Aviation Archive


The Outline: When Machines Go Rogue

Midnight, January 8, 2016. High above the snow-covered tundra of arctic Sweden, a Canadair CRJ-200 cargo jet made a beeline through the -76 degree air. Inside the cockpit, the pilot in command studied the approach information for Tromsø, Norway. His eyes flickered up from his reading to the primary flight display, an iPad-size rectangle on the left side of his control panel, where the indicator that showed how high the nose was pointing above the horizon had started to creep upward.

Not good.

The pilot felt no sense of movement, but that didn’t matter: One of the first things he’d been taught was that without being able to see the ground, it’s almost impossible to accurately judge whether you’re climbing or turning. A pilot must trust his instruments completely.

A klaxon sounded: The autopilot had turned itself off. There was no time to think. If the nose went too high, it could result in a deadly stall. On the display, a bright red arrow pointed downward: Descend! The pilot pushed forward on the controls, yet still the display said the nose was too high. He pushed more. Manuals and binders rose up into the air and clattered onto the ceiling. He was hanging in his shoulder straps as though upside down. An audio clacker went off: The plane had exceeded its maximum operating speed.

“Help me!” the pilot said.

“I’m trying!” the co-pilot called out.

What the pilot did not comprehend was that his plane had already lost nearly two miles of altitude and was pointed almost straight down. Forty seconds before, the automated system that guided the plane had suffered a partial malfunction, causing it to display an erroneous reading. Now the plane was hurtling toward the frozen landscape at 584 mph. At this rate, impact was less than 30 seconds away. And the pilot had no idea what was really going on.

The co-pilot toggled the radio. “Mayday, Air Sweden 294!”

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First MH17 Perpetrator Identified

On the morning of July 17, 2014, Ukrainian intelligence recorded a cell phone conversation between a military intelligence officer with the code name “Khmuryi and a fighter with the Russian-backed separatists forces, code name “Buryat,” who was in command of a flat-bed truck carrying a Buk antiaircraft missile launcher. The Ukrainians subsequently released audio and a transcript:

BURYAT: Where should we load this beauty, Nikolayevich?

KHMURYI: Which one? That one?

BURYAT: Yes, yes, the one that I brought. I am already in Donetsk.

KHMURYI: Is this the one that I am thinking about? The one ‘B’… ‘M’?

BURYAT: Yes, yes, yes. ‘Buk,’ ‘Buk.’

KHMURYI: Is it on a hauler?

BURYAT. Yes, it is on this one. We need to unload it somewhere and hide it.

KHMURYI: Is it with a crew?

BURYAT: Yes, with the crew.

KHMURYI: Don’t hide it anywhere, it will now go over there.

As extensive reporting by Bellingcat has subsequently made clear, the missile launcher had been sent over from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade the night before. Transfered to a field near the village of Snizhne, it sat for several hours, then picked off MH17. That night it was shipped back across the border.

Last week, Bellingcat released a report identifying “Khmuryi” as Sergey Nikolaevich Dubinsky, a major general in the GRU special forces. His photograph is above. This is the first time an individual participant in the shoot-down of MH17 has been identified by name.

To this day, it remains unclear exactly what Russia sought to achieve by destroying MH17. But the circumstances are coming ever more sharply into focus. Within minutes of destroying the civilian airliner, Russia launched a disinformation campaign that succeeded in misleading a large majority of Western observers into believing that the 777 had been shot down by accident by incompetent militiamen who had gotten their hands on a Buk by accident. On CNN, where I was still under contract at the time, this line was parroted reflexively. It was lamentable to me, and remains lamentable, that this “common sense” view was hewed to so narrowly. This kind of lock-step groupthink among the media is part of the reason that Russia’s misinformation campaign since 2014 has been so successful.

Bellingcat’s efforts, however, offer some grounds for optimism. To paraphrase Lincoln, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Dogged research by Elliot Higgins and his crew, paralleled by the investigative efforts of Dutch investigators, are slowly bringing to light those responsible for this war crime.

MH370 is a more difficult case, but the fundamentals are similar. A plane comes to grief; a flurry of implausible theories swirl. The public and the media alike are thoroughly confused. But quietly, step by step, the facts are laid bare. It’s only a matter of time before, like Dubinsky, the names and faces of the perpetrators are revealed to the public.

UPDATE: Bellingcat has published further insights into Dubinsky’s role based on new information that has surfaced as a result of the report discussed here.


Further Clarity on MH370 Flight Path Modeling

Over the last three years, Inmarsat, the ATSB, and the DSTG have been commendably proactive in explaining the mathematical process by which they deduced MH370’s most likely endpoint from the Inmarsat data. The most recent installment, “The Use of Burst Frequency Offsets in the Search for MH370″ by Ian D. Holland, continues that tradition by shedding light specifically on the BFO analysis. All told, it reinforces the impression that the team had good reasons for thinking that the plane would be found in the 120,000 sq km search box. This, of course, only deepens the riddle of why it wasn’t.

Holland’s paper gets into some pretty dense math but a couple of points stand out. On page 6 we read:

Since the mean of the BFOs from the 18:39- 18:41Z call attempt are in broad agreement with the linear trend observed in the BFOs from 19:41Z to 00:11Z (for which the BTOs themselves were consistent with straight and level flight [1]), this supports the finding in [1] that there were most- likely no major turns after the unanswered call attempt (see ([1], Fig. 10.5)).

This is a familiar idea: that the BFO value at 18:40 indicates that the plane, if flying level, was already heading south at that time, and that the FMT had already occurred. This was long accepted as being almost certainly true. But as Victor Iannello recently pointed out on his newly started blog, if the plane turned before 18:40, then its wreckage would have been found in the SIO search area. Therefore, he proposes an alternative that originally seemed less likely: that the plane was in a steady, 2900 feet per minute descent.

Why would whoever was flying MH370 want to descend in such a fashion? Iannello proposes that they might have been setting up for a landing at Car Nicobar airstrip in the Andaman Islands. Perhaps the plane descended for a while — at this rate, getting down from 35,000 o 20,000 would take about five minutes — and then the pilot changed his mind and flew south into the SIO instead.

However, as I’ve pointed out before, if the plane flew straight after 18:40 then the geometry of the BTO rings itself suggests what speed the plane was flying at. The reason is that the 19:40 and 20:40 rings are quite close together, and so there is a small angular distance between, say, a 400 knot path and a 500 knot path. This small angular distance means that the intersection of these paths with the 22:40 and 00:11 rings are spaced at very similar distances. The upshot is that the BTO rings themselves imply a speed of about 480 knots. This is not dissimilar to the speed seen on the radar track, about 500 knots.

To fly this fast without burning all its fuel before 0:11, 9M-MRO must necessarily have been flying at or close to normal cruise altitude.

What Iannello is effectively proposing, then, is that MH370 flew fast and high, then descended, then climbed and flew fast and high again. It is not easy to see what such a dive-and-climb might have accomplished. That is not to say it didn’t happen. But it does run counter to the behavior that the plane otherwise exhibited, which seems to have been geared toward getting where it was going rather quickly.

Another thing I found interesting about the paper was the amount of attention given to the question of the anomalous BFO value at 18:25:27. Apparently a body within the official search effort called the “MH370 Flight Path Reconstruction Group – SATCOM Subgroup” produced a whole paper on this topic; it has not been released to the public but Holland refers to it no less than 7 times, as sk999 has pointed out. We’ve known for some time that the ATSB was unable to find a reason for this value. This struck me as suspicious and I wondered if it might be evidence that the SDU has been tampered with. In this paper we learn for the first time that a study of 20 previous 9M-MRO logins found that one similar anomalous value. (Previous reports have stated that login requests in mid-flight are extremely rare, so we can assume these occurred during normal power-up sequences on the ground.) Unfortunately, Holland doesn’t say anything about what the circumstances were. The implication however is that this kind of anomaly can arise innocently.

Finally, Holland also touches upon the issue of the rate of acceleration implied by the final two BFO data points: 0.68 g. Again, we’ve discussed this before on this blog, but since Holland revisits it I think it bears repeating. This is an extremely high rate of acceleration — two-thirds of what the plane would experience if it was free-falling in a vacuum. With no engines to hasten its descent, the plane must have been pointed nearly vertically down. With its velocity increasing at such a rate, the plane must have impacted the surface quite soon after, therefore it couldn’t be very far from the 7th arc.

My overall impression upon reading this report was: Wow, this is extremely solid work. The DSTG’s analysis of the Inmarsat provides a very compelling case for where the plane went in the southern Indian Ocean. I wouldn’t want to bet against this, I thought.

Then I remembered that their predicted area has already been searched and nothing was found.




MH370: Triumph of the Weird

Well, here we are in cold-case land, scratching our heads. Some $150 million has been spent and no plane. Where does that leave us?

For one thing, with radically altered probabilities of what might have happened.

Imagine that we dial the clock back to August, 2015. You’re Warren Truss and this the story that your data is telling you:

Based on this default story, you’ve concluded that there’s a 97 percent chance that the aircraft hit the ocean within a 120,000 sq km box. What about the other 3 percent? Let’s imagine there’s a 2 percent chance that it’s somewhere else in the SIO, and a small but finite chance — let’s say 1 percent — that, for unkonwn and uncalculable reasons, the plane didn’t go into the SIO at all.

Time goes by. You search out all but the 1 percent of the search box that your sonar equipment can’t image (e.g. seabed crevasses), throw up your hands, and call it off.

So this is how things now stand: Of the orginal 100 percent, 96 percent has been scanned and ruled out. Here’s how remaining probabilities now stack up:

Of course, these are all very rough numbers. The point being, no matter how you slice it, the scenario that was once nearly a dead certainty (flying into the SIO search box) is now less than an even bet, and outcomes that once barely merited an asterisk are now not only possible but probable.

The most probable category, according to this rough calculation, would be scenarios of the second variety. But if the data is valid, how could the default story be wrong? How could the plane have wound up somewhere in the SIO outside the search box? To square that circle, you have to choose one of the assumptions above and bend it. For instance, one might imagine that the 18:40 BFO value was not caused by the plane flying south, but by a plane that descended–perhaps, say, for a descent into Car Nicobar–and then changed plans and flew instead to, say, Antarctica. Or maybe the plane didn’t fly straight and fast, but flew slowly in a curve toward the Cocos Islands, creating a pattern of ping rings that only happened to look similar to those generated by a plane flying fast and straight.

Such eventualities are so unlikely that, back when the search box was being drawn, it was easy to simply discard them. But now that the most reasonable options are off the table, this very geographically dispersed (and hence impractical to search) population of possible endpoints collectively adds up to “very likely.”

Then again, it’s also now significantly more plausible that the plane didn’t go south at all, or that if it did it wound up in the search box but then fell into an unscannable crevasse.

Whatever happened to MH370, it wasn’t the default story told by the data, but rather something that in the summer of 2015 would have been discarded as hopelessly implausible.


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.


Zaharie Shah’s Secret Psych Evaluation


Yesterday Twitter user @nihonmama released the first two folders from the secret Malaysian police report into MH370. Some parts relating to Zaharie’s flight simulator had been released earlier, but the bulk of this material is coming into public view for the first time. Here is “Folder 1: Pilot” and here is “Folder 2: Co-pilot.”

I was particularly interested in the section containing the psychological evaluation of the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, found on page 111. As it is in Malaysian, I had to type it into Google Translate to make any sense of it. As I have absolutely no understanding of Malaysian I am copying it and pasting it below without any changes. Corrections welcome!


Hon. Datuk Mazlan bin Mansor
Deputy Director (Intelligence / Operations),
Royal Malaysian Police,
Bukit Aman,
50560, Kuala Lumpur

Hon. Dato ‘

Expertise help the Ministry of Health in Malysia Investigation Missing MH370: The study “Psychosocial and Behavioural Pattern” crew MH370.

Letter from Hon. Dato ‘no. ref: JSJ KPN (PR) 35/3 dated July 3, 2014 and the terms of reference of the assessment panel “behavioral pattern and psychosocial crew of MH370 is referenced.

2. The sub-committee meeting between Kiraja Malaysia Police (PDRM) and KementerianKesihatan (MOH) was held in Room Mesyusarat, Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta, Perak on 7 July 2014. The purpose of this meeting was to obtain an independent report (independent) The above assessment.

3. Here is the panel sub-committee has been established.

[The letter lists three officials from the Ministry of Health and six officials from the Royal Malaysian Police]

4. Assessment conducted on flight MH370 pilot Captain Zaharia Ahmad Shah and co-pilot, en. Fariq Ab. Hamid, have been guided by reference listed:

i. Quoting witnesses related conversations pilot, Captain Zaharia Ahmad Shah, total of 40 person which includes 5 members, 20 co-workers, friends WeChat 9 and 6 public witnesses.
ii. Quoting witnesses related conversations pilot, Mr. Fariq Ab. Hamid total of 9 people including 3 members of the family, his girlfriend, and five colleagues.
iii. Quotes clips CCTV video at KLIA’s movement, patterns of behavior and expression on the face (facial expression) Zaharie co-pilot En. Fariq before their flight dated 07.03.2014.
iv. Quotes CCTV video clips KLIA Zaharie on 26.02.2014 before his flight to Denpasar, Indonesia and on 03.03.2014 before his flight to Melbourne, Australia.
v. Medical reports Zaharie.

5. Based on these reference sources, we have studied the background Zaharie including education, personality and coping (coping style), relationship with spouse, children, family members, friends and colleagues, including his interests and hobbies. Attention has also been given to her relationship with her maid. His physical health problems are investigated including asthma and diseases of the spine, which caused him to have to take treatment drugs painkillers “analgesics.” Religious and political tendencies he observed.

6. We also reviewed the background of the co-pilot Mr. Fariq including education, personality, relationships with family members, friends and colleagues.

7. Highlights are as follows:

7.1 In the field of career, Zaharie is an experienced pilot and a competent and respected by peers.

7.2 Available Zaharie not share the same interests with his family members. However, the difference in interest is acceptable. His family was also not reported any change of pattern of behavior (behavioral pattern) before his flight was on 07/03/2014.

7.3 Information from friends and colleagues Zaharie show that he was a friendly, warm and jokes. They are also not reported any change of pattern of behavior before his flight was on 03/07/2014.

7.4 Problems spinal pain he was a fairly chronic physical problems rather than a new stressor.

7.5 Review of comparisons based recording video clips CCTV KLIA on 26.02.2014, 03.03.2014 and 03.07.2014, found him tending to smoke before her flight and movements of his time smoking was similar in all three videos. At KLIA CCTV video clip on 03/07/2014, Zaharie not show any sign of anxiety or depression.

Finally, we have not found, any changes in terms of psychological, social and behavioral patterns Zaharie Ahman Shah before his flight was on 03/07/2014. We also did not find any demolition of psychological, social and behavioral patterns of co-pilot En. Fariq Ab Hamid before his flight was on 03/07/2014.

Thank you.


I who am following orders,

MMC NO: 25878
Director & Consultant Psychiatry (Forensic)
Special Grade “C”
Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta
Perak Darul Ridzuan

I find this to be a truly remarkable document. We’ve been hearing rumors that the investigation found no evidence that suggested Zaharie could have a psychological predilection for suicide/mass murder, but here it is at last in black and white, with details such as the fact that his pattern of smoking before a flight was unchanged before MH370. It is hard to imagine that anyone contemplating his own imminent death could exhibit such sang froid.

Indeed, I don’t think there has ever been a case where someone who is known to have carried out such an act had such an outward appearance of being balanced and well-adjusted. Andreas Lubitz, for example, had experienced years of psychological upheaval trouble, at one point temporarily washing out from Lufthansa’s flight training program, before destroying Germanwings 9525.

In my estimation this psych evaluation must be regarded as powerful evidence that Zaharie did not hijack MH370.

After the jump, the letter in the original Malay, as re-typed by me from the report.

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Is the New ATSB Search Area Sound?


The above graph is taken from the DSTG book “Bayesian Methods in the Search for MH370, ” page 90. It shows the probability distribution of MH370’s endpoint in the southern Indian Ocean based on analysis of the different autopilot modes available to whoever was in charge of the plane during its final six hours. It was published earlier this year and so represents contemporary understanding of these issues. As you can see, the DSTG estimated that the probability that the plane hit the 7th arc north of 34 degrees south longitude is effectively zero.

I interviewed Neil Gordon, lead author of the paper, on August 11. At that time, he told me that experts within the official search had already determined that the BFO values at 0:19 indicated that the plane was in a steep descent, on the order of 15,000 feet per minute.

Such a rate of descent would necessarily indicate that the plane could not have hit the ocean very far from the 7th arc. Nevertheless, Fugro Equator, which was still conducting its broad towfish scan of the search area at the time, spent most of its time searching the area on the inside edge of the search zone in the main area, between 37.5 and 35 degrees south latitude, about 25 nautical miles inside the 7th arc. At no point between the time of our interview and the end of the towfish scan in October did Equator scan anywhere north of 34 degrees south.

Shortly thereafter, the ATSB hosted a meeting of the experts it had consulted in the course of the investigation, and the result of their discussion was published on December 20 of this year as “MH370 – First Principles Review.” This document confirms what Gordon told me, that the group believed that the BFO data meant that the plane had to have been in a steep dive at the time of the final ping. What’s more, the report specified that this implied that the plane could not have flown more than 25 nautical miles from the 7th arc, and indeed most likely impacted the sea within 15 nautical miles.

By the analysis presented above, a conclusion is fairly obvious: the plane must have come to rest somewhere south of 34 degrees south, within 25 nautical miles of the seventh arc. Since this area has already been thoroughly scanned, then the implication is that the plane did not come to rest on the Indian Ocean seabed where the Inmarsat signals indicate it should have.

I would suggest that at this point the search should have been considered completed.

Nevertheless, the “First Principles Review” states on page 15 that the experts’ renewed analysis of the 777 autopilot dynamics indicates that the plane could have crossed the 7th arc “up to 33°S in latitude along the 7th arc.”

Then in the Conclusions section on page 23 the authors describe “a remaining area of high probability between latitudes 32.5°S and 36°S along the 7th arc,” while the accompanying illustration depicts a northern limit at 32.25 degrees south.

In other words, without any explanation, the northern limit of the aircraft’s possible impact point has moved from 34 degrees south in the Bayesian Methods paper in early 2016 to 33 degrees south on page 15 in the “First Principles Review” released at the end of the year. Then eight pages later within the same report the northern limit has moved, again without explanation, a half a degree further north. And half a page later it has moved a quarter of a degree further still.

Is the ATSB sincere in moving the northern limit in this way? If so, I wonder why they did not further search out this area when they had the chance, instead of continuing to scan an area that they apparently had already concluded the plane could not plausibly have reached.

I should point out at this point that the area between 34 south and 35.5 south has been scanned to a total widtch of 37 nautical miles, and the area between 32.5 and 34 has been searched to a total width 23 nautical miles. Thus even if the ATSB’s new northern limits are correct, they still should have found the plane.

As a result of the above I would suggest that:

a) Even though most recent report describes “the need to search an additional area representing approximately 25,000 km²,” the conduct of the ATSB’s search does not suggest that they earnestly believe that the plane could lie in this area. If they did, they could have searched out the highest-probability portions of this area with the time and resources at their disposal. Indeed, they could be searching it right now, as I write this. Obviously they are not.

b) The ATSB knew, in issuing the report, that Malaysia and China would not agree to search the newly suggested area, because it fails to meet the agreed-upon criteria for an extension (“credible new information… that can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft”). Thus mooting this area would allow them to claim that there remained areas of significant probability that they had been forced to leave unsearched. This, in effect, would allow them to claim that their analysis had been correct but that they had fallen victim to bad luck.

c) The ATSB’s sophisticated mathematical analysis of the Inmarsat data, combined with debris drift analysis and other factors, allowed them to define an area of the southern Indian Ocean in which the plane could plausibly have come to rest. A long, exhaustive and expensive search has determined that it is not there.

d) The ATSB did not fall victim to bad luck. On the contrary, they have demonstrated with great robustness that the Inmarsat data is not compatible with the physical facts of the case.

e) Something is wrong with the Inmarsat data.


New York: The Search for MH370 Seems to Be Over. What Now?


Australian officials have concluded that the $180 million search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has failed. In a report timed to coincide with the wind-down of the two-year-long inspection of the southern Indian Ocean, a panel of experts convened by the Australian Transport Safety Board opined that the plane most likely lies somewhere in a zone of open ocean about the size of New Hampshire to the northeast of the current search area.

This new zone probably won’t be examined. The three countries responsible for the search — Australia, Malaysia, and China — have already stated that no further attempts to find the plane will be undertaken, unless compelling new evidence emerges.

In short, the biggest mystery in the history of modern aviation doesn’t look like it will be solved anytime soon. So it’s a good moment to take stock about what we know and what to expect in the future as we try to make sense of frustrating and tragic irresolution:

The investigators now say they have a pretty good handle on how the plane went down.

Ironically, while admitting failure, the Australian report reflects the experts’ increased confidence that they understand more or less what happened the night of the vanishing.

Based on automatic signals — “pings” — exchanged between the plane and a navigation satellite during the final six hours MH370 was in the air, investigators believe that after the airliner vanished from radar screens over the Malacca Strait it must have taken a final turn to the left and flown south on a magnetic compass heading (one of several possible navigational modes a plane can use). It then flew straight until it ran out of fuel and dived into the ocean at high speed, smashing apart into small fragments.

The scenario would be consistent with pilot suicide, but the report does not mention the secret Malaysian police report leaked earlier this year that revealed that captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had saved a set of points on his home flight simulator in which he flew with zero fuel in the remote southern Indian Ocean. The simulator data could reasonably be interpreted as evidence he planned a suicide flight, or it could be a freak coincidence. The ATSB has long maintained silence regarding the possible identity of the perpetrator, saying that its job is to figure where MH370 went, not why it went there.

The plane is almost certainly not in the huge patch of ocean investigators spent two years searching.

The investigators long believed that the plane’s impact point lay within a nearly 50,000-square-mile rectangle calculated by Australia’s Defense Science Technology Group. But this high-probability zone has now been searched out using towed side-scan sonar arrays and autonomous underwater vehicles. Apparently, the plane isn’t there.

Some observers have speculated that the wreckage might have been missed by the sonar scan, perhaps falling into the shadow of a seamount or the depths of a ravine. The report, however, throws cold water on this idea, explaining that the technology is capable of searching all but the most rugged 1.2 percent of the search area, and therefore, “There is a high degree of confidence that the previously identified underwater area searched to date does not contain the missing aircraft.”

The new proposed search area probably won’t be examined.

If the plane isn’t in the priority search area, then it must be somewhere else. But the range of possibilities is limited. If it crashed any farther north, the debris field would have been spotted during the massive aerial search conducted just after the disappearance. If it crashed south of the current search area, debris would have been swept to the coast of Australia and likely been discovered by beachcombers. By a process of elimination, then, the endpoint could only be in a fairly tightly constrained area, about one eighth the size of the current search zone and adjacent to its northeastern edge.

“The participants of the First Principles Review were in agreement on the need to search [this] additional area,” the report states. But this extra area is large — about 10,000 square miles — and it would take months and tens of millions of dollars to scan. In its previous agreement with China and Malaysia, Australia stipulated that the search would only continue if “credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft” were found. This new analysis will not likely fit that bill.

What if the new area is searched and the plane still isn’t found?

That, the report states, “would exhaust all prospective areas for the presence of MH370.” That is to say, if the plane isn’t there, then the searchers weren’t just unlucky, their analysis was altogether wrong, and something else entirely must have happened to the plane.
But what? One possibility is that they misinterpreted one of the satellite pings. For instance, the ATSB has long puzzled over the value of the final ping but recently became convinced it must indicate that the plane was plummeting in a steep, fatal dive. If this conclusion is wrong, and the plane was instead being held in a long Sullenberger-esque glide by a suicidal pilot, then the plane’s endpoint could lie anywhere in a much larger swath of ocean.

Another possibility is that the ATSB misinterpreted all the satellite data. After MH370 disappeared from radar over the Malacca Strait, it was electronically invisible, flying over empty ocean in the dark of a moonless night. It could have gone anywhere in the world and no one would have been the wiser. Then, mysteriously, just three minutes later, its satellite communication system switched back on. This is not something that happens accidentally, or that most pilots know how to do. And yet, it is this baffling event that provided everything investigators know about the plane’s final hours. Could this strange satcom behavior have been the result of tampering by sophisticated hijackers, in order to feed investigators misleading clues? Twice I’ve asked teams within the investigation whether the satcom data could have been altered; both times they told me that they assumed that it was good.

Now that the ATSB has thrown in the towel, such questions will remain in limbo. The search will not be officially ended, only suspended. This means that according to international aviation treaties search officials will not have to issue a comprehensive final report. And so potentially vital clues about the fate of the airplane will remain hidden away indefinitely.

The mystery will endure.

(This article originally ran on December 21, 2016, in New York magazine.)


Australia Issues Postmortem on Seabed Search


The search isn’t officially over yet–the crew of the Fugro Equator still has a Christmas and New Year’s at sea to look forward to, as well as most of the month of January–but it looks like Australia is throwing in the towel on the current seabed search as it issues its First Principles Review looking at what it learned during the last three years and where it thinks the plane’s main wreckage still might be.

The upshot of the report is quite similar to the postmortem posted here in September entitled Commentary on Neil Gordon Interview. In short, the First Principles report argues that the debris most likely is located in a small (25,000 sq km) area to the northeast of the 120,000 sq km search area, and that if it isn’t there, the ATSB has no idea where it is.

Personally, I’d like to see them go ahead and search that area, but as I read the tea leaves Malaysian and China will not allow it. They’re done. (They’ve heard the “we’re absolutely certain it’s in this area but oops it’s not so we promise it’s in the next area” line before.)

So what did the report contain that was new?

What we didn’t learn, to my great dismay, was anything about the biofouling or anything more about the mechanical breakage of the debris, and what it could have told us about how the plane came apart. Patrick De Deckker’s findings might be buried forever.

There were, however, some interesting revelations:

  • For the first time, the ATSB went into some detail explaining just how much of the seabed it might have missed because the seabed terrain was too steep or rough. They reckon this to amount to about one percent of the total.
  • Search team members agreed that “the distance required to be searched from the arc could be reduced to 25 NM from the 7th arc.” At one time officials believed that the plane could have gone as far as 100 nm, so excluding that possibility greatly reduces the search zone size.
  • For the first time, the ATSB has said that the quantity of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean by itself is useful in reducing the search area: “From the number and size of items found to date from MH370 there was definitely a surface debris field, so the fact that the sea surface search detected no wreckage argues quite strongly that the site where the aircraft entered the water was not between latitudes 32°S4 and 25°S along the 7th arc.”

For me, the most exciting part of the report is the section provided by the CSIRO discussing how the debris might have drifted. The piece de resistance is a photograph provided by the French showing how the actual Réunion flaperon floated when put in the test tank (above). There are two stable states, both of which require heavily-encrusted parts of the flaperon to stick out well clear of the water. This is clearly impossible–barnacles can not live high and dry.

In the past, during discussions of this topic on this forum, people have said, “but wave action might flip the flaperon over so the whole thing might stay wet.” I’ve pooh-poohed this, saying that the flaperon looked quite heavy, and riding low in the water it would be no meant feat for a wave to flip it over. But lo and behold, the report contains a fifteen second video of a replica flaperon being tossed around in a choppy sea by 20 knot winds, and by god if it isn’t flipping over all the time. And therefore I acknowledge that it’s easy to imagine a flaperon getting continually flipped over, so that no barnacle would stay out of the water for more than a few seconds. However, what I cannot imagine is that a state of 20 knot winds is going to persist for 15 months. At some point, the wind is going to die down, and all the barnacles on the high side are going to die. Then the wind will pick up, the flaperon will get flipped over, and the barnacles on the other side will die. The only barnacles that would be able to survive such flip-flopping would the those in the band between the two exposed “poles.”

This is a really obvious problem that the French addressed in their own original secret report (though as I’ve written they couldn’t reconcile it). I find it a little surprising that CSIRO didn’t engage in the topic at all. I wish they’d let me write the questions for their FAQ!

As it stands, I feel that the photograph above provides a huge clue as to what happened to MH370.

UPDATE 12/20/16: To clarify this “huge clue,” here are some pictures of the trailing edge, which according to the French tank test should have been sticking out of the water (right-click to expand). (You can see a video of a replica floating in this way here.)




The Flaperon’s Path to Réunion

drifter-screengrabAs As I wrote back in September, Patrick De Deckker is an Australian scientist to whom the French authorities entrusted a 2.5-cm-long Lepas anatifera shell.  De Deckker has analyzed the shell to determine the ratio of magnesium to calcium within it. Because this depends on the temperature of the water in which the barnacle is growing, and the shell is laid down sequentially like the rings of a tree as it gets bigger, the barnacle can essentially serve as a record of the water temperature of the ocean it floated through. This raises the question: can this analysis tell us something about the route the flaperon traveled?

In August, De Deckker told an Australian journalist: “The start of the growth was around 24 degrees (Celsius) and then for quite some time, it ranged between 20 and 18 degrees (Celsius). And then it went up again to around 25 degrees.”

To me this suggested an obvious route of inquiry: all we had to do was sift through the Global Drifter Program for drifters that wound up in the vicinity of Réunion during the months of July or August of any given year (the flaperon washed up at the end of July, 2015) and see which of them experienced that kind of temperature profile.

I asked for volunteers to help sift through NASA or NOAA databases available online, but no one came forward. Fortunately, my brother-in-law John Swart, a database whiz, came to my rescue. He gave me a copy of Filemaker and showed me how to import data from NOAA’s Global Drifter Program.

Every day, four times a day, these drifters transmit their position and temperature via satellite to the nerds at NOAA. Using this location information we can plot how each one arrived in the vicinity of Réunion. In the Google Earth screengrab above you can see the path that each of 16 drifters took from the start of the calendar year to July/August (the data spans from 2000 to 2015). The upshot: many of the drifters started out fairly close to Réunion, and sort of swirled around. Some came from fairly far away, however–some from the northeast, others from the east or southeast (the direction of the 7th arc).

You can view the drifters’ movement by dropping this .kmz file into Google Earth.

So how did all these paths relate to temperature? With Mr Swart’s help I tabulated all the temperature data for the 16 drifters I examined. Here are the results for 12, as much as will fit in a Filemaker chart (click to expand):


Not that, as time passes, the range of temperatures shrinks, as the drifters converge on the waters near Réunion. (If you have FileMaker you can look at the underlying data set here. CSV here. Excel here.)

I should point out that according to the world’s leading Lepas Anatifera expert, Cynthia Venn of Bloomsburg University, barnacles this size are probably only a couple months old, perhaps as much as four months if we want to be really conservative. So we should look for a U-shaped temperature pattern somewhere between day 90 and day 210.

The closest we see to this pattern would, I suppose, be drifter 71030 or 41337. But neither of these experienced water temperature lower than 21 degrees. (Of the four drifters that didn’t fit on the graph,  the coldest temperature experienced was 23 degrees.)

To my mind, this suggests that the flaperon may not have arrived at Réunion through a natural process of drift.

To be sure, there are other possible explanations for this apparent anomaly. We don’t really know, or instance, how accurate Dr De Deckker’s paleothermometry really is. And it may be that by statistical fluke the flaperon happened to wander off into cold water and back again.

But these findings emerge in the context of other hard-to-explain aspects of the recovered aircraft debris:

— As confirmed by French investigators, the flaperon somehow acquired a population of Lepas barnacles even though its natural tendency was to float high in the water

— The majority of the debris has been collected in a statistically unlikely way

— The majority of collected debris is uncharacteristically devoid of marine life

— On the pieces that do have marine life, it appears to be too small given the amount of time spent at sea.

Taken together, these incongruities raise significant doubts about the provenance of the MH370 debris recovered to date.

While the Australian authorities have bent over backwards to explain their analysis of the Inmarsat data and how it lead them to define the seabed search area, they have been completely silent on the topic of biofouling (except to say that it exists). I wonder if it is because, like the French investigators who were unable to reconcile how high the flaperon floated in the water, they are stumped by inconsistencies in their data.

Australian officials have stated that they will release a comprehensive report on their findings after the seabed search is finished. Given that the last ship, the Fugro Equator, has now started its final stretch at sea, and the last mission lasted about six weeks, the search will likely be wrapped up by the end of January. Hopefully we will have some answers soon after that.