60 Minutes Australia on Secret Malaysia Report

Here’s a link to the report broadcast today on Australian 60 Minutes about the search for MH370. Part 1:

Part 2:

Discussion after the jump…

The main thrust of the piece is that an independent air-crash expert, Larry Vance, has looked at photographs of the Réunion flaperon and decided that their relatively intact state, and the lack of debris from inside the aircraft, means that the plane must not have impacted the water at high speed, as would be expected if the plane ran out of fuel as a “ghost ship” and spiralled into the water. He interprets the jagged trailing edge of the flaperon as evidence that it was deployed at the moment of impact and was worn away when it struck the water.

I find it discomfiting when people say that the mystery of MH370 is not mystery at all–that they are absolutely confident they know the answer. Vance undercuts his credibility, I feel, by taking this stance. There is indeed a strong argument to be made that the plane must have been under conscious control to the very end; to me the most compelling is simply that the plane has not been found in the current seabed search zone. However it is less clear that someone attempted a ditching. What the show does not mention is that debris from inside the aircraft has indeed been found, suggesting that the fuselage could not have survived the impact and sunk to the bottom of the ocean intact. Indeed, the program doesn’t mention the other debris at all, with the exception of the Pemba flap, which is the other relatively intact large piece. The fact that most of the debris found so far is rather small is to me indicative of a higher-energy impact. But I have no strong opinion one way or the other; I feel that proper experts must look at the debris close up to determine what forces caused it to come apart.

The program cites the recently revealed flight-sim data from Zaharie’s computer as further evidence that the plane was deliberately piloted to fuel exhaustion and beyond. For the first time, the program showed on screen pages from the confidential Malaysian report. The producers of the show reached out to me as they were putting the program together, and asked me to comment on some of the data they had accumulated. Here are the pages of the document that they showed on-screen:

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It’s worth noting that these pages offer a summary of the recovered flight-sim data which are described in greater detail and accuracy elsewhere in the confidential Malaysian documents. Here is a table showing a subset of what the documents contain:

Detailed parameters

Note that the numbering systems for the two data tables do not match. (Please do not ask me to explain this.) I suggest that for the purposes of discussion, the point saved at Kuala Lumpur International Airport be called point 1; the three points recorded as the flight-sim moved up the Malacca Strait to the Andaman Islands be called 2, 3, and 4; and the points over the southern Indian Ocean with fuel at zero be called points 5 and 6.

Zaharie 1-4

In order to understand the fuel load numbers in the second table, I made some calculations based on the fuel loads in a real 777-200ER. I don’t know how closely these match those in the flight simulator Zaharie was using. If anyone can shed light I’d be happy to hear it.

Fuel calcs

Worth noting, I think, is that the fuel difference between point 4 and point 5 is enough for more than 10 hours of flight under normal cruise conditions. The difference between these points is 3,400 nautical miles, for an average groundspeed of less than 340 knots. This is peculiar. Perhaps the flight-sim fuel burn rate is very inaccurate; perhaps the simulated route between the points was not a great circle, as shown in the second page of the report above, but indirect; perhaps Zaharie was fascinated by the idea of flying slowly; or perhaps points 5 & 6 come from a different simulated flight than 1 through 4. Readers’ thoughts welcome.

Also note that neither the locations nor the headings of points 1-4 lie exactly on a straight line from 1 to 4, which suggest perhaps that the route was hand-flown.