Guest Post: The Backward Method for Finding MH370

by Sabine Lechtenfeld

Note: On the comment thread for “Northern Routes and Burst Frequency Offset for MH370” last week Sabine (posting under the handle @littlefoot) made a very cogent observation about the use of speculative scenarios in cases like the disappearance of MH370. She’s given me permission to reprint it here.  — JW

Note #2: Language of paragraph 3 modified per Sabine’s request –JW

Getting into a potential perp’s (or group of perps’) mind is a very worthwhile exercise. And that approach has been sorely lacking in the official search. One can argue that this is not their business; it’s the criminal investigation’s job. But even if we would have an ounce of trust in the handling of the case by the Malaysian authorities (I don’t), this argument is very flawed.

Most people agree by now that we’re looking at a crime rather than an accident or disaster (although some argue it might’ve been a combination of both: a hijack gone wrong which leads to a runaway plane).

If the evidence gathered in a preliminary investigation leads to a criminal investigation, a competent handling demands the construction of several possible scenarios featuring plausible perps who might’ve had a valid motive. The next question is how those perps could have tried to achieve their goals. Then you can revisit the available data (radar tracks, handshakes, performance limits, fuel supply, credible eyewitness accounts if there are any) and try to determine if there are any scenarios which fit the known data. If there are no plausible scenarios which fit the available data then you have to question the validity of those data. Fuel-and performance-limits are pretty unassailable. Radar tracks are already in a weaker category and need to be carefully looked at. And Victor and others have shown that the sat data most likely can be manipulated–which doesn’t mean of course that it actually happened. But such a scenario needs to be checked.

The current search has it mostly backwards. The available data were used to determine where it was physically possible for the plane to come down. That was combined with a few assumptions which are very debatable: the plane was flown solely by autopilot and came finally down because the fuel ran out. The question of who were the perps, what could’ve been their motives and how would they most likely have tried to achieve their goals was totally left out, thus leading to an impossibly large search area. And this area isn’t even especially compatible with any logical scenarios. Nor was it ever backed up by a scrap of physical evidence.

In this sense the investigation was indeed deeply flawed to begin with. I don’t blame the investigators that they had a preference for a Southern scenario–the sat data seemed to hint into that direction. But their “destination-SIO-with-autopilot-at-cruising-speed/height-terminated-by-fuel-exhaustion” scenario doesn’t make sense if we assume this was an accident. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense if we assume that we’re dealing with a crime.

The backward method–the place where the plane came down will eventually lead us to the wreckage which will then tell us what actually happened–is only practical if there is enough physical evidence to lead the investigators to a relatively narrow area of impact. As the sole approach it simply doesn’t work with MH370. There isn’t even enough evidence that the plane really crashed. Even the satellite data taken at face value only allow that conclusion if coupled with a set of unproven assumptions. So far the physical evidence doesn’t support these assumptions: no ELT signals, no wreckage and not a scrap of drifting debris after more than a year of searching in the designated areas.

175 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Backward Method for Finding MH370”

  1. @Matty:

    WSJ March 24, 2014
    Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Ended in Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Says

    By Jason Ng,Gaurav Raghuvanshi and Jon Ostrower

    “‘According to our data, there is no possibility the aircraft is on a runway in Pakistan, no matter how much people want to believe the possibility,’ said Inmarsat senior vice president Chris McLaughlin.”

    Posted February 19, 2015 at 12:06 AM
    Guest Post: Why Did MH370 Log Back on with Inmarsat?

    “Late Sept and early Oct/14 – WSJ, Reuters and then Newsweek report on the attack (by AQ, and current and ex-Pakistani naval officers) on the PNS Zulfiqar – a PAKISTANI warship.

    ‘The plan was to hijack PNS Zulfiqar to launch an attack on a U.S AIRCRAFT CARRIER (CAPS mine). ‘They had taken over control of the ship and were proceeding to attack the American vessel when they were intercepted by the Pakistan Armed Forces.’”

    Matty, your response when I posted that story here: ‘that Pakistan story is amazing – in that it wasn’t a major story?’

    PING. Why wasn’t this a major, massively reported story? An AQ plot to attack an US aircraft carrier that was thwarted (by Pakistan) and it didn’t get wall-to-wall coverage?”

    June 22, 2015 at 5:40 pm
    MH370 In Search of the Truth (Facebook group)

    Chris Mills:

    “The absence of phone calls and texts from any of the passengers and crew after 00.05 local time is suspicious. Combine this with the fact that Peter Meier and Blaine spoke directly with the girlfriend of Iranian passenger Pouria, who told them that she heard an automated reply from his cellphone in Urdu or Pashtun language following the plane’s disappearance. Surely this is very strong evidence that the plane was flown to Pakistan or Afghanistan.”

  2. Nihonmama – The Pakistan Navy episode was incredibly brazen. On a par with nicking a 777?

    I wouldn’t know enough about telecoms to comment on the recorded message. Anyone??

  3. @Nihonmama, hadn’t you yourself had a very helpful twitter conversation which debunked Ethan Hunt’s statement about no messages from the passengers’ cellphones even before the plane took off? Several responses seemed to imply that there were messages and calls and Hunt’s claim isn’t correct.
    In this light I can’t take those facebook statements too seriously quoted in your comment above, about recorded pashtun answers. That doesn’t make sense at all. Maybe something got lost in translation here. Or someone has to be much more specific about what was noticed about calls and answers.

  4. @Littlefoot:

    Actually, I had an opportunity to put the question directly to Ethan Hunt just last night. And he answered:

    “Hi Julie, I clarify the points you have raised for you. It was a mis quote in the flight number I think. My response to one of Jon’s question was that prior to and after the closing of the doors on MH370 there is no recorded communication with anyone outside the cell connection from the co-pilots phone. The prior too take off was in relation to MH17 which was my point in the communication argument. Prior to take off and after doors closed people were twitting and messaging loved ones including uploading video to Facebook of loading baggage I didn’t mention after take off in my comment as i have no proof of that but certainly after boarding there was. But we were discussing MH17 at that stage not MH370 my comments have always been consistant with my view on MH370 and that is there was no communication that I am aware of from any passenger or crew member on that flight which raised the suspicion in my mind of cell blockers being used. I have attempted unsuccessfully to get records or access to any details of passengers on board the flight via their cell records. Many family members have little idea about how to do this and I believe that the co-pilots phone connection was only found because when the police searched his home they likely found the packing for his phone and its IMEI number which would be needed to get that information.”

    As for what Pouria’s girlfriend said she heard. Here’s the convo:

    Me: “Pouria’s girlfriend ‘heard an automated reply from his cellphone in Urdu or Pashtun language following the plane’s disappearance.’? I missed THIS. Can you please link me to part in this thread where Blaine Alan Gibson posted that? Thanks.”

    Blaine Alan Gibson: “Peter Meier was chatting with the girlfriend and mother directly while I was providing him with questions and follow ups. I have very bad thread searching capability on the smartphone. Of course she could have been wrong in identifying the language .. but she could have been right.”

    Me: “If Peter Meier knows or can expand, I’d be very interested to know why Pouria’s girlfriend believed what she heard was was Urdu or Pashtun (Pashto)? Does she have a familiarity with both languages or either? I don’t know her nationality, but many Pashtuns (Afghanistan) can also speak (and/or understand) Farsi (Persian).”

    Peter Meier: “Pourias girlfriend is Iranian, she she spaks Farsi! From pashtu and afghanistan language she knows little, thatsxwhy she recognized a little,,but just single words. These words were enough to be sure that is was not Farsi, what she heard!”

    You are obviously welcome to your take.

    Here’s how I operate: when people provide information (in any context) that appears probative and could be relevant down the road, I put it in a box. Then I wait to see what else emerges that will either support or nullify it. What I don’t do is dismiss information before I have ALL of the information I need to fully understand what’s actually happening.

    Ethan Hunt’s statement to Jon Ronson and what Pouria’s girlfriend told Peter Meier she heard when she rang Pouria’s mobile are two separate pieces of information. The veracity (or not) of one is not related to the veracity (or not) of the other.

  5. @Matty (and @Victor):

    On the subject of Pakistan, this convo I had with Lucy Barnes may interest:

    Of note:

    – Based on that report in The Malay Mail, it appears that there were MORE THAN TWO people on MH370 with false ID/passports.

    – Three months BEFORE the Newsweek article on the planned attack on the PNS Zulfiqar (by Al Qaeda, and current and ex-Pakistani naval officers) @Petrossian tweeted:

    “MH370 again, where is the immigration official that let the 2 flagged passports through? Again, ISI knows more.”

    ISI is Pakistan intelligence.

    And on the subject of flagged passports here’s something else interesting that Peter Meier posted (on FB) a few hours ago:

    “I just spoke to Pourias Mother. Pouria did not deactivate his Facebook-account,,at least he did not tell her. March 8 she was still able to send him posts to his FB-Page, which was not the case dome days layter! But what is strange is that someone changed the profile in Pourias name, she doesnt know who! This change took place after Marchv 8!”

  6. @Nihonmama, thanks a lot for getting Ethan Hunt to clarify on the cellphone use situation. That’s valuable information indeed.
    As to the other information. Thanks again for considerably expanding it.
    While I agree with you that it is good to note strange things and file them away for further use, I think it’s too iffy right now for drawing any conclusions. Certainly not the one that the plane went ultimately to Afghanistan.
    But if the recording has really been changed, then it’s a legitimate question of what happened to that specific cellphone.
    I also found oug btw that apparently in the beginning the Malaysian authorities talked about 4 false passports. It’s hard to say why they whittled it down to only 2. No reason was ever given,

  7. @nihonmama, it would be important to know exactly when Pouria’s girlfriend noticed that the message of the cellphone had been changed into another language. How often did she try to reach him and how often did she listen to the allegedly changed message? And when did she talk to her boyfriend the last time through this cellphone? Does she know for sure that he took it with him when he borded the plane?
    You’re right btw. The story of the missing calls and the story of the changed cellphone recording are two very different things and you didn’t conflate them. It was Chris Mills who did or seemed to do so according to your quote.

  8. @Littlefoot:


    “apparently in the beginning the Malaysian authorities talked about 4 false passports. It’s hard to say why they whittled it down to only 2. No reason was ever given.”

    That’s very interesting — because I’ve never seen any reports (at least in the English language media) mentioning four fake passports. If you have a link(s), it would be greatly appreciated.

    You ask some great follow-on questions. May be good idea for you to join the FB group so that you can pose those to Peter Meier directly for follow-up with Pouria’s mother and girlfriend.

    Just FYI, this report from March 11 2014 tells us (through Pouria’s schoolmate) that Pouria had his phone after they were dropped off at KLIA — because the schoolmate rang him.

  9. @Nihonmama, I found that info about the original assumption that there were more false passport boardings recently in an early account of a Malaysian newspaper. I will try and find the link again.
    Thanks for the additional link, which seems to imply that Pouria had a cellphone in working condition when he got to the airport.

  10. @Nihonmama, I said deliberately that Pouria had a cellphone in working condition at the airport. We don’t know if it is the same one through which his girlfriend used to phone him. This story – if true- is so strange that one needs to be terribly exact and assess all possible little details before even trying to reach a conclusion.

  11. @Nihonmama

    Could you ask Ethan Hunt what he thinks of the statements from @cryfortruth? Has he communicated with them? Might they have access to records that are off-limits to him? Or does he dismiss what they say?

    — VoiceMH370/@cryfortruth (April 10 on Twitter & June 4 to Victor):
    “yes there were definitely tmsg sent from on broad MH370 prior & even slightly after take off”
    “Yes. Text messages and phone calls were received from passengers after boarding.”

    — Ethan Hunt (June 22 to Nihonmama):
    “Prior to and after the closing of the doors on MH370 there is no recorded communication with anyone outside the cell connection from the co-pilots phone….My comments have always been consistent with my view on MH370 that there was no communication that I am aware of from any passenger or crew member on that flight which raised the suspicion in my mind of cell blockers being used. I have attempted unsuccessfully to get records or access to any details of passengers on board the flight via their cell records. ”

    I’m still bewildered about why we’re getting two completely different stories about this. Am I missing something? (Time to put me in a home? 🙂

  12. @JudyP:

    You said:

    “I’m still bewildered about why we’re getting two completely different stories about this. Am I missing something?”

    Nope — I think your eyes are wise open. 😉

    Note that I didn’t make any comment about Hunt’s response — I simply posted it. Because how the convo was set up in Ronson’s piece — versus Hunt’s explanation — doesn’t make sense. He may have been talking about the co-pilot’s phone — but he was also (clearly) talking about the passengers’ phones.

    But I’ve elected not to press Hunt further about it because (IMO) that dissembling answer spoke volumes. If I were working on behalf of the MH370 NOK and a journalist misquoted me on a huge point, you better believe I’d move very quickly to have that journo make an on-the-record correction. But I don’t see any evidence that Hunt did that.

    My intuition tells me that Hunt may no longer be working on behalf of the families — because he never even mentioned CryForTruth or Sarah Bajc in his response. And they’ve also stayed silent (at least in public). It looks like face-saving mode.

    All I can say is that there’s a lot going on. Let’s see what happens next.

  13. @nihonmama and JudyP, you are not the only ones being puzzled by Ethan Hunt’s explanations. In the Guardian interview Ronson even questioned Hunt twice if there really weren’t any calls while the plane was still on the runway. And Hunt answered: “Not one”. This was sold to the readers as a major revelation. So either this was incredibly shoddy journalism or Hunt is backtracking now, because he realized that his statements must be wrong. What the not-so-missing calls have to do with mh17 is a mystery to me.
    I don’t see anything sinister in this, though. Just backtracking and face saving. It’s not just a part of Asian mentality.

  14. I have to correct my comment above. I misinterpreted Hunt’s convoluted answer to Nihonmama. JudyP is right: he’s still saying that there was no cellphone communication prior and after take off in the case of mh370. That’s a direct contradiction to others who said that there was communication.
    So, in fact he didn’t answer nihonmama’s question.

  15. @Nihonmama @littlefoot

    the four fake passports:

    In a press conference on march 9th the DCA director-general amended: “There are only two passengers on record on this aircraft with false passports and we have the CCTV recordings of those passengers from check in..”

    I am not aware of any further clarifying statements about the other two cases. The media fully concentrated on the two Iranians from then on.

  16. @el gato, that was not highly publicized and fairly quickly dropped. Don’t worry I will find the link, where more than two false passports were mentioned. And it might’ve been dropped because it was an error. Who knows?

  17. @littlefoot

    it’s actually mentioned in the article I linked to above:

    “The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, said that the passport number of one of the Chinese passengers did not match the name – Zhao Qiwei – on the manifest.”

    Nothing has ever been said about suspect number four, to my knowledge.

  18. @El_gato and RetiredF4,
    Thanks a lot for the links. Mine were from English Malaysian papers.
    Yes, one never hears anything about the forth candidate who might or might not have traveled with a stolen passport. And what about the Chinese guy? He must’ve been traveling with a false passport, yet he’s never been mentioned again. That’s very strange to say the least. Maybe the forth turned out to be a false lead. Unfortunately there’s probably no way to clear that up, since everything around the criminal investigation is so opaque.

  19. OT? umm, here in Europe, we have already quite hot environment these days, as Greece did many mistakes in the past and solution requires some kind of unity; and together with this, Iranian nuclear talks are also quite hot already; and last but not least, there is asteroidday coming – all this targeting the June 30; so, maybe, forget to hope and learn to fear?
    (cause or consequence of game theory? – its crazy, I know)

  20. Hi I find this story very interesting but I talk to a friend we were talking about MH370. there is another thing too these photos of two Iranians in CTV Footage I think it could be someone looks like Pouria maybe I am wrong but after reading all this facts these photos are false the bottom half with two legs are fake something is not quiet right with this story I think someone could used disguise just to looklike Pouria like in movies I reckon someone is lying I think Pouria’s girlfriend or his family probably are hiding something nothing make sense.. I don’t trust either of them especially changing his profile name I am sorry if you think I’m crazy I am just guessing what I am thinking here nothing make sense its a cover up someone is not telling the truth here….

  21. His cell phone was definitely working shortly before he boarding mh370. He text someone he and another iranian his friend were using the phones mostly before boarding mh370. Don’t know who he texting obviously he text someone.

  22. Its good as your other blog posts : D, appreciate it for putting up. “The present is the necessary product of all the past, the necessary cause of all the future.” by Robert Green Ingersoll.

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