New York: How an American Obsessed With the MH370 Case May Have a Found a Piece of the Missing Plane

Blaine Alan Gibson, a 58-year old lawyer who lives in Seattle, Washington, has spent much of the past year traveling around the Indian Ocean region trying to solve the mystery what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. He’s been to the Maldives to talk to villagers who say they saw a large plane fly low overhead the day after the disappearance; visited Réunion Island to interview the local who found the flaperon from MH370; and met with Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss to discuss the ongoing seabed search. He has no professional background in aircraft accident investigation or journalism, and no professional accreditation. He is simply motivated by the desire to know what happened to the airliner. “I do not have a theory,” he emailed me last September. “I am just looking for evidence that may have been prematurely dismissed.”

Last week, Gibson found himself in Mozambique searching for debris on local beaches. On February 27, he says, he hired a boat captain to take him someplace where flotsam from the ocean tended to wash up. The captain chose a sandbar called Paluma a half-dozen miles from the coastal town of Vilankulos. They arrived at around 7 a.m., and after about 20 minutes on the flat, low stretch of sand the boat captain spotted something unusual and handed it to Gibson.

The next morning, Gibson emailed me a description of the object:

The debris appears to be made of a fiberglass composite and has aluminum honeycomb inside. NO STEP is written on one side. It appears to be from an aircraft wing … The piece is torn and broken into a triangular shape, 94 cm long at the base and 60 cm high. The remaining highlock pin has a 10 mm diameter head. The pin itself is about 12 mm long. The bolt holes are spaced about 30 mm apart from center to center of hole. The distance from the edge of the hole with the pin to the intact edge is about 8 mm. At the bottom of the intact edge there is a very thin (1 to 2 mm thick) strip of dried rubber remaining that runs about 30 mm along the edge before it was broken off. The intact edge is only 65 mm long. All the rest is broken.
In a video that Gibson posted to a closed-access Facebook page, the fragment looks quite light and insubstantial, easy enough for one man to pick up and wave around — unlike the flaperon found on Réunion, which required several people to lift. Gibson asked me to keep his find a secret, explaining, “It is too large and metallic to be easily taken out of the country, and needs to have its provenance documented. The procedure with other possible debris discoveries in La Réunion, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia has been to report it to local authorities first. Then the responsible international investigators can come to inspect.”

On Tuesday, Gibson bundled up the piece in cardboard and flew with it to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, to turn it over to the authorities. Wednesday morning, news articles about the discovery appeared on CNN, the BBC, NBC, and elsewhere. According to these accounts, experts believe that the piece could be part of the composite skin from the horizontal stabilizer – that is, one of the miniature “wings” on either side of the tail — of a 777. And, of course, no other 777 has been lost in the Indian Ocean except for MH370.

On Wednesday afternoon, I managed to reach Gibson by phone in Maputo. He sounded tired but elated, having just gotten off a live interview on Richard Quest’s show on CNN. “I did not expect that this would all hit this early and so fast,” he said. He told me that he and the Australian consul had met earlier that day with the head of civil aviation in Mozambique, who promised that he would do the proper paperwork and then turn the piece over to the Australian Transportation Safety Board, who are overseeing the search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. “It’s in very good hands,” he said.

When he first held the piece, he told me, his immediate reaction was that it was so light and thin, that it was probably from some light aircraft or small plane — “but maybe it’s from MH370.” Only when back on dry land and able to consult with other MH370 researchers did he realize that the lettering looks identical to the “NO STEP” warnings on the wings of 777s, and the alphanumerical code on the head of a rivet indicates that it’s a fastener used in the aerospace industry.

To verify that the part could indeed have floated its way naturally to the beach, he had put it in the ocean and photographed it floating “just absolutely flat as a pancake” at the surface. He was struck by the absence of marine life. “There were a few little things that looked like a little bit of algae or calcification that may have come from something that tried to attach there,” he says. “But the top surface with NO STEP on it was very smooth, and the bottom was a little rougher but still pretty smooth.”

He knows that sounds odd: after two years in the ocean, a piece of floating debris should be encrusted with growth. But having spent the last year steeped in the oddness of the case, he’s learned to expect the unexpected. “I’m open to anything,” he says. Even the timing of the discovery was eyebrow-raising: Just a few days before the second anniversary of the MH370’s disappearance.

The yearlong plunge into the case is just the latest rabbit hole for the California-bred Gibson, who is fluent in six languages. In the past he has traveled to remote Siberia to investigate the Tunguska meteor, to Central America to figure out why the Maya disappeared, and to Ethiopia in search of the Lost Ark. So he knows not only about unraveling weird mysteries, but also the skepticism that such efforts can engender. “I can tell you this about that piece: it is absolutely authentically there,” he says. “There is no way that that was planted there by any shenanigans. I rode with those guys on the boat there, and they didn’t carry anything there. It was a completely natural find. It was just freak luck or destiny, whatever you want to call it.”

This piece originally appeared on the New York magazine web site on March 3, 2016.

356 thoughts on “New York: How an American Obsessed With the MH370 Case May Have a Found a Piece of the Missing Plane”

  1. @sk999, in this case it’s old news. The statement is still interesting but might be outdated.
    We will see…

  2. @oleksander
    The link you posted does not say that, it says it is being examined. All the links listed in that link you posted talk about the thai and malaysia debris found, just saying.

  3. Jeff, you are right, Malaysia is great at contradicting their own statements. Remember when Hishy said “Its only confusion if you wish it to be confusion”….his famous line is Malaysia’s new motto!!

  4. Bugsy,

    You confused something. Does not say what? The pdf explicitly mentions Mozambique. As well as the head of Mozambique Aviation Institute, to whom Mr Gibson talked last Tuesday.

    Your link is outdated. Initially it was said the fragment will be shipped to Malaysia; then to Australia. Then again to Malaysia. Does anyone know its present whereabouts?

  5. ”““Based on these identifying details, the team has confirmed that the debris does not belong to a B777 9M-MRO aircraft (MH370),” Liow said in a statement on Tuesday. ”

    This quote is directed at the Maldives ”debris”. It is wrongly included in the Mozambique discovery PDF file report.

  6. @Donald Branscom: I’ll repeat your question.

    Did they search the ‘ping’ area yet? Are they planning to, and is it on the 7th arc or thereabouts?

    It’s been so long I can’t recall.

  7. As others have pointed out, the sentence, “Based on these identifying details, the team has confirmed that the debris does not belong to a B777 9M-MRO aircraft (MH370),” was made in January 2016 relative to the debris that came ashore in Thailand. Somehow this sentence from a past statement crept into the recent statement.

  8. @Victor, I’m not quite convinced that this sentence just crept in by mistake. It’s quite possible. But it’s equally possible that they use this same sentence always – like a template – when they want to point out that in their opinion certain pieces of debris didn’t originate from the missing plane.
    We have to be a little patient and wait for clarification or new evaluations.

  9. @Susie, Donald
    The area where acoustic pings were detected has been searched using an AUV across approx. 900 km2. IMO it should indeed be searched with the towed sonarsystem, over an area of at least 5000 km2. I still think the pings were the best clue we’ve had so far.
    It is indeed around the 7th arc, approx. S21 E104 degrees, see also my July 2015 report at
    I’m currently working on a short report on detection ranges for these acoustic ULB signals to reiterate the recommendation to re-search in this area.

  10. @Matty

    KL and Perth are in the same time zone. It is a little past 3AM (Tuesday 8 March) there now. Malaysia says new FI will be available online at 3PM (about 12 hours from now)

    I would hope our Aussie friends will have the Cliff Notes version pasted here when I get up tomorrow. I don’t want to stay up late. It makes me cranky.

  11. @Niels: according to my information – and as discussed over a year ago in this forum – the acoustic pings were…

    …of an implausible frequency (33.5kHz, vs. manufacturer’s specs of 37.5+/- 1kHz)
    …detected at/over implausibly large distances (4-12km, vs. tested maximum detection range of 2.3km), and
    …subsequently attributed to the detection equipment/ship itself. Or possibly whales.

    Also: paths impacting at 21 degrees south are a lousy fit to the BFO data. Such paths produce errors roughly double what used to be an accepted tolerance level around here – and all five errors are on the SAME SIDE (BFO value predicts an intersection point further south in EACH case). In my business, this is a strong indication of a poor model fit.

    Finally: contrary to popular misconception (which seems to me to have been carefully planted), the acoustic pings did not DRAW the search to the north. As clearly stated in the June, 2014 ATSB report, the search was drawn there for a myriad of reasons. The only one which ever made any sense to anyone was: “this is a location we can actually get to and scan within our tight time window”. On the first day after dropping in their listening devices, they detected pings. What luck.

    If the above data is correct, the 2-month fiasco at 21 degrees south was a particularly odious episode in the hunt for MH370 – one for which search leadership has yet to account (unless you count PM Abbott’s resignation).

    If the above data is incorrect or outdated, please advise.

    But even if you wave away all of the above: search leadership emphatically ruled out this zone over 21 months ago. Any advocacy for this zone should start by rebutting the arguments they presented then.

  12. Brock,

    Re frequency. I recall some marine biologists later ‘admitted’ they use 33.5 kHz pingers to track migration of sharks, whales etc. That was a conviencing explanation. But I don’t think ATSB was doing wrong by chasing these pings. At that time it was probably the best hope they had.

    Re: “paths impacting at 21 degrees south are a lousy fit to the BFO data”

    No. The correct formulation should be “paths impacting at 21 degrees south are a lousy fit to the IG and ATSB assumptions”.

  13. @Oleksandr

    No. The correct formulation should be “paths impacting at 21 degrees south are a lousy fit to the IG and ATSB assumptions”.

    +1 🙂

  14. @Brock

    Just a brief reaction now on the points I have studied:
    – Looking at the electronics the freq. offset is not impossible. Based on the original ULB patent I suspect they use a trimmed relaxation oscillator to drive the piezo disk.
    – Based on my own calculations (and if you carefully study the ATSB reports) the detection limit is not 2 -3 km. It depends on environmental noise which in this frequency range strongly depends on sea state (wind). So around 10 km is a much more safe number if you’re trying to do a careful search, possibly 10 – 20 km if wind is very light.
    – The poor BFO fit is simply not true; you can get there with physically reasonable flight parameters and have a perfect BTO/BFO fit

  15. @VictorI,

    “The outer layer of the part looks like fiberglass, or Glass Fiber Reinforced Plastic (GFRP); however, on a B777, the structural composite parts are more likely to be Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP), which would likely be darker in color.”

    You are correct that structural components are CFRP, however GFRP and hybrids are used for non-structural components (fairings and access panels). The suspected area for this piece falls in to the aerodynamic fairing category.

    I think the question arises around the core material; aluminium honeycomb as opposed to nomex. The aluminium honeycomb just doesn’t sound right for this era aircraft.


  16. @Oleksandr, @Dennis: as my position on ISAT data authenticity (agnostic) should make clear, I need no lecture on the dangers of over-assuming. My point was that the latitudes ending in 21S were, in and of themselves, a poor fit to the BFO data, irrespective of assumption. As I posted a couple of months ago: as any southbound path approaches end of flight, BFO errors are driven less and less by assumed VELOCITY (in ANY direction in three-space), and more and more by assumed POSITION. You can verify this for yourself by analyzing partial sensitivities in any well-constructed BFO model.

    One is, of course, free to introduce arbitrary and unconventional velocity changes (in ANY direction – vertical, i.e. altitude, is the most popular, as it offers the best bang for your buck) which just happen to offset all the position-driven errors, leaving a really spiffy fit. I just think that such a coincidence – on top of the BTO coincidence covered this past weekend – is too much for this particular math geek to accept.

    @Niels: your argument isn’t with me; it’s with people like William Meacham (see link) and Duncan Steel – who publicly and emphatically dismissed the acoustic pings as having nothing to do with an FDR. @jeffwise, our fearless host, likewise argued against their authenticity behind the scenes – and many others have also (bravely…) come forward long after the fact, and admitted the pings were bunk.

  17. How Slow Can You Go?

    In order to reach further North along the 7th arc than the current high priority search zone, MH370 would have needed to fly at a speed considerably slower than normal cruise speed (whether MRC or LRC or some intermediate cost index.) Which leads to two questions – why would someone choose to fly slow, and if one were to do so, what would be the speed?

    Those questions are the topic of the following article:

    The context is that a pilot is asked to slow down while still in cruise phase, presumably because of air traffic congestion ahead. After much discussion, the article suggests that a good choice is “Best Holding Speed”, which can be determined using the CDU (bringing up one of the Hold pages.) “Best Hold Speed” turns out to achieve maximum endurance, as opposed to, say, maximum range.

    The actual best holding speed is a function of altitude, weight, and atmospheric conditions, so one cannot predict it in advance without knowing the specifics of a particular situation. However, if MH370 were at FL320 or FL330 in the vicinity of the last radar point, “best hold speed” would have been about 425 knots, which would put the plane down someplace between -33 and -34 degrees on the 7th arc. Not saying that that is what happened, but it does provide a mechanism by which the final speed could have been established.

    Here’s a table of best holding speed for an aircraft of weight 210 tons (which is the approximate weight of MH370 at the last radar point) for a standard atmosphere (and numbers are approximate, since I use all sorts of interpolation formulae – not for flight!):

    Altitude / Hold True Air Speed (knots)
    20000 / 288
    22500 / 326
    25000 / 354
    27500 / 364
    30000 / 401
    31000 / 410
    32000 / 418
    33000 / 426
    34000 / 433
    35000 / 440

  18. @SK999

    My assumption is that one might chose to fly slow to allow the sun rise at an intended landing location, especially when that location is a non-cooperating airfield.

    A question for you is why would someone fly at normal cruise speed into the middle of nowhere (current search area) when there is no opportunity for anything other than to terminate in a hostile ocean? The IG does not get a pass on motive.

  19. The “no step” panel has distinct profiling on its underside. There is some kind of thickening ridge on the lower long side. This ridge has a transition from narrower to wider, bridged by neat radii. The narrow upper side has a similar ridge/ribbing.

    These features should make it relatively easy for people with the right access to design drawings, replacement parts, etc. to identify its source, if it is indeed a B777 part.

  20. DennisW,

    I do not attribute any motive at all to whoever commanded MH370. I don’t know – I wasn’t there. Further, it is irrelevant for the purpose of locating the aircraft. My only assumption has been that the plane was flown in a manner commensurate with how aircraft are flown in general, notwithstanding the unusual destination. Flying “slow” cannot be done arbitrarily – one must be at an altitude commensurate with the desired speed and weight of the aircraft.

    If I were flying a plane that needed to wait for sunrise in order to land, I would head there at normal cruise speed, then descend and get into a holding pattern. Why? Because that is common flight profile. That is what EY440 did (well, sort of.) Not the only way to get the job done, obviously, but one that a pilot would be familar with.

    [YMMV. I am not a 777 pilot, even on a home computer simulator.]

  21. @SK999

    Where is the symmetry here? You asked why someone would fly slow, I asked why someone would fly at normal cruise to the middle of nowhere. I assumed your question was not rhetorical. Maybe it was.

    I obviously don’t agree that motive is not an important part of determining a terminus. That motiveless approach has not worked as yet, and I doubt (but sincerely hope) that it will work.

  22. @sk999
    possible to be slower by making 360 degree turns at each ping time to tweak BFO too? just try

  23. @Brock
    It is a bit difficult to argue with (archaeologist) Meacham who mainly puts private email references below his article.
    The same you can say about me as long as I didn’t write out my calculations for others to check, so let’s finish that first.
    My calculations are very similar to what Rodney Thomson has been doing (thanks @DennisW) so I see some good ways to verify / progress on this.
    The fact that it goes against mainstream opinion is not discouraging: Science usually doesn’t progress by consensus.

  24. @sk999

    “My only assumption has been that the plane was flown in a manner commensurate with how aircraft are flown in general,”

    but this wasn’t your ordinary flight, this flight obviously had some extraordinary goal thus noone could assume standard flight profile that had no sense at all in this situation, that’s the main mistake ATSB&IG made

  25. Dennis – I won’t be home until 5.00 pm, I was hoping you might have it all wrapped up for me? Being a retiree and all? The ranch…..or the beach house??

  26. @Matty

    At the ranch at the moment. You are right about time. Now that my taxes are all turned into the bean counters there is a vacuum in my life. 11PM is starting to get pretty late for an old guy, however.

    Be sure to put **spoiler** in your post headings relative to the new FI report. Don’t want have my eureka moments diluted.

  27. DennisW,

    “I assumed your question was not rhetorical. Maybe it was.”

    My original question definitely WAS meant to be rhetorical. (It was the title of the article I linked to.)

  28. @sk999, @DennisW umm, curious about frequency of equator oscilations of IOR (cca 24Hr, or 11.5uHz?), found this Duncan Steel article with drawn positions of IOR, where he notes 15 minute marks on the image named “Movement of the sub-satellite point”… There is exact mark at 16:41 and following 12 marks (counterclokwise) so 3Hrs up to northest peak of IOR position; is coincidence that 1st unanswered phone call was in sync with such 15 minute marks (having aligned the northest one by hour?) so at 18:41, just exactly 1Hr before IOR was northest? remeber that such call probably synced GES inactivity timer, so next ping happened at 19:41, just when IOR was northest? or am I wrong??

  29. @Falken

    I think Duncan selected those values for illustrative purposes. You would not use the graphic to get satellite positions for analytical purposes.

  30. @DennisW
    “In order for readers to visualise precisely what the satellite is doing in terms of its sub-satellite point during each orbit, I have produced the following graphic.” Duncans words

  31. @RussellM,

    That definitely clears up that the core material is aluminium.

    The government statement has to be a stuff up.


  32. Brock,

    Re “I need no lecture on the dangers of over-assuming.”

    What did you mean under “over-assuming”? IG, for instance, uses, what I call, N571 assumption. It is a minor detail, but it shifts terminus by 200 km or so if all other assumptions stay. Is it “over-assuming”?

    Re: “My point was that the latitudes ending in 21S were, in and of themselves, a poor fit to the BFO data, irrespective of assumption.”

    Are you sure about this? I am sure in the opposite.

    Re: “I just think that such a coincidence – on top of the BTO coincidence covered this past weekend – is too much for this particular math geek to accept.”

    That is a reason for me for chasing 100E. Is it coincidence that wind and Coriolis contribute to a very good fit of BFO, including BFOs from the cluster 23:15? With the terminus consistent with the origin of Curtin Univ blip, should it be on the 7th arc? On top of it consistent with the initial data-driven model of ATSB. And nearly consistent with Kate’s testimony. I don’t have any explanation for this incredible coincidence. Do you?

  33. Sk999,

    There are two distinctive possibilities:

    1. Ghost flight.
    If we assume that hardware/software was malfunctioning why would the speed be optimal in terms of the endurance or range?

    2. Manned flight.
    A manned flight would have some goal, which apparently had nothing to do with the maximum endurance or range (because (a) flight was to the mid of ocean; (b) flight over Penang is not optimal in terms of the endurance or range).

  34. Wow, what is going on over there?

    Citation from ChannelNewsAsia article:

    The three-page statement, made accessible to families prior to the report’s public release at 3pm local time and seen by Channel NewsAsia, confirmed that the international Air Accident Investigation Team will complete a final report “in the event wreckage of the aircraft is located or the search for the wreckage is terminated, whichever is the earlier”.

    Next-of-kin told Channel NewsAsia that they were disappointed by the scarcity of details on recent findings of potential debris on Reunion Island and Mozambique.

  35. Malaysia just released the second interim statement via the official MH370 website. The statement literally contains nothing new, no flaperon analysis, no radar information.

    I recall IG’s Victor Iannello several months ago wrote to the Malaysian investigating team who responded that a report would be released today shedding light on more detailed radar information.

    So it’s really a shame that the actual report contained nothing new.

  36. @RussellM,

    Thanks for making those available. Do you have drawings for further panels (only panel 1 shown in the download).

    The cross section drawing of panel 1 seems to indicate that the panel is mainly a “thick panel” with a “thin ridge” in the middle and is “thin” around the outer edges.

    The image of the Mozambique find’s underside shows the opposite cross section (thick around the edges and mainly thin panel).

    Can you have a look for drawings of the other stabilizer panels for such a design?

  37. @MuOne:

    “The image of the Mozambique find’s underside shows the opposite cross section (thick around the edges and mainly thin panel).”

    You need to look again at the pic of the Mozambique find. The honeycomb is chamfered at edge of the panel, where the inner and outer layers of GFRP join to form flanges. There is no honeycomb in those flanges.

  38. @MuOne

    Yes I can look at other drawings, but all composite panels follow the same basic design principle. They all must have “thin” edges in order to seal the core material. Think of it as laminating a piece of cardboard.

    The “thin” section through the middle of panel 1 is where the panel mates, and is fastened to a support structure.

    The debris core does taper towards the fastener holes at one edge which is correct, the other edges have broken the “thick” core.

    Hope this helps.

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