Earlier this month, at a meeting between ministers from Australia, China, and Malaysia, the countries involved in the search for MH370 announced that, in the event that the plane was not found within the current search zone by the end of mission in May, the area would be increased “to extend the search by an additional 60,000 square kilometres to bring the search area to 120,000 square kilometres.” (The new area is outlined in red in the image shown here.)
I think it’s worth considering the logic behind this decision.
Last year the ATSB spent months carefully calculating the boundaries of the original 60,000 sq km area. What they wound up with was a rectangle about 1200 km long and ranging in width from 48 to 62 kilometers wide, straddling the 7th arc.
This area fit what the ATSB believed to be the most likely scenario for the final phase of the plane’s flight: that it flew straight on a southerly heading on autopilot and then shortly after 0:11 ran out of fuel — first one engine, then the second. After the second engine stopped, a backup system called the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) would have kicked in, restoring a limited amount of electrical power. The plane’s satellite communications system would have rebooted, leading to the final “half ping” at 0:19.
As soon as the second engine failed, the engine would have entered a unpowered glide, much as the “Miracle on the Hudson” A320 did after its engines ingested a flock of geese. In this case, however, there would have been no pilot at the controls to guide the plane in for a smooth landing. What’s more, the power interruption would have turned off the autopilot. Uncontrolled, the plane would have gradually banked into a turn, which then would have grown steeper, devolving into a tight spiral dive that would have ended with the plane impacting the water at high velocity.
Let’s call this the “Unpiloted Fuel Exhaustion Scenario,” or UFES.
Under these circumstances, it would be virtually impossible for the plane to have traveled very far from the 7th ping arc. In a paper released last week, IG member Brian Anderson calculates that by 0:19 the plane would low and have been traveling downward at a tremendous rate:
… the 7th arc position calculation should assume that the aircraft was at or near sea level (the surface of the reference ellipsoid) at time 00:19:38, and hence only a little above sea level at 00:19:29, and descending rapidly.
The UFES, combined with careful analysis of the Inmarsat data, adds up to a clear and falsifiable hypothesis about the location of MH370’s final resting place: it should lie within a few kilometers of the 7th arc, and certainly be within the ATSB search area. The search team has consistently expressed absolute confidence in the hypothesis. Indeed, their language has only gotten stronger with the passage of time. Earlier this month, a Fugro executive told Bloomberg, “We’re absolutely in the right spot — all the analysis has been done. It’s actually getting more exciting as we get closer.”
The fly in the ointment is that the search area described in the area is now almost completely scanned, and the plane is not inside it. When the last square kilometer of the current 60,000 square kilometer search zone is scanned sometime next month, the hypothesis will have been falsified. The UFES will have been shown to be incorrect.
The failure to find the plane in the search area should not be regarded as failure. Rather, it is an important piece of information about the fate of MH370. It allows us to narrow down the list of possibilities going forward.
But it does force us to confront a difficult question: How do we best rationally proceed?
One approach would be to assess the different assumptions that underlie the UFES, judge which ones are most likely wrong, and then examine the available alternatives. Perhaps, for instance, the 0:19 half-ping was not caused by fuel exhaustion, but some other event. In that case, the plane might have flown on for an unknown period of further time.
Perhaps aircraft performance calculations, which would rule out scenarios like that proposed by Simon Hardy, are incorrect and the plane really did fly far to the southwest.
Another alternative is that the airplane was not unpiloted, but that a conscious individual was actively flying the plane at the time of fuel exhaustion. If that were the case, then the plane could have glided a considerable distance before impacting the sea; the ATSB’s June report states “the aircraft could glide for 100+ NM.”
A fourth alternative is that, as I have suggested, the BFO data upon which the UFES is predicated cannot be trusted, because it was tampered with by sophisticated hijackers. Indeed, we know that the system that generates the BFO data was indeed tampered with, in a way that implies sophisticated knowledge by whoever carried it out. If such a spoof were carried out, then the plane would likely be many thousands of miles from the southern Indian Ocean—most likely, in Kazakhstan. That scenario would explain why no debris has been found in the southern Indian Ocean, and provide a link to what would otherwise be an extremely unlikely coincidence: the Russian shoot-down of a second Malaysian Airlines 777 just four months later.
The ATSB has as yet given no indication that they realize that the the UFES is incorrect, or what kind of scenario would be compatible with the new search area. They have specifically stated that they view the Kazakhstan scenario as impossible, but have not revealed any evidence that would rule out a spoof.
The only insight we have into the ATSB’s actual line of reasoning is by looking at the new search area that they have laid out. Essentially what they’ve done is to take the current search area and make it bigger in every direction. There doesn’t seem to be any operational principle besides “let’s keep looking.”
The ATSB’s proposed new search area might simply be an example of what psychologists call “perseveration.” This is a pattern of behavior often seen in individuals who are highly stressed to the point of panic, and, unable to come up with a solution to their problem, simply continue to repeat the same unsuccessful actions over and over again. (An example I cite in my book Extreme Fear is the case of Civil War soldiers who, after suffering a misfire in their muskets, simply continue to cram more and more cartridges down their rifle barrels; after one battle guns were found stuffed with 10 or 11 cartridges.)
Perhaps the time has come for the taxpayers funding the SIO search to demand a more rational approach.
UPDATE: Soon after I put up this post, one reader commented via Twitter that continuing to search the southern Indian Ocean at least provided jobs and did no actual harm. I disagree. Apart from spending taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, it serves to put the mystery of MH370 on ice–allowing the authorities can say “we’re doing the best we can” while running out the clock on the public’s interest in the case. They’re buying the right to pretend, for one more year, that their assurances haven’t been empty and that the UFES is still a reasonable (indeed, the only reasonable) possibility. This means that more profitable lines of inquiry will continue to be ignored.