What Was Going On at Yubileyniy?

1 - Yubileyniy overview 2012 smallAs readers of this blog or my Kindle Single (or, now, New York magazine) know, I’m intrigued by the possibility that MH370 might have been hijacked and flown north to the Yubileyniy Aerodrome within the Baikonur Cosmodrome. If so, it would have come to rest on the specially-milled concrete at approximately an hour and a half before sunrise on Sunday, March 8. And then what? If it stayed where it was, it would have been easy to spot by land-imaging satellites overhead. To avoid detection, it would have to have either refueled and taken off again, or found some kind of shelter.

As it happens, the Kazakh steppe is a terrible place to hide a 210-foot long, 60-foot-high airplane. The flat, desert plain is sparsely populated and almost featureless, so that anything large and unusual is apt to stand out. There is no natural canopy of trees to shelter under. Though there are large buildings at the cosmodrome where space vehicles are serviced, there are no large structures near Yubileyniy.

After I began developing my “Spoof” hypthesis I spent days scouring first Google Earth, then free commercial satellite imagery looking for any hint that a plane could have been stashed in the vicinity. The pickings were slim. The Yubileyniy complex was built in the ‘80s as the landing site for the Buran space plane, and after the program was cancelled in 1989 it has largely sat disused. Occasionally the runway is used by planes carrying inbound VIPs and cosmonauts, but otherwise nothing has really happened there in decades. An overview of the area is depicted above.

The dark, fishhook-shaped line is the rail line connecting the airstrip to the rest of the Baikonur complex. Alongside it is a road from which a series of driveways lead off to the north. One of them leads to an isolated six-story building that stands surrounded by debris, berms, and trenches. I came to think of the area as Yubileyniy North. Here’s what it looked like in 2006 (click on images to enlarge):

2 - Yubileyniy North 2006

As you can see, the area is desert, where vehicle tracks persist for many years. The six-story building casts a dark, short shadow to the northwest — the sun is nearly overhead. The road from the airstrip comes up from the bottom of the frame and curves to the right. Here and there rectangular patches of debris suggest where buildings once stood. Essentially, it’s a ruin. Here’s the same area, six years later:

3 - Yubileyniy North 2012

Not much has changed. The sun is lower in the sky, so the six-story building’s shadow is longer. But nothing seems to have changed at all. The entire area of Yubileyniy is like this—the place seems have been left to slowly crumble in the desert sun for decades. There’s nowhere to stash a 777. On the other hand, the most recent imagery viewable here in Google Earth comes from 2012. Perhaps something has happened since then? I didn’t know anything about what kind of imagery is available from commercial sources, but I set out to learn. Before long I came upon a company called Terraserver, which lets you view high-resolution satellite imagery for free. I used it to scope around the general area of the Yubileyniy complex, and here’s what I found in an image of Yubileyniy North from October 31, 2013:

4 - Oct 31 2013 small

Suddenly, things are happening. A number of trucks are lined up in the parking lot in the upper-right part of the image. The six-story building is being disassembled. And what looks like a large rectangle of dirt has been bulldozed to the left of the building. The image resolution is so good that you can make out what I take to be the stripes left by the bulldozer blade as it worked back and forth horizontally. At the northern end of the rectangle is a berm which casts a shadow to the north. At the far northeastern corner lies what appears to be a trench with a well-defined corner on the upper right, with treadmarks leading out of it toward the southeast. I’m not sure what this dirt rectangle represents — are they building a pile of dirt, or a hole? — but what really gets my attention is the size of the thing. To give you a sense of scale, I’ve superimposed an equivalently proportioned 777 silhouette onto the image:

5 - Oct 31 w 777

This struck me as interesting, to say the least. Naturally, I wondered what happened next. Fortunately, Terraserver had one more image that I could browse for free. This next one was taken on April 26, 2014:

11 - Apr 26 2014 small

Holy cow. All traces of both the building and the dirt rectangle have been erased. Various debris piles have been swept away, too. At first I thought that maybe the image had been digitally scrubbed, but if you look closely you can easily make out individual pieces of junk in between the cleared areas. So my interpretation is that the site was actually cleared and swept up.
So here’s the situation: nothing happens at Yubileyniy for decades; then, four months before MH370 disappears, the Russians start building a 777-sized something-or-other a mile and a half from a giant disused airstrip. Then, a month after the plane disappears, the area looks like it’s been erased.
What had happened in the meantime? To find out, I had to shell out cash from my own pocket to buy imagery from the main commercial satellite imagery provider, Digital Globe, via one of its resellers—in this case, a company called Apollo Mapping. The cash drain was painful, but at this point I was very far down the rabbit hole. Here’s what Yubileyniy North looked like on December 17, 2013:

6 - Dec 17 2013

The sun is low on the snow-dusted steppe; it’s almost winter. In a month and a half, workers have removed all but the bottom-most floors of the six-story building. You can make out the shadow of a crane projecting to the north from the middle of the remaining structure. A handful of trucks can still be seen in the parking lot. The dirt pile has been extended a few yards to the north; the berm at that end now overlies the what we saw as the sharp corner of the trench in the October image. Beyond the berm lies either a dark strip that could either be a long trench or just a shadow; to my eye the line of brightness at its northern edge implies the lip of a trench, but who knows. Work is clearly continuing. The next image, in black and white, is from three weeks later, January 9, 2014:

7 - Jan 9 2014

Now winter is in full effect. Snow blankets the entire region, and cold has descended: in the four days before this picture was taken, the temperature fluctuated between -15F and +14F. The disruption of the snow cover shows that work is very much underway. The building seems to be down to its last story. Trucks can be seen in the parking lot. I’m not sure what to make of the northern end of the rectangle; two dark strips are visible, perhaps one of them is a trench and the other is the shadow of a berm. Unforunately the resolution is not very good because the image was taken at a fairly low angle. The fact that work is continuing under such harsh conditions suggests a sense of urgency, to my mind; or perhaps these are simply hardy mofos. By the time the next image is taken, nearly two months have passed.

8 - Mar 2 2014

In this black-and-white image, the building has been completely dismantled and the dirt rectangle bulldozed flat. No berm remains at the northern end. Horizontal bulldozer tracks are still visible. The dark dirt is framed with a lighter border, suggesting perhaps a snowy slope. No trucks are visible, suggesting that the work crew has moved on. A color image taken four days later looks almost identical:

9 - Mar 6 2014

This image was taken two days before MH370 disappeared, on March 6. The next one was taken eight days after, on March 16:

10 - Mar 16 2014

When I first saw this picture, my heart leapt. The two scenes, taken just before and after the disappearance, looked so different that I was certain that something significant had occurred in the interim. Perhaps what was a rectangular depression in the March 6 image has now been filled in with sand (along with maybe, oh, who knows, a plane?).
I began pricing out tickets to Kazakhstan and searching the internet for advice on detecting large buried things with metal detectors. I located a Russian from St. Petersburg who’d made a gonzo two-day bike trek across the steppe to reach the Yubileyniy strip and sought his advice on how to get to the area without permission; he told me that he’d camped out at the airstrip overnight without anybody noticing him but then had tried to visit a busier part of the cosmodrome and gotten arrested. After he told them he was just scouting around because he was a huge fan of the Buran project, they let him go. I figured that if I was more careful I had a good chance of making it in and back.
But then I looked more closely, and examined the weather records. It just so happened that during this time interval spring fell on Baikonur like a hammer. On March 6, the temperature had only just peeked above freezing, by the 16th the daily highs had been in the 40s for the better part of a week. The thaw has completely changed the color palette. Everything that was covered in snow, and hence lighter colored, is now sodden and hence darker colored. White plains of snow are now damp brown sand. The darker earth of the rectangle is now drier and lighter-colored. After staring at these images for many hours I concluded that the most likely interpretation is that nothing has changed except for a temperature change.
And so we wind up back at our April 26 image:

11 - Apr 26 2014 small

By now the desert has returned to its normal dried-out state. The cluttered jumble seen over the winter has been replaced by almost featureless swatches of tan. A vehicle track overlies the northernmost part of the dirt rectangle, its borders now smudged and indeterminate.
I showed some of these images to construction experts and satellite imagery professionals, and received very little encouragement. Most likely, they told me, the work being performed was site remediation: a building was torn down, and construction debris thrown in a trench and covered up. As successive trenches are dug and filled in, a rectangular shape is formed. Simple as that.
And yet: the entire cosmodrome is littered with decades of abandoned equipment and derelict buildings, evincing a constitutional lack of interest in the concept of remediation. There is no commercial or residential activity for miles of Yubileyniy. Why, after decades, did the Russians suddenly need to clear this one lonely spot, in the heart of a frigid winter, finishing just before MH370 disappeared? And why is it that the greater part of the dirt rectangle was already laid out in the Oct 31 image, before the building was substantially demolished?
I don’t know. I tried to reach out to people who might know, but had no luck, and eventually I had to turn my attention to projects that might earn me some money. But I’d love to find out. If any readers have any special insight, I’d love to hear it.

UPDATE 4/3/2106: Since I wrote the above, Google Earth has added a new high-quality image of the site, taken October, 12, 2014. It gives a different impression from the last image–it doesn’t look any longer like the dirt was swept flat, like someone trying to cover their tracks.

October 2014

619 thoughts on “What Was Going On at Yubileyniy?”

  1. @Rich, These are excellent points, which others have raised. To clarify, I do not think there is compelling evidence that MH370 was buried in this feature — on contrary, there are many reasons not to think so. But I am perplexed by the dimensions and timing of this work and am curious to know why it was done.

  2. @jeffwise. Thanks Jeff.
    Certainly Russia has been involved in some highly questionable behavior lately what with the Crimean Invasion…sorry, I mean ‘Liberation’ and the downing of Flight MH17 by almost certainly Russian or Russian-backed forces…sorry, I mean ‘Ukrainian terrorists’, so I guess it would come as no surprise really if it was revealed that Russia has played some part in the disappearance of MH370.

    Also it’s a strange coincidence that the two worst airline disasters in recent history both fell on Malaysian Airlines? Weren’t they suffering major financial problems at the time?

  3. @Rich, Not only a Malaysia Airlines plane but a 777, which they started the year with only 15 of. The more I think about it, the more implausible I find the excuse that rebels shot down MH17 by accident. The Russian military is not going to just give away this kind of sophisticated missile system to just anyone who asks for one; they were and are running the operation in Donetsk and so had command responsibility for the launcher and the troops operating it.
    If they deliberately shot down a Malaysia Airlines 777 — as I believe they did — it seems to me basically case closed on who bears responsibility for MH370.

  4. @jeffwise. Indeed, considering the 777 has a good safety record it seems improbable (although not impossible) that ‘natural causes’ brought down MH370. The unusual flight path in either direction suggests something untoward had happened not long after take-off.
    I also read that there may have been elements of the Russian armed forces operating a ‘False Flag’ exercise with the objective of downing a Russian commercial liner and then using that as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Seems that backfired although it didn’t stop the annexation of Crimea…

  5. @jeffwise – I appreciate you sticking your neck out there and printing an interesting hypothesis. Consequently, you have taken some serious flak and handled legitimate criticism gracefully.

    I am a high school science teacher and this has been a great source of material for the classroom. Especially when it comes to finding and evaluating evidence, inference, and correlation. After months of armchair investigation, I have these lingering thoughts/questions:

    1. Above all else, many people have died and their families grieve. We mustn’t forget that.

    2. The dirt rectangle at Baikonur is curious in the timing of its creation and its location along the possible trajectory.

    3. Russia and Ukraine being elusive about the nature of their three passengers is suspect.

    4. While human technology has made the world a smaller place, the oceans are still vast and deep, especially the SIO.

    5. This is a riveting puzzle. The human mind loves puzzles. The most diligent will continue to work and ponder even when it seems like it’s a dead end. Less dedicated minds will jump to and latch onto conclusions .

    6. I applaud the vigorous discussion among dedicated brains here.

  6. Thanks, Joe. You raise some good points. The ocean is indeed vast, but once the authorities finish searching the area where the data suggests it should have gone, I think more and more people will be open to the idea that it isn’t there.

  7. This is an interesting hypothesis which has been virtually ignored by the main stream press and all governmental authorities.

    My biggest doubt arises from the question–If this be true, where are the passengers and crew of the airline? buried with the plane? Further, what conceivable interest would the Russians have in doing this? I do not see any link with Mh 317. I think that plane was shot down by some right wing Ukrainian provocateurs.

  8. I have been intrigued/obsessed with the missing flight (and still am)… I have no facts to back up anything… I try to just use as much common sense as I can… I have believed sense the first week that the plane was NOT in the ocean… debris… ANY debris would have been found… the theory it was like a diver and went almost straight in head first and did not break up is almost weak to impossible… yet there are so many countries to have flown over to that would have needed to be in on this to validate a landing where you suggest… but yet your theory makes more sense than anything out there… was there someone that important or dangerous that all became involved? no idea… all I know is in my mind I feel 99% sure this plane did NOT crash in the water… and it all has to do with the fact there has never been any debris found… its just too logical to not be accurate… as each day passes the reality of “out of sight, out of mind” makes our chances of ever knowing much more likely…

  9. Has anybody asked the Inmarsat analysts whether someone from outside visited them and suggested that they look at the BFO and BTO ? I would be interested to know if someone whispered in their ears.

  10. Jeff – Theory seems plausible. Agree that the Russians never seem to dismantle anything they abandon, just leave it there – so unless the building was contaminated with something, they’d just let it rust.
    But – why a 777 ? Aeroflot has a few 777-300ERs, the Malaysian jet was a 777-200. Did you ever consider that the key was in the cargo onboard ? Rumors about lithium-ion batteries, maybe but what if it were something more valuable ? Surely, the Russians have a source of Li-ion batteries….

  11. Two other considerations in support of this theory: MAS370 turned off its transponder and then shadowed another airliner enroute to perhaps Amsterdam or Frankfurt etc. The captain flew often and knew all of the numerous departures during that time. Their destinations and paths are on flightaware.com and do pass somewhat along the Inmarsat arc. A 777 a thousand feet below another 777 or 747 would have no problem maintaining speed or altitude and appear as only one target on ATC or military radars, especially with the same flight plan set into the Flight Management System. Routes would have been available to the captain or F/O if they were flown by MAS. Even easier to do if you own a flight simulator like the captain did.
    Second: in the 777-300, there is a crew rest access door that goes to the crew area in the ceiling above that seating area. There is a door with stairway where one of the inboard lavatories is not shown on the seating chart. The 2 Ukranians that you reference in the NY magazine article sat very near that door (if there was one on the 777-200). Since the satcom antenna is on the upper part of the a/c, presumably removing a cabin interior panel would reveal maintenance access to the satcom antenna, wiring and antenna electronics.

  12. Jeff, over last months I enjoyed your analysis and scenarios. The key question I have with this scenario is why the russians should take such a huge risk to hide the mh370 in the dessert of Kazakstan. What is than the russian motive that makes such a risk acceptable? It is clear that the mh370 is not an accident as all causations for an cause of an accident fail. Taking a plane to get clocking knowledge which was on board has a low probability, as it is very likely most passengers and crew died when the plane flew on high altidude. So if it is not the plane and crew, it is more likely the cargo which is the motive. In that case, the cargo list does not indicate cargo which should have russian or criminal interest which could be true, but if you turn this around. The combination of mh370 accident facts are than too good to be true. The cause of the mh370 is more in the facts and data we can not get. In case there is indeed gold on board for xx billions, ( is a very clear motive possibility), is supported by missing data like the the military radar data missing at banda aceh, the reset of the satelite system, on a very tactical moment, only one piece of a wing found, no serial numbers, of a part of the wing wich is not obvious to float on its own, the behaviors of governments and more data missing… another posibility to look at whot ofs data can tune, before released as we know, the one behind the mh370 accident planned to hide the plane from the first minute before the u turn just after the last contact. Which gives your ofs / reset a higher probability with an intention to hide.

    So if it is a part of the cargo they are after, you dont want the plane and its passengers and crew. So the southern ocean, with a full hard crash has a high probability as it makes finding evidence difficult to do. The scenario of misleading south, but flying north becomes plausible too, more to let the plane controlled dissapear and obtain the cargo, but has higher risk of detection which is not supported yet with additional factual data.

    So if the plane is lost, we can not find it, as it has been dismouted, or crashed in an area which is too difficult to search, or on purpose the wrong location for search, what else can we find that has a relation to the mh370? In case the cargo was the motive, in case it was gold, hidden under a different label, how can you trace that? Because if you find the cargo.. the trace to what happened, caused by whom will start. The point here is that the one who can do this theft in this scenario has the power, the knowledge and ability to do this, which makes a real independent investigation dangerous to do, as this entity will have the ability to hide, and can create furher confusion were needed. Which makes a real story of what really happened very unlikely on the short term..

  13. So…

    The plane was hijacked, its communications systems disabled, and then flown to Yubileyniy Aerodrome, landing on Runway 24.

    Then…what? The hijackers taxi it to this rectangular “pit” that they dug with excavators, roll it in, get out, make off with whatever cargo (if any), and then they bury the plane and its deceased occupants?

    This sounds pretty unreal.

  14. @Mike, I agree, it seems far fetched that the plane somehow wound up in this pile of dirt. More likely that, if the plane did go to Yubileyniy, it refueled and went somewhere else. I am puzzled and perplexed by that earthworks, though.

  15. Well, in my opinion, the theory that the plane landed *anywhere* is kind of shot by the simple fact that pieces of the plane were found in the ocean. The flaperon and other bits. Those pieces don’t just fall off without a fair amount of impact…

    Still, who knows?

  16. @Mike, As I’ve discussed in earlier postings on this site, there are many aspects of the recovered debris — such as the pattern of mechanical failure that created them; the nature of the biofouling; the failure of drift modeling; and the circumstance of their discovery — that are not consistent with them actually floating across the ocean from a crash site.

  17. I’ll admit I haven’t trawled through the 13 pages of comments, but despite that, I offer this counterpoint:

    Mechanical failure – alright. The flaperon and other pieces of debris – assuming that say a meteor or something didn’t knock them off the plane in flight, and assuming that they didn’t get knocked off due to a crash – the other other way they could have fallen off is due to some extreme, I mean, ridiculously extreme lack of maintenance. I know that airlines throughout history have skimped on maintenance here and there and there’s been examples of crashes caused by such things, certainly. But to my mind, a flaperon wouldn’t simply fall off of the plane due to a lack of lubrication, say. It might seize in a certain position and therefore not respond to commands from the flight deck to actuate, thereby contributing to a crash or at the very least less than ideal maneouverability of the aircraft.

    As for the other points, such as biofouling and drift modeling, I feel that that’s besides the point (I mean, sure, those pieces of information may be vital to recovering the wreckage – presuming it crashed into the Indian Ocean). The focus ought to be on how those pieces disconnected from the plane in the first place, and why.

    I’m not trying to say “No you’re wrong” on anything at all here. You could be right. But again, my mind is telling me that a plane missing a flaperon and other pieces likely encountered some form of impact trauma – lethal or otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a crash, nor does it preclude the possibility.

    Heck, the plane might have collided in mid-air with something causing the flaperon to rip off but otherwise remain flyable.

    It sucks that nobody knows, but with Ocean Infinity back on the case I’m hopeful the mystery gets resolved.

  18. @jeff, I thoroughly enjoyed your single on Amazon yesterday and today. I noted you used the word “hacked” in referencing how the BTO and BFO data was perhaps intentionally corrupted. My first reaction was to think that the perpetrators hacked Inmarsat on the ground, in the metadata database vice the sophisticated signal manipulation they might have to do on the plane. We know the Russians proficiency in cybercrimes, I would think twiddling a few values in a compromised database would be easier than piping bad info through a satcom link. Perhaps flying part of the southern route with a different plane have them enough empirical data to be able to know how to set the metadata values to show a southern path.

  19. @Tom, Thanks! The idea is an interesting one, but I think if the data was falsified from whole cloth it would have fit better than it did. For instance, when the BFO data was retrieved there were values at 18:25 that investigators couldn’t explain. If perps had filled in the data after the fact they would have made it look seamless.

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