New York: How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is?

The unsettling oddness was there from the first moment, on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines announced that a plane from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, Flight 370, had disappeared over the South China Sea in the middle of the night. There had been no bad weather, no distress call, no wreckage, no eyewitness accounts of a fireball in the sky—just a plane that said good-bye to one air-traffic controller and, two minutes later, failed to say hello to the next. And the crash, if it was a crash, got stranger from there.

My yearlong detour to Planet MH370 began two days later, when I got an email from an editor at Slate asking if I’d write about the incident. I’m a private pilot and science writer, and I wrote about the last big mysterious crash, of Air France 447 in 2009. My story ran on the 12th. The following morning, I was invited to go on CNN. Soon, I was on-air up to six times a day as part of its nonstop MH370 coverage.

There was no intro course on how to be a cable-news expert. The Town Car would show up to take me to the studio, I’d sign in with reception, a guest-greeter would take me to makeup, I’d hang out in the greenroom, the sound guy would rig me with a mike and an earpiece, a producer would lead me onto the set, I’d plug in and sit in the seat, a producer would tell me what camera to look at during the introduction, we’d come back from break, the anchor would read the introduction to the story and then ask me a question or maybe two, I’d answer, then we’d go to break, I would unplug, wipe off my makeup, and take the car 43 blocks back uptown. Then a couple of hours later, I’d do it again. I was spending 18 hours a day doing six minutes of talking.

As time went by, CNN winnowed its expert pool down to a dozen or so regulars who earned the on-air title “CNN aviation analysts”: airline pilots, ex-government honchos, aviation lawyers, and me. We were paid by the week, with the length of our contracts dependent on how long the story seemed likely to play out. The first couple were seven-day, the next few were 14-day, and the last one was a month. We’d appear solo, or in pairs, or in larger groups for panel discussions—whatever it took to vary the rhythm of perpetual chatter.1

I soon realized the germ of every TV-news segment is: “Officials say X.” The validity of the story derives from the authority of the source. The expert, such as myself, is on hand to add dimension or clarity. Truth flowed one way: from the official source, through the anchor, past the expert, and onward into the great sea of viewerdom.

What made MH370 challenging to cover was, first, that the event was unprecedented and technically complex and, second, that the officials  were remarkably untrustworthy. For instance, the search started over the South China Sea, naturally enough, but soon after, Malaysia opened up a new search area in the Andaman Sea, 400 miles away. Why? Rumors swirled that military radar had seen the plane pull a 180. The Malaysian government explicitly denied it, but after a week of letting other countries search the South China Sea, the officials admitted that they’d known about the U-turn from day one.

Of course, nothing turned up in the Andaman Sea, either. But in London, scientists for a British company called Inmarsat that provides telecommunications between ships and aircraft realized its database contained records of transmissions between MH370 and one of its satellites for the seven hours after the plane’s main communication system shut down. Seven hours! Maybe it wasn’t a crash after all—if it were, it would have been the slowest in history.

These electronic “handshakes” or “pings” contained no actual information, but by analyzing the delay between the transmission and reception of the signal— called the burst timing offset, or BTO—Inmarsat could tell how far the plane had been from the satellite and thereby plot an arc along which the plane must have been at the moment of the final ping.Fig. 3 That arc stretched some 6,000 miles, but if the plane was traveling at normal airliner speeds, it would most likely have wound up around the ends of the arc—either in Kazakhstan and China in the north or the Indian Ocean in the south. My money was on Central Asia. But CNN quoted unnamed U.S.-government sources saying that the plane had probably gone south, so that became the dominant view.

Other views were circulating, too, however.Fig. 5 A Canadian pilot named Chris Goodfellow went viral with his theory that MH370 suffered a fire that knocked out its communications gear and diverted from its planned route in order to attempt an emergency landing. Keith Ledgerwood, another pilot, proposed that hijackers had taken the plane and avoided detection by ducking into the radar shadow of another airliner. Amateur investigators pored over satellite images, insisting that wisps of cloud or patches of shrubbery were the lost plane. Courtney Love, posting on her Facebook time line a picture of the shimmering blue sea, wrote: “I’m no expert but up close this does look like a plane and an oil slick.”

Then: breaking news! On March 24, the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, announced that a new kind of mathematical analysis proved that the plane had in fact gone south. This new math involved another aspect of the handshakes called the burst frequency offset, or BFO, a measure of changes in the signal’s wavelength, which is partly determined by the relative motion of the airplane and the satellite. That the whole southern arc lay over the Indian Ocean meant that all the passengers and crew would certainly be dead by now. This was the first time in history that the families of missing passengers had been asked to accept that their loved ones were dead because a secret math equation said so. Fig. 7 Not all took it well. In Beijing, outraged next-of-kin marched to the Malaysian Embassy, where they hurled water bottles and faced down paramilitary soldiers in riot gear.

Guided by Inmarsat’s calculations, Australia, which was coordinating the investigation, moved the search area 685 miles to the northeast, to a 123,000-square-mile patch of ocean west of Perth. Ships and planes found much debris on the surface, provoking a frenzy of BREAKING NEWS banners, but all turned out to be junk. Adding to the drama was a ticking clock. The plane’s two black boxes had an ultrasonic sound beacon that sent out acoustic signals through the water. (Confusingly, these also were referred to as “pings,” though of a completely different nature. These new pings suddenly became the important ones.) If searchers could spot plane debris, they’d be able to figure out where the plane had most likely gone down, then trawl with underwater microphones to listen for the pings. The problem was that the pingers  had a battery life of only 30 days.

On April 4, with only a few days’ pinger life remaining, an Australian ship lowered a special microphone called a towed pinger locator into the water.Fig. 8 Miraculously, the ship detected four pings. Search officials were jubilant, as was the CNN greenroom. Everyone was ready for an upbeat ending.

The only Debbie Downer was me. I pointed out that the pings were at the wrong frequency and too far apart to have been generated by stationary black boxes. For the next two weeks, I was the odd man out on Don Lemon’s six-guest panel blocks, gleefully savaged on-air by my co-experts.

The Australians lowered an underwater robotFig. 9 to scan the seabed for the source of the pings. There was nothing. Of course, by the rules of TV news, the game wasn’t over until an official said so. But things were stretching thin. One night, an underwater-search veteran taking part in a Don Lemon panel agreed with me that the so-called acoustic-ping detections had to be false. Backstage after the show, he and another aviation analyst nearly came to blows. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve done extensive research!” the analyst shouted. “There’s nothing else those pings could be!”

Soon after, the story ended the way most news stories do: We just stopped talking about it. A month later, long after the caravan had moved on, a U.S. Navy officer said publicly that the pings had not come from MH370. The saga fizzled out with as much satisfying closure as the final episode of Lost.

Once the surface search was called off, it was the rabble’s turn. In late March, New Zealand–based space scientist Duncan Steel began posting a series of essays on Inmarsat orbital mechanics on his website.Fig. 10 The comments section quickly grew into a busy forum in which technically sophisticated MH370 obsessives answered one another’s questions and pitched ideas. The open platform attracted a varied crew, from the mostly intelligent and often helpful to the deranged and abusive. Eventually, Steel declared that he was sick of all the insults and shut down his comments section. The party migrated over to my blog,

Meanwhile, a core of engineers and scientists had split off via group email and included me. We called ourselves the Independent Group,11 or IG. If you found yourself wondering how a satellite with geosynchronous orbit responds to a shortage of hydrazine, all you had to do was ask.12 The IG’s first big break came in late May, when the Malaysians finally released the raw Inmarsat data. By combining the data with other reliable information, we were able to put together a time line of the plane’s final hours: Forty minutes after the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, MH370 went electronically dark. For about an hour after that, the plane was tracked on radar following a zigzag course and traveling fast. Then it disappeared from military radar. Three minutes later, the communications system logged back onto the satellite. This was a major revelation. It hadn’t stayed connected, as we’d always assumed. This event corresponded with the first satellite ping. Over the course of the next six hours, the plane generated six more handshakes as it moved away from the satellite.

The final handshake wasn’t completed. This led to speculation that MH370 had run out of fuel and lost power, causing the plane to lose its connection to the satellite. An emergency power system would have come on, providing enough electricity for the satcom to start reconnecting before the plane crashed. Where exactly it would have gone down down was still unknown—the speed of the plane, its direction, and how fast it was climbing were all sources of uncertainty.

The MH370 obsessives continued attacking the problem. Since I was the proprietor of the major web forum, it fell on me to protect the fragile cocoon of civility that nurtured the conversation. A single troll could easily derail everything. The worst offenders were the ones who seemed intelligent but soon revealed themselves as Believers. They’d seized on a few pieces of faulty data and convinced themselves that they’d discovered the truth. One was sure the plane had been hit by lightning and then floated in the South China Sea, transmitting to the satellite on battery power. When I kicked him out, he came back under aliases. I wound up banning anyone who used the word “lightning.”

By October, officials from the Australian Transport Safety Board had begun an ambitiously scaled scan of the ocean bottom, and, in a surprising turn, it would include the area suspected by the IG.13 For those who’d been a part of the months-long effort, it was a thrilling denouement. The authorities, perhaps only coincidentally, had landed on the same conclusion as had a bunch of randos from the internet. Now everyone was in agreement about where to look.

While jubilation rang through the  email threads, I nursed a guilty secret: I wasn’t really in agreement. For one, I was bothered by the lack of plane debris. And then there was the data. To fit both the BTO and BFO data well, the plane would need to have flown slowly, likely in a curving path. But the more plausible autopilot settings and known performance constraints would have kept the plane flying faster and more nearly straight south. I began to suspect that the problem was with the BFO numbers—that they hadn’t been generated in the way we believed.14 If that were the case, perhaps the flight had gone north after all.

For a long time, I resisted even considering the possibility that someone might have tampered with the data. That would require an almost inconceivably sophisticated hijack operation, one so complicated and technically demanding that it would almost certainly need state-level backing. This was true conspiracy-theory material.

And yet, once I started looking for evidence, I found it. One of the commenters on my blog had learned that the compartment on 777s called the electronics-and-equipment bay, or E/E bay, can be accessed via a hatch in the front of the first-class cabin.15 If perpetrators got in there, a long shot, they would have access to equipment that could be used to change the BFO value of its satellite transmissions. They could even take over the flight controls.16

I realized that I already had a clue that hijackers had been in the E/E bay. Remember the satcom system disconnected and then rebooted three minutes after the plane left military radar behind. I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how a person could physically turn the satcom off and on. The only way, apart from turning off half the entire electrical system, would be to go into the E/E bay and pull three particular circuit breakers. It is a maneuver that only a sophisticated operator would know how to execute, and the only reason I could think for wanting to do this was so that Inmarsat would find the records and misinterpret them. They turned on the satcom in order to provide a false trail of bread crumbs leading away from the plane’s true route.

It’s not possible to spoof the BFO data on just any plane. The plane must be of a certain make and model, 17equipped with a certain make and model of satellite-communications equipment,18 and flying a certain kind of route19 in a region covered by a certain kind of Inmarsat satellite.20 If you put all the conditions together, it seemed unlikely that any aircraft would satisfy them. Yet MH370 did.

I imagine everyone who comes up with a new theory, even a complicated one, must experience one particularly delicious moment, like a perfect chord change, when disorder gives way to order. This was that moment for me. Once I threw out the troublesome BFO data, all the inexplicable coincidences and mismatched data went away. The answer became wonderfully simple. The plane must have gone north.

Using the BTO data set alone, I was able to chart the plane’s speed and general path, which happened to fall along national borders.Fig. 21 Flying along borders, a military navigator told me, is a good way to avoid being spotted on radar. A Russian intelligence plane nearly collided with a Swedish airliner while doing it over the Baltic Sea in December. If I was right, it would have wound up in Kazakhstan, just as search officials recognized early on.

There aren’t a lot of places to land a plane as big as the 777, but, as luck would have it, I found one: a place just past the last handshake ring called Baikonur Cosmodrome.Fig. 22 Baikonur is leased from Kazakhstan by Russia. A long runway there called Yubileyniy was built for a Russian version of the Space Shuttle. If the final Inmarsat ping rang at the start of MH370’s descent, it would have set up nicely for an approach to Yubileyniy’s runway 24.

Whether the plane went to Baikonur or elsewhere in Kazakhstan, my suspicion fell on Russia. With technically advanced satellite, avionics, and aircraft-manufacturing industries, Russia was a paranoid fantasist’s dream.24 (The Russians, or at least Russian-backed militia, were also suspected in the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 in July.) Why, exactly, would Putin want to steal a Malaysian passenger plane? I had no idea. Maybe he wanted to demonstrate to the United States, which had imposed the first punitive sanctions on Russia the day before, that he could hurt the West and its allies anywhere in the world. Maybe what he was really after were the secrets of one of the plane’s passengers.25 Maybe there was something strategically crucial in the hold. Or maybe he wanted the plane to show up unexpectedly somewhere someday, packed with explosives. There’s no way to know. That’s the thing about MH370 theory-making: It’s hard to come up with a plausible motive for an act that has no apparent beneficiaries.

As it happened, there were three ethnically Russian men aboard MH370, two of them Ukrainian-passport holders from Odessa.26 Could any of these men, I wondered, be special forces or covert operatives? As I looked at the few pictures available on the internet, they definitely struck me as the sort who might battle Liam Neeson in midair.

About the two Ukrainians, almost nothing was available online.Fig. 27 I was able to find out a great deal about the Russian,Fig. 28 who was sitting in first class about 15 feet from the E/E-bay hatch.Fig. 29 He ran a lumber company in Irkutsk, and his hobby was technical diving under the ice of Lake Baikal.30 I hired Russian speakers from Columbia University to make calls to Odessa and Irkutsk, then hired researchers on the ground.

The more I discovered, the more coherent the story seemed to me.32 I found a peculiar euphoria in thinking about my theory, which I thought about all the time. One of the diagnostic questions used to determine whether you’re an alcoholic is whether your drinking has interfered with your work. By that measure, I definitely had a problem. Once the CNN checks stopped coming, I entered a long period of intense activity that earned me not a cent. Instead, I was forking out my own money for translators and researchers and satellite photos. And yet I was happy.

Still, it occurred to me that, for all the passion I had for my theory, I might be the only person in the world who felt this way. Neurobiologist Robert A. Burton points out in his book On Being Certain that the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs. It’s something that the brain does subconsciously to protect itself from wasting unnecessary processing power on problems for which you’ve already found a solution that’s good enough. “ ‘That’s right’ is a feeling you get so that you can move on,” Burton told me. It’s a kind of subconscious laziness. Just as it’s harder to go for a run than to plop onto the sofa, it’s harder to reexamine one’s assumptions than it is to embrace certainty. At one end of the spectrum of skeptics are scientists, who by disposition or training resist the easy path; at the other end are conspiracy theorists, who’ll leap effortlessly into the sweet bosom of certainty. So where did that put me?

Propounding some new detail of my scenario to my wife over dinner one night, I noticed a certain glassiness in her expression. “You don’t seem entirely convinced,” I suggested.

She shrugged.

“Okay,” I said. “What do you think is the percentage chance that I’m right?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Five percent?”33

Springtime came to the southern ocean, and search vessels began their methodical cruise along the area jointly identified by the IG and the ATSB, dragging behind it a sonar rig that imaged the seabed in photographic detail. Within the IG, spirits were high. The discovery of the plane would be the triumphant final act of a remarkable underdog story.

By December, when the ships had still not found a thing, I felt it was finally time to go public. In six sequentially linked pages that readers could only get to by clicking through—to avoid anyone reading the part where I suggest Putin masterminded the hijack without first hearing how I got there—I laid out my argument. I called it “The Spoof.”

I got a respectful hearing but no converts among the IG. A few sites wrote summaries of my post. The International Business Times headlined its story “MH370: Russia’s Grand Plan to Provoke World War III, Says Independent Investigator” and linked directly to the Putin part. Somehow, the airing of my theory helped quell my obsession. My gut still tells me I’m right, but my brain knows better than to trust my gut.

Last month, the Malaysian government declared that the aircraft is considered to have crashed and all those aboard are presumed dead. Malaysia’s transport minister told a local television station that a key factor in the decision was the fact that the search mission for the aircraft failed to achieve its objective. Meanwhile, new theories are still being hatched. One, by French writer Marc Dugain, states that the plane was shot down by the U.S. because it was headed toward the military bases on the islands of Diego Garcia as a flying bomb.34

The search failed to deliver the airplane, but it has accomplished some other things: It occupied several thousand hours of worldwide airtime; it filled my wallet and then drained it; it torpedoed the idea that the application of rationality to plane disasters would inevitably yield ever-safer air travel. And it left behind a faint, lingering itch in the back of my mind, which I believe will quite likely never go away.

*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

1,286 thoughts on “New York: How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is?”

  1. The lack of discovered surface debris continues to be a important factor for many people in discounting the SIO as a crash site. Jeff cites this as one of the reasons he started looking more closely at a northern route.

    How effective was the SAR operation?

    The aircraft crashed at approx 00:19 UTC on 8th March. The first SAR aircraft on the scene was a lone RAAF Orion late in the afternoon of the 18th March local time. During this 10 day delay in the start of the search, dispersion and water-logging of the debris might be expected

    There was no ‘last known position’ to anchor the search. An initial zone was defined based on very early flight path models with an attempted correction for possible drift. At 600,000 km2 it was absolutely enormous (size of France; 640,000 km2). The location of this vast zone, while broadly compatible with the priority area currently adopted for subsea searching, still covers only a small sector of the 7th arc.

    The distance of the search zone from shore was so large (with a 4 hour flight time each way for the prop driven Orions) that time over target was limited to approximately 2 hours. A search ‘day’ for one of these aircraft was therefore a small fraction of the total available daylight hours.

    The search unfolded as follows :

    DAY 1: The lone RAAF Orion searched the 600,000 km2 zone, covering only a small portion in the north west of the area in the 2 hours available.

    DAY 2: The size of the search zone was halved with emphasis more to the east of the original zone, still close to the 7th arc. 3 aircraft spent combined 6 hrs searching this huge area

    DAY 3: Attention was diverted by the arrival of satellite data taken 4 days earlier which appeared to show indications of debris almost 200km to the south east of the search zone. The entire search effort was shifted to this relatively small zone of 23000 km2 with 4 aircraft searching (8 hrs combined) and a 5th dropping drift buoys. Rain and cloud hampers search, no debris spotted.

    DAY 4: 5 aircraft (10 hrs total searching time) search an overlapping area of similar small size to the previous day in good conditions. No debris was sighted.

    DAY 5: 6 aircraft continue to search the same small area in good conditions, including 2 commercial jets. One of these saw small objects which could not be subsequently located by the Orions. New satellite data from the Chinese showed a 22m object in the same area.

    DAY 6: 8 aircraft searche the same area, of which 4 were jets (including an Airbus 319!) with a second small area added to the east based on drift modelling. Fog hampered the early part of the search. There were ‘no sightings of significance’.

    DAY 7: 10 aircraft searched the same relatively small areas in deteriorating conditions, 4 of which were Orions, and 1 a Poseidon. A large Chinese cargo jet reported seeing objects but the Poseidon could not relocate. An Orion spotted objects but a ship on the scene could not relocate.

    DAY 8: Search suspended due to bad weather.

    DAY 9: 12 aircraft including 5 Orions and 1 Poseidon searched an 80,000 km2 area which largely overlapped previous areas. Three objects spotted, could not be re-located. Further satellite data from Malaysia indicated interesting ‘positions’ within this search area.

    DAY 10: Aircraft departed for the same location searched in previous days, but the search was suspended early due to bad weather conditions.

    On DAY 11 the search of this southern section of the 7th arc was abandoned and efforts shifted for this day 1100 km to the north east.

    The cumulative area searched by this point can be seen below :

    This can be seen in the context of the ATSB subsea search area here:

    So a total of 8 hours was spend searching the larger search zones which in themselves were conservatively sized given the uncertainty with which the crash location was known and the time elapsed. How this can possibly be considered ‘scouring’ the area, or to be diagnostic of the presence of surface debris in this huge region of ocean is beyond me. The remaining time, in itself short, was spend entirely on a much smaller area to the south east. Search by surface vessel in such a large area is ineffective unless directed by aircraft. We have no information on the size of any areas photographed by satellite, or their ability to detect potentially small objects in typically rough seas.

    \what type of debris would be expected?

    We don’t know how the aircraft entered the water. The end members appear to be :

    i) a Simon Hardy scenario in which the aircraft was ditched, possibly in relatively large pieces
    ii) a high speed entry, potentially leading to severe fragmentation

    An example of i) would be the ditching of hijacked Ethiopian Flt 961 in 1996, leading to relatively intact sections of aircraft.

    An example of ii) might be Swissair Flt 111 in 1998, crashed into shallow water at estimated speed 300 knots, fragmented into ‘millions of pieces’ see image of some of the recovered debris below

    It seems that the latter scenario might lead to a larger debris field, and smaller but more persistent floating debris, though there is no clear evidence I can find to support this.

    What dispersal pattern might arise?

    Crash locations around 40 deg south appear close to a boundary between the very strong circumpolar current to the south (which flows from west to east between Australia and Antarctica and on around the globe unimpeded by land masses) and a system of eddies and circular currents to the north which have much less structure.

    There are a large large number of online resources and research papers depicting current flows in this part of the SIO, mapped both by satellite observations and by drift buoys. To select only three :

    A large scale visualisation of the currents can be seen here (select ocean currents and appropriate date range) :

    An illustration of the proximity of a potential crash site to the strong circumpolar current stream can be seen in the drift buoy map here:

    A discussion of the 6 year circulation pattern of the Indian Ocean Gyre to the north of the 7th Arc can be found here:

    Of interest is a drift simulation carried out by CSIRO. While this used currents data from 2009, it illustrates the behaviour of a northerly track for debris originating close to 40 deg south which remains trapped in circulating currents to the west of the Australian coastline and does not make landfall over the simulated 9 month period.


    I contend that :

    i) Failure of the SAR effort to find surface debris is unsurprising and should not be regarded as evidence against a SIO crash location

    ii) Failure to find surface debris on shorelines during the one year period since the crash is not surprising and should not be regarded as evidence against a SIO crash location

  2. I just finished your e-book. The reason I read it was because I had a similar instinct about Russia.

    A great read and very detailed indeed.

    Your one unanswered question of “why” may be answered in broad simplicity?

    Destabilizing Malaysia will destabilize the fringe of Western democratic influence in that region. The same holds true with the Ukraine.

    We all know this Russia-China goal.

    Now all Russia and China have to do is let the Islamic militants finish destabilizing Malaysia.

    Then let the Islamic militants finish carving out the the end of the Silk Road for Brics.

  3. @EH, The big unanswered question in that story is: does Hardy’s endpoint lie within or beyond the current ATSB search zone? If it lies within the current search zone, what he’s basically saying is: “carry on!” If it’s to the south, then he’s adding his voice to a chorus that already includes Dr. Bobby Ullich, GlobusMax and others suggesting that the search be extended to the southwest.

  4. Very interesting review. As an expert on synthetic aperture radar geometry pleased to read that the raw data has been looked at by your group. It would be worth my while to analyze this data. How do I access it?

  5. M Pat – Nice bit of research. Regarding the satellites – I have been under the impression that they(Chines/French/Thai etc) were scanning for surface objects and turned up plenty. Towards the end investigating these detections formed the search pretty much. There were objects of around 1 metre being defined and just did a quick browse of those reports. Some of these patches yielded 300 or more objects, some detectons were queried because they were 300 kms away from the main area? That might suggest that they were systematically scanning the surrounds? Some of it was refuse from passing ships I’d suspect, some looked a lot like shipping containers and indeed they have been spotted on the bottom. It would have been ideal to have those satellites in action a lot sooner for sure, it may have done the trick if there was an SIO crash because actually finding these patches proved to be difficult, even for the Poseidon and the other sub trackers with surface scanning radar, due to the time lag from image analysis to deployment of assets. It could be a critical ten days? You could be confident though that if there was plane debris in the area then we photographed it. Finding/retrieving it was the challenge. Who knows – had they not gone in search of underwater follies and kept working that area there should still have been some floaties around. As I recall there was a sudden plunge on a lower slower path and Inmarsat were central to the move north, but others may have a different recollection. ?

  6. Jeff, long time listener first time caller as they say – having followed your blog since the initial exodus from Duncan Steel and more recently digesting your compelling Kindle Single. All power and commendations to your continuing efforts in keeping the search/interest alive.

    There seem to me to be many ostensibly minor details that emerged in the weeks after the disappearance that are so easy to forget in hindsight.

    One of these I wanted to ask you about was whether you recall a tweet from bbc correspondent Jonah Fisher claiming on 15 March that a briefing from the Malaysian Authorities suggested that they “… believe most likely location for MH370 is on land somewhere near Chinese/Kyrgyz border”

    the tweet in question.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, particularly in relation to your Kazakhstan theory? Whilst completely different ‘…stans’, I nonetheless found this tweet fascinating at the time – notwithstanding Fisher’s slight distancing in subsequent tweets – in terms of what the Malaysian authorities were saying internally at that point. I thought also your media contacts may be such that you can actually dig more on what this was about.

  7. I know these are speculative comments, but:

    “Maybe what [Putin] was really after were the secrets of one of the plane’s passengers. Maybe there was something strategically crucial in the hold. Or maybe he wanted the plane to show up unexpectedly somewhere someday, packed with explosives.”

    Only the airline would have information on the specific passengers on the plane. There is no way Putin could have known beforehand what passengers had any sort of crucial data unless he were tracking those individuals in particular. And if he wanted that information, it doesn’t make sense to concoct such an elaborate scheme. I know you were spit-balling ideas, but I don’t think this is a strong possibility.

    Secondly, in one of your hypothetical scenarios, cabin de-pressuring leading to oxygen death of the passengers and crew is offered as a possible scenario. So whatever crucial information someone would have wanted from a passenger(s) would have been lost anyway.

    I am interested in knowing what happened to the passengers of MH370 if they survived, though.

  8. Bit of a heads up – just saw a promo for a current affairs piece being aired here tomorrow night 6.30pm re MH370 debris. Apparently something has shown up on a suburban beach and some funny stuff has set in? “Not allowed to talk etc” Channel 9, and could be total BS but I thought I’d pass on.

  9. Jeff, the great thing about experienced pilot Simon Hardy’s insight is he gives the first plausible insight into the mind of pilot Zaharie Shah during the actual flight of MH370.

    Furthermore, Hardy’s insight(from his own experience with Ayer’s Rock) is so convincing it no longer takes a leap of faith to conclude that Shah knowingly and purposefully guided the plane in an act of murder/suicide.

  10. @EH why would that be exactly at that location?

    If he wanted to hide the plane he wouldn’t wait for fuel exhaustion, he would want full control of the plane including engines so he could sink it intact, also ih he cared about depth he had Sunda trench right when he entered IO with very possible calmer sea and when we are at that he had 3-4 hours to descend to a low-level flight and find the calmer sea patch he wouldn’t risk running to a very rough sea(very common in roaring forties) with no fuel left.

    And after all why would he point the plane towards Australia after entering IO, just doesn’t make sense.

    Lot of things don’t add up there.

  11. @StevanG We’re talking about a pilot who’s personal life spiraled so far out of control he became desperately suicidal.

    Zaharie didn’t think EVERYTHING through but he could(and did) fly the aircraft to where it will be very difficult to locate, if ever.

    As for any of this making sense. None of it makes sense to fly an aircraft full of passengers to a horrible death instead of doing your job, which is to get them to their destination safely. Sad that this isn’t the first time(Egypt Air) a pilot has done this.

  12. @Matty,
    you peaked my curiosity.
    But how sad is this: Wy would I be extremely sceptical if some debris shows up now – conveniently on a suburban beach- when everybody is talking again about mh370, Jeff’s ideas went viral and a lot of folks became extremely sceptical about a SIO crash?
    Let’s wait and see what they have to tell us…

  13. @EH “We’re talking about a pilot who’s personal life spiraled so far out of control he became desperately suicidal.”

    Noone has noticed that, his family colleagues noone.

    “Zaharie didn’t think EVERYTHING through but he could(and did) fly the aircraft to where it will be very difficult to locate, if ever.”

    And why are you sure he did? The official search area is designated using assumptions and while it is most probable (let’s say 90%, anyone has better estimate?) there is still chance the plane is lying somewhere else on the 7th arc.

    “As for any of this making sense. None of it makes sense to fly an aircraft full of passengers to a horrible death instead of doing your job, which is to get them to their destination safely. Sad that this isn’t the first time(Egypt Air) a pilot has done this.”

    Again even if the plane gets found in SIO it doesn’t have to mean it got there by intention and not by accident.

  14. pi-cide

    @EH @StevanG

    The interim report describes in debth that there are not the least tiny fractions of a detail that would justify a pi-cide assumption. I think we should leave this discussion alone. Maybe someone thinks he is a better psychiatrist then the ones who analysed the crew for the investigation.

    I feel a bit pissed by the fantasies of an australian pilot who publishes theories about a 35 years flying experience veteran colleague so lightly, which amounts to defamation. To see a suicide as a sightseeing spree might seem a romantic notion thats good for to sell a book, but in reality a suicide very dirty and exhausting. Ever watched one? A suicide will mostly develop a sort of tunnel vision that accompanies the event and will detain him from the joyride around his hometown. There is only one detail that often is observed in suicides. That is, the person chooses a location for the act, that is somehow related to the problem, e.g. the place where a couple first met. So if he nose-dives the plane into Penang, that would be conceivable. But as the investigation found: that pi-cide scenario seems highly unlikely.

    BTW We should not too much simplify one of the biggest medical problems of our time. Suicides are one of the major causes for death, comparable to cancer or heart attack in Western societies. In Germany every year more people die from suicide than from car accidents with a considerable number of undetected cases. We should not talk ignorant about it, we should try to do some scientific research, before we lightly come out for an analysis, that would be a heart breaking shock for a muslim family. lets try to stay humane.

    The fact is, that muslim countries have considerable lower suicide rates than western nations. Thats mostly due to the strict islamic instruction of the Quran, Surah 4, 29 that forbids suicide as a major sin.

    The only exception from this is martyrdom. This has to be confirmed before the event by a Fatwa of a ranking cleric.

    Also Malaysia has in section 309 of the penal Code a law against suicide like most muslim countries.

  15. I’m reading several reports indicating the FDR beacon battery was, due to a computer error affecting diagnostics, over a year past its “best before” date (would only (perhaps) have affected BEACON performance, not data recording function).

    What I DON’T see is any reference to the DATE at which this was discovered – nor any assessed probability of malfunction.

    To the extent beacon malfunction was deemed probable, the date by which searchers KNEW of this probable malfunction becomes important.

  16. @EH “We’re talking about a pilot who’s personal life spiraled so far out of control he became desperately suicidal.”

    I would also like to emphasise there is no evidence whatsoever to support that assertion. Far from being out of control the stresses in his life were no greater than many other middle aged men I know, including several airline captains and military pilots. Marriage, financial and professional difficulties and supporting a losing politician. Welcome to an average life. And he was in a profession known to self select for people who handle stress better than average. There was also nothing in his behaviour before the incident that is consistent with murder/suicide as several psychologists have noted. That state of mind is very well researched. It is possible of course but I suggest there is even less evidence to support it than the “Putin did it” theory.

  17. Regarding a possible motive for Russia: International distraction from their actions in Crimea.

    Prior to MH370, the main headlines (at least in the Western media), were strongly focused on the alleged presence of Russian troops in Crimea; outrage was growing by the day. Then the plane went missing and everyone all but “forgot” about Crimea, for weeks. Next thing we knew, the locals had voted to join Russia and annexation immediately followed.

    Of course, the events in Crimea hardly went unnoticed, but certainly the MH370 mystery was given significant primacy. Russia may well have executed a brilliant sleight-of-hand: never mind Ukraine, what about that missing plane? The public is always fascinated by air disasters, so what better way to distract our attention from a troubling incident of Russian aggression?

    Would Russia hijack a plane just to take the focus off of their actions in Ukraine? Considering what has followed in the year since, including the downing of MH17, I would have to say that it is at least plausible, perhaps even likely.

    After this much time, unless definitive proof of the southern route is rapidly forthcoming, Mr. Wise’s proposals should be given serious and careful consideration.

  18. @CosmicAcademy,
    Pilot suicide is not my favorite scenario anymore. But what you correctly cited as Islam’s take on suicide, would be the perfect motive for hiding a suicidal crash instead of going through this immediately in the SCS.
    We also can’t completely rule out the possibility that one of the pilots abducted the plane with a more violent plan in mind. But then he had a change of heart and decided not to go through with it but to cover up his action, because he just couldn’t face to turn himself in and deal with the consequences of his actions.
    Again, that’s not what I believe has happened. But if – as the majority thinks atm – the plane has crashed near the 7th arc into the SIO, then one ofthose pilot suicide theories could explain it.
    And why is the discussion of pilot suicide considered as being disrespectful? Conversely you could argue that every discussion which focusses on criminal intent and focusses on specific persons is disrespectful – and that includes Jeff’s hypothesis of one Russian and two Ukrainians as potential perps. Or Brock’s idea that Inmarsat maybe had twisted it’s arms and came up with a false set of satellite data.
    Unfortunately in a criminal investigation everybody is under suspicion until proven otherwise. Again my scenarios above are not my favorite ones. But should we call out everybody who dares to suspect pilot suicide?

  19. Oxygen supply


    The interim report carefully describes the details of the oxygen supply on this particular A/C and many of those who built scenarios built on a decompression event will be very surprised now. Most of these scenarios assumed 1 or 2 hours for the flight deck and no extra supply for the cabin crew. By contrast the real redundancy of the oxygen supply seems impressive to me:

    – about 27 hours for one pilot on the flight deck und decompression conditions and 13 hours if the two are in the cockpit –
    – the cabin crew has 15 portable extra oxygen bottles with about 50 minutes supply each –
    – the PSU for the PAX holds oxygen for 22 minutes each and remember there were 50 seats left free, which could be used by people who survived the first decompression.

    If there was a decompression event, there would have been very much time to land at a suitable airport. Also this would leave way for a prolonged physical struggle in the cabin after some perpetrator decompressurizes the cabin. All scenarios with hypoxia induced flight behaviour would have to be carefully adapted to these facts about oxygen


    Fortunately we can never see into a human brain completely. And sure humans are known for doing unexpected things sometimes. So we never know for sure, if there was a very exotic pi-cide. But it makes a difference if someone is careful in a sense of researching a topic, seeking expert counsel/guidance and adding factual evidence and maybe even experience to create a valuable thesis, or if one jumps to a premature conclusion on the basis of a personal fantasy in the embarassing way, Mr. Hardy did. He will sure apologize for this one day.

  20. @CosmicAcademy,
    I believe there’s unfortunately a good chance that nobody will ever have to apologize for any premature theory. The full truth may well never come out.
    While I think the “Penang-as-sentimental-destiny” theory isn’t very convincing, there are reasons to focus one’s attention on the captain rather than the co-pilot. The captain’s social pages entries show that definitely something powerful was going in his mind including a possible change of his life’s direction. This doesn’t necessarily allow the conclusion that he became a mass murderer. But I think it would be wrong to ignore his issues with Malaysian authorities in general and maybe with MAS as well, since they were rightfully under suspicion of having assisted the ruling party to commit election fraud.
    That said, there are other scenarios: if – as Victor contemplated – the Malaysian ruling classes were somehow involved in this, they could’ve used the captain as a convenient scape goat because of his support for the Malaysian opposition.

  21. @CosmicAcademy,
    Thank you for pointing out the information re: oxygen supply. That’s indeed very interesting.
    Jeff’s theory included the idea that the perps could control the oxygen flow from the e/e bay. And being able to controll the oxygen flow would be mandatory for a scenario where the perps deliberaty depressured the plane in order to take over without any messy struggles.
    The accidental decompression scenario never made sense to me.

  22. It’s interesting, but I tend to heavily discount anything reported during the first two weeks; there was just so much confusion and misunderstanding. Probably I should follow up on it, though!

  23. @Robert Orth, sounds very interesting but I’m not sure what you’re referring to. If you mean, the raw military radar data, I think we can reasonably expect to obtain it sometime shortly after hell freezes over.

  24. @Jeff,
    What are you hinting at, when you say you don’t trust anything which was reported within the first two weeks?
    Is it about the oxygen or about Zaharie’s political activities and political leanings? If it is the latter:
    While it probably was premature to state that his wife had left him, his political activities, his support of Anwar Ibrahim and his thoughts on the corrupt ruling party are pretty well documented. His social pages and other sources show clearly his disgust and his wish to do something about it. Something was really working in his mind. Also the abrupt and sudden stop of all entries a few weeks before the plane went awol raises questions. As I said before, that doesn’t necessarily make him a suicidal mass murderer. In my book it would actually raise immensely my respect for him under normal circumstances. He had guts and was apparently not afraid of repercussions. But in a criminal investigation it does raise some flags. And an investigator would naturally ask himself if he could’ve been solely responsible, or if he could’ve been part of a plan with more than one perp (which – as far as he knew – might not at all have included the loss of anyone’s life). Or did the perps consider him to be a convenient scapegoat? And the Malaysian officials were comfortable with this solution.

  25. @littlefoot there have been a lot of speculations, FL450(not possible with 777) erroneous radar reading (supposedly to kill passengers), then all the fire theories hypoxia etc. to name a few

  26. @Stevan, yes I’m aware of all those speculations. I fell under the spell of this case right from the beginning, when exactly a year ago I was grounded for a week with a nasty case of flue turned into pneumonia. I had plenty of time at my hands. And I simply couldn’t fathom how a B777 with 200 plus souls onboard could simply vanish into thin air.When I was googling for answers I found Jeff’s blog. In the beginning I was an ardent supporter of his Northern-Route theory, especially since it seemed to offer some hope. Then, when the pings seemed to show conclusively that the plane turned South, I changed my mind -until I changed my mind back again, lol! It’s been quite a journey.

  27. humans are naturally optimists, I was all for north theory too until Inmarsat proved the south one was the only possible

  28. @jeffwise: I’ve done some studies of the northern path using the BTO model and level flight at FL350. (I have some interesting ideas about BFO data that I am not ready to make public.) I have incorporated the atmospheric wind and temperature data and model the speed in two ways:
    1. Constant Mach number with the ground speed affected by temperature and wind. I have varied the Mach number between M=0.83 and M=0.87.
    2. ECON mode with CI=180. I approximate this with LRC speeds (adjusted by temperature) and a 6% effect of wind on the ground speed, i.e., a tailwind of 100 knots increases the ground speed by 6 knots. In fact, the significant headwinds encountered along the northern path tend to increase the Mach number.

    I assume turns at ping times and great circle paths (geodesics) between the ping times.

    The results are very interesting. The locus of end points (all which fall on the 7th arc) form a cluster along the arc not far from Kyzylorda Airport. The ECON endpoint is very close to the end point derived from a constant M=0.854 and the predicted end point comes within about 6 nm of the airport for M=0.864.

    As the airspeeds are higher than the LRC speeds due to the wind, the fuel schedule becomes even tighter than for southern paths. This needs further evaluation.

    I also note that International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8, 2014, which was a public holiday. I do not know if the airport was closed on that day.

  29. @Victor what’s the point of all these northern theories? Is it only for curiosity because it’s certainly impossible for a huge plane flying at cruising altitude to pass several countries undetected, especially those involved in conflicts.

  30. Thanks Matty. I would dearly like to see statistics on numbers of candidate ‘objects’ from a blind trial in which results from a suitably large area were compared for time periods before AND after the crash (impossible of course).

    We seem to see items of interest on satellite images almost wherever (and whenever) we search, and for this reason I find myself weighing the presence or absence of such objects on the images with a rather low importance as evidence unless confirmed by other means.

  31. @StevanG: Every theory has holes that must be plugged if they are to hold water. For a northern path, the evasion of radar detection is one of the holes. However, people have already suggested flying along FIR boundaries and false transponder squawks as possible explanations. I am not saying that flying north was the most probable scenario. I am saying that the longer we go with no debris found in the SIO, I give this scenario more credibility. For this reason, I am technically exploring whether there is technical evidence for a northern path. I find it interesting but non-conclusive that if MH370 flew at cruise speeds, the BTO suggests it would end its flight very near the Kyzylorda Airport.

  32. nah Victor unless it shadowed another plane (e.g. SIA68) it could squawk for all it’s worth but it would be detected as intruder

  33. @StevanG: The deception might have been more elaborate than you describe it. I won’t go into more details, but people have in the past described ways this might occur. I have not studied it enough in detail to render an opinion, so for me it is now a hole in the theory that would eventually have to be explained.

  34. @Stevan,
    You’re right, the danger of getting detected on a hypothetical Northern route has to be adressed eventually.
    There might be some possibilities though. Victor has alluded to one of them. It needs further exploration.

  35. There is a maximum of 1% chance(and I’m being generous now) you could sneak an airliner through those countries undetected, someone with a cunning plan wouldn’t even risk relying on such a low probability for success.

  36. @jeff thanks for all your work, many are following it with interest.

    From the MOT report Factual Information – a Kepner Tregoe review of the departures from expected behaviour/standard process really only leaves 4 or 5 actual clues.

    1.1.1 Transponder and ACARS loss (3) Engine fuel consumption (higher in one engine – [relevent to fuel calcs]) CMCS – no messages received from the flight (at all) (Point 3&4) No flight ID present at SATCOM logon at 18:25 & 00:19 (was present in logon at take off preparations at 15:56) (Point 5) Abnormal BFO at logon at SATCOM Logon 18:25 & 00:19 No manual SATCOM logoff from cockpit prior to 18:25 and 00:19 logon

    1.11.3 FDR ULB battery past expiry date, the serial number of the other not recorded

    Fig 1.1b Aircraft last seen at 10 nm past MEKAR on Route N571 at 18:22

    They seem to be the ONLY departures from normal procedure/expected behaviour.

  37. you don’t have to be one, if he had only 2 countries to go through and there was a 10% chance(and there wasn’t) he could go undetected through one then just do the math 🙂

  38. electronic warfare

    @littlefoot @stevanG

    Please mind, that its a standard objective in electronic warfare to let planes appear that dont exist and planes disappear on radar, that do exist. I dont know the details, but in Germany and Czechia during a wargame of electronic warfare dozens of planes disappeared, and as far as i recall not only from primary radar but also from secondary.

    I am quite confident that the major powers have means of electronic deception to that end. e.g. perpetrators might have wanted the malaysian radar to see the plane in the straits and deliberately gone dark to primary radar behind MEKAR. The investigation report states, that the observed A/C disappeared “sudenly”. This reads to me, that they would have expected to be able to folow it longer, and i ask myself why the A/C should disappear in that particular moment and had the satelite logon in that particular moment.

    I am quite convinced that something was done to the AES before the logon, whatever it was, and when we pul that apart, and we get to know the “HOW”, we will very soon know the “WHO” and the “WHY”, which leads us to the plane and the fate of the passengers.

  39. Matty another 747 touched down in Africa not long ago on a very short runway. Air Force one recently landed on a short runway as well.

    I think the runway length requirement is overstated. Bigger planes have additional wheel area to reduce the load on the runway. Remember the 727 and its gravel kits? It could practically land on a beach. There is a safety margin built in. I suspect a good pilot could land an empty 777 in 4000 feet in an emergency.

    Takeoff is another story, but there are a vast number of runways at least 7500 x 150 feet. The runways over 11,000 feet were built before the leading edge flaps and high bypass engines which are stronger at low speeds.

  40. @CosmicAcademy,
    I linked the incidence of the disappearing planes over Central Europe (happened in June last year) some time ago. First it was attributed to a confirmed NATO excercise in that area in electronic warfare, but that’s apparently not the only possible explanation. However, the planes only disappeared from secondary radar, which means their transponders got disabled. But they were tracked by primary radar at all times. They were never completely lost and the air controllers insisted there was never any real danger. This shows btw, that the European air controllers reacted instantly when the transponders stopped working. Within minutes they had established contact with all crews – something the Malaysian controllers didn’t try for quite a while. They convinced themselves instead that the plane was fine and was travelling over Cambodia.

  41. @CA

    littlefoot has already explained that, also the militaries around would very well know if there are some shenanigans going around in that case

  42. StevanG/Littlefoot/CA – Not all of these countries may be totally forthcoming about any mystery blips anyway? Took a bit for the Malaysians and Thais to break cover, some of these states may decline absolutely, particularly if they did not respond, and if there was no way to know if it was MH370 they saw. Inmarsat came to their rescue if they were sitting uncomfortably on anything. They could fall back on any narrative that says it went south? Any mystery blip then becomes another matter. The northern scenario got squashed by Inmarsat and the msm.

  43. A wayward jet plane comes in well below national security considerations for many of those northern states, and it’s always been a golden rule with military radar that you never advertize capabilities. Especially if it is not known where any unidentified blip ended up. I can think of countries up there that would not disclose, no matter what. They are not responsible for MAS.

  44. @ Jeff

    My dear, you know some time for a complex problem you are facing, a very simple and logical answer is the right one. Please have a second to simply few things here, Capt. had all the opportunities to take over the plane, all he had to do is to sent Co. Pilot out of the cockpit for a coffee or something and then locked himself inside.

    Like Hardy said, the plane went over Penang Island, why would for example Co. Pilot would go there ? He has nothing to do with it, but Capt was born there, it could be saying last goodbye to his birth place ?

    People are trying to find a motive here or asking someone has to be Mad or crazy to do things like these, well hello, if you look other incidents we humans have done, its not unusual to come up with this theory that even fully sane and capable, the Capt may had a death wish, may be just to become popular for doing something which world would remember him forever.

    On 9/11 nobody was expecting some one flies planes into these towers, but some one did it. I think here what is most likely happened and I am looking forward if you can give me few logical reasons why I should not have this theory.

    Capt took over plane right after last transmission, by sending Co. Pilot out of the cockpit, He de-pressurized the cabin and people in cabin went in to sleep and death, he flew with his mask on to go to Penang, by saying last goodbyes and set the course for this remote location in the Autopilot system and probably removing his own oxygen and committed suicide.

    The plane flew for hours on autopilot and after the fuel ran out, it hit the waters on the spot where Inmarsat data suggested the Aircraft went down. The Capt may he intelligent and sane to plan this whole episode for reasons we don’t know, may be he just got bored from his routine life, we don’t know, but its certainly possible.

    I think the Hijacking of Plane from Capt is likely the case, however, its also possible that some one stormed the Cockpit from Cabin and took over it, forcing Pilots to deviate from its planned route. If it was the case, Pilot(s) may not had much choice but to follow the orders of the Hijacker(s).

    In both cases, some one has to be on the Controls to maneuver the aircraft, some one was on the Controls of that Plane on the night when it went missing.

    A side note in the end for all of you, people are trying to find why some one would turn off the Transponder ? There seems no logic or reason why a Pilot would do such a thing in flight, well lets say, The pilot was under pressure from a Hijacker, who was ordering him to remain silent and fly the plane towards to Australia, what if, the Capt turned the Transponder off in order to get some help from Air force rather hiding himself ? Think about it, After 9/11 world, if you are flying a commercial Jetliners some where over Europe or USA and you turn your Transponder off, some one would be on your tail within 20 Minutes ! What if Capt thought, by turning the Transponder off, it would raise an Alert in the Air force that an unknown Aircraft is entering Malaysian Airspace and they might send some Fighter Jets to investigate and they may have a chance to bargain with Hijackers !

    Unfortunately, as far as we know, the Aircraft [MH 370] flew around 40 minutes in their territory and Malaysian Airforce simply refused to take action, and may be if the Pilot was hoping to get some help from ground was gone with it.

    In both scenarios mentioned above, I am still thinking that it was Capt. Shah who took over the Plane and committed suicide with hundreds of Passengers on-board, however, I am also open for the theory that some one else took over the Plane, Hijacked it, perhaps, the Plan the take over plane did not work as expected and we are now looking for Aircraft in the Indian Ocean. Both possibilities exists. I hope the wreckage will be found soon, but in case you are thinking that you will find some answers, I am sorry to inform, in case of Capt Shah flying to this Area, there will be no recordings available, simply put it, if He took over the Plane and killed everyone and himself, he could have disabled both recorders from the Cockpit ! I don’t think we may ever know what happened on that night with MH 370, if this was the motive of Capt to remain in History as a “legend”, I think He already done this now.

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