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.
LANDING IN BANDA ACEH
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.
THE SUICIDE SCENARIO
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.