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An Illusion Made FlyDubai Pilots Crash: Popular Mechanics

Even as Flydubai Flight 981 took off from Dubai on March 18, the pilots knew they’d be in for a difficult flight. Bad weather lay ahead at their destination, the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. As the plane skirted the Caspian Sea and crossed over the Balkans, the situation stayed iffy. By the time the plane approached Rostov airport, a landing looked challenging, but manageable, with rain and winds gusting to 40 mph.

Setting up for an approach from the northeast, the Boeing 737 broke through the cloud base at 1,800 feet and had the airport in sight directly ahead. But gusty conditions meant a risk of windshear—a sudden tailwind could cause the plane to drop out of the sky. Playing it safe, the flight crew did a “go-around,” increasing engine power and climbing away from the runway. For the next hour and a half the plane flew holding patterns, waiting for a break in the storm, but none came. Finally the pilots decided to bring it around for a second try. Once again they descended through the clouds, got the runway in sight, and set up to land. Once again, wild winds forced them to abort. The plane accelerated and nosed back up into the sky.

Later, security cameras on the ground would show the plane disappearing into the overcast sky—and then, mere seconds later, zooming back out of the clouds at a steep angle and impacting the runway in a fireball, instantly killing all 62 people aboard.

The reason for this tragedy, we now know, was not wind nor rain nor simple pilot error. It was an illusion.

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ATSB Sidesteps Debris-Planting Issue


Earlier today, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau issued a report entitled, “Debris examination — update No. 1: Identification of two items of debris recovered in Mozambique.” The report confirms that the pieces are consistent with a right-hand flap fairing and a right horizontal stabilizer, pointing out that the lettering found on each part matches stencils used by Malaysia airlines. In the case of the piece found by Blaine Alan Gibson, shown above, the report says:

The fastener head markings identified it as being correct for use on the stabiliser panel assembly. The markings also identified the fastener manufacturer. That manufacturer’s fasteners were not used in current production, but did match the fasteners used in assembly of the aircraft next in the production line (405) to 9M-MRO (404).

This wording is ambiguous–does “current production” mean production at the time that 9M-MRO was built, or now? If the fastener wasn’t used when 9M-MRO was built, one wonders what it is doing in this piece. Hopefully the ATSB will clarify what it means. At any rate, the report concludes that both pieces “almost certainly from the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft, registered 9M-MRO.”

Naturally, I was particularly keen to hear what the ATSB would say about the marine life found on these pieces, or lack thereof. The report contains a section entitled “Quarantine and marine ecology” which reads, in its entirety:

On arrival into Australia, both parts were quarantined at the Geoscience Australia facility in Canberra. The parts were unwrapped and examined for the presence of marine ecology and remnants of biological material. Visible marine ecology was present on both parts and these items were removed and preserved. The parts were subsequently cleaned and released from quarantine.

Later, in the “Conclusions” section, the report states: “At the time of writing, ongoing work was being conducted with respect to the marine ecology identification as well as testing of material samples. The results from these tests will be provided to the Malaysian investigation team once complete.”

The key here seems to be to reinforce the idea that the results of the biofouling examination will go to Malaysia, and not released to the public. Which raises the question: why does Australia feel empowered to release a fairly detailed report explaining why they think the pieces came from 9M-MRO, but not to say anything about the marine life on them? Is there a legal distinction between these two kinds of assessment, as pertains to ICAO protocols? Perhaps some legally-minded readers can shed light on the matter.


MH370 Debris Was Planted, Ineptly

Tiny colony

From the paper “Rapid, Long-Distance Dispersal by Pumice Rafting,” by Bryan et al.

In the weeks since MH370 debris began washing up in the Western Indian Ocean, I’ve struggled to understand the condition in which they were found. Particularly baffling were the three that washed ashore in Mozambique and South Africa, which were almost completely clean and free of marine fouling. I’ve talked to a number of marine biologists who study organisms that grow on floating debris, and they told me that given their pristine appearance these pieces couldn’t have floated for more than a few weeks.

Some observers have suggested that perhaps the objects had failed to pick up significant fouling because they drifted through waters that were too cold or low in nutrients, but further examination showed that this could not be the explanation.

One commenter on this blog suggested that the pieces were too shallow, or too small, to permit the growth of Lepas barnacles. This, too, is an unsuitable explanation, since Lepas can grow on bits of floating debris that are as small as a few centimeters across. The photograph above shows a small but vibrant community growing on a piece of pumice spewed from a volcano in Tonga; the largest Lepas (goose barnacle) in the image is 23 mm long.

In acknowledging the very obvious problem that this lack of biofouling presents, David Griffin of the Australian government’s science agency, CSIRO, has written (referring to the first Mozambique piece) that “this item is not heavily encrusted with sea life, so it has probably spent a significant length of time either weathering in the sun and/or washing back and forth in the sand at this or some other location. The time at sea is therefore possibly much less than the 716 days that have elapsed since 14 March 2014, and the path taken may have been two or more distinct segments.”

The idea then, is that these pieces washed across the Indian Ocean, were deposited on a beach, were picked over my crabs and other predators, bleached in the sun and scoured by wind and sand, the were washed back out to sea, then came ashore again within less than two weeks and were discovered.

One problem with this scenario is that while we might just about imagine a sequence of events happening to one piece, it seems incredible to imagine it happening to three pieces independently, in different locations and at different times. (To be fair to Dr Griffin, he proposed this idea at a time when only once piece had yet been found.)

Another problem with Dr Griffin’s idea is that no major storms took place in the two weeks preceding the discovery of each of the pieces in Mozambique and South Africa. Indeed, the region has been experiencing a drought.

In short, there is not plausible sequence of events by which the three pieces found in Africa could have arrived there by natural means.

What about the piece which turned up on Rodrigues Island? As I wrote in my blog post, the size of the barnacles blatantly contradict the possibility that the object was afloat for two years. And given that Rodrigues is surrounded by a reef, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, the idea that it might have washed ashore somewhere, gotten re-floated, and then came ashore again to be discovered is close to inconceivable.

Taken separately, these objects defy explanation. Taken together, however, they present a unified picture. Though discovered weeks and months apart, in locations separated by thousands of miles, they are all of a piece: they are all wrong. They do not look–at all!–like they should.

There is only one reasonable conclusion to draw from the condition of these pieces. Since natural means could not have delivered them to the locations where they were discovered, they must have been put there deliberately. They were planted.

In fact, we can go even further than that. Whoever put these pieces on the shores where they were discovered wasn’t even trying very hard. It would only have taken a little bit of imagination and a small amount of effort to put these pieces in the ocean for a few months to pick up a healthy suite of full-sized Lepas. This clearly was attempted in the case of the Rodrigues piece, but no effort at all was expended on the African pieces.

Why? Were they being lazy, or simply overconfident? Or did they know that it wouldn’t matter?

Perhaps the events of last July influenced their decision. After the flaperon was discovered on Réunion Island, it was whisked away by French authorities, given a cursory examination, and then hidden away. The public were never told what the investigators found, or didn’t find. No one seriously questioned whether the flaperon could really have come from a crash in the Southern Indian Ocean. (Well, almost no one.)

Six months later, the failure of the seabed search was looming. The Australian government had already begun saying that it might not find the plane, and preparing the public for the decision to call off the search. The narrative that the plane had nonetheless flown south to some unknown point in the southern Indian Ocean needed bolstering. Given how little inquiry had been directed at the Réunion piece, whoever planted the most recent four pieces might reasonably have assumed that the public would accept the new pieces uncritically, no matter how lackadaisical their preparation.

Maybe they were right. Past experience has shown that people have a remarkable ability to squint their eyes and avoid seeing the obvious ramifications of evidence plunked down in front of them. A good example was the seabed search that took place after acoustic pings were detected back in the spring of 2014. The frequency of pings was wrong, and the physical distribution of the pings indicated that they could not possibly have come from stationary wreckage. So it was clear from the data that the pings were not coming from black boxes. But numerous experts twisted themselves into knots explaining how the deep-sea hydroaccoustic environment was very weird, with salinity gradients and underwater valleys that channeled sound, and so on. I was on a panel on CNN one day when famed science communicator Bill Nye explained that the sound waves probably were refracted by passing through water masses of varying densities, and refraction causes frequencies to change. When you have to start changing the laws of physics to justify your interpretation of the data, it might be time to start looking for a new interpretation.

I’m not saying that people’s attempts thus far to explain the condition of the MH370 debris through non-nefarious means is misguided. Far from it–as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and when presented with evidence like the MH370 debris which invites such an uncomfortable (some will no doubt say outlandish) conclusion, it’s necessary to carefully rule out simpler explanations. However, once that has been done, we must not avert our eyes and say, “Well, I just can’t accept that conclusion, it’s not reasonable, there must be some explanation you’re missing,” or come up with a Nyeism that posits as explanation some phenomenon previously unknown to science.

If the MH370 investigation has taught us anything, is that restricting the discussion to “acceptable” explanations is a fatal trap. Early in the mystery, Duncan Steel hosted a discussion on his web site for people to exchange views and information. He had a rule, however: it was forbidden to discuss any scenarios which posited that the plane had been diverted intentionally, as he felt that this was disrespectful to the people on board. Of course, we now know that the plane was certainly diverted by someone on board, so effectively what Steel was outlawing was the discussion of any scenario that might possible be correct.

This mindset is alive and well. Recently on a discussion forum, one of the participants flatly stated that she was not interested in hearing about any theories that involve a hijacking. The ATSB has shown itself to be equally narrowminded. It has on multiple occasions declared that its interpretation of the Inmarsat data is unassailable. First it said that there was 100 percent chance that the plane was in the first 60,000 square km search area. When it turned out not to be, they drew a 120,000 sq km search area and declared that there was a 100 percent chance it was inside there. Come June, they will find (as we know now because of the condition of the African debris) that it is not there, either. Yet their recurring failure has not shaken their faith in their “reasonable” belief about what happened to the plane.

So maybe whoever planted the debris in Mozambique, South Africa, and Rodrigues weren’t lazy–maybe their understanding of human psychology simply allowed them to take the minimum steps necessary. Whether their calculation was accurate or not will now become apparent.



Deriving the Dimensions of the Rodrigues Debris

Though the piece of debris discovered on Rodrigues Island has not yet been definitively linked to MH370, the distinctive pattern applied to one of its sides seems to match perfectly the interior of a Malaysia Airlines 777, as Don Thompson has so astutely pointed out. Therefore, pending confirmation from the authorities, it seems highly likely that this represents the fourth piece of MH370 debris to be recovered from the Indian Ocean since the start of the year.

The first three pieces have been studied in Australia and handed over to the Malaysians. Apart from confirmation that the two Mozambique pieces almost certainly did come from MH370, no further information about them has been released, and it seems unlikely that any will be before Malaysia issues its final report, which is slated to take place after Australia calls off the seabed search in the middle of this year. Therefore anything we are going to learn from these pieces is going to come from studying photographs and videos taken before they were ushered away into official secrecy.

In today’s post I’d like to discuss my attempts to determine the exact size of the Rodrigues debris fragment, and what its dimensions tell us about the size of the marine organisms growing on it. This is important in determining how long the piece floated in the ocean.


1- side view

Figure 1


In Figure 1 we are looking at the top of the piece, with the “back” of it (the part not facing toward the cabin interior) upward. I’ve marked in blue 12 inches on the ruler visible in the foreground. Based on the relative number of pixels, I calculate the length of the edge in yellow to be 11.5 inches, and the thickness of the piece (red line) as approximately 1 inch. The purple circle shows the approximate location of the “Lonely Barnacle” which I’ll talk about in a little bit.

In Figure 2 we see a close-up of the bottom edge of the piece. Although the object appears to be of uniform width, the hex cells at the bottom have a different orientation from those elsewhere in the piece: their longitudinal axes are vertically oriented, rather than back-to-front:

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Can Ocean Conditions Explain the Lack of Biofouling on MH370 Debris?

RG Gyre

Almost immediately upon Blaine Alan Gibson’s discovery of the “No Step” debris fragment in Mozambique, questions were raised about the relative scarcity of marine life growing on it. These questions were redoubled after two more finds came to light, one from South Africa and the other from Mozambique, which both looked surprisingly pristine for objects that had been in the water for two years. I explored the issue in a post on this site entitled “Bioforensic Analysis of Suspected MH370 Debris.”

This weekend IG member Richard Godfrey addressed the question in a post on Duncan Steel’s website. “One possible explanation for this obvious difference between the flaperon and the other items,” he wrote, “might be linked to the differing routes taken by the floating debris.”

As a point of reference, I’ve reproduced the current chart from that post (above). Though in reality the currents are not nearly as deterministic as depicted–there is a randomness to the motion of floating objects that causes them to spread out, like a drop of ink in a bucket of water–it does accurately portray the overall movement of things. The black bar represents the area where Godfrey thinks the plane most likely impacted the water, northeast of the current seabed search zone. He points out that to get to the locations where they were found on the coast of Africa, the pieces would have to have either passed around the northern end or the southern end of  Madagascar.

In the image below I’ve sketched out what these paths might look like, more or less. The pink oval represents the central gyre seen in the current map above. The yellow line is a hypothetical path proposed by Godfrey that the flaperon might have taken on route to Réunion. The orange line is a hypothetical path that the capsized boat which washed up on Mayotte may have taken during its eight-month drift from northwestern Australia in 2013-2014. I suggest this is a plausible example of a “north route.” The purple line is an even more hypothetical proposal for a “south route” that I just sketched out freehand after watching some drift simulations.

North & South Routes

In the first part of his post, Godfrey tackles the question of whether the African debris might have traveled through water too cold to allow the growth of Lepas anatifera, the species of goose barnacle found on the Réunion flaperon:

If floating debris took a path passing slightly further south of Madagascar then it could remain in colder waters (especially between July and October) below 30S, under which circumstance barnacle attachment and growth is contra-indicated. Thus it might be that the three items found on the coast of Africa reached their destinations via such more-southerly routes… The Paindane item (‘676EB’) discovered at around 24S may well show some evidence of marine life, even though it most probably arrived via the southern route past Madagascar, mainly occupying cooler waters… The Mossel Bay find (‘Rolls Royce’) might not be expected to show evidence of marine life because it was discovered at around 34S and may well have spent most of its ocean transport time in the cooler waters below 30S.

To evaluate this idea, I consulted the newly published paper “Endorsing Darwin – Global biogeography of the epipelagic goose barnacles Lepas spp. (Cirripedia, Lepadomorpha) proves cryptic speciation” by Philipp H. Schiffer and Hans-Georg Herbig of Cologne University in Germany (preprint available here). According to this source, Lepas anatifera can be found in waters where the temperature is greater than 15 degrees Celsius. South of this line a sister species, Lepas australis, is found:

anatifera v australis distribution

To get a sense of where this transition zone occurs, I traced it out on Google Earth and superimposed a surface-temperature chart lifted from Godfrey’s post along with the previously described drift routes.

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The Rodrigues Debris Puzzle

Debris map

Above is a graphic made by Caleb Lambert (@CaleLambert), based on an original by Tim Sharpe. It offers a nice visual summary of the five pieces of known or suspected MH370 debris.

Meanwhile, an impressive piece of visual sleuthing has been spotlighted by Ben Sandlands, who’s written up a post about Twitter user @aussie500 and her identification of the likely spot in the cabin from whence the Rodrigues debris came. Below is an image I grabbed from a tweet by Edward Baker (@Edward_767):


While this discovery seems to bring us one step closer to understanding the significance of this find, Edward also raises another observation about the piece that does the opposite. Examining the images posted on Facebook by the Marouk Ebony hotel, he noticed that the images of one side of the piece don’t match those of the other:

Edward Baker 1

He superimposed them, having adjusted the images so that the size of the square holes match:

Edward Baker 2

It’s quite odd. The two sides don’t seem to match very well at all. Perhaps this is due to some trick of perspective or lens distortion? Observations and insights welcome.

UPDATE 4-8-16: This video clarifies the issue quite neatly. Thank you Michael Helms and @Gearo.



Suspected MH370 Interior Fragment Found


A piece of what appears to be a piece from inside MH370’s cabin has been found on Rodgriques Island in Mauritius. It was found by two residents of Réunion. The picture above was posted to Facebook by Marouk Ebony Hotel. Don Thompson has pointed out that a pattern on the skin of the piece matches Malaysia Airlines cabin material.

At first glance, the piece shares similarities with the two pieces of debris found in Mozambique, which the ATSB has declared as almost certainly having come from MH370, and what appears to be a part of a Rolls-Royce engine cowling found in South Africa: all are roughly the same scale, and bear relatively small quantities of marine fouling. However, a closer look at the new piece shows that it is actually dotted all over with small goose barnacles:

Rodrigues piece closeup

It’s hard to tell from this somewhat out-of-focus photograph, but the barnacles look relatively fresh, suggesting that the piece had not been on the beach very long before it was discovered. (Here’s a hi-res version.) If marine biologists are able to examine the barnacles quickly, they could learn quite a bit about the species makeup and age of the animals; testing the shells for barium and oxygen isotope levels could yield clues about where the piece drifted.

PS Here’s an interesting shot of the Flydubai wreckage. This is what happens to a fuselage after it impacts at several hundred miles per hour. Bears comparison to the Germanwings wreckage, which met a similarly ungentle fate. MH17 debris, which came apart at altitude so that pieces fluttered down, consisted of substantially larger parts. Based on the comments I’ve seen so far, it seems that many people feel that the fact that the interior of the cabin was shredded like this means that the plane could not have ditched. Perhaps even a botched ditching such as Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 should be considered unlikely.

An interesting observation from Duncan Steel:

Richard’s analysis of the oceanic drift of floating debris from MH370, based on the model available on the Adrift website (to which another tip of the hat is due), has a wide variety of outcomes in terms of general understandings. An important one is this: the probabilities derived for arriving at the various locations in the western Indian Ocean where MH370 debris has been found may be inverted so as to derive an estimate of how many individual fragments were left floating on the ocean after the crash. The answer is: upwards of 10,000. In itself that number indicates that the final demise of MH370 was a highly-energetic crash.

It seems to me that that number might be even greater, if one considers that all the pieces discovered so far (except, perhaps, Blaine’s) were found by tourists who stumbled upon them by accident; presumably only a small subset of the total coast in this region is subject to this kind of serendipity. By way of comparison, 650 pieces of debris were recovered in the course of a fairly exhaustive air and sea-based search for Air France 447.


Flydubai 981: What Really Happened?

FZ981 Final Alt w desc sm

After a Boeing 737 operating as Flydubai Flight 981 crashed in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, preliminary accounts suggested that the plane had clipped a wing or struck the ground with its tail while attempting to land in stormy weather. Indeed, in a story published later that day, quoted Rostov region governor Vasily Golubev as saying, “The plane was descending and then suddenly dived down. Experts say this was an air pocket that dragged the plane to the left of the runway center. And the plane debris were scattered to the left as well.” Obviously, there is no such thing as an “air pocket.” But it makes intuitive sense that a plane attempting to land in high, gusty winds might succumb to shear at low altitude and low airspeed as it nears touchdown. But this, it appears, is not what happened at all. Frequent contributor Victor Iannello has created a graphic based on ADS-B data transmitted by the plane during its final moments. What it shows is that the plane had descended to land, then aborted the landing and climbed, accelerating as it went. It had already gained 3000 feet altitude and reached a speed of 200 knots when it suddenly plummeted from the sky. Here’s the data in graph form:

FZ981 Final Alt sm Read the rest of this entry »


Bioforensic Analysis of Suspected MH370 Debris UPDATED x2

Blaine Alan Gibson with 'No Step'

Blaine Alan Gibson with ‘No Step.’ Photo courtesy Blaine Alan Gibson


Recently two pieces of debris that may have come from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were found on the coast of Mozambique.

The first piece was discovered on February 27 by American lawyer Blaine Alan Gibson on a sand bar near the town of Vilankulo (top left). Composed of fiberglass skin around an aluminum honeycomb core, and bearing the words “no step,” the piece is widely presumed to be a part of a 777 horizontal stabilizer. A fastener found attached to the part carried an identifying number that is consistent with, though not exclusive to, a 777. Soon after the find was made public Malaysia’s transport minister Liow Tiong Lai tweeted that there was a “high possibility debris found in Mozambique belongs to a B777.”

Closeup of 'No Step' exterior

Closeup of “No Step” exterior. Photo courtesy Blaine Alan Gibson.


The second object was reported on March 11 by South African teenager Liam Lötter, who found it on a beach near the resort town of Xai Xai in southern Mozambique in December. Approximately a meter long, it carries the stencilled code “676EB,” which is written on the right-hand outboard flap farings of Boeing 777s. Its material, a hybrid of fiberglass and carbon fiber, is also consistent with a 777 flap fairing.

Lötter holding flap fairing

Liam Lötter with the object he found in Mozambique, presumed to be part of a 777 flap fairing.


The fact that MH370 was the only Boeing 777 lost over the ocean lends weight to the supposition that both parts come from that aircraft.

The pieces’ appearance, however, is quite different from that of the first (and so far, only confirmed) piece of MH370, the plane’s right-hand flaperon, which was found on Réunion on July 29, 2015. Every edge of the flaperon, and much of its broad surface area, was encrusted with goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. The flaperon also had been settled across much of its surface by a brownish algae. Both of the recently discovered pieces are relatively free of marine growth.

This article will explore what the presence or absence of marine growth indicates about how the three pieces traveled through the ocean.

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MH370 Debris Storm

Earlier this morning a South African radio station posted a story about a local family that found a piece of aircraft debris while on vacation in Mozambique in December.

18-year-old Liam Lotter has told East Coast Radio Newswatch while they were on holiday in Inhambane in December – he and his cousin came across what he describes as the “shiny object” while walking on the beach. They brought it back to KwaZulu-Natal. Lotter says it was only after seeing news reports last week about another piece of debris found on a sandbank off Mozambique that his family saw a possible link. Liam’s mother Candace Lotter has since been in contact with South African and Australian authorities.

The story included a couple of pictures:



UPDATE: On Friday, March 11 Reuters published more photos:

Handout photo of piece of debris found by a South African family off the Mozambique coast, which authorities will examine to see if it is from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

A piece of debris found by a South African family off the Mozambique coast in December 2015, which authorities will examine to see if it is from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, is pictured in this handout photo released to Reuters March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Candace Lotter/Handout via Reuters

Handout photo of piece of debris found by a South African family off the Mozambique coast, which authorities will examine to see if it is from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

A piece of debris found by a South African family off the Mozambique coast in December 2015, which authorities will examine to see if it is from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, is pictured in this handout photo released to Reuters March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Candace Lotter/Handout via Reuters

Here’s an image that provides a sense of scale:


The code “676EB” in the top photograph refers to an access panel hatch in the right-hand outboard flap of a 777. The images below show the equivalent structures on the left-hand side.

777 wing parts

Fairing.001Given that no other 777 has gone missing at sea, and that the Réunion flaperon has been conclusively identified as coming from the missing flight, then it’s very hard to imagine that this part didn’t come MH370.

Given that after nearly two years only a single piece of debris had heretofore been found, it’s extraordinary that in the span of less than two weeks three pieces of possible MH370 debris have come to light.

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