The MH370 Miracle (updated)

If after nearly five years the disappearance of MH370 is still regarded as an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) mystery, that’s because something that happened in the course of MH370’s vanishing is generally talked about as if it were unremarkable when in fact it is ridiculously unprecedented to the point of being virtually impossible. And if that fact could be more generally understood, the case would seem a lot less mysterious.

Call it the MH370 miracle.

OK, back up. Here’s the story of MH370 in a nutshell: a plane takes off and vanishes from air-traffic control radar. Weeks later, it turns out that the plane had reversed course, flown through an area of primary radar coverage, and then vanished from that. It’s gone. It’s dark. Off the grid. There is absolutely no way that anyone is ever going to know where this plane went.

Then a miracle happened. Something that has never happened before in the history of air travel and in all likelihood will never happen again. It’s this: three minutes after disappearing from primary radar, the plane began sending out a signal. A signal with unique and wonderful properties.

A Miracle Signal.

The general public has never heard about the remarkableness of this occurrence. It has been glossed over entirely. The ATSB and the mainstream press talk about the signal as something generated as a matter of course, like the cell phone data carelessly left behind by a fugitive criminal. But the Inmarsat data set is not like that at all. Not only was it not normal, it was unprecedented and produced in a way that cannot be explained.

Those of you have have been following the case know what event I’m talking about. At 18:25 UTC, MH370 starts sending signals to one of the satellites in the Inmarsat fleet: Inmarsat-3 F1, aka IOR, hovering in geostationary orbit over the equator at 64.5 degrees east.

The standard story goes like this: “Then scientists studying the signal realized that it contained clues about where the plane went.”

What gets omitted is how completely bonkers this is. In fact, there are two insane things going on here. Continue reading The MH370 Miracle (updated)

New York:‘My Power to Demolish Is Ten Times Greater Than My Power to Promote’: How John McAfee became the spokesman for the crypto bubble.

In May of 2017, a 26-year-old social-media marketer named Peter Galanko made an investment in Verge, a little-known cryptocurrency trading under the symbol XVG. At the time, the great cryptocurrency mania, which saw Bitcoin climb 25-fold by the end of the year – it would fall fall all the way back to a fifth of its December 2017 peak by the end of 2018 – had only just started to heat up. Verge was just one among thousands of nearly indistinguishable digital currencies that traded at a fraction of a penny. But soon after Galanko got in, Verge took off like a runaway balloon, corkscrewing up to half a cent by late August. Galanko, who’d taken to styling himself @XVGWhale on Twitter, had more than quadrupled his money. But now he had an idea for how he could do even better: He needed John McAfee.

The Rocky Mountains were dappled in autumn yellow as Galanko and his girlfriend set out on the two-day cross-country trip from Colorado to rural Tennessee. Their destination was the home of McAfee, the 72-year-old antivirus software multimillionaire who, after escaping from a police investigation into the violent death of his neighbor in Belize in 2012 and boasting in graphic detail about his adventures with the powerful drug bath salts, had transformed himself into a public figure “who many see as a well-respected cryptocurrency soothsayer,” as Slate magazine put it. In mid-July, McAfee had tweeted that Bitcoin, then trading at around $2,300, would be worth $500,000 by 2020, and that if it were not, “I will eat my dick on national television.” By the end of August, the price had more than doubled, and many took this as evidence of McAfee’s foresight. Galanko figured that a good word from McAfee about Verge — whose market would be easier to influence than Bitcoin’s vastly larger one — could send the value of the cryptocurrency dramatically higher.

McAfee had promised an hour of his time, according to a long video Galanko later posted about the encounter on YouTube, but appeared perplexed when the couple showed up at his door. “Who are you?” he asked with a baffled expression. “I didn’t invite anyone over today.” Galanko’s spirits sank, but not for long: a grin spread across McAfee’s weather-beaten face as he let on that he was just playing one of his trademark pranks. With a hearty handshake, he invited them inside.

At first Galanko felt anxious, intimidated by McAfee’s fame and force of personality as well as by the home’s contingent of armed security guards. But as they settled down to talk, Galanko was soon drawn in by McAfee’s skillful storytelling. The evening rolled by in whiskey and conversation. Galanko and his girlfriend wound up staying for a week. The men shot guns together, and Galanko tweeted snapshots of himself riding in the back of McAfee’s car and of McAfee cooking breakfast.

“It was an amazing opportunity … he’s a genius,” Galanko later gushed in the video. (He declined to talk to New York for this article.) The only thing missing was the thing he’d come for. When Galanko asked McAfee to publicly endorse Verge, he demurred, explaining that he was already committed to a rival coin. But a couple of months later he came around, tweeting on December 13 to his 700,000 followers that Verge “cannot lose.” McAfee’s praise was like a match to a rocket fuse. Verge’s price nearly doubled overnight, and by the end of ten days it was up 2,500 percent, making it one of the most successful cryptocurrencies of 2017. A single dollar invested at the beginning of the year was worth more than $10,000 by the end of it.

Read the rest of the story in New York magazine.

What Sort of Person Was MH370’s Captain?

After nearly five years of investigation, it has long since become glaringly obvious that if MH370 did fly south into the southern Indian Ocean, as the Inmarsat data and recovered debris suggest, then the perpetrator was almost certainly the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

But Shah’s character poses a riddle. As I wrote in a post last year,

In the months after the disappearance of MH370, Malaysian police searched for any clues that might suggest that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was the culprit. This would have been the simplest explanation for why the Boeing 777 suddenly went electronically dark and pulled a U-turn forty minutes into its flight, and scarcely a minute after Shah’s voice was heard over the radio calmly telling air traffic controllers “Good night, Malaysia 370.” But to their chagrin, the evidence was slim. Zaharie had left no note. His family and friends had noticed no sign of mental disturbance. There was no evidence of political or religious extremism or of marital discord. He was under no financial pressure. He just didn’t fit the profile of someone who would kill hundreds of innocent people and take his own life in the process.

The suicidal pilot who brought down Germanwings 2925 (covered in my Kindle Single “Fatal Descent”) had a long psychiatric history and left numerous clues in his browser history. In contrast Shah seems to have been a boringly stable personality. Two of the leaked Royal Malaysian Police Reports contain detailed information about him. “Folder 1: Pilot” includes documentation of his work history, an assessment by a psychologist, and raw data pulled from his flight simulator. “Folder 4: SKMM Analysis” looks at his internet and cell phone use, as well as that of other crew members. The totality of all evidence left investigators with the impression that:

“The PIC’s ability to handle stress at work and home was reported to be good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict or family stresses… there were no behavioural signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect, drug or alcohol abuse…” (Safety Investigation Report, 1.5.11-1.5.12)

However, a recent  article in the UK’s The Sun suggested that, based on Shah’s Facebook activity reported in Folder 4, the MH370 captain was “self-destructive” and “should have been fired.” The main focus of the article is the 97 responses he reportedly posted to Facebook postings by minor-league Malaysian models, which prove (the article alleges) that Shah was a googly-eyed pervert.

This claim struck me as eminently worth investigating. In modern life one’s computer is practically a part of one’s brain; what one browses, emails and texts about is virtually a life cast of one’s personality and interests. If Shah was deranged, it would certainly show up in the tracings of his internet use.

According to Folder 4, Zaharie’s favorite site to comment on was one of two Facebook accounts maintained by model QiMin Lan. I scrolled through her feed and found that the pictures she posted to be chaste. They are mostly head shots; where her full body is shown, she’s fully clad.

She posted about 50 times a month, so over 100 posts from the beginning of 2014 until Zaharie’s disappearance. In that time I was only able to find a single comment from Zaharie:

He wrote:

Two months earlier he had posted the same comment…

Before that…

I don’t know what “chomel u!” means.

And that’s all I was able to find, going back to November 1, 2013. Far from a pestering nuisance, he seems to have commented rather sparingly, and his comments were benign (at least as far as I could understand them).

Now, the Star reports that one of his comments was “just showered?”, which does have a rather leering tone to it. But I wasn’t able to find that particular post. It’s hard to judge out of context, and the article provides none.

I’d be curious to know if any readers have better luck than me in tracking down Shah’s comments. The URLs, and thumbnails of the pictures he commented on, can be found on pages 9-41 of Appendix A-3 of Folder 4 (pages 60- 92 of the pdf linked above).

French MH370 Investigators Eye “Spoof” Scenario

Interest in MH370 revived earlier this month after next-of-kin Ghislain Wattrelos held a press conference at which he revealed that he had been briefed by French judicial authorities about their investigation into the case. As the UK’s Daily Star reported,

Ghyslain Wattrelos lost his wife Laurence, and two teenage children Hadrien and Ambre when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 vanished on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

Mr Wattrelos today revealed he was told by the French Gendamarie Air Transport (GTA) team investigating the jet’s disappearance they had found “inconsistencies” in the Malaysian investigation’s official report.

He claimed experts are investigating if navigation data from the missing plane could have been hacked to disguise the route it took before crashing into the ocean.

He also said he had been told several “curious passengers” warranted further investigation – including a Malaysian aeronautics expert seated directly beneath the satcom.

This was of course enormously interesting to me, as I had publicly pointed out in early 2015 that if the plane wasn’t in the southern Indian Ocean, the only conceivable explanation was that hijackers outside the cockpit had managed to perpetrate an extremely sophisticated hack of the satcom in order to make the signals seem like they were coming from a plane heading south when it was actually heading north. This idea met with widespread ridicule at the time, as most experts believed that the plane would certainly be found in the southern Indian Ocean where the satcom signals indicated it had flown. Subsequently, of course, it wasn’t–nearly a quarter billion dollars was spent on a seabed search that covered an area the size of the UK but turned up nothing.

At last, it seemed, the authorities were willing to take my idea seriously.

The Daily Star contacted me for a follow-up article:

[Wise] told Daily Star Online: “This (hacking lead) is an interesting development, because it’s exactly what I’ve been talking about for the last five years or so.

“While I haven’t looked at this particular passenger, the core of the argument I’ve been trying to make is that the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU, has a vulnerability that could be exploited to make the plane look like it went south when it really went north.”

He added: “What I pointed out is, are there any way these signals could have been tampered with?

“Is there some way that someone with ill-intent could have changed them?

“The answer is yes, there actually is a way that it’s physically possible that a person could get into the electronics bay, or directly access the data unit from ceiling of the cabin.

“And they could alter either the inputs into the SDU itself in such a way it would look like the plane was going south when it was going north.

“Do we have any reason to believe that’s the case? I would say yes.

“I think the main and most obvious one is having searched the seabed, based on signals of where the plane went, the plane is not there.”

Inmarsat data has led investigators to believe the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean west of Australia after running out of fuel.

But he has urged a re-analysis of this information, claiming that it could in actual fact have flown north instead.

The radius of one of the “handshakes” runs through Kazakhstan.

And Wise holds Russia as a suspect because of the shooting down of MH17 by a Russian military missile, and how the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea fell off the news radar following MH370’s disappearance.

He told us: “What’s the motive? I can tell you this was happening in the context of Russia getting a lot of heat for the annexation of Crimea.

“I was on CNN six times a day, and CNN didn’t talk about Crimea anymore, they only talked about MH370 and so it was possible a diversion, a show of dominance.

“Because if I’m right and Russia did take the plane, they completely fooled, ran circles, the western authorities and experts have been completely bamboozled, with their pants caught down.

“I would say, only one other 777 has ever been lost mid-flight, that was the sistership of MH370.

“It was shot down by an operation carried out by the GRU. If you’re a chicken farmer, and you’ve never lost a chicken in 15 years, then you find one of your chickens murdered, and a week later you see a fox jumping over the fence with a chicken in its mouth, what would you think?

“What would be your primary suspect here? The only known cause of 777s coming to grief.”

All of which I stand by. I think the headline was unfortunately sensationalistic and misleading, however: “Plane ‘HIDDEN in Russian base’ as investigators swoop on new ‘hacking’ lead.” I’ve never said that I thought 9M-MRO is hidden on a Russian, and certainly not in all caps–though I am intrigued by the possibility that the plane might have touched down on the remote airstrip at Yubileyniy within the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

 

Businessweek: This Thiel-Backed Startup Says It Can Clean Up the Seas. Scientists Have Doubts

Boyan Slat, a Dutch 23-year-old who’s collected $30 million for his plastic-removal startup, is ready to test Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 prototype, but he hasn’t assuaged his expert critics.

Of all the things San Francisco has brought into the wider world, few have been as big and curious-looking as Ocean Cleanup’s System 001, the contraption an offshore supply ship towed to sea through the Golden Gate last month. Black, snakelike, and 2,000 feet long, System 001 was beginning a slow 1,300-mile journey to a remote garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. When it arrives in mid-October, it will spend a year drifting around and around in a circular current, gathering as much plastic as possible, like a gigantic pool skimmer.

The idea can be attributed to Boyan Slat, a slight, 23-year-old Dutchman of Croatian descent who wears his curly brown hair in a mop and favors sunglasses made of recycled plastic. He says he became concerned about ocean debris when he was 16, scuba diving off the coast of Greece. In the intervening seven years, with the help of a viral explainer video, he’s raised more than $30 million from Salesforce.com Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff, Palantir Technologies Inc. co-founder Peter Thiel, and others to try to prove that setups such as System 001’s can, in great enough numbers, help rid the ocean of plastic by 2050.

There’s just one problem, say ocean scientists: The device can’t possibly work on the scale imagined, and it could end up becoming just another piece of litter in the ocean. “People think that it’s an easy, sexy solution, but it’s not,” says Kim Martini, an oceanography postdoc at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Given that only single-digit percentages of the plastic entering oceans each year wind up in the garbage patches, “it’s clear that the problem is much bigger than what we’re able to solve,” admits Ocean Cleanup spokesman Joost Dubois.

Slat says Ocean Cleanup has conducted extensive modeling and prototype testing and that the outcry from his more credentialed peers (he dropped out of college) just proves he’s on to something. “If you don’t have any critics, it means that what you’re doing is easy and obvious,” he says.

Continue reading Businessweek: This Thiel-Backed Startup Says It Can Clean Up the Seas. Scientists Have Doubts

About That MH370 Inmarsat Data…

Earlier this month France announced that it will reopen its investigation into the disappearance of MH370:

French newspaper Le Parisien reports that investigators are keen to verify data from Inmarsat — the British operator of a global satellite network — which tracked the aircraft’s pings to the southern Indian Ocean off Western Australia, where it is believed to have crashed.

I was happy to hear that, because for the last four years I’ve been making the case that there is one known way by which the Inmarsat data could have been falsified as it was being transmitted from the plane. This falsification would make the plane look like it was heading south when it was really heading north, and would explain why an exhaustive quarter-billion-dollar search of the southern seabed found no trace of the plane.

Of course, there are other reasons to suspect that the plane went north. One of the less probative but more elegant is the simple fact that when it was last spotted, that’s where the plane was turning. The above image comes from page 4 of Appendix 1.6E of the latest Malaysian report, entitled “Aircraft Performance Analysis,” prepared by Boeing. I think this appendix is one of the most important sections of the whole report, as the authority of the source is unimpeachable and its assertions are laid out with such clarity. In this image we see a summary view of what is known about the first two hours of the plane’s flight, based on a combination of secondary and primary radar as well as the first ping from the Inmarsat data. It shows, as I and others have pointed out, that after an aggressive turnback at IGARI, and a high-speed flight over peninsular Malaysia and up the Malacca Strait, the plane disappeared from primary radar and then turned to the north.

Some have proposed that this is best explained by the assumption that whoever was in charge of the plane wanted to avoid conflicting traffic on the airway, but that is absurd–there was no conflicting traffic, and anyway it would be very simple to avoid any such hypothetical traffic by flying at a nonstandard altitude. A simpler explanation is that they turned to the north because they were heading north.

The report has another similiarly compelling illustration that combines fuel-burn data with ping-ring distances to illustrate the various routes the plane might have flown, assuming a constant altitude and turns only at ping arcs:

This picture neatly illustrates a point that the DSTG arrived at more conclusively through the heavily application of mathematics: namely, the only straight-ish flight paths that wind up at the 7th arc at the correct time and distance for fuel exhaustion are ones that fly around 450 to 475 knots, and at relatively high altitude. This is where the Australians originally looked for the plane, and really it was always the only rational place to look.

The absence of the plane in this area could have told the authorities two years ago that something was up–and that would have been the right time to start being suspicious about the Inmarsat data.

 

Popular Mechanics: When Ground Crew Steal Airplanes

The joyride started just before sunset.

On Friday, Horizon Air ground service agent Richard B. Russell got in one of the airline’s Bombardier Q400 aircraft and took off from Seattle’s SeaTac Airport. In audio recordings released over the internet, Russell can be heard chatting in an upbeat, enthusiastic tone with the air traffic controllers trying to talk him down.

Onlooker John Waldron took video that shows the plane rolling inverted at low altitude, then pulling into a half-loop in a aerobatic high-g maneuver called a “split S.” Whether through skill or luck, Russell managed to pull the plane out of its rapid descent just above the wave tops. F-15 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the Q400, which ultimately crashed into Ketron Island, about 30 miles from the airport.

The incident is bizarre and tragic, but it is not uprecedented. In fact, there have been a number of occurrences in recent decades in which ground personnel made off with aircraft.

May 23, 1969. U.S. Air Force Sergeant Paul Meyer, a 23-year-old crew chief stationed at Mildenhall Air Base in England, stole a C-130 cargo plane and took off. While in the air, Meyer, who’d been married eight weeks before, called his wife and said, “Guess what? I’m coming home!” But it was not to be. An hour and 45 minutes into the flight, Meyer crashed into the English Channel. Meyer had recently been passed over for promotion and had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct.

August 22, 1979. Recently fired airline mechanic Armando Nieto Jaramillo, 23, stole a military HS-748 transport plane from Bogotá-Eldorado Airport and crashed it soon after takeoff, killing himself and three people on the ground.

July 4, 1986. Marine Corps lance corporal Howard A. Foote, Jr. stole an A-4M Skyhawk ground attack jet from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and took it on a 45-minute aerobatic joyride before returning to base and landing safely. Foote was an experienced glider pilot and had undergone 100 hours of simulator flying in the Skyhawk and had hoped to become a military pilot before his ambitions were derailed by health issues. Foote served four and a half months in the brig and later went on to become a test pilot in civilian life.

July 13, 1994. A Russian Air Force engineer made off with an Antonov An-26 transport plane from Kubinka Air Force Base near Moscow. He flew until the plane ran out of fuel and died in the ensuing crash.

May 25, 2003. Ben Charles Padilla, an aircraft mechanic who held a private pilot’s license and was a certified flight engineer, was repairing a 727 airliner in Luanda, Angola for a Florida-based company named Aerospace Sales and Leasing. Padilla and an a recently hired assistant boarded the plane, taxied it to the runway, took off, and head out over the Atlantic Ocean. Neither the men nor the plane has ever been seen again. Some speculated the plane was stolen as part of an insurance scam, or perhaps taken by terrorists who planned to use it as a flying bomb, but the truth remains unknown.

Lastly, we’ve been reporting a lot only on the most famous case of suspected pilot suicide, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and this weekend’s tragedy bears at least a few similarities. During an exchange with air traffic controllers, Russell mentioned he had some experience using flight simulator software. “I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before,” he said. MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a flight-sim enthusiast who is known to have taken a simulated flight path similar to the one authorities believe the plane ultimately took into the southern Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Russell was reported to have been profoundly troubled, whereas Malaysian authorities were unable to find any evidence that Shah suffered from mental illness or was undergoing any kind of stress in his life.

It’s not yet known exactly what pre-existing psychological conditions Russell may have had, but in the course of his conversation with air traffic controllers he expresses racial resentment. At one point he asks the controller, “Hey, do you think if I land this successfully, Alaska [Horizon Air’s parent company, Alaska Airllines] will give me a job as a pilot?” Told, “You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” Russell replies, “Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.”

Acts of wanton violence by white men bearing racial grievance have been on the rise during the Trump administration, which has embraced white nationalism and adopted openly racist policies.

[Note: A version of this story originally ran on 8/13/18 on Popular Mechanics.]

Seven Takeaways from the Final Malaysian MH370 Report

The report released Monday by the Malaysian government about its search for MH370 runs over a thousand pages, so it’s going to be a while before anyone has a chance to go through every detail, but after a cursory skimming a couple of points stand out.

1) Primary Radar. Right up near the top, on page 3, we read that the plane vanished from primary radar after hanging a right at Penang “only to reappear at 1815:25 UTC [0215:25 MYT] until 1822:12 UTC [0222:12 MYT].” This statement is markedly at odds with the ATSB’s assertion that the plane only appeared after 18:02 as a solitary, instantaneous blip at 18:22. It’s difficult to understand how the authorities could be in disagreement over such a seemingly simple matter-of-fact issue. And it’s an important one, because the DSTG decided not to use the post-18:02 radar information in their Bayesian analysis on the grounds that it was an isolated and hence not-fully-reliabled data point. To ignore a seven-minute long track would amount to cherry picking. I strongly suspect that if this data point were included in the BTO data set, it would strongly increase the probabilistic density of routes to the northwest, that is, to Kazakhstan. Is this why all the primary radar visualizations we’ve seen thus far end before the 18:15 section of the track?

2) Among the report’s conclusions is that “The possibility of intervention by a third party cannot be excluded.” Yet the report offers no indication of who that third party might be, how they might have taken the plane, or why they might have done so. Another paragraph in the section emphasizes the lack of evidence linking either of the pilots to the disappearance. It’s easy to see that the Malaysian Government, which happens to own Malaysian Airlines, would have a vested interest in drawing blame away from the pilots. But it’s nonetheless significant that the official final report in this case undermines what has become the consensus view, namely that Zaharie took the plane. I hardly need point out that the only technically informed theory about MH370 than posits a third-party hijacking is my own.

3) At last we get to see the French oxygen isotope barnacle report, which Patrick De Deckker mentioned but which had never before been officially referenced. This document is in accord with De Deckker about the age of the barnacles (no more than a couple of months) and about the fact that the oldest barnacle started and finished growing in warm water, but it failed to find evidence of a cold-water dip in the middle. On the whole, this new oxygen isotope seems more extensive and better supported by calibration, so that’s where I’d put my money, not that it really tells us much. By the way, one of the enduring mysteries of this saga is why the initial report on the biology of the flaperon’s biofouling reported much larger barnacles, with the implication of an age closer to what you’d expect if the piece had floated since March of 2014. As with the primary radar, this matter is too simple to justify such a profound disagreement.

4) We also see, at last, a much more detailed report by the French about their investigation into the flaperon’s buoyancy. As Steve Barratt points out in the comments of my last post, “The clean separation of the rear honeycomb structure was mainly in traction but some compression (scanning electron microscope). Unusually the leading edge had four vertical impacts or dents that suggested interaction an adjacent part. However Boeing confirmed that there was no adjacent part that would cause these four impacts with the spacing observed.” Thus the mystery of how the retrieved parts came off the airplane deepens. Also: “The tests performed showed that in that, the buoyancy was quite high. The position with the upper surface immersed seemed more stable, which is consistent with a significant presence of crustaceans on the upper surface. However, the waterline noted did not correspond to that suggested by the zones where the crustaceans were located, that’s to say on the water, while the trailing edge was significantly out of the water.” I’ve been thumping this tub for years now, and it continues to baffle me that the Australians have resolutely ignored this issue.

5) We now have a much more detailed understanding of how ATC responded to the plane’s disappearance. (Not well, but then nobody really comes off well in this incident; it doesn’t seem fair to me than an official had to resign over it.) What we still don’t know is why MAS OPS insisted that the plane was over Cambodia, and that there was therefore no reason to go into crisis mode. This seems to me a far more impactful error.

6) One page 276 we read for the first time about a very interesting set of simulator flights recreating the turn at IGARI. The upshot is that in order to match primary radar data tracks the plane must have been banked over by hand into a steep turn. This, together with the high speed at which the plane flew up the Malacca Strait, gives the impression that the hijacker/s were feeling a sense of urgency about getting somewhere.

7) Finally, on page 130 we read about the strange frequencies generated by the Inmarsat logons at 18:25 and 0:19. I’ve long argued that since it led to the generation of the rest of the Inmarsat data, the first of these logons is far and away the most critical piece of evidence in the whole affair, and that it has been under-scrutinized by authorities. The fact that one of its component frequencies cannot be explained should raise concerns about the interpretation of all subsquent data.

Popular Mechanics: What If They Were Looking for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Wrong Place All Along?

Early this morning, local time, the Seabed Constructor recovered the last of eight sea drones it had sent to scour a remote patch of the southern Indian Ocean. Then, with little fanfare, the ship set off on a course for Dampier, Australia. Thus came the end of the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, an epic feat of undersea exploration that lasted nearly four years, covered a total of some 85,000 square miles (an area larger than Great Britain), and cost on the order of a quarter-billion dollars.

The search found not a single trace of the plane. How could such an epic undertaking have come up empty?

Here’s one idea: the experts were wrong all along about which direction the airliner flew—it went north, not south toward the deep Indian Ocean. If that sounds like crazy second-guessing, then consider it’s the point of view of someone who helped solve one of the biggest missing plane cases of the 21st century.

Here’s a quick catch-up on how we got here: Based on a series of seven signals automatically transmitted from the plane to an Inmarsat communications satellite shortly after MH370 disappeared from radar, investigators came to believe that the plane flew on autopilot for six hours and then ran out of fuel shortly after midnight, universal time, on March 8, 2014. The airliner then sent a final burst of data as it plummeted earthward.

This data came in two ways. The first, the so-called “burst timing offset” (BTO) data, was a measure of how far the plane was from the satellite at the time of transmission. The set of all possible places from which the plane might have made it formed a ring, or arc, on the earth’s surface. The second type of data, the so-called “burst frequency offset” (BFO) data, could provide a rough sense of whether the plane was flying to the north or to the south. After spending weeks developing the mathematics necessary to interpret it, investigators decided that the BFO values meant the plane must have gone south.

The subsequent search for the plane’s wreckage was defined by two factors: where exactly on the final arc the plane was when it sent its last transmission, and how far it could have traveled afterward. After further mathematical analysis, investigators became convinced that the final BFO values meant that the plane was in a steep dive at the end. The condition of debris recovered in the western Indian Ocean in the years after the crash further convinced investigators that the plane hit hard and fast. Taken together, those factors would imply the plane’s final resting place lies close to the arc.

Applying a technique called Bayesian analysis to the BTO data, researchers at Australia’s Defense Science & Technology Group were able to identify a 500-mile-long segment of the arc along which is likely where the transmission occurred. According to their calculations, there was virtually a zero chance that the plane could have wound up south of 40 degrees south latitude or north of 33 degrees south latitude. It had to be between those lines.

Or so they thought.

With the completion of Seabed Constructor‘s work, investigators have now searched that entire length of that 500-mile stretch—and 650 miles beyond it—up to a distance of 25 miles in either direction. With zero to show for four years of effort, the authorities are stumped. They don’t believe the plane ended up somewhere else on the arc, nor are they willing to accept it could have glided more than 25 miles past the line. They’re also confident that the plane isn’t sitting in the already-searched area and they just missed it. It’s just gone.

The country ultimately responsible for finding the plane, Malaysia, seems resigned to an unsolved mystery. Anticipating that Seabed Constructor would not find any wreckage in its final days of work, the country’s minister of transport, Anthony Loke, issued a statement on May 30 announcing the search’s end, explaining: “Whilst combined scientific studies have continuously used (sic) to refine areas of probability, to date however, no new information has been encountered to determine the exact location of the aircraft.”

However, many observers outside the investigation are unsatisfied with this declaration of surrender. Plenty of online conspiracy theorists and armchair investigators have their own ideas about the fate of MH370, but one person you should actually listen to is David Gallo. He’s the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute researcher who co-led the search that found Air France 447.

Writing on Twitter on May 25, Gallo suggested that the search’s heavy reliance on Inmarsat signals might have been a mistake. “I never accepted the satellite data from day one,” he wrote, adding: “I never thought I’d say this….I think there is a good chance that MH370 never came south at all. Let’s put it this way, I don’t accept the evidence that the plane came south.”

When I reached him on the phone, Gallo told me he was flummoxed by the authorities’ insistence that the Inmarsat data and its interpretation had to be correct. “This is where I got so frustrated,” he said. “The plane’s not there, so what the hell? What’s going on?”

Gallo doesn’t claim to know how the satellite data could have been misinterpreted, but one possibility is that a sophisticated hijacker might have deliberately tampered with it in order to throw searchers off the trail. Search officials have never come up with an explanation for how the satcom system came to be turned back on an hour after all its other electronics went dark. Victor Iannello, a member of the influential Independent Group of amateur researchers, has pointed out that by changing a single parameter inside a satcom computer, a hijacker could have tweaked the BFO data to make it look like the plane was winging south when it was really heading north.

That’s a controversial idea to say the least, flying in the face of years of official near-certainty about a southern terminus. But given search officials’ quarter-billion-dollar failure, the truth must lie among one of the possibilities they haven’t yet deemed worthy of consideration.

Gallo argues that a fresh approach is in order. “My advice to the Malaysian govt is to STOP and think,” he wrote. “Turn over controls to a small independent group and let them work out the way forward.”

Note: This article originally ran in Popular Mechanics.

No, Larry Vance Did Not Lead the Investigation Into Swissair 111

Those who have closely followed the investigation into the disappearance of MH370 will be familiar with the name of Larry Vance, a former air accident investigator who has caused a big stir with his claims that MH370 glided to a crash landing, rather than plummeted in a dive, as official investigators believe. He made these claims in a 2016 documentary made by Australian “60 Minutes,” and in another released this year.

I never found Vance, or his claims, credible; no serious accident investigator would claim to determine the cause of a crash on the basis of a single piece of debris, let alone one he hasn’t seen in person.

Moreover, he seems not to understand what the different parts of the aircraft are. In the “60 Minutes” documentary, explaining why the trailing edge of the flaperon was torn away, he points to its trailing edge and says, “the flap was extended down and the force of the water would be enormous.” But a flap and a flaperon are different things. Flaps extend down during a 777’s normal approach to landing, as seen in the image above (taken from a YouTube video off a 777 landing in New York), but the flaperons behave differently, bending downward along with the flaps but also moving up and down like ailerons.

Vance makes an equally egregious misstatement when he declares that “most people will agree that the flaps were down–not only were they down, they were fully extended.”

In fact, page 101 of the official Australian final report, “The Operational Search for MH370,”says: “Critically, a section of right outboard main flap (Figure 81) was found near Tanzania on 20 June 2016. The item was shipped to the ATSB for analysis. This analysis indicated that the flaps were most likely in a retracted position.”

This finding competely nullifies the claim that Vance has been trying to make over the last few years, and indeed demolishes the central argument of the “60 Minutes” documentary.

Vance has been treated as a credible source in the press because of his professional background. The bio on the Amazon page for his book describes him as “Investigator-In-Charge for over 200 field investigations, including the Swissair 111 crash investigation.” The BBC described Vance as “a world-leading air crash investigator” and “formerly investigator-in-charge for the Canadian Aviation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, and has led more than 200 air crash investigations.”

Suspicious, I reached out to the media relations team at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to find out if Vance really had worked there, and if so in what capacity. I received the following reply:

Larry Vance is a former employee of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) who occupied the position of Senior Investigator/Operations Specialist with the Standards and Performance Division of the Air Branch. He was with the TSB from 1990 to 2008. During the course of his employment, Mr. Vance contributed to a number of investigations, including the Swissair 111 crash investigation for which the entire investigation team received a Government of Canada Certificate of Recognition. Mr. Vance was not the investigator-in-charge of the Swissair 111 crash. He was one of two deputy IIC. No further details of Mr. Vance’s employment are available as employee records are retained for only 2 years after their departure and then transferred to government archives.

Please note that Mr. Vance’s opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the TSB. The TSB does not endorse any statement made by Mr. Vance.

So there you have it. Vance indeed, actually, once earned his living in the aircraft accident investigation business. But has inflated his bona fides in a way that casts doubt on his truthfulness.

It’s a sad reflection on the state of the media that Australia’s Nine Network had the poor judgement to build a documentary around Vance’s misinformation, and that its message was then amplified around the world by prestige media outlets like the BBC, Time magazine, and the Washington Post.