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The Reasoning Behind the Continued Search of the Southern Indian Ocean for MH370

April search area small

The soon-to-be completed search area, in purple and orange.

Earlier this month, at a meeting between ministers from Australia, China, and Malaysia, the countries involved in the search for MH370 announced that, in the event that the plane was not found within the current search zone by the end of mission in May, the area would be increased “to extend the search by an additional 60,000 square kilometres to bring the search area to 120,000 square kilometres.” (The new area is outlined in red in the image shown here.)

I think it’s worth considering the logic behind this decision.

Last year the ATSB spent months carefully calculating the boundaries of the original 60,000 sq km area. What they wound up with was a rectangle about 1200 km long and ranging in width from 48 to 62 kilometers wide, straddling the 7th arc.

This area fit what the ATSB believed to be the most likely scenario for the final phase of the plane’s flight: that it flew straight on a southerly heading on autopilot and then shortly after 0:11 ran out of fuel — first one engine, then the second. After the second engine stopped, a backup system called the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) would have kicked in, restoring a limited amount of electrical power. The plane’s satellite communications system would have rebooted, leading to the final “half ping” at 0:19.

As soon as the second engine failed, the engine would have entered a unpowered glide, much as the “Miracle on the Hudson” A320 did after its engines ingested a flock of geese. In this case, however, there would have been no pilot at the controls to guide the plane in for a smooth landing. What’s more, the power interruption would have turned off the autopilot. Uncontrolled, the plane would have gradually banked into a turn, which then would have grown steeper, devolving into a tight spiral dive that would have ended with the plane impacting the water at high velocity.

Let’s call this the “Unpiloted Fuel Exhaustion Scenario,” or UFES.

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Nautilus: Fear in the Cockpit

Nautilus TransAsia artThe morning of Feb. 4, 2015, was drearily normal in Taipei. With the sky blanketed in low clouds, pushed by a moderate breeze, the day was neither hot nor cold, neither stormy nor fair. For many of the passengers that filed aboard TransAsia Airways Flight 235 at Songshan Airport, the journey ahead promised to be similarly workaday: not a jaunt to some exotic clime, but an hour-long puddle-jump across the Taiwan Strait to the city of Kinmen, where many of the passengers had family and work obligations.

At the front of the plane, 42-year-old captain Liao Chien-tsung and 45-year-old first officer Liu Tzu-chung strapped themselves into their seats and ran through their pre-flight checklists. Shortly after 10.30 a.m. the last of the passengers settled into their seats and the cabin crew closed the doors. As the plane started to move, passenger Lin Ming-wei had a hunch that one of the engines sounded funny, and requested that he, his wife, and their 2-year-old son be seated on the right side of the aircraft.

With practiced efficiency, Liao guided the ATR 72-600 along the network of taxiways to Runway 10. After receiving permission to take off, he rolled forward and swung the plane over the centerline. Engine throttles full forward, the twin turboprop engines roared and shook as each machine’s quadruple blades chopped the air. Liao released the brakes, and the plane leapt forward. The airspeed indicator slid past 116 knots as the plane’s nose, then main wheels, lifted from the runway.

This moment—when a plane transitions from ground vehicle to air vehicle—is the most critical in aviation. It is the part of each flight when a plane has the least altitude, is moving the slowest, and carries the heaviest mass of fuel. Given how much happens in a short span of time, it’s also the most mentally demanding. As Liao felt the seat press into his back, his eyes flitted from the instrument panel to the runway and back. Simultaneously he had to keep the plane centered on the runway, monitor its speed and acceleration, pay attention to the radio, and keep alert for signs of malfunction.

Normally this critical phase is over within a few minutes. But every once in a while something goes wrong. For TransAsia 235, that day was today.

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Washington Post: Don’t Be So Quick to Believe that Andreas Lubitz Committed Suicide

What, exactly, are we talking about, when we talk about a man who deliberately flies a plane carrying 149 other human beings into the side of a mountain?

In a sense, we’re talking about a suicide. That’s a common enough thing. Plenty of people carry it out — 40,000 each year in the United States alone. You could also say we’re talking about murder, and that’s true, too. The other 149 people on board Germanwings 9525 had their lives taken from them, just as the 16,000 Americans murdered each year have.

Or you could invoke the specter of murder-suicide, that increasingly familiar explosion of self-consuming, purposeless annihilation — the disgruntled postal employee, the trench-coat-wearing high schooler, the well-armed moviegoer.

These violent acts strike seemingly indiscriminately. But they occur often enough that we can find a sense of understanding. We can draw up psychological profiles of attackers and study patterns of behavior to understand causes.

We know much less about pilots who fly their planes into the ground, because it’s so unusual.

Though pilots are under increasing stress, their mental health is carefully vetted. To become a commercial pilot, one must undergo physical and psychological screening. Additionally, pilots are a self-selecting group. They’ve earned their way to the cockpit through hard work, discipline and a willingness to take on as their regular daily routine an activity that many people consider too dangerous to do at all. In my experience interacting with pilots — I’m a recreational flier and an aviation journalist, so I run into quite a few — they tend to exhibit what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” meaning that they believe that whatever obstacles lie before them can be tackled using their own resources.

How, then, could such a pilot kill himself along with all his passengers?

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Germanwings Flight 9525 — UPDATED


Germanwings 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz (credit: Paris Match)

Yesterday morning, an old friend sent me a text: “Did you hear the news?”

I always get a pit in my stomach when I hear that. “No,” I emailed back. “What happened?”

What happened, of course, was Germanwings 9525. At the time all that was known was that an Airbus 321 carrying 150 people had crashed into the Alps. Soon enough details began to emerge, but how strange they were: a 24-year-old aircraft, en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, had climbed to its crusing altitude of 38,000 feet and then, within a matter of minutes, begun to descend at 3000 to 4000 feet per minute, apparently fairly steadily and while remaining on course, until it crashed eight minutes later into the French Alps. The flight crew issued no distress call.

I’d never heard of anything like it, but as the conversation developed online, some parallels emerged. Foremost was the case of LH1829, which took off from Bilbao last November and began an uncommanded descent of some 4000 feet per minute after the flight management system became confused by frozen angle-of-attack sensors.

In that case the pilots communicated with technicians on the ground and figured out how to solve the problem before a great deal of altitude was lost, but perhaps yesterday’s pilots had tried to tackle the issue by themselves and gotten too absorbed by the challenge to realize how much altitude they were losing, a la Eastern Air Line Flight 401?

Some speculated that a sudden decompression might have caused the tragedy. There have certainly been incidents in which aging, inadequately repaired aircraft have suffered catastrophic failure of their pressure hulls, leading to destruction of the plane, but those don’t generally look like this–the plane either breaks up at altitude or the pilots are able to don oxygen masks and keep flying the plane and communicating, if only for a while.

Another possibility–one hesitates to raise it in today’s climate of fear–is that a hijacker attempted to take control of the cockpit. I don’t think we can rule this out, either.

At this point, frankly, none of these scenarios make a great deal of sense, and I think the overall sentiment among people who spend a lot of time looking at this sort of thing is bafflement. “I’m at a loss,” one veteran 777 pilot emailed me yesterday. I think that about sums it up. Hopefully, the recovered cockpit voice recorder will provide some clarity.

UPDATE 3/26/2015: At a press conference in Marseille today prosecutor Brice Robin revealed that, according to audio recordings recovered from the Cockpit Voice Recorder, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit and initiated the descent that led to the plane’s crash into the Alps. “He took this action, for reasons we still don’t know why,” Robin said. “We can only deduce he destroyed the plane. He voluntarily allowed the plane to lose altitude. I think the victims only realised at the last moment because on the recording you only hear the screams on the last moments.”

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New York: How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is?

The unsettling oddness was there from the first moment, on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines announced that a plane from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, Flight 370, had disappeared over the South China Sea in the middle of the night. There had been no bad weather, no distress call, no wreckage, no eyewitness accounts of a fireball in the sky—just a plane that said good-bye to one air-traffic controller and, two minutes later, failed to say hello to the next. And the crash, if it was a crash, got stranger from there.

My yearlong detour to Planet MH370 began two days later, when I got an email from an editor at Slate asking if I’d write about the incident. I’m a private pilot and science writer, and I wrote about the last big mysterious crash, of Air France 447 in 2009. My story ran on the 12th. The following morning, I was invited to go on CNN. Soon, I was on-air up to six times a day as part of its nonstop MH370 coverage.

There was no intro course on how to be a cable-news expert. The Town Car would show up to take me to the studio, I’d sign in with reception, a guest-greeter would take me to makeup, I’d hang out in the greenroom, the sound guy would rig me with a mike and an earpiece, a producer would lead me onto the set, I’d plug in and sit in the seat, a producer would tell me what camera to look at during the introduction, we’d come back from break, the anchor would read the introduction to the story and then ask me a question or maybe two, I’d answer, then we’d go to break, I would unplug, wipe off my makeup, and take the car 43 blocks back uptown. Then a couple of hours later, I’d do it again. I was spending 18 hours a day doing six minutes of talking.

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Media Reaction to “The Spoof”

BBC (UK) A wild and chilling theory about what happened to MH370, by Robert Cottrell

What if the MH370 flew north and landed safely on a Russian airstrip in Kazakhstan? Of course it’s a wild theory. It’s also a great yarn, with just enough data points to sound plausible.

Le Monde (France): Un an après, l’improbable disparition du MH370, by Florency de Changy

Mais si l’avion n’est pas au fond de l’océan Indien, où est-il ? Pour certains, il ne s’agit plus d’affiner des calculs déjà suraffinés, mais bien de remettre en cause la démarche tout entière. Se peut-il qu’une partie des données Inmarsat aient été trafiquées ? C’est la thèse du journaliste américain Jeff Wise qui vient de publier un livre numérique The Plane That Was not There (« L’avion qui n’était pas là »). Il propose un scénario dans lequel les « vraies fausses » informations d’Inmarsat ne sont là que pour faire diversion, alors que les vrais coupables sont les deux Ukrainiens et le Russe qui étaient assis à l’avant de l’avion et dont les passeports sont les seuls à ne pas avoir été vérifiés par leurs autorités nationales respectives. Le Groupe indépendant a immédiatement exclu Jeff Wise.

Das Bild (Germany): Das Sind die Theorien

Der amerikanische Wissenschaftsautor und Pilot Jeff Wise, der das Drama um MH370 seit Monaten für den US-Nachrichtensender CNN begleitet, glaubt sogar: Rebellen könnten die Maschine nach Zentralasien entführt haben – um die Boeing eines Tages für ihre Zwecke einzusetzen. Wise zu BILD: „Die Idee, MH 370 könnte nach Kasachstan verschleppt worden sein, ist nicht neu.”

Il Post (Italy): La teoria di Jeff Wise sul volo MH370, di Andrea Fiorello

Un anno dopo la scomparsa nel cielo dell’Asia del volo Malaysia Airlines MH370 – di cui non si hanno notizie dalle 2,40 del 3 marzo 2014, quando i radar persero le tracce dell’aereo circa due ore dopo il decollo da Kuala Lumpur con destinazione Pechino – il giornalista americano Jeff Wise ha pubblicato sul New York Magazine un lungo articolo che racconta la sua personale storia di “esperto” del volo MH370 e gli sviluppi delle teorie su cosa sia successo all’aereo, che lo hanno portato di recente a un’ipotesi che racconta come incredibile e convincente insieme.

RT (Russia): ‘True story!’ MSM spins theory that Putin hijacked MH370 and landed it in Kazakhstan, by Nebojsa Malic

Judging by his observations about MH17 and Russia, Wise has clearly fallen victim to what psychologists call confirmation bias – a tendency to see and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. However, almost the entire mainstream press in the West suffers from this when it comes to Russia – prompting several commentators to dub the phenomenon ‘Putin Derangement Syndrome.’ Witness the recent announcement by a “Pentagon think-tank” that Vladimir Putin is supposedly autistic, dutifully reported as fact. Now it seems Jeff Wise’s fantasy is due for the same treatment.

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What Was Going On at Yubileyniy?

1 - Yubileyniy overview 2012 smallAs readers of this blog or my Kindle Single (or, now, New York magazine) know, I’m intrigued by the possibility that MH370 might have been hijacked and flown north to the Yubileyniy Aerodrome within the Baikonur Cosmodrome. If so, it would have come to rest on the specially-milled concrete at approximately an hour and a half before sunrise on Sunday, March 8. And then what? If it stayed where it was, it would have been easy to spot by land-imaging satellites overhead. To avoid detection, it would have to have either refueled and taken off again, or found some kind of shelter.

As it happens, the Kazakh steppe is a terrible place to hide a 210-foot long, 60-foot-high airplane. The flat, desert plain is sparsely populated and almost featureless, so that anything large and unusual is apt to stand out. There is no natural canopy of trees to shelter under. Though there are large buildings at the cosmodrome where space vehicles are serviced, there are no large structures near Yubileyniy.

After I began developing my “Spoof” hypthesis I spent days scouring first Google Earth, then free commercial satellite imagery looking for any hint that a plane could have been stashed in the vicinity. The pickings were slim. The Yubileyniy complex was built in the ‘80s as the landing site for the Buran space plane, and after the program was cancelled in 1989 it has largely sat disused. Occasionally the runway is used by planes carrying inbound VIPs and cosmonauts, but otherwise nothing has really happened there in decades. An overview of the area is depicted above.

The dark, fishhook-shaped line is the rail line connecting the airstrip to the rest of the Baikonur complex. Alongside it is a road from which a series of driveways lead off to the north. One of them leads to an isolated six-story building that stands surrounded by debris, berms, and trenches. I came to think of the area as Yubileyniy North. Here’s what it looked like in 2006 (click on images to enlarge):

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MH370: Just the Facts, Ma’am

One of the frustrating aspects of falling down the rabbit hole of MH370 is dealing with the sheer volume of information that’s been processed in the last 12 months. A perpetually overlooked item on my to-do list is to bring together all the most crucial information in one well-organized place — I made an attempt with my “What We Know Now” blog post but I never really invested the time and energy to do it justice. Others within the Independent Group proposed putting up a Wiki but somehow that never happened, either. Well, just now Richard Godfrey sent me a link to a honking big pdf with much of the key information presented in graphical form. It’s in a Dropbox file here.

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Guest Post: TransAsia 235 Crash Timeline


[Editor’s note: IG kingpin Michael Exner has delved into the recent crash of TransAsia Flight 235 with characteristic vigor, and recently sent around some images he generated from ADS-B data that go a long way toward establishing what happened. I asked him if I could reprint the material here and he agreed. — JW]

I reviewed the flight paths for flight GE235 for the previous week. In every case, the path was nearly the same. The plane makes a departure to the east and turns to the right about 160 degrees shortly after takeoff. [See image above.] This is what happened on the day of the crash too. However, in the case of the crash day, the airspeed and altitude just seconds into the flight, at the start of the first right turn, was already low and slow. For all flights in the previous week, the plane was between 2000-3000 feet at the first turn (point furthest east), and the speed was between 130 and 170 kts. For the day of the crash, the plane was at 1250 feet and 83 kts, which is below stall speed for 15 degrees flap setting. [See image below, after the jump; click to enlarge.] This suggests that the left engine was not producing full power from a point very early in the flight. Indeed, the ADS-B data indicates that the airspeed at liftoff was normal (136 knots at 100 feet), but began falling immediately after liftoff. This suggests that the left engine flameout occurred immediately after liftoff, near the east end of the runway.

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Guest Post: Why Did MH370 Log Back on with Inmarsat?

[Editor’s note: One of the most intriguing clues in the MH370 mystery is the fact that the airplane’s satcom system logged back on to the Inmarsat network at 18:25. By understanding how such an event could take place, we can significantly narrow the range of possible narratives. In the interest of getting everyone on the same page in understanding this event, I’ve asked Mike Exner for permission to post the content of a detailed comment he recently provided.  One piece of background: a lot of us have been referring to the satellite communications system aboard the aircraft as the “SDU,” but as Mike recently pointed out in another comment, it technically should be called the “AES.” — JW.]

Until we have more evidence to support the theory that the loss of AES communications was due to the loss of primary power to the AES, we must keep an open mind. Loss of power may be the most likely cause (simplest explanation), but the fact is we do not know why the sat link was down between 17:37 and 18:25. My reluctance to jump to the conclusion that it must have been due to the loss of primary AES power is based on decades of experience in the MSS (mobile satellite service) industry. It’s not just another opinion based on convenience to support a theory. Let me elaborate on a few possible alternative explanations.

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