Were MH370 Searchers Unlucky, or Duped?

Yesterday, officials responsible for locating missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 announced that their two-year, $150 million search has come to an end. Having searched an area the size of Pennsylvania and three miles deep, they’ve found no trace of the plane.

The effort’s dismal conclusion stands in marked contrast to the optimism that officials displayed throughout earlier phases of the search. In August, 2015, Australia’s deputy prime minister Warren Truss declared, “The experts are telling us that there is a 97% possibility that it is in [the designated search] area.”

So why did the search come up empty? Did investigators get unlucky, and the plane happened to wind up in the unsearched 3 percent? Or did something more nefarious occur?

To sort it all out, we need to go back to why officials thought they knew where the plane went.

Early on the morning of March 8, 2014, MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. Forty minutes passed the last navigational waypoint in Malaysian airspace. Six seconds after that it went electronically dark. In the brief gap between air-control zones, when no one was officially keeping an eye on it, the plane pulled a U-turn, crossed back through Malaysian airspace, and then vanished from military radar screens.

At that point the plane was completely invisible. Its hijackers could have flown it anywhere in the world without fear of discovery. But lo and behold, three minutes later a piece of equipment called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU, rebooted and initiated a log-on with an Inmarsat communications satellite orbiting high overhead. An SDU reboot is not something that can happen accidentally, or that airline captains generally know how to do, or that indeed there would be any logical reason for anyone to carry out. Yet somehow it happened. Over the course of the next six hours, the SDU sent seven automated signals before going silent for good. Later, Inmarsat scientists poring over the data made a remarkable discovery: due to an unusual combination of peculiarities, a signal could be teased from this data that indicated where the plane went.

With much hard work, search officials were able to wring from the data quite a detailed picture of what must have happened. Soon after the SDU reboot, the plane turned south, flew fast and straight until in ran out of fuel, then dived into the sea. Using this information, officials were able to generate a probabilistic “heat map” of where the plane most likely ended up. The subsequent seabed search began under unprecedented circumstances. Never before had a plane been declared lost, and its location subsequently deduced, on the basis of mathematics alone.

Now, obviously, we know that that effort was doomed. The plane is not where the models said it would most likely be. Indeed, I would go further than that. Based on the signal data, aircraft performance parameters, and the available autopilot modes, there is a finite range of places where the plane could plausibly have fetched up. Search vessels have now scanned all of them. If the data is good, and the analysis is good, the plane should have been found.

I am convinced that the analysis is good. And the data? It seems to me that the scientists who defined the search area overlooked a step that even the greenest rookie of a criminal investigator would not have missed. They failed to ascertain whether the data could have been tampered with.

I’ve asked both Inmarsat scientists and the Australian mathematicians who defined the search area how they knew that the satellite communications system hadn’t been tampered with. Both teams told me that they worked with the data they were given. Neither viewed it as their job to question the soundness of their evidence.

This strikes me as a major oversight, since the very same peculiar set of coincidences that made it possible to tease a signal from the Inmarsat data also make it possible that a sophisticated hijacker could have entered the plane’s electronics bay (which lies beneath an unsecured hatch at the front of the business class cabin) and altered the data fed to the Satellite Data Unit.

A vulnerability existed.

The only question is: Was it exploited? If it was, then the plane did not fly south over the ocean, but north toward land. For search officials, this possibility was erased when a piece of aircraft debris washed ashore on Réunion Island in July of 2015. Subsequently, more pieces turned up elsewhere in the western Indian Ocean.

However, as with the satellite data, officials have failed to explore the provenance of the debris. If they did, they would have noticed some striking inconsistencies. Most notably, the Réunion debris was coated completely in goose barnacles, a species that grows only immersed in the water. When officials tested the debris in a flotation tank, they noted that it floated half out of the water. There’s no way barnacles could grow on the exposed areas—a conundrum officials have been unable to reconcile. The only conclusion I can reach is that the piece did not arrive on Réunion by natural means, a suspicion reinforced by a chemical analysis of one of the barnacles by Australian scientist Patrick DeDeckker, who found that the barnacle grew in water temperatures that no naturally drifting piece of debris would have encountered.

If the plane didn’t go south, then where did it go? Not all the Inmarsat data, it turns out, was susceptible to spoofing. From the portion that wasn’t, it’s able to generate a narrow band of possible flight paths; they all terminate in Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia. Intriguingly, three ethnic Russians were aboard MH370, including one who was sitting mere feet from the electronics bay hatch. Four and a half months later, a mobile launcher from a Russian anti-aircraft unit shot down another Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER, MH17. A year after that, the majority of pieces of debris wind up being discovered by a man who had spent the last three decades intimately involved with Russia.

Whether or not the Russians are responsible for MH370, the failure of the seabed search and the inconsistencies in the aircraft debris should undermine complacency about the official narrative. When MH370 disappeared, it possessed an obscure vulnerability that left its Inmarsat data open to tampering. Having spent $150 million and two years on a fruitless investigation, search officials have an obligation to investigate whether or not that vulnerability was exploited.