Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters, via Slate.com
A hundred days have passed since MH370 went missing — and while air and sea search operations have been put on hold, hope springs eternal. Today, the BBC is reporting that Inmarsat remains confident that its analysis of the satellite data will lead to the plane, saying that the authorities never searched the area of highest probability because they were distracted by the underwater acoustic pings that turned out not to have come from MH370’s black boxes. Once a new search gets underway, it will explore an area that conforms much better to the likely speed and heading of the missing plane:
By modelling a flight with a constant speed and a constant heading consistent with the plane being flown by autopilot – the team found one flight path that lined up with all its data. “We can identify a path that matches exactly with all those frequency measurements and with the timing measurements and lands on the final arc at a particular location, which then gives us a sort of a hotspot area on the final arc where we believe the most likely area is,” said Mr Ashton.
Unfortunately, it will be several months before such a search of this new area can get underway, since the survey of the ocean floor will be required to figure out how deep it is and what kind of underwater technology should be used. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Australian organization leading the search described a more complex and ambiguous state of affairs, telling the AFP that experts were still struggling to narrow down the highest-probability search area, taking into consideration not just the satellite data but also “aircraft performance data [and] a range of other information.”
What other information? Your guess is as good as mine. As I wrote last week in Slate, Inmarsat has by now leaked enough clues about MH370’s electronic Inmarsat “handshakes” that outsiders can now understand why, mathematically, the plane must have gone south. Yet we have not the slightest hint of what sequence of events might have taken it there. We don’t even know how it could have navigated southward. An airliner like the 777 doesn’t just wing off in random directions like a paper airplane; its Flight Management System would have been following a series of waypoints or a compass heading. Yet its range of possible courses doesn’t seem to match up with any particular heading or waypoint. (The last search area matched up with a flight route that tracked waypoints between the Cocos Islands and Australia, which is likely one of the reasons it seemed so appealing to authorities, but as we now know, that came up empty.)
MH370 looks to be a unique case not just in aviation history. No machine this big, no group of human beings this large, vanished so completely and so mysteriously since the advent of modern technology. What’s more, MH370 didn’t just disappear once, but three times.
The first disappearance, of course, was when it vanished from air traffic controllers’ screens in the early morning hours of March 8, apparently after someone turned off its transponder and automatic status-reporting equipment, and took a hard left turn. Based on the speed and precision of its navigation, the plane almost certainly was under human control.
The second disappearance occurred about an hour later, as the plane slipped beyond the range of military radar. Minutes later, some kind of unknown event caused the plane to transmit a mysterious triple burst of electronic signals to the Inmarsat satellite. At around the same time, the plane took another radical course change, pivoting from a northwest heading toward mainland Asia to a southwestern course that would take it over western Indonesia and out into the open ocean. Based on the slim evidence of subsequent Inmarsat pings, the plane seems to have flown in a simple straight line, so it may not have been under human control at that point.
Then it disappeared a third and final time, this time leaving not a single clue. Read the rest of this entry »