MH370: Mission Accomplished

Three years, six months, and 26 days ago, a sophisticated hijacker (or hijackers) made of with a Malaysia Airlines 777 with 239 people aboard. In the course of doing so he, she or they expended considerable effort to befuddle pursuers. Today, that effort has officially been crowned with success. The Australian agency charged with the conducting the pursuit, the Australian Transport Safety Board, has thrown in the towel. In a final report issued today, The Operational Search for MH370, it stated that “we share your profound and prolonged grief, and deeply regret that we have not been able to locate the aircraft.”

There’s a good deal of material here–the whole report is 440 pages long–and I’d like to boil down the key takeaways.

Major omission

As I’ve said many times before, the key clue in the disappearance of MH370 is the fact that the Satellite Data Unit–the piece of equipment which generated the all-important Inmarsat data–was turned off and then back on again at 18:25. This process cannot happen accidentally, and is beyond the ken even of most experienced airline captains, and thus provides powerful evidence that the disappearance was the work of sophisticated operators. This document does not even mention the SDU reboot. Only by ignoring it can the ATSB can maintain a state of indeterminacy as to “whether or not the loss of MH370 was the result of deliberate action by one or more individuals, or the result of a series of unforeseen events or technical failures.”

Budget

Various figures have been thrown around for the total cost, but on page 7 we actually get an official tabulation: $198 million Australian, or US$155 million.

Radar

One of the most significant revelations in the new report comes in this paragraph on page 10:

Radar data shows the aircraft then headed to the northwest, eventually aligning with published air route N571 from IFR waypoint VAMPI. The validity of this section of the radar data was verified using the track of a commercial flight that followed N571 about 33 NM behind MH370. The aircraft continued to the northwest until a final radar position for the aircraft was recorded approximately 10 NM beyond IFR waypoint MEKAR at 1822:12

This seems to be a validation of the “Lido Hotel” image, showing near-continuous radar coverage of the plane as it flew up the Malacca Strait, and is a direction contradiction of the description provided by the DSTG in their “Bayesian Method” report, which unequivocally stated that

The radar data contains regular estimates of latitude, longitude and altitude at 10 s intervals from 16:42:27 to 18:01:49. A single additional latitude and longitude position was reported at 18:22:12.

This description now seems like a deliberate misrepresentation. To what end? It seems to me that the DSTG’s characterization makes it easier to discard the radar data after 18:01:49. By doing so, they were able to avoid concluding that the plane was turning rightward, to the northwest, between the final radar return and the first ping. This, in turn, would alter the calculated probability distribution such that routes to the north would be more prevalent vis a vis those to the south.

Flight Simulator

On page 98, the report describes the data recovered from Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s flight simulator, without reaching any firm conclusions about the implications for the investigation. It states that the simulated flight was conducted on February 2, 2014, but doesn’t state the reason for believing this. Curiously, the report then almost immediately describes this date as “six weeks before the accident flight,” when of course February 2 is less than five weeks before March 8. Also, the report mischaracterizes the simulation data points as showing a continuous flight up the Malacca Strait and then down into the southern Indian Ocean. In fact the data points show a series of iteratively spawned flights with altitude, location, and fuel loads changed between flight segments.

The report comes to no conclusion as to whether the existence of this data points to Zaharie’s culpability.

Debris

The report spends considerable time weighing the possibility that the pilot carried out a long controlled dive followed by a ditch in the ocean, but ultimately concludes that the plane hit with considerable velocity, as stated on page 101: “While no firm conclusions could be drawn given the limited amount of debris, the type, size and origin on the aircraft of these items generally indicated that there was a significant amount of energy at the time the aircraft impacted the water, not consistent with a successful controlled ditching.” This would tend to put the plane’s final resting place close to the 7th arc.

Barnacle temperature analysis

There was not, unsurprisingly, any mention of  the distribution of the barnacles around the entire surface of the flaperon, nor was there any attempt to grapple with the fact that his distribution is not commensurate with the flotation test results which show that the piece rode high in the water. As with the SDU reboot, the default setting of the ATSB appears to be ignore whatever evidence counterindicates its narrative.

One of the surprises for me was the revelation that the Réunion barnacle shell sent to Australian scientist Paul De Deckker was among the largest found on the flaperon (page 107). This shell had previously been described as 25 mm in length, whereas one of the leaked French reports described the largest barnacle as 39 mm. The former is much closer to the measurement I came up with through my own informal image analysis back in 2015 (23mm), and revives my questions about the age of the barnacles. Indeed, De Deckker writes on page 14 of his attached report (Appendix F) that “It could be assumed the specimens analysed here were quite young, perhaps less than one month.”

I hope to return to the topic of De Deckker’s temperature analysis in the near future.

Appendix G

The ATSB had long signaled that it would ultimately release the results of a biological examination of aircraft debris, and that came in the form of the attached report “Summary of Analyses Undertaken on Debris Recovered During the Search for Flight MH370.”

One aspect of the examination dealt with sediment found within the pieces, to see if they had come ashore and then been washed back out to sea before coming to shore once more. I imagine that if this had been found to have been the case, then it would explain the relative absence of marine life on some of the pieces. But in the event, no evidence was found than any of the pieces had come to shore more than once.

Another aspect was to try to gauge the age of marine organisms found on the pieces, in order to judge how long they had been in the water. Obviously, the presumption was that they had been in the water since the crash, about two years previous. But between the Liam Lotter’s flap track fairing (item 2) and Blaine Gibson’s “No Step” (item 3) only a single specimen, of the species Petaloconchus renisectus, appeared to be more than two months old. This individual was judged to be 8-12 months old. Likewise, the barnacles found on Item 5, the door stowage closet, had been growing “likely between 45 to 50 days.” What happened to the sealife that we would expect to have colonized the objects during their first year in the water? Either it vanished without a trace or it was never there in the first place, for some reason.

A third aspect of the examination was to determine what part of the ocean the pieces had traveled through, based on the types of species they contained. Only tropical species were found, with no trace of colonization in the cooler waters where the plane is presumed to have impacted.

Remarkably:

About two-thirds of the molluscs recovered from Items 2 and 3 must have been lodged onto the aircraft part(s) by waves when /they drifted ashore or were cast up on the beach(es) or by accidental human contamination [as in dragging the wreckage across the beach during its recovery]. Any handful of sediment, even a small one, from a tropical locality in the Indian Ocean would contain a very high diversity [hundreds] of dead shells of such species.. The natural habitat of the recovered molluscs is shallow water, on clean coral sand or in seagrass meadows. None of them could or would ever attach to drifting debris.

In other words, none of the sealife on these objects indicated that they had floated large distances across the open ocean. So much of it was indigenous to near-shore habitats that the scientists examining it assumed that it must be due to contamination.

Acknowledgements

However one might feel about the perpetrators of MH370, one has to admit a grudging admiration for the audacity of their feat. They managed to make a massive airplane disappear into thin air, and to defeat the best efforts of the world’s leading aviation experts to figure out what they had done. I would call it the greatest magic trick of all time. Needless to say, achievements of this scale cannot be accomplished without some skilled help. The latest report takes time on page 120 to offer special recognition to some familiar names, including Mike Exner, Victor Iannello, Don Thompson, Richard Godfrey, and of course Blaine Alan Gibson. Their determination to keep all eyes focused on the official narrative helped prevent the ATSB, the press, and the general public from asking the hard questions that might have prevented the current outcome.