to explain the mysterious loitering that seems to have occurred between 18:29 and 19:40, based on our understanding of the BFO and BTO data.

Kent Smerdon, a 767 pilot, has come up with a very detailed description of how a suicidally minded captain might have made his airliner permanently disappear.

103 thoughts on “What Could Have Happened to MH370?”

  1. I am inclined to believe this theory of how mh370 did loiter around.
    Also, the incidences Mike McKay, the oil rig worker claiming to see the plane on fire, is in line with the Vietnam Navy saying the plane crashed off Toh Chu islands.
    In addition, there is no radar data from the Indonesian of MH370, while the Butterworth Military data is suspect, which in turn raises other questions.

  2. I searched for flight 370 for days utilizing TOMNOD. I am still sure of what I found in an area of jungle. I am aware of the false alarm when some man thought he had found it in the jungle. Perhaps that is why no one responded to my queries. I saw a large panel of a jetliner containing a row of window seats. It was white with stripes. Pristine white no burns. It was as though it had just floated down and landed there. No vines covered the panel indicating it’s recent placement there. There were a couple of very dark round objects that appeared as huts not so far away, but no people
    My husband was Air Force and I’ve seen many aircraft and as a biologist, photographer, artist, I believe my observational skills are more than adequate. My number is 903-694-9330 and I do not have a messaging system. I do hope you still monitor this.
    Cindy L.

  3. I find it hard to believe that the training necessary to take this plane between radars, turn off all communications and steal away missing all aviation radars went to waste in a crash in the sea. More likely I think is that the plane was stolen, flown into Jihadi country on the northern route and safely landed. This of course means that the mystery of 370 is a very successful act of air piracy, the passengers were murdered and a plane worth maybe $200 million which could be used for clandestine attack had been secured. Worse it means that the air pirates are still out there. I can certainly understand why dropping the whole incident in the bottom of the ocean would be preferable.

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