Until fairly recently, the default assumption about MH370 is that, based on the interpretation of satcom signals recorded by Inmarsat, the plane made a final turn to the left sometime after 18:25 UTC and flew south on autopilot before running out of fuel. This default scenario, sometimes referred to as the “ghost ship” scenario, was endorsed by both the ATSB and the Independent Group.
However, if the plane flew south in this manner and ran out of fuel, it would have been found by now, as Brock McEwen explained here recently. It was not found. Therefore the default scenario is incorrect: the plane did not make a final turn and fly straight to the south without human intervention.
At this point, only three possible scenarios still make sense for MH370:
- As was first mooted in the June ATSB report, the plane lingered near Sumatra before flying straight or took a curving path to the south. In either case, the plane wound up intersecting the 7th arc somewhere north of Broken Ridge, beyond the current search area.
- The plane flew straight south after a final major turn, then was hand-flown by a conscious pilot on a long glide that took it far from the 7th arc, beyond the current search area.
- The plane did not go south at all. If this is the case, then the satellite communications system must have been compromised by hijackers who either flew the plane north to Kazakhstan or China (if only the BFO values were spoofed) or somewhere else within a huge circle encompassed by the 7th ping ring (if both BTO and BFO values were spoofed).
Each of these options has unpalatable aspects, but they’re all we’ve got.
I would argue that these unpleasant choices can be further subdivided into two categories: inside the cockpit, or outside the cockpit. By “inside the cockpit,” I mean that the airplane was controlled from the flight deck, presumably by either the captain or the first officer; by “outside the cockpit,” I mean that hijackers managed to seize control of the plane either by accessing the E/E bay or hacking in through the inflight entertainment system. The reason I feel we can make this assertion is that only one minute elapsed between the captain calmly saying “Good night Malaysia 370” and the diversion at IGARI. It’s scarcely imaginable that hijackers would have time to breach the fortified cockpit door, overcome the flight crew, and reprogram the flight management system in such a short time. So whoever took the plane had to be either on one side of the door or the other.
The first two of our three options would fall under the category of “inside the cockpit.” They present a number of difficulties:
- They require the pilots to behave in ways that are hard to explain. For example, a curving route might make sense when flying over land, when one might wish to avoid mountains or weather, but a southern route would have passed over unobstructed sea, in clear weather. Likewise, it’s hard to fathom why a suicidal pilot would sit alert for six hours while waiting for his plane to run out of fuel, and then fly it in a long glide into the ocean. Such behavior would only needlessly prolong what must be an intensely uncomfortable situation. Indeed, of the handful of pilot-suicide incidents that are believed to have taken place, all involve the pilots pointing the nose down and crashing the plane quickly.
- Lack of surface debris. Last year, it was widely accepted that debris would begin washing ashore imminently. Needless to say, no debris has washed ashore. Some commenters have convinced themselves that this is no big deal after all, but this is an ex post facto judgement.
- Reboot of the SDU. Since last year I’ve asked quite a few airline pilots if they know how to log the SDU off and back on again. Not one has said yes. It’s a huge problem, then, that whoever was in command of 9M-MRO managed to turn off the satcom system and then turn it back on again. According to the June ATSB report, “A log-on request in the middle of a flight is not common and can occur for only a few reasons.” (One of the members of the IG spent a good deal of time trying to figure out ways by which the SDU might have accidentally logged itself off and back on again, and was unable to find any.) It has been hypothesized that the pilot might have accidentally turned the SDU off by isolating the left AC bus, but no one has managed to come up with a plausible scenario for why anyone would want to isolate the left AC bus. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that the SDU was rebooted is a huge clue that the IG and the ATSB are unable to explain and instead have chosen to ignore.
A further wrinkle is that the SDU appears to have been rebooted less than a minute after the plane disappeared from primary radar. Either this is another incredible coincidence, or whoever took the plane had a remarkable degree of sophistication concerning primary radar coverage in the Malacca Strait, because someone armed with a basic level of knowledge would have expected the plane to remain under primary radar surveillance for some time to come, since the aircraft at that time was well within the claimed detection range of the Thai radar installation at Phuket and Indonesian radar facilities at Lhokseumawe and Sabang.
- The strangeness of the path. If the pilot/s intended to fly the plane deep into the southern Indian Ocean, why would they fly northwest up the Malacca Strait? As I wrote back in December, “The radar track released by the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) in June shows that the plane came within 60 nautical miles of the installation before it disappeared from Malaysian and/or Thai military radar. Afterwards, according to the consensus view, the plane’s track should have stayed within the radar’s viewing range as it headed west, made a turn to the south, and proceeded into the southern Indian Ocean.” That is to say, the IG/ATSB view is that the plane diverted hundreds of miles, and several hours off course, to avoid radar coverage that didn’t in fact exist, and whose nonexistence the perps seem to have been aware of, given the timing of the SDU reboot. (If the perps did believe that Indonesia’s radar coverage was operational, their behavior is still perplexing, since a final major turn to the south would cause them to penetrate Indonenesian airspace deep within the coverage zone of the Sabang radar.)
In the past, some people have speculated that the reason for the FMT was that there was some kind of rebellion on the plane, in the aftermath of which the plane flew south as a ghost ship. But now that we’ve ruled out the ghost ship scenario this explanation no longer holds up.
Now that we’ve run through the problems with the “inside the cockpit” scenarios, let’s review the problems with the “outside the cockpit” scenario.
- Incredible sophistication. At a gut level, many people have a hard time accepting that the hijacking of MH370 was carried out by people who understood the workings of the Inmarsat communications system better than Inmarsat itself. However, given the manipulation of the SDU, it’s clear that whoever took MH370 did indeed have uncannily sophisticated knowledge of the aircraft’s systems.
- Lack of motive. When I ran my “Spoof” idea up the flagpole in March, the most common criticism I received was, “But what’s the motive?” I speculated at the time that the hack might have been a show of prowess made by Russia at a time when it felt like it might be drawn towards war with the much more powerful Western alliance. I also pointed out that motive was going to be a problem with any MH370 scenario, as no one visibly benefitted.
- Lack of detection by radar. If MH370 flew north, why wasn’t it detected by radar systems in India or China? This indeed is an important problem with the spoofing scanario. However, based on the SDU reboot at 18:25, I would argue that the perps seemed to have had an extraordinary understanding of precisely where radar coverage existed, and adjusted their behavior accordingly. What’s more, it turned out that the coverage over the Malacca Strait by radars belonging to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia were far less than a casual observer would expect. To put it bluntly, primary radar coverage is far spottier (there and probably everywhere) than people realize, and a perp who knows where the holes are can slip through unobserved.
Obviously, I have my perspective on things, and other people have their perspective. I don’t expect everyone to jump on the “spoof” bandwagon. However, whatever disagreements we all may have, my fond wish is that we keep our future discussions anchored in the reality of the data at hand. Recently there has been a lot of back-and-forth in the comments section of this blog about the Maldives, contrails, the Curtin boom, along with lots of speculation about global conspiracies and insurance payments. Some people have gone so far as to congratulate themselves on turning over every rock. The fact is, when someone brings up a point that has already been hashed over and discarded, or that is patently nonsensical, or that is impossible to verify, it doesn’t count as “turning over rocks,” it counts as drawing attention away from the job at hand, which is to make sense of a very limited data set and try to move toward consensus about what is possible and what is not. I happen to believe that the mystery of MH370 can be solved. There are a lot of smart and resourceful people who take part in the discussion here, and I think if we can focus we can move the ball forward collectively.