MH370: The Single, Simple Mistake Behind the Search’s Failure

Seabed Constructor sails into Fremantle, Australia. Source: Mike Exner

Experts from all over the world have converged in Perth, Australia, to meet Seabed Constructor, the exploration vessel tasked with finding the wreckage of MH370, after its first stint in the search area. Technical experts and government officials are having meetings and dinners, touring the ship, and doing photo ops. Everything glitters and spirits are high.

Lost in this excited hubub is the fact that the latest search effort has already invalidated the expert analysis that got it launched in the first place.

In a 2016 document entitled “MH370–First Principles Review,” the ATSB explained that, given the absence of wreckage in the orginal 120,000 sq km search, MH370 most likely wound up somewhere near the 7th arc between 33 degrees and 36 degrees south. A subsequent document by the CSIRO entitled “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift–Part III” narrowed the target area considerably. “We think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty,” it stated. “This location is 35.6°S, 92.8°E. Other nearby (within about 50km essentially parallel to the 7th arc) locations east of the 7th arc are also certainly possible, as are (with lower likelihood) a range of locations on the western side of the 7th arc, near 34.7°S 92.6°E and 35.3°S 91.8°E.”

The wording is important, because as the original search area was winding down, Australia, China and Malaysia said that it would only be extended if “credible new information” came to light. The CSIRO’s language sounded like an attempt to make the case that this condition had been met. And indeed, the three specified points were all included the “Primary Search Area” that Seabed Constructor recently focused its efforts on.

However, that area has now been searched. And once again, the plane was not where it was supposed to be. The CSIRO’s “unprecedented precision and certainty” was a mirage.

How is that, time and time again, officials heading up the search for MH370 exude great confidence and then come up empty handed? How can we account for four years of relentless failure?

The answer, it seems to me, is quite simple. Investigators have resolutely failed to grapple with the single most salient clue: The fact that the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) was rebooted. This electronic component is the part of the 777’s sat com system that generated the Inmarsat data that has been the basis of the entire search. There is no known way that it could accidentally turn off and back on again.

If one has no idea how the SDU turned on, then one can have no confidence in the integrity of the data that it generated.

The ATSB has never publicly expressed a theory about what could have caused the reboot, except to say that most likely the power had been turned off and back on again. There was always the possibility that, behind the scenes, they had figured out a way that this could plausibly happen other than being deliberately tampered with.

Just today, however, I received confirmation that the ATSB is in fact befuddled. Mike Exner is a stalwart of the Independent Group who is currently visiting Perth, where he has had dinner with employees of Ocean Infinity and Fugro, as well as members of the ATSB and the DSTG. In response to my assertion that investigators “had never stopped to ask how on earth the SDU… came to be turned back on,” Exner tweeted that “Everyone is well aware of the question. We have all asked ourselves and others how it happened.” However, Mike writes, “no one has the answer.”

One might forgive the expenditure of vast wealth and manpower based on data of dubious provenance if there was other evidence that independently supported it. But the contrary is the case: debris collected in the western Indian Ocean shows no signs of having drifted from the search zone, as I wrote in my previous post. It is increasingly clear that the plane did not go where the Inmarsat data suggests it did. The fishiness of the Inmarsat data, and the fishiness of the SDU reboot that created it, are all of a piece.

Soon, Seabed Constructor will return to the search area; some weeks or months after that, it will leave again, empty handed. When it does, people all over the world will ask: How could they have failed yet again?

The answer will be simple. It is this: Investigators never established the provenance of the  evidence that they based their search on.

615 thoughts on “MH370: The Single, Simple Mistake Behind the Search’s Failure”

  1. By chance, I just stumbled on Jeff’s recent article “Death and Daring at 1,500 Feet, Popular Mechanics” (Mar 7, 2018).

    For quite some time, I have been wondering if something similar might have occurred at the end of flight of MH370. An inexperienced person finding himself at the controls of a pilotless airplane might have been unaware of the fuel running out, the engines failing, the loss of the autopilot and autothrottle.

    When he noticed the airplane nosing down and losing altitude, his instinctive reaction might have been to push the thrust levers forward and to pull the control column back to stop the nose-down pitching and loss of altitude. That would have resulted in the airplane stalling, not responding anymore to pitch-up commands on the control column, stick shaker operating and severe buffet.

    If he recognized those symptoms as indicating a stall and had a vague idea about what needed to be done to recover control, he would push the control column forward until the stall symptoms ceased. Since he was unfamiliar with the control characteristics of the airplane, he would probably have overdone it and picked up a lot of speed before he dared to start pulling up to a more normal attitude. The resulting manoeuvre is schematically illustrated here:

    The two green triangles on the blue vertical speed curve illustrate how the vertical speed could have increased by 10,700 fpm in 8 seconds to satisfy the final BFO values logged for MH370, without significant loss of glide distance from cruise altitude.

  2. @Susie Crowe

    In the Figaro video, Troadec (retired director of the BEA, in charge of finding AF447) is more specific why he thinks pilot suicide is unlikely. Towards the end of the roundtable (final statement) he says that it is likely there were more individuals involved in the hijacking, deliberately or not assisting it from the ground. National governments (like China) could know more about the case than they admit in public. The Malaysian government also gives the impression of having to hide something, especially with regard to the early response to the disappearance.

    You can find the key sentence at min. 18:50
    Try autotranslate subtitles if your French isn’t up to it.

  3. @PS9, I’m confused that you use PUBLIC knowledge and widely published stories of a gag order prohibiting the release of information as an indication of how successful conspiracies that include a gag order can be.

    There’s a logical inconsistency there you might do well to think about.

    The fact is that facts, information, people’s stories tend to work their way to light, whether that be over a drunken brag in a pub, a leaked report to the press from a rival’s intelligence agency, the someone who shouldn’t have seen what they saw, or the guilt and/or disillusionment of a participant come to confess.

    Likewise you’re mention of the Itavia crash. With all information public, and freed of Italian judicial prejudice (something we now know to be fairly common, and proper examination, the vague suggestions of a hushed plots loses it’s conspiratorial cloak:

    I am all in on the idea that MH370 was neither due to mechanical failure or pilot suicide.

    I firmly believe it to be unfortunate stakes in a geopolitical disagreement. But the broader one draws the conspiracy, the more individuals or states (or state sponsored actors to give world leaders plausible deniability; as in the Russian mercenaries in the Ukraine and Syria; as in the Russian hacker infiltration in the United States electoral process) involved, the more unlikely a plot becomes–or becomes possible to keep quiet.

    I think we’re much better off thinking simply: a single message sent, a small number of actors involved, deniability and misdirection keep to keeping distance from the act.

  4. Fyi and for what it’s worth there was a 1 hour radio programme tonight on the French RTL radio channel on mh370. One of the guests was GhyslainWattrelos, who lost his family on the plane. During the programme, he stated that he is still nowhere further in his understanding of the crash than when he was at Beijing airport 4 years ago. Amongst others he stated that he does not believe that the U turn over Malaysia is proven beyond doubt and that he believes there is still a significant likelihood that the plane is in the china sea. He also stated that the route into the SIO is covered by many military radars and that it is unlikely that nobody either saw the plane or would be willing to provide some radar image of it.
    I understand that this is not in line with the main theory on this blog, so as I said it’s just fyi.

  5. Recent tidy up of beaches in SW Tasmania revealed a lot of rubbish but no reported aircraft parts. Its possible a full log of all the debris hasn’t been completed;

    Its a pretty inhospitable part of the coastline and faces toward the SIO. Weather conditions were favourable fortunately.

    If 9M-MRO debris were found the SW coast of Tasmania it would be compatible with a more southerly entry point of 9M-MRO into the SIO (if you believe that theory).

    However this is significant in that still no confirmed 9M-MRO debris on Australian shores.

  6. @Gysbreght,
    I was also thinking there is a high likelihood of an incompetent pilot for the EoF scenario irrespective of the SATCOM data. Some debris appear (although still not conclusive) to have separated mid air and as mentioned previously, flutter is an unlikely cause for those debris, ie, if mid air separation occurred (would the official investigation confirm one day?), most likely a high g force led to that. A competent pilot would unlikely lead to such exceedance as he will instinctively keep the plane within mechanical limits even in the scenario of both engines failure. I would also presume this likely to be true for a suicidal scenario apart if the scenario involve the pilot to test the limits of the airplane in the last moment (another independent event in the chain of unlikely events, ie possible but unlikely). The incompetent person in that case would most likely be a hijacker. I would have though that if he/she was a passenger or another member of the crew, he/she would attempt to communicate and respond to the telephone calls. If this can be proven, the current search area does not make any sense.

  7. @Gysbreght
    Thanks for the auto-translate tip. The main take-away for me was the discussion on aircraft security improvements Airbus is making. I hope Boeing is also, although in the past they have been slow.

  8. Correction: Nederland thank you for the tip.
    Gysbreght- …maybe a flight simmer at the controls? But I am not so sure about that.

  9. @Ventus45
    Some takeaways from the LeFigaro roundtable interview.
    – compared to a previous TV interview from 2016, BEA’s Troadec has definitively moved away from the position that mechanical failure is to blame for the plane’s diversion. He now appears to be much more comfortable in leaning towards hijacking
    – Jean-Marc Garot’s book ‘Le detournement du MH370’ (I’ve read it) is fascinating for it’s description of the flight upto Northern Sumatra. He is truly in his element here when he discusses air traffic operations. He convincingly shows that the confusing information initially released by the Malaysian authorities is completely understandable and is not any fault of their own, that it could have happened to any country, whether Western or not. However, he goes off the rails when he starts discussing theories about piloted flights to Christmas Island.
    – Feldzer is inscrutable as ever, and his glances towards Troadec when Jean-Marc starts talking about piloted routes to Christmas Island speaks volumes in that he appears to totally disbelieve them. But kudos to him for sticking up for the pilots (Feldzer is a former pilot).

    It is gratifying to see that the mechanical failure theory is no longer holding much traction among the French and the pilot suicide/negotiation theory is also no longer taken seriously.
    Hijacking by passengers remains the only option and the elephant in the room that nobody wants to delve too deeply.

    On a sidenote, the cutaways to interviews with NOK Ghislain Whattrelos reveals a man who appears to be deeply suspicious of the USA, and everything he views is colored by that lens which is unfortunate.

  10. @SteveBarratt:
    “…However this is significant in that still no confirmed 9M-MRO debris on Australian shores.”

    Why on earth would those in charge of the MH370 debacle want to plant further air-plane ‘wreckage’ in an area which does not point to the ocean area they actually want to search in? Using Occam’s razor, I came to the conclusion some time ago that this was a multi-national intelligence project aiming to achieve multiple goals, and that creating a spoof flight would be the simplest way to do it with a 99% chance of success.

    If you think that this is a far-fetched idea, look up Operation Gladio to see the lengths intel services will go to in pursuit of financial and geo-political goals.

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