Aviation Archive

48

Guest Post: “60 Minutes: How to create your own facts before the real ones are at hand”

by Mark D Young

[Reprinted with permission from Mr Young’s website, Flightlevel42]

This past weekend saw the Australian public shown a television programme from the well known 60 minutes team. The programme has been getting a lot of attention, as most episodes do. Similar to the Carte Blanche segment on South African pay-tv station M-Net, 60 minutes has had some stellar moments of true investigative journalism during its run. However, like Carte Blanche, the manner in which many programmes are put together is formulaic.

A script is devised and then a pre-determined set of outcomes is established prior to interviews being conducted. The selection of participants and the editing of footage is carefully undertaken to steer the selected narrative in the direction chosen by the production executives. I have seen enough of both programmes to spot where and how they are edited, how shot selection is strategic and selective staging is used to ensure the script worked out by the production team achieves its goal.

A valid retort to anyone taking issue with the broadcasts of either programme is that “Well, we’ve merely presented some facts and opinions. We have got people talking. If anything changes, we will do a follow up.”

From a purely legal point of view, they are–of course–correct. As they would need to be. One cannot keep your programme running if it upsets too many courts. However, the odd bit of legal controversy–actual or threatened–never hurts the ratings. That’s show business.

This past Sunday’s programme–from “The Situation Room”–supposedly investigating and revealing new information on the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, is a great case study, in my view, of how to go about doing what the team at 60 minutes does so well.

Get folk who apparently have complete expertise in the field being discussed into an impressively titled studio set to give their opinions. If you choose the music and selectively edit well enough, you can create a wrapper of atmosphere and supposed investigation effective enough to permit a public lynching to take place in such a subtle way that a non-thinking viewer, devoid of all the salient facts involved (in what is a very complex matter), can comfortably accept that the 60 minutes team had got to the heart of the matter and presented an irrefutable hypothesis. Viewers can then go away into the world apparently ‘fully informed’ when they are nowhere near such a state.

Articles about the programme are trumpeting the fact that “aviation experts” have changed their views on what happened to MH370 and the “mystery” about what happened has now been resolved.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Read the rest of this entry »

301

Ocean Infinity Further Expands MH370 Search Area

 

Fig. 1: The seabed search as depicted in the most recent Malaysian report

When Malaysia announced on January 10 of this year that it had contracted with Ocean Infinity, a US-registered company, to relaunch the seabed search for missing Malaysian airliner MH370, Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai stated that there was an 85 percent chance that the plane’s wreckage would be found within a 25,000 square kilometer search zone previously demarcated by the Australia National Transport Board. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Australia’s stated position at the time was that if the plane was not found in this area, which stretched from 36 degrees to 32.5 degrees south latitude, it could offer no rationale for looking anywhere else.

On January 30, the Government of Malaysia released its first weekly “MH370 Operational Search Update” showing the progress of Ocean Infinity’s search vessel, Seabed Constructor. In addition to the ATSB’s 25,000 square kilometer search area, the new report designated two “extension” areas, stretching up to 29 degrees south latitude. (See Figure 2, below.) “The advice to proceed north towards 30S latitude came from Independent Group members,” News.com.au noted, referring to a theory put forward by Victor Iannello that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had hijacked his own plane and set its navigation system for Antarctica.

Fig. 2: The seabed search area as depicted in the first Malaysian update.

That bizarre hypothesis is about to be put to the test: at time of writing–April 18, 2018, 1200Z–Seabed Constructor is working an area around 30.5S. Working at its current rate, it will have soon have finished scouring both the extension areas and laid Iannello’s idea to rest.

What then? With the ATSB’s and the IG’s ideas all exhausted, one might argue that it would be time to pack up and go home. But this is not what will happen. Yesterday, in its 12th weekly update, the Malaysian government unveiled a new supplementary search area, to stretch all the way up to 26 degrees south latitude. (See Figure 1, top.) As far as I know, no one has yet hypothesized a scenario that matches the data and would result in the plane ending up this far north, but hope springs eternal. Perhaps Ocean Infinity, for whatever reason, just wants the process to drag on for as long as possible.

By the way, little attention has been paid to the fact that Seabed Constructor has blasted through the Broken Ridge area of steep, craggy terrain while scarcely breaking stride. This is a testament to the capability of its AUV technology. It also rules out an idea that has been promoted by certain MH370 theorists, to the effect that the captain abducted the plane and headed for Broken Ridge in the hope that the wreckage would never be found there. That idea can now be scratched off the fast-dwindling list of possibilities.

162

ATSB’s Final Search Area Completed. Once Again, MH370 Isn’t There.

Earlier today Malaysia released its latest weekly report into the progress of Ocean Infinity’s seabed search in the Southern Indian Ocean for the wreckage of MH370. Included was the chart above, which shows the area currently being scanned in red. The southernmost portion of this “T” shape is that last part of the 25,000 square kilometer designed by the ATSB as the final search area. Once it is scanned and the data assessed, the search will be over.

Or rather, the statement above should be in the past tense, because the last weekly report showed this small area as already having been scanned. Thus, the ATSB’s final 25,000 square kilometers has already been finished.

You’ll recall that this area was described in the ATSB report “MH370–First Principles Report” as

 a remaining area of high probability between latitudes 32.5°S and 36°S along the 7th arc. 4. The participants of the First Principles Review were in agreement on the need to search an additional area representing approximately 25,000 km² (the orange bordered area in Figure 14) [I’ve added this figure to the bottom of this post–JW]. Based on the analysis to date, completion of this area would exhaust all prospective areas for the presence of MH370. 

If anyone thinks I am hasty in saying that Seabed Constructor has finished its scan of this area, note that as I write, the ship continues to work northwards well beyond this area. If MH370 had already been found, it would not be doing so.

The designation of the 25,000 square kilometers marked the fourth time that the ATSB has assured the public that it had identified the area where the plane had come to rest. Each of the last three times, it was proven wrong and been forced to designate a new place to look. Today, that game ends. The ATSB has admitted that has no further analytical basis on which to recommend any further search. It’s out of ideas. It has thrown in the towel. It is out of ideas.

To be sure, there are some bitter enders among the “MHiste” community who have come up with reasons for searching further beyond the ATSB’s final 25,000 square kilometers, but their theories now lack any official backing, and to my eye are nothing more than hand-waving based on an inability to admit to being wrong. Seabed Constructor sails on like a headless chicken, with no rational basis for continuing to search.

The ATSB’s search areas were defined using data exchanged between the plane and Inmarsat in the hours after the plane disappeared from radar. Their analysis was quite sophisticated; if the data had been authentic, the odds were tremendously in favor of the plane being found.

But the plane was not found. Was this because of an incredible coincidence/bad luck on the part of the ATSB? Or is the case rather that whoever took the plane played them for suckers?

The bitter enders believe that they and the ATSB were the victims of bad luck. The pilot (most likely) took the plane and flew south, but happened to fly in some weird way that by chance produced data that looked very much like what a normally flown plane would produce. This being the case, the plane must be somewhere in the vicinity.

The other explanation is that they weren’t unlucky. They were fooled. By perpetrators who, based on their behavior before disappearing from radar, were both sophisticated and had every intention of misleading and deceiving. Who went electronically dark and pulled a 180 just six seconds after passing the last waypoint in Malaysian airspace, and had the electrical engineering chops to first turn off, then turn back on the satellite data unit that ultimately produced the clues that the seabed search would be based on.

The ATSB, however, has proven themselves constitutionally incapable of grokking that they have been hoodwinked. Time and again, I’ve asked members of the team how they could be so sure that their data wasn’t tampered with. Time and again, they told me that they hadn’t taken the idea seriously. Most recently, a spokesperson for the Joint Agency Coordination Centre emailed me to explain:

The Inmarsat satellite data unit logs were made publicly available at a very early stage of the investigation and the data has been reviewed frequently by the Joint Investigation Team convened by the Malaysian Government comprising experts from the People’s Republic of China, France, Malaysia, United Kingdom, United States and Malaysian Government officials.

Does this explanation justify confidence in the data? I don’t see it.

Over on other blogs, self-appointed experts will continue to spin out elaborate theories and crunch the numbers to generate new convoluted flight paths. They will tell you that the mystery is incredibly complicated and only the truly erudite come hope to plumb its complexities. Actually, the truth looks quite simple to me. The perpetrators of MH370 set out to baffle and confuse, and they succeeded beyond measure. They have played the ATSB and its fan boys for chumps, and will continue to do so. Game, set, match.

UPDATE: Within minutes of my tweeting about this post, Mike Exner laid into me, calling me all sorts of bad names, and saying that Seabed Constructor had lots of high-probability square kilometerage ahead of it. I responded that if he is so confident of the high quality of the area left to search, then he should be willing to make a bet with me: If Seabed Constructor finds MH370’s wreckage in the months to come, I will publicly acknowledge that he was right all along and I was wrong. And if it does not, he will do the same for me.

 

 

333

Minor MH370 Mystery Resolved

Did a missing AUV like this one cause an international furor?

 

On January 31, Seabed Constructor vanished from the ship-tracking websites that various observers had been monitoring. This set up a minor international tizzy, with a number of outlets publishing headlines such as “MH370 mystery deepens as search vessel vanishes off radar for three days sending conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.”

The ship had been acting strangely in the hours leading up to its disappearance, sailing around in a big circle and then steaming in a beeline towards southwestern part of the search area, where it had started its work weeks before. It was in the midst of this beeline run that its AIS tracking system was apparently turned off. (This disappearance had nothing to do with radar, but whatever.)

Seabed Constructor reappeared a few days later, this time heading for a scheduled resupply stop in Perth. Ocean Infinity offered no explanation for what had happened. Some of the more imaginative independent MH370 researchers speculated that the ship had surreptiously been plundering shipwrecks found during the first seabed search.

On February 8, the notoriously unreliable Australian aviation journalist Geoffrey Thomas wrote a story in Perth Now claiming that the explanation was that the searchers had found found some interesting “geological formations” and “had returned to revisit those points of interest discovered on its first sweep and turned off its satellite tracking system so as not to give the relatives false hopes.”

Coming from Thomas, this almost certainly had to be untrue. Sure enough, more evidence has now emerged, and it appears that some kind of equipment fault was to blame.

The eighth search update released this morning by the Malaysian government reveals that “Earlier during the underwater search operation, an ROV was damaged and a decision was made to ‘wet store’ the ROV to minimize disruption to search operations.” Probably whoever wrote this meant AUV, autonomous underwater vehicle, rather than ROV, remotely operated vehicle, since ROVs are used to hone in on a target once it’s been identified. So far the search has found no targets.

Most likely, what happened is that at the end of January one of the AUVs went rogue, Seabed Constructor sailed around trying to find it, realized that it was probably at the southwestern corner of the search area, sailed down to go look for it–and while doing so realized that its bizarre behavior was being watched and so shut off the AIS to avoid further embarrassment.

Yesterday Richard Cole tweeted that Seabed Constructor had apparently deployed seven AUVS at the southern end of the southern leg of the secondary search zone, then dashed down to where the AUV lay on the seabed and deployed its ROV to retrieve it. “Probably the most complex search configuration we have seen so far,” he observed.

Earlier this morning Seabed Constructor finished its ROV work and hurried northward to gather up the AUVs, which were nearing the end of their endurance.

I’m guessing that the AUVs have a feature whereby if they lose communications with the mother ship they go to a predesignated point and rest on the seabed to conserve energy until they can be recovered.

I love the euphemism “wet store,” by the way. This is a major advancement in nautical terminology. If it had been around in 1912 then the White Star Line could have just said that the Titanic had been put in wet storage.

In other news, the latest report says that Seabed Constructor has now scanned 24,000 sq km. That doesn’t mean it’s 1,000 sq km from finishing the designated search area, though, because it still has to do the “southern leg” segments of the secondary and tertiary zones. These are not large however and should not take more than a few days.

615

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27

MH370 Debris Fouling Supports Spoof Scenario

Petaloconchus renisectus

The essence of the mystery of MH370 is this: was the missing Malaysian airliner hijacked by a suicidal pilot and flown into the remote southern Indian Ocean, or did it fall victim to sophisticated hijackers who spoofed its satcom satellite signal to fool investigators into looking in the wrong place?

To resolve the issue we have two sets of clues. The first is the aforementioned satellite signal data, better known as the Inmarsat BFO and BTO data. The second is the collection of 20-odd pieces of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean from July, 2015 onwards.

Inmarsat Data

Using advanced mathematical methods, its possible to derive a probability distribution from the Inmarsat data showing where the plane might have wound up, assuming the data had not been spoofed. Under the leadership of the Australia Transport Safety Board (ATSB) more than $150 million has been spent searching this area, and the plane was not there. This suggests that the data was spoofed. A further area where some mathematics suggest the plane might possibly have wound up is currently being searched. If the plane is not there, either, then this will lend further weight to the conclusion that the data was spoofed.

Aircraft Debris

Examination of the debris provides an avenue to independently check this conclusion.

Debris which floats across oceans collects a wide variety of marine organisms as it travels, allowing scientists to understand how long it has been in the water and where it has traveled from, as I’ve written about previously. Aircraft wreckage which entered the water in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean as a result of a crash on March 8, 2014 should for the most part be richly covered in a variety of organisms. However, this was not observed; most of the pieces had little or no visible biofouling.

A notable exception was the flaperon which washed ashore on Réunion Island in July, 2015, which had a rich covering of marine biofouling. However, the age of the barnacles did not match the length of time the piece was supposed to have been in the water. According to the final report issued by the ATSB, “The Operational Search for MH370,” on October 3, 2017: “the specimens analysed here were quite young, perhaps less than one month.”

Another anomaly regarding the biofouling of the flaperon was the fact that during flotation tests, the flaperon was found to float about half out of the water. This is difficult to reconcile with the settlement pattern of Lepas, which cover every part of the item. Since Lepas only attach and thrive under water, this suggests that the flaperon did not float freely during its time in the water.

A third anomaly was the finding, based on the chemical composition of the shell, that the Lepas growing on the flaperon spent much of their lives in water that was between 18 and 20 degrees. It would not have been possible for the flaperon to float from such distant, cold water to its time and place of discovery by natural means.

Australia’s final report also included analysis of the biofouling of debris. Scientists at Geoscience Australia scrutinized four pieces: the flap fairing found by Liam Lötter in Mozambique (designated Item 2), the fragment of horizontal stabilizer with the words “No Step” found by Blaine Alan Gibson in Mozambique (Item 3), the piece of engine cowling found in Mossel Bay, South Africa (Item 4), and a section of an interior wall found on Rodrigues Island (Item 5).

Given the ATSB’s confidence that the plane had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean at the start of the southern autumn near 36 degrees south, the researchers should have found marine life endemic to the temperate zone. But the scientists found no such thing. Instead, every single specimen they were able to identify was native to the tropical zone of the Indian Ocean.

Like the flaperon, Item 5 came ashore with a healthy population of Lepas barnacles. And like those on the flaperon, these were found to be less than two months old.

Particular puzzling was the assemblage of organisms found on No Step. Two-thirds of the species found on it live only close to shore and could not have been picked up in the open sea. “The natural habitat of the recovered molluscs is shallow water, on clean coral sand or in seagrass meadows,” the investigators reported. “None of them could or would ever attach to drifting debris.” The only way the investigators could make sense of this was to assume that it had picked up the shells of these creatures from the sand when it had come ashore.

The one-third of the molluscs found on No Step that plausibly could have attached in the open water were all “juveniles at approximately two months old.”

Only two specimens, a sea snail of the species Petaloconchus renisectus and a tube worm of the serpulid family, looked to be more than two months old. The former appeared to be six to eight months old; the latter, eight to twelve months old. Strangely, both types of animal are usually found living on the seabed rather than floating debris.

I reached out to marine biologist Scott Bryan, who has studied out pieces of volcanic pumice called clasts become progressively settled by marine organisms after they get blasted out of volcanoes and land in the sea. Some of the clasts he studied had floated from Tonga to Australia and had serpulids living on them. “The serpulids got recruited when the pumice got close to the coast or islands,” he explained via email. “We had a significant number of serpulids on pumice we collected around the Vava’u islands in Tonga, so not very far away from Home Reef (100 km or so). So the interpretation is the serpulids were locally recruited around the islands… serpulids love hard surfaces and often are found on rocky coasts in the tidal zone. So the pumice needed to encounter rocky islands more than sandy islands or potentially reefs.”

Part of Réunion’s shore is rocky. It’s possible to imagine that “No Step” traveled westward from an impact zone in the eastern Indian Ocean, fetched up near Réunion, picked up the serpulid and the Petaloconchus, then drifting the rest of the way.

 

But this still leaves question marks about the absence of temperate biofouling and the lack of organisms of the correct age.

43

Malaysia Triples Described MH370 Search Area

31 January 2018: Today the Malaysian government released its first weekly report on the progress of Ocean Infinity’s seabed search for the wreckage of MH370, available here. It includes the chart shown above, which includes not only the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary zones of the 25,000 square kilometer search area originally described in Malaysia’s announcement of the search (see below) but also supplementary areas that are collectively more than twice as large, and stretch far beyond Broken Ridge to 29 degrees south latitude.

Before the release of this new report, Malaysia hadn’t signaled that it would be issuing updates on the search progress, let alone regular weekly ones, so its appearance is a welcome development.

The report notes that that first section of the search, namely the outermost portion of the Primary Search Area, has been completed without finding any wreckage. This section had previously been identified by Australian scientists as the most likely endpoint for MH370’s flight.

As I write this, the scan of the innermost section of the Primary Search Area has been completed, but the assessment has not yet been released. However, the fact that Seabed Constructor has moved on to another area suggests that probably nothing was found there, either. A big caveat: we don’t really know how long it takes the search team to assess the data collected during each pass.

A failure to find any wreckage in the Primary Search Area would come as a disappointment to David Griffin and his team at Australia’s CSIRO, who delclared in a June, 2017 report that after analyzing satellite imagery and drift patterns “we think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty.” The report specified three target points, all located within the Primary Search Area.

It’s worth noting that there are three compelling reasons to believe that MH370 did not crash in either of the newly designated supplementary search areas, which lie between 29 degrees and 32.5 degrees south latitude:

  1. The area was searched by the air in March, 2014, and no debris was spotted. (see below)
  2. It does not fit with debris drift modeling. Wreckage which entered the sea at this latitude would have reached the western Indian Ocean too quickly.
  3. An endpoint this far north does not match analysis of the Inmarsat signals carried out by Australia’s DSTG.

 

Left: Black rectangles show the extent of aerial searches in March, 2014. Right: Based on these searches officials calculate that wreckage from an impact between 29 deg S and 33 deg S almost certainly would have been spotted.

PS: While I’m at it, here’s my latest theory for why Paul Marshall is being so secretive about backing the latest search for MH370: he and Anthony Clake are treasure hunters. They’ve salvaged historical wrecks for bullion in the past, and this suggests that their interest in MH370 is primarily for financial gain. Treasure hunters tend to be seen by marine archaeologists as plunderers, so they are used to negative press. I think that if Ocean Infinity is successful, then Marshall understands that it will be open to portrayal in the media as having profited from a tragedy.

PPS: On Twitter Kevin Rupp (@LabratSR) has posted an image showing that Seabed Constructor is expected to arrive in Perth on February 8–that’s a week from Friday. Allowing for a few days’ transit time en route, there should be time for the ship to make some good progress into the Secondary Search Area before it departs on the 1200 nm trip.

59

I’m Looking at You, Paul Marshall

Today, January 27, 2018, Sky News has published an article under the headline “Revealed: City tycoon funds ‘final’ search for doomed MH370.” It begins:

A London-based hedge fund millionaire is helping to finance the “final” search for the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft which disappeared nearly four years‎ ago, in a bid to solve one of modern aviation’s greatest mysteries. Sky News has learnt that Anthony Clake, an executive at Marshall Wace Asset Management, is the key figure behind Ocean Infinity, the subsea exploration company which won the contract to hunt for the whereabouts of Flight MH370. ‎Mr Clake, who ‎oversees billions of pounds of clients’ money at Marshall Wace, is understood to have invested in Ocean Infinity after being impressed by its advanced technology.

The piece goes on:

Mr Clake’s involvement ‎in the hunt for MH370 is restricted to a financing role at Ocean Infinity, and he has no day-to-day role in the operation. “Anthony Clake has made a private investment in Ocean Infinity and is one of a number of shareholders in the company,” the spokesman said.

Color me suspicious. Clake works for Marshall Wace, which was founded by Paul Marshall, who is also the owner of two companies which each of a sole other board member apart from him: the two listed directors of Ocean Infinity. Clake is described as a millionaire; Marshall is the tenth richest hedge fund manager in Britain. This story doesn’t say that Clake isn’t the sold investor, but one of several. It seems increasingly inconceivable to me that Paul Marshall isn’t another, and probably main, one–notwithstanding the denial given to me by his publicist. As to why he’s being so secretive, I can’t begin to guess.

UPDATE 1/28/18 12:10 EST: The remarkable @oceankoto has uncovered this gem from the Telegraph circa 2012:

Hedge fund managers Anthony Clake and Paul Marshall, a Liberal Democrat donor, told The Times they had invested in several shipwreck salvage companies, including some Robert Fraser firms, and in total had found 11 wrecks and a haul of silver.

11

New York: The Mysterious New Search for MH370

This much we know: Out in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean, a 379-foot exploration ship called the Seabed Constructor has started searching an area that may be the final resting place of MH370, the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished in 2014 with 239 souls aboard. The ship arrived in the search zone on Sunday, and, given the rate at which the vessel’s swarm of eight autonomous subs can scan the seabed, could finish its work in as little as three weeks.

Just about everything else about the project is shrouded in mystery, including who’s carrying it out and why.

The search for MH370 was done and dusted as of last January, when Australia announced that its three-year, $150 million effort to scan 46,000 square miles of seabed had found no sign of the plane. The search zone had been demarcated by scientists using signals sent between the plane and a communications satellite after it disappeared from radar. The signals suggested that the plane turned south west of the Malacca Strait and flew in a straight line until it ran out of fuel, then nosedived into the sea. At the start of the search officials were so confident in their analysis that one boasted that they had a bottle of Moët “chilling nicely” — but once they were proven wrong, Australia seemed eager to close the case and move on.

In a final report issued last October, officials lamented their failure to find the plane, a turn of events they labeled “almost inconceivable.” To explain the plane’s absence, officials surmised that something peculiar must have happened. Perhaps whoever was flying the plane descended and then flew in circles for a while before heading south. If that was the case, the plane could have ended up in a 25,000 square kilometer area to the north of the completed search area. But Malaysia, the country ultimately responsible for the search, didn’t feel confident enough in the idea to green light a continuation.

Then last August a previously unknown company called Ocean Infinity stepped forward and offered to restart the search on its own dime, with payment only if it found the plane. The deal seemed to be a no-brainer for Malaysia, but negotiations dragged on until earlier this month. Under the terms of the final deal Malaysia will pay Ocean Infinity anywhere from $20 to $70 million, depending on how much seabed it has to search.

This kind of deal is called “no cure — no pay” in the salvage business. Under this kind of arrangement a salvor might, for example, receive a portion of the crude oil recovered from a grounded tanker but get nothing if it fails to produce anything. The current situation falls far outside this model, of course. But given Malaysia’s sense that it had just wasted a lot of money on a pointless search, “no cure — no pay” might have been the only way for Ocean Infinity to lure them into a contract.

It’s a high-risk gambit. The payout is not considerably large considering that the effort will likely cost tens of millions of dollars to mount. And the odds are long. Much of the new search zone was already scanned during an early phase of the first seabed search, before Australian scientists refined their calculations and moved their focus further south. In the highest-priority part of the new search zone, for instance, everything within 20 miles of the arc along which the plane sent its final satellite signal has already been searched and ruled out. It’s not clear how the plane could have flown further than that, since at that moment it was plummeting straight down toward the sea.

Given the long odds, it’s striking that anyone would want to roll the dice.

Some have speculated that the effort is essentially an act of charity by deep-pocketed philanthropists. But it would seem strange for do-gooders to keep their operation shrouded in as much secrecy as the group behind the Seabed Constructor has — basically we know nothing about it.

Another possibility is that the backers’ ultimate motive is to garner publicity for Ocean Infinity so that it can win contracts in the undersea-exploration industry. There are two flaws in this theory though: this industry is in a severe slump right now, with few jobs available; and, it’s a sector where capabilities and price, not branding and exposure, are the key to gaining customers.

A third explanation is that the backers don’t think their odds of finding the plane are long — either because they are clueless or because they possess some information that the rest of us don’t.

Or perhaps there is something else going on that we could never guess from the outside. That’s entirely possible, too — if a little unnerving.

The saga of MH370 is full of unanswered questions, and this is another one.

Knowing the identity of the backers might help clarify the motives. But Ocean Infinity’s publicist will only say that “It’s a private company owned by its shareholders and we don’t wish to say any more on that.” The Australian reported that Ocean Infinity is owned “by a number of British investors.”

Ocean Infinity was registered in Delaware on June 9, 2017, and in Texas 21 days later. It leases Seabed Constructor from Swire Seabed, a subsidiary of the London-based Swire Group conglomerate, and employs a Louisiana company to operate the swarm of undersea robots that will scan the seabed.

The company’s Texas filing lists its directors as Oliver Plunkett, 45, and Ross Hyett, 64. Both men are based in London and work in the wealth-management field, finding investments for high-net-worth clients. Each serves on the board of a private company owned by Paul Roderick Clucas Marshall, a British hedge-fund manager worth an estimated $683 million. Marshall has long been active in the Liberal Democrats party (and is the father of Mumford & Sons member Winston Marshall). Marshall’s publicist denies that he is behind Ocean Infinity, however.

As the story unfolds new strange angles continue to emerge. With Seabed Constructor approaching the search zone last weekend, users of a ship-tracking site noticed that another vessel, the 312-foot Maersk Mariner, had left the Australian port of Fremantle in western Australia and was heading for a rendezvous. The Mariner is a so-called anchor-handling vessel designed to support offshore oil drilling. The purpose of its current mission is so far unclear.

As with everything else, Ocean Infinity is staying tight-lipped. The company releases official statements only infrequently, apparently preferring to communicate via leaks to a small number of journalists and independent researchers who will occasionally drop a tidbit on Twitter or personal web sites. Some of these people claim to have been told the nature of the project’s funding off the record, and refuse to divulge it; others say they have chosen not to ask. This, unfortunately, is par for the course for the shadowy saga of MH370. If the vanishing of 239 passengers and crew is a profoundly discomfiting eventuality, so too is the years-long bungling by search officials, and the chronic inability of the world’s journalists and investigators to press for satisfying answers.

Given the strangeness of the mission and the consensual fog that lies over it, it’s frankly hard to know what to make of Ocean Infinity’s mission. But this state of uncertainty can’t go on forever. Malaysia has given the company a hard deadline of 90 days to wrap the project up. By then we should either have achieved some clarity, or another strange chapter of this saga will have been wrapped up and shipped off to cold storage.

At so that, belatedly, will be that. When they wrote their report delineating the new 25,000 square kilometer search zone, Australian scientists wrote that if the plane is not found in this area they have no other ideas about where to look. No theories about what happened, no explanation as to why — they’ll just have to close their files once more and shrug, as baffled as when they began.

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About the New MH370 Search — UPDATED

The Economist has just published an article about Ocean Infinity with the headline: “A fantastical ship has set out to seek Malaysian Airlines flight 370.” The piece reports that “Contracts have yet to be signed, but Oliver Plunkett, Ocean Infinity’s boss, has decided to go ahead anyway…”

I was emailing earlier today with Mark Antelme of Celicourt Communications, who handles public relations for Ocean Infinity, and he says that “without a contract we’re not going to conduct a search. That said, we are very hopeful of the contract being awarded soon (which is why the vessel is where it is).”

UPDATE 1/12: I don’t like to substantially change a piece after I put it up, and don’t think I have done so before, because it feels like rewriting history, but in this case I have heavily revised this piece to reflect the fact that most of my concerns about the Economist piece were either fixed or were rendered moot by subsequent events, and leaving it up in its original form was causing psychic trauma for the author of the Economist piece, Hal Hodson. Whether or not Ocean Infinity was sincere about its claim that it would carry out the search without a contract, the contract has been signed, and so the road to a second seabed search is open.

I still take issue with the with this final sentence:

“As the oceans are watched with ever closer scrutiny, from space and the depths, it is increasingly difficult for anything to get lost in the first place.”

It’s important that the world not overlook the fact  that things are vanishing without a trace at an accelerating pace. In 2016, an Antonov An-32 belonging to the Indian Air Force disappeared over the Bay of Bengal; less than two months ago, the Argentinian sub San Juan went missing during a training exercise. We should perhaps try to figure out what made these things happen before getting too smug about them not happening again.

UPDATE 1/2: Shortly after I posted the above, the ship headed out to sea and  is currently (21:49 GMT, 2 Jan 2018) on a heading of 147. I’ll seek clarification from Mark Antelme about the discrepancy between what he told me and what Plunkett apparently told the Economist.

I’d like to add that I also take exception to this statement:

“Seabed Constructor is the most advanced civilian survey vessel on the planet today. If its array of technology cannot find MH370, then it is likely that nothing will, and that the mystery of MH370 may never be solved.”

If Seabed Constructor looks for the plane in the designated search area and fails to find it, that will be due to the fact that the plane is not in the designated search area, not because the technology is lacking in some way. Indeed, as I’ve written in earlier posts, there are many good reasons to doubt that the designated search area is correct.

UPDATE 2: I’ve just heard back from Mark Antelme. Regarding the Economist quote, “Contracts have yet to be signed, but Oliver Plunkett, Ocean Infinity’s boss, has decided to go ahead anyway…” he writes, “…in getting the vessel in position… is how it should be read. I think that’s consistent with our exchange.”

In other words, the company is clearly signaling that it will NOT conduct the seabed search until it has the contract nailed down with Malaysia. However, it apparently is going to position the ship so that it can be in place in the event that that happens.

This makes sense from the perspective of wanting to make the most of a limited search season, but it would seem a rather terrible strategy from a negotiating perspective. Leasing the ship and crew and getting it into position means an outlay of a significant amount of money, so by the time they arrive on station the company will have a strong incentive not to walk away from the table, no matter what terms Malaysia offers.

Of course, all of this is academic if the airplane is not in the search area, since in that case Ocean Infinity would not get paid anyway. An analysis conducted by Australian scientists during the official seabed search calculated that there was effectively a zero percent chance that the plane could have come to rest where the planned search is going to focus.

UPDATE 3: [3 Jan 2018, 10:00 GMT] The Economist’s story has escaped into the broader media ecosystem, with a number of mainstream publications, including The Guardian, picking up a story by the Australian Associated Press which states that “the search for MH370 is back on with the ship Seabed Constructor sailing from Durban today for the search area.” Perth Now has its own story. Both seem to be repeating the Economist’s claim without having done any additional reporting.

A check of Marine Traffic shows that Seabed Constructor has spent the last nine hours holding position 30 nautical miles off the coast of South Africa.

Since I’ve identified a number of inaccuracies in the original article, let me restate what is the core issue here. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for Ocean Infinity to sign the contract with Malaysia and officially restart the search. The Economist is reporting that both of these things have happened. Ocean Infinity’s spokesman tells me that they have not.

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that either of these things could have happened without either Ocean Infinity or the Malaysian government releasing a statement.

Thus, the Economist has reported a major development that appears not to have occurred.