Sense and Nonsense in MH370 Coverage

Search area imaged by Go Phoenix. Courtesy ATSB.

In some ways, the search for MH370 is going exceedingly well this week. The agency leading the search in the Indian Ocean, the Australia Transport Safety Board (ATSB), just released more information concerning technical aspects of the signal data, which will allow the Independent Group and other amateur investigators to refine their analyses of the plane’s final trajectory. The ships scouring the seabed looking for wreckage continue to press forward with their monumental task, and have now completed more than 12,000 square kilometres of the planned search area. And the respected British aviation website,, has published a brand-new analysis by independent investigator Simon Hardy which reinforces the work of the ATSB and the IG.

And yet, this isn’t the news that’s making headlines. What is? Try Googling the word “airliner.” The top return will link you to a theory by author Marc Dugain that was published by Paris Match. Dugain believes that MH370 was taken over by hackers and shot down by the US to prevent the plane from being used in a 9/11-style attack on the base at Diego Garcia. I could try to dismantle this notion methodically but suffice to say that it is as baseless as it is incendiary. Meanwhile, as if resonating to the same frequency of bonkersness, the UK Independent published a story today entitled “Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 theories: 17 possible explanations that could reveal fate of plane,” a compendium of conspiracy theories all of which were disproven long ago.

Why are experiencing this onslaught of MH370 nonsense right now? I think the problem is really two-fold.

On the one hand, we have a mystery that is truly unlike any we’ve ever seen before. Whatever happened on the night of March 7/8, it was truly strange and most likely completely unprecedented. It’s so weird, that at first glance it seems like almost anything could have happened to the plane. So the public, who are unfamiliar with the technical details of the case, find it easy to accept outlandish explanations. With the holidays upon us, a shortage of real news might tempt some editors to hold their noses and throw some click-bait into the breach.

The second part of the problem, frankly, comes from the experts. Very smart and technically savvy individuals can get so caught up in the beauty of their mathematics that they mistake their scaffolding of assumptions for bedrock. In other words, they tend to be overconfident. This spring we heard that the searches were “days or hours” away from finding the accoustic pingers attached to MH370’s black boxes. More recently, we’ve heard that the ATSB is so confident that it will soon find the plane that they have a bottle of Moët on ice. The end result is a disconnect between what the experts are broadcasting (certainty) and what the public is perceiving (a fog). In a fog, it’s hard to know who to trust.

What we have to remember is that theories are hypotheses founded on data. In the case of MH370, the data is extremely sparse, and its provenance less than 100 percent. We should recognize and acknowledge that.

To speak in broad generalities, all we really have to go on in trying to understand the MH370 end game are three main pieces of evidence:

  1. Seven electronic “handshake” clusters. It has proven difficult to make these line up as neatly as one would like (see my post “Why MH370 Search Officials Can’t Agree Where to Look”) but they clearly indicate that the plane flew south a matter of minutes after the SDU was turned back on. Reasonable cases can be made for tracks that end up in the general vicinity of where the current search is underway.
  2. An absence of debris. No physical trace has been found despite a long search operation conducted by airplane, ship, and submersible; nor has anything washed ashore. This is unprecedented in modern air-crash history.
  3. An absence of radar data. Once MH370 disappeared from Malaysian/Thai military radar at 18:22 UTC, it was not detected by any other country’s radar system. Early in the search process this was cited by US sources as evidence that the plane went south, not north.

Given this set of clues, two possibilities exist:

  1. MH370 went down in the southern Indian Ocean near the 7th Arc.
  2. MH370 went somewhere else.

The fact is, neither possibility 1 nor 2 fits easily with all the above evidence. But one of them must be correct. So let’s review.

The first possibility has been exhaustively examined for months by experts around the world, both official and independent. Wiring diagrams, satellite ephemera, weather patterns, aircraft performance tables—it has truly been a humbling experience, to witness the breadth and depth of the information that has been summoned and dissected in the pursuit of understanding this scenario. Whether or not the resulting analyses are correct, they are solidly rooted in the facts of the case. The major strike against the southern scenario is the absence of wreckage; either this problem will be solved by the discovery of wreckage on the bottom, or the problem will intensify.

The second possibility encompasses virtually every other “theory” that has been floated. The reason I put “theory” into quotation marks is that most of these scenarios do not make any serious attempt to grapple with the data at hand. For instance, some individuals believe that MH370 went to Christmas Island, an Australian possession south of Java. In order for it to have arrived there, both the BTO and BFO data sets must be wrong. One can imagine that this might be possible, but it would be an extraordinary technical undertaking. Suffice to say, no one has come up with an explanation of how such a thing could be accomplished. And if it were accomplished, then the plane could be basically anywhere within 6 hours’ flying distance of MH370’s last known position, so why should we choose Christmas Island out of all the other possible destinations? Certainly it is possible that the plane landed on Christmas Island, but assertions to that effect are not built on any known information. They are data-less theories. Dugain’s tale, likewise, is completely detached from known data.

A curious feature of data-less theories is how single-mindedly their proponents defend them. I do not know why someone would find a Christmas Island hypothesis compelling, but those who hold it do so passionately. The same goes with every other data-less theory. I am reminded in particular of Chris Goodfellow’s Hero Pilot Ghostplane theory, in which he describes his moment of insight as a kind of Pauline conversion: “Instinctively when I saw that left turn with a direct heading I knew he was heading for an airport.” This profession of faith was, I think, appealing to many readers. But certainty about one’s theory is a crippling handicap for an investigator trying to get to the bottom of a complex case.

This is not to say that Possibility 2 can be ruled out entirely. But any arguments to be made along these lines must at least acknowledge the facts at hand. I believe this can be done, and have argued at length that a partial-spoof scenario can be made to fit the data quite well. Others disagree—citing, among other things, the lack of radar data to the north—but at least when they do so they are disagreeing about specific technical points. It’s not just a question of gut feeling v gut feeling.

Unfortunately, in the milieu of mainstream media, and even more so amid the rabble of click-bait hungry aggregators, it’s emotion, not reasoning, that earns the most upvotes. The worst-case scenario is that by the time the ocean-bed search winds up in May, no wreckage will have been found, and conjunction with lack of surface debris (which according to ATSB analysis should have washed up on the shores of Indonesia months ago) or any other evidence of a southward path, the public will discount the official analysis entirely, along with the painstaking research and analysis that independent investigators have been working hard on over the last nine months. The unrooted madness of M. Dugain and his ilk will prevail.

Hopefully we’ll find some new hard data before then.

137 thoughts on “Sense and Nonsense in MH370 Coverage”

  1. @Victor

    A related, and I think better, question is who would have recommended ever starting an expensive search in the IG/ATSB recommended locations along the seventh arc?

    Not me, I can assure you of that. Lack of debris alone argues against dispensing those resources anywhere. Now that that are there, it would a be political and economic disaster to call them off. One of the hardest things for anyone to do is to walk away from a sunk cost (no pun intended).

  2. @Dennis: I am not sure of your answer. Do you believe at this point the search should be discontinued? I don’t think you need to consider political costs in your analysis unless you believe that is relevant to making the proper decision.

  3. @Victor

    Just to be clear, my considered answer to your question is no. A number of factors contribute to that response, and yes, politics is one of them. The other is that I cannot think of anything better to do at the moment.

    While the SIO is plausible, it hinges entirely on an assumption that is very questionable. I won’t bother to repeat it, but without making that assumption you have nothing despite the adamant “data driven” claims to the contrary.

    There is no “secret sauce” here. You and I both know that the calculations required to estimate a location are relatively trivial, and extremely sensitive to BFO which is not well bounded. I risk provoking a BFO manifesto with that last statement.

  4. Dennis:

    Victor is too soft.

    Like your tech friends, I too have decades of relevant professional experience. I’ve used all the navigation systems you named and several more. I’ve used them for navigation and tracking on cars, trucks, airplanes, ships and spacecraft. I led the team that flew the first 3 GPS radio-occultation experiments, 1 on Microlab-1, and 2 on Shuttle/Wakeshield missions. Neat stuff…measuring the speed of a spacecraft to 100 Å/sec. I’ve also used relatively crude sun angle/magnetometer/HF systems for global tracking of super-pressure balloons and ULF Omega to derive winds from balloons and drop-sondes. In addition to using these systems, I was the principle designer of a number of products that used these systems.

    I was also intimately involved with development of the commercial mobile satellite industry, having founded Skylink Corporation and co-founding American Mobile Satellite Corporation (AMSC), both early Inmarsat competitors. AMSC launched its first L band mobile satellite in 1995.

    So, it is not without some experience and knowledge that I come to the conclusion that the BTO and BFO data are valid, accurate and by far, the most important evidence we have. I suspect your tech friends are simply uninformed.

  5. @Dennis: Thank you for your candid statement that at this point, you recommend the search continues. And yes, I heard and understand your reservations about the credibility of the satellite data.

    Any other takers?

  6. Airlandseaman,

    I never doubted your qualifications and certainly never doubted your passion. I did not intend to imply “my friends are more qualified than your friends”. As I recall you (or someone on the IG first brought up the qualification topic as part of some wounded eagle sidebar). No matter, I respect your opinions, but that does not mean they are beyond question or reproach. That is how progress is made.

    I don’t think Victor is too soft or that I am too hard. We both have our own way of expressing ourselves, and I can assure you that I am in the listening mode when anyone who is a part of the IG has something to say. If I ruffled your feathers along the way, I am sorry about that, but it would be pointless to pick and chose my words in an attempt to skate around my precise intent. Vague and ambiguous is never a good thing. Carry on, but know that anything you do publish will not be ignored, and will be carefully scrutinized. You should take that as a compliment.

  7. “Indonesia has one of the most sophisticated search-and-rescue capabilities among Asian nations, in part because of its experience with past aircraft and ferry accidents and a tricky geographic terrain that comprises about 18,000 islands, according to experts.

    ‘Indonesia actually has unmanned sea vehicles that can navigate though rough seas as well, said Mark Martin of Martin Consulting, an independent aviation advisory firm. ‘If the aircraft went down, I’m certain that it would be traced quickly and rescue efforts should be successful.’

    Mr. Martin said he expects that the plane’s crew would have been familiar flying on the route and that for them, navigating around weather would be “pretty standard.”

  8. Victor – Inmarsat, ATSB ,IG, crunchers in general, have carried a kind of certainty with them regarding the resting place of the plane – I won’t go for the quotes at this time – so what’s happened here? At a glance it seemed to me that something DEEPLY sinister had occurred, but some still treat it as a simple crash, and I can only assume they are uncomfortable with the effect of criminal activity on their calculations. Airlandseaman likes to underplay the idea that someone switched the SDU back on being an example. The search was a roll of the dice from the beginning and one that the public would expect to be made, but they may regret not tempering their words a bit. They were convinced, but a bit less now?

    Any takers on the Margaret River red???

  9. @Matty: I can only speak for myself. I have consistently said that scenarios can only be subjectively ranked by relative probabilities and I have always been suspicious of something sinister, e.g., my scenario that includes a landing at Banda Aceh. That said, I still believe that the current search zone in the SIO has the highest probability of being the end point of the flight based on what we know at this time.

    Even if the current search zone yields nothing, I am comfortable with my recommendation because it was based on what I believed was the best interpretation of the data at that time.

    As I have said before, it seems people here do not understand the difference between saying a scenario is the most likely and saying it is likely. Having confidence that a scenario is the most likely based on the data at hand does not equate to confidence that the scenario is likely. Perhaps that is the source of confusion.

    Can you imagine the public outcry if the search in the SIO was not undertaken because of the uncertainty in the data and the predictive models? The IG has attempted to extract every little morsel of information there is in the sparse data we have to maximize the probability of success of the search.

    I am still waiting for anybody here to recommend that the search in the current zone be discontinued.

  10. Until new data connecting MH370 at IGARI strongly shows how it got to the turn south ; I am only at a 50/50 chance it’s anywhere in the SIO. Need more data or a fresh look at what the data means ..

  11. Matty: I agree with you re the location science not informing the potentially more sinister side of things; you, me mad others have been arguing this very point for months.

    But if you tease out the location science from the other subjective elements while continuing to hold both, perhaps we can perceive that we have a rather reasonably informed idea as to the location for the debris, while we have an investigation into the more sinister side of things that is a bit more difficult to locate.

    If the location science analysis yields nil, then the screws will really fall out of the thing. I believe (hope?) that in addition to a plethora of new theories, we will also see pressure being brought upon the investigating authority (Malaysia) by the ICAO and the international community for answers from the subjective/criminal/sinister side of things.

    As for those focused solely on the location science, absent the pressure being brought to bear upon the Malaysians, their scientific/technical/borderline scientism perspective holds the best chance of locating the debris and thus advancing the overall investigation in this moment. They can focus on one ball, while some of us here can carry both and keep prodding for more in the subjective domain. Meanwhile, we maintain a place hold on your general cynicism regarding the data set and it’s analysis.

  12. @Rand

    As the saying goes – when you are a carpenter, the whole world looks like a nail. So it is with analysts.

  13. @Nihonmama

    QZ8501 will be resolved quickly. The issue was almost certainly pilot error resulting in a high altitude stall. Similar to Air France 447. The searchers no where to look and the evidence in this case, relative to what happened, is fairly clear early on.

  14. @Victor: as recently as mid-December, I was (in this forum) voicing support for continuing to search the 7th arc (just further west, out to E84).

    But I grow increasingly concerned about letting the current members of the JIT continue to hold the reins. I think we should seriously consider calling for the search to be suspended until such time as its members emerge from the shadows, and ACCOUNT FULLY for their conduct – with failure to do so precipitating a DRAMATIC change in investigative leadership, perhaps under the authority and direction of the UN.

    By next week, I believe all three search ships will be either in or approaching port. This might be a good time to apply pressure.

    Especially in light of this weekend’s events. I don’t claim any connection, but I think I speak for many in expressing – not out of love of conspiracies, but out of disdain for coincidences – grave concerns.

  15. CosmicAcademy –

    Re Greg Sheridan, Malaysian terrorism – I would be quite sure that Sheridan has a good spread of contacts in the region and there would be plenty of parallels with Malaysia/Indonesia. A former PM of theirs, Dr Mahatir Mohamed was a vitriolic, angry, snarly, antagonistic horrible little shit for years towards anyone he chose, and that was anyone in the region who was not Asian. He definitely had a grudge with Australia, and anything from their own colonial past could set him off. In essence, he was hate filled, and had some inflammatory things to say after 9/11 along with a lot of other people in Malaysia. And he was the PM for a long time and he represents an element of that population. He comments pretty regularly about MH370.

  16. @Dennis W; You said, “QZ8501 will be resolved quickly. The issue was almost certainly pilot error resulting in a high altitude stall. Similar to Air France 447. The searchers no where to look and the evidence in this case, relative to what happened, is fairly clear early on.”

    Your conclusion may be right, but I think it is too early say anything about this incident with “almost certainty”. After all, at this point, after two days of searching in an accessible location, no debris has been found.

    If we have learned anything from #MH370, it is the importance that authorities release the unredacted versions of the primary radar, ADS-B, ATC communications, and ACARS data.

  17. @Victor

    Fair enough, but I feel pretty good about this one.

    In this case, I don’t think releasing any data to the general public makes much sense. It should be used to direct the search locally. If nothing is found in a week or two, perhaps broaden the audience. I don’t find any parallel between QZ8501 and MH370.

  18. @Dennis W: Transparency equates to credibility. In my mind, the credibility of authorities is not high after the incorrect data initially released by Malaysia relative to MH370. Even if debris is found soon, the circumstances surrounding the crash need to be verified by independent parties. The only way to do this is with the raw data.

  19. @Victor

    Yes, I agree, but the data of interest in that regard will be in the black boxes which will hopefully be recovered. I don’t see anything relative to QZ8501 that sounds any alarm bells for me. At least, not yet.

  20. @DennisW:

    Having seen much certitude and hypothesis expressed as fact (or ‘evidence’ of) the last 8-9 months, hopefully you’ll understand why I’m inclined to wait until QZ8501 is actually found.

  21. If anyone is still intent on whipping the Maldives dead horse:
    I had earlier posted whatever pictures of the fire extinguisher which were available. It is probably buried deep in the Maldivian police files, but surely the pictures might mean something. A part of a serial number can be seen in one of the pictures.
    Someone else on this group pointed out that what the Maldivian villagers saw was something which looked like MH 370 but was something else. The name of Sri Lanka’s Expo Air was mentioned as it was known to carry freight between Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Everything you need to know about it is given below. The name was changed to FITS Air some years ago.

    It can be seen that they have a DC-8 and a MD-82 with thin rd and blue stripes. Could that have been what they saw? Have a look and decide.

    Here are some other pictures of their aircraft: and

  22. @Nihonmama

    🙂 You are right, of course. Early speculation is frequently punished. I’ll wait with you.

  23. @Nihonmama – great post.

    What I find fascinating is that despite not having found a wreckage of QZ8501, folks are declaring it “nothing like MH370.”

    I understand that this plane disappeared over shallow water. But, in a sense, so did MH370. It may have subsequently gone over deeper water in the SIO, but its original deviation occurred over shallow water. So far, the only concrete difference is the lack of seven hours of satellite pings. Hopefully, nobody is saying that the lack of Indonesian radar sighting proves it didn’t leave the area, right?

    So I just don’t see why these politicians are so quick to say that it’s nothing like MH370. What’s the agenda here? How does this make anyone look good, even if it turns out to be right?

  24. @DennisW:

    Glad to hear I’ll have company. 😉


    “So I just don’t see why these politicians are so quick to say that it’s nothing like MH370. What’s the agenda here?”

    Great question.

    This may interest:

    And this by @gerry_vienna:

    “FR24 ADS-B receivers there.Radar ID “T-EST2″ also indicates that (EST=estimated).CNN needs to be told.

    Unless it also took a sharp left bend towds the SIO I expect it to be anywhere betw 0-100km of last pos.”

  25. Hello All & Jeff….it’s been awhile & I changed addresses again.

    Here’s a good link for Aircraft junkies.

    It shows the track with weather conditions as well for QZ8501.

    Other than bailing out of Iran in Feb., 1979. I landed during a storm @ DFW just five years after the wind shear incident. We already had the landing gear down on approach, then had to pull up & go around, then tried again with success but, geez. I thought the pilot was going to go to Ft.Worth, or Austin maybe….

    Musta been an ex Navy pilot.

  26. I’ll keep an ear on the news today but I’m having the occasional – surely not – moment waiting for wreckage to show up. No distress call, no beacon, and anyone who ever flew has been diverted because of weather. Of concern would be that it should have been an open and shutter, and bits of junk are being spotted/disregarded up to 1100 km away.

  27. Sadly enough….I think finding flight QZ8501 on 12-30 with debris field and….bodies, proves that “The System” search & rescue / mobilization efforts all work just fine. Which otherwise proves that, this was no 8-hour “accident”, but a well planned & coordinated effort with many months & scenarios practiced on a simulator, conspired for whatever personal reasons or political reasons, conceived one of, if not the greatest aviation mysteries of all time.

  28. Jeff, you toss around words like “baseless”, “madness’ and “bonkers” with regards to the Diego Garcia theory, but you don’t attempt to refute it in a rational way.Now, I’m totally agnostic about the Diego Garcia notion, yet I don’t find the rest of your speculations any more compelling. I suspect you dismiss it out of hand because you’ve decided that it’s simply “unthinkable” – just as many people close their eyes and go la la la when shown the videos of three impeccable controlled demolitions at the WTC site. “They would never lie to us!”

  29. @ Anton —

    I can’t speak for Jeff, but for me, the problem with the DG theory is that it doesn’t fit with the 7 Inmarsat BTO “rings”. I take those readings to be bona fide, unadulterated data.

    The BFO data’s unprecedented use in location-speed-altitude analysis (I believe), is questionable. However, mainstream and IG analysts give it credence…so what do I know?

    The DG scenario fails the BTO test, though…and that is tough to get around. Jeff’s scenario passes the BTO test.

    To address your concern about authorities lying, I say “sure they can…and have done so before.” That said, this type of accusation can become a slippery slope as pretty much everything you have ever seen, heard or smelled can ultimately be redefined as a lie. If “anything is possible”, then maybe aliens are just controlling all of your experiences in an alternative reality. Matrix, maybe?

    To be honest, I have looked at the Westward (DG) and Eastward (back across the Malacca Straits) theories and just can’t make them work. The Southern theory is the easiest…yet there is no trace there. The problem with the Northern route is that it requires flying over land where there are many known radars and where tensions are high between countries.

    So a south-then-east theory or a north-then-east theory still have some possibilities…if one respects the validity of the BTO data.

    Whatever. I guess this is why this whole thing is called a mystery, no?

  30. Sattelite data are correct. People in general like to consume fast and easy news and when they are encountered with a mystery like MH370 they will throw every wild story around. IMO this is not respectable, atleast to those who lost their lives onboard the plane.

    People need to be a bit more patient,respectful and engage in science instead useless theories.

  31. Has any one gone back to the coordinates of the last radar sighting and started an intensive search along the Indonesian coast?

  32. I found your thesis very interesting Jeff. Thank you for your painstaking efforts. I know from experience it is not easy going against the prevailing view.

    Accepting the premise, having someone get into the E/E bay unnoticed seems to me the riskiest part of the scenario you suggest. It was not clear to me how much of that aspect of the hi-jack could have been automated. Could the de-oxygenation and ARINC ‘re-routing’ have been accomplished entirely with a piece of electronics, triggered perhaps remotely (eg by mister ‘quick-eyes’) – i.e. without someone having to manually open and close circuit breakers? If so, my focus would be on how such a piece of rogue electronics could have been installed whilst the plane was on the ground.

    Another question: if I understood correctly, the Honeywell device compensates for doppler shift not just by adjusting the carrier frequency, but also by adjusting the orientation of the antenna. For a fake signal – due South rather then due North – it seems the antenna would not be optimally oriented with respect to the satellite. Is that so? What record might a weak signal have left? (Error rate, time to complete handshake, … )?

  33. @michael ibison, Yes, the SDU uses position/velocity data to both adjust the frequency and to point the antenna. For my theory to work, the spoofing electronics would have to send erroneous velocity values, but correct location/heading values — or else, location/heading values that would result in the antenna being pointed in more or less the right direction. If this in fact is what happened, the scheme may not have worked perfectly; one expert who looked carefully at the Inmarsat data reports that the reason that the the three phone calls failed to go through was that the necessary channel could not connect at the necessary data rate.

  34. Jeff, I enjoyed your book and interesting thesis. I have two questions on the facts of the matter that I was hoping you could answer:

    1) In your book you mention the possibility of overlapping coverage of a 2nd Inmarsat satellite. Were you ever provided with concrete evidence that the second sat was not capable of interfacing with the plane?

    2) There was rumor of a “mysterious” cargo palette on board – was that determined to be bogus information?

  35. Hi Jeff
    I find this all very fascinating extremely sad but fascinating. When the plane first disappeared I found myself telling people that it had crashed in a Forrest people think I’m crazy ( probably right) but I’m sure there must be dense forests that the plane few over?
    Regards Ros

  36. Few things need to happen.
    As I have recommended to Current Govt of Malaysia to hold a Royal Commission enquiries into MH370 to find the real truth. Coz I do not trust what previous Regime bull been put out there.

    Secondly – there is two MH370 and this is a real fact, so in my view, real one fall down at gulf of Thailand through accident? and other one keep flying or in lame term bait and switch. and don’t be surprised everything was planned in advance by sick few. we will find it…

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