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Russian Military Planes, Flying With Transponders Off, Provoke Alarm in Europe

FIR maps small

credits: left, Financial Times; right, SkyVector


In the latest in series of aggressive maneuvers by Russian military planes in European airspace, the Financial Times is reporting today that a Russian intelligence plane nearly caused a mid-air collision with a Swedish passenger jet on Friday while flying along a Flight Information Region (FIR) boundary with its transponder turned off.

An SAS jet taking off from Copenhagen on Friday was warned by Swedish air traffic control to change course to avoid a Russian military intelligence flight, said Swedish authorities.

Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, said it was “serious, inappropriate and downright dangerous” that the Russian aircraft was flying with its transponder — used to identify its position — switched off. He told Swedish reporters: “It is remarkable and very serious. There is a risk of accidents that could ultimately lead to deaths.”

The incident is the latest in a series involving Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea this year. In March, an SAS airliner came within 100 metres of a Russian military aircraft shortly after take-off from Copenhagen, Swedish television reported.

In the most recent incident, the Swedish and Danish military detected the Russian aircraft in international airspace on radar and warned the SAS flight, said to have been bound for Poznan, Poland.

A story about the incident in WAtoday links to a YouTube clip of ATC audio combined with speeded-up playback the commercial flight from, which indicates that the incident took place near the boundary between two FIR zones, Sweden and Rhein-UIR, with the Russian plane flying west to east along the boundary.

As I wrote in an earlier post, military pilots have been known to fly along FIR boundaries with their transponders turned off as a means of escaping detection. In what may or may not have been a coincidence, after it deviated from its planned course to Beijing, MH370 flew along the FIR boundary between Malaysia and Thailand with its transponder turned off. The pilot in Friday’s incident may have been testing NATO air defense systems to see how well the technique might work over busy Europeans airspace.

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Up Close: Inside an IG Southern Route

Richard v13.1 Route

Ever since the Independent Group first issued a public report offering guidance as to where search efforts for MH370 should be concentrated, people have been asking for details on group members’ calculated routes. Unfortunately, everyone is doing this work for free, in their spare time, and have other things to attend to as well, so providing explanations has not been a priority. At last, however, Richard Godfrey, one of the hardest-working of all, has gallantly stepped up and delivered a polished-up version of his latest theory so that all interested parties can have a look under the hood. Above is a screen shot of his model, which he dubs “MH370 Flight Path Model V13/1 Final,” as it appears in Google Earth. Details after the jump.

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MH370 Final Major Turn Timing

Path derived from V13.1 Path Model

Path derived from V13.1 Path Model

Guest Post by Michael Exner, Richard Godfrey, and Sid Bennett (Members of the Independent Group)

Beginning shortly after the release of the redacted Inmarsat data log on May 26th, 2014, independent investigators began analyzing the data using analytic models, with the goal of estimating the most likely end point for the flight path of MH370. A combination of secondary and primary radar data provided information about the path from takeoff at 1641UTCto 1822UTC. In its June 26th, 2014 Report, ATSB assumed that MH370 was headed southby 1941UTC, but left open the question of where MH370 went between 1822UTC and 1941UTC. In its second report on July 17th, 2014, the Independent Group (IG) pointed out that the ATSB analysisappeared not to considerthe available Inmarsat data at 1840UTC, and recommendedthat ATSB consider that the Final Major Turn (FMT) to the south may have occurred much earlier than 1941UTC. In its September 9th, 2014, Search Area Recommendation, the IG noted that recent news reports indicatedthat ATSB was reconsidering the time of the FMT, based on the “phone call data” at 1840UTC. On September 26th, 2014, the IG released a Further Progress report in which the IG concluded MH370 must have been flying in a southerly direction by 1840UTC. On October 8th, 2014, ATSB released an Update wherein they also concluded that the FMT must have occurred before 1840UTC, similar to the published IG analysis. Thus, ATSB and the IG agreed by October 8ththat the FMT must have startedbetween 1822UTC and 1840UTC.However, a more exact time for the FMT has remained uncertain. A closer look at the BFO data after 1825 suggests that the FMT started and ended close to 1840UTC.

Read the full report here.


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Occam’s Razor is Overrated

conspiracy theoryMartin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), is plagued by conspiracy theorists. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, since the disappearance of MH370, “conspiracy theorists have been busy trying to solve the mystery themselves. Many have contacted Dolan.”

“You’ve got this big mystery and everyone wants to know the answer and everyone wants to help,” the SMH quotes Dolan as saying. “It’s unhelpful, for the sake of the families more than anything else, in the sense that it has the potential to undermine confidence in what we are doing.”

I feel somewhat guilty for being one of those peanut-gallery denizens who have tormented him. Along with my fellow obsessives in the Independent Group, I’ve been straining my brain for the last eight months trying to make sense of the strangest aviation mystery in history. Yes, I’d like to be helpful; yes, I’d like to know the answers. And yes, I may have unwittingly undermined confidence in what the ATSB was doing, for instance by publicly saying that I thought they were looking in the wrong place. (Though, to be fair, they were in fact looking in the wrong place.)

Nevertheless, I must take issue with one aspect of the article’s characterization of my subculture: the use of the term “conspiracy theorist.” Now, look: I get it. My wife says that I remind her of the Kevin Costner character in “JFK.” I ruminate about the intracacies of a famous case and try to piece them together in a new way that makes more sense. I’m obsessed.

There’s a big difference, however, between true grassy-knoll conspiracy theorists (or 9/11Truthers, or the-moon-landing-was-faked believers) and MH370 obsessives like me. It’s this: there is no default, mainstream narrative about the missing Malaysian airliner. There is no story that officials and all reasonable people agree makes sense.

This isn’t the result of laziness or incompetence. It’s just that the data is so strange.

A lot of people don’t get that. Ever since the mystery began, certain voices have been invoking the principle of Occam’s razor, saying that when we try to formulate a most likely scenario for what happened to the plane, we should choose the answer that is simplest. People who are making this argument are usually in favor of the argument that the plane suffered a massive mechanical failure and then flew off into the ocean as a ghost ship, or that the pilot locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit and committed suicide. However, as I’ve argued over the course of several earlier posts, neither theory matches what we know about the flight.

Instead, I’ve argued that an accumulation of evidence suggests that MH370 was commandeered by hijackers who had a very sophisticated understanding of airline procedure, air traffic control, avionics systems, military radar surveillance, and satellite communications. In other words, what happened on the night of March 7/8 of this year was a intentional act. And when it comes to human schemes, Occam’s razor goes out the window. Instead of simplicity, we should expect complexity, not to mention red herrings and any other form of subterfuge.

Whenever I hear Occam’s razor invoked, I inevitably find myself thinking of something that Sarah Bajc said on CNN. Bajc’s partner, Philip Wood, is one of the missing passengers, and she has been very open minded in considering alternative explanations to what happened that night. “There are 40 crazy stories that you could tell about MH370,” she told the anchor. “And one of them is going to turn out to be true.”

I’ve come to think of this as the Bajc Postulate, which I think should replace Occam’s Razor in situations like this. It goes like this: “When trying to unravel human deception, don’t expect simplicity.”

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Why MH370 Search Officials Can’t Agree Where to Look

source: ATSB, modified by JW

In dispute: whether the search should focus on the area spotlighted by data error optimisation or constrained autopilot dynamics


Disquieting news in the Wall Street Journal today; the paper reports today that the official inquiry into the disappearance of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is riven with disagreement:

Ongoing differences of opinion between five teams of experts that include Boeing Co. and the Australian military have led to search vessels being deployed in two different priority search areas. These zones overlap in some places but in others are hundreds of miles apart, highlighting how efforts to solve one of modern aviation’s biggest mysteries remain little more than educated guesswork. Searchers may only be able to scour around 80% of the probable crash sites before government funding runs out.

For its part, the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) issued a response that essentially confirmed the gist of the WSJ article:

[ATSB chief commissioner, Martin] Dolan said that earlier there had been consensus amongst the five groups, based on the data available at the time, but once the data had been refined, “the results from the methodologies did not coincide exactly. There is no disagreement, just the deliberate application of differing analysis models,” said Mr Dolan.

One would like to think that, nine months after the plane went missing, that the experts would have ironed out any loose threads in their understanding of the plane’s final trajectory. Especially given the fact that Inmarsat scientist Chris Ashton told the BBC program Horizon that the company had cracked the nut way back in March, saying: “The graphs matched, the data worked, the calculation was solved.”

But if we take a closer look at the history of the accident investigation, it’s not surprising disagreements exist. For all the confident press statements that the authorities have released, behind the scenes investigators have always struggled to make sense of the data in their possession. It’s not a matter, fundametally, of a difference in opinion between experts; it’s a matter of inconsistencies within the data sets themselves.

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How We Can Tell How Fast MH370 Was Flying

Early Inmarsat route calculation, from Ashton et al.

Early Inmarsat route calculation, from Ashton et al.

A week after MH370 went missing, the Malaysian government dropped a shocker: Inmarsat, the satellite communications provider, had recorded signals from the plane that allowed them to calculate the plane’s distance from the satellite about once an hour for nearly six hours.

At first, the Malaysians only released a rough sketch of the final arc: two matching fragments of a circle, 3000 miles in radius, that stretched from Kazakhstan in the north to the remote Indian Ocean in the south. This in itself was a major step forward, in that it drastically reduced the numer of possible places the plane could have gone. But even more enticingly it suggested that if we had the numerical values for all the pings, and could figure out what speed the plane was flying at, we would be able to identify the route that the plane was taken and thus its precise final destination.

The scientists at Inmarsat recognized this immediately, and as Chris Ashton et al relate in their paper in the Journal of Navigation, they quickly plugged in the most logical speed value — typical airliner cruise speed, around Mach 0.83 — and concluded that the plane flew either to the middle of Kazakhstan or almost directly south into the Indian Ocean. (See image above.) As a result, the Malaysian government submitted a request to the Kazakh government asking that it be allowed to set up a search operation in the country, and planes were dispatched to search the ocean surface near the southern potential end point. Hopes were high. After satellites spotted what appeared to be floating material in the southern ocean, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told his country’s parliament that it was a “potentially important development.’’

Of course the idea that the plane flew straight and fast, as airliners typically do, was just an assumption. Theoretically, it could have flown from ping ring to ping ring at any number of speeds along any number of routes, including straight, curvy, and zig-zag. Most of these alternatives would have resulted in the plane winding up at a lower latitude. And indeed, within a few days the authorities abandoned the southernmost search area and started scouring a section of the ocean much further north. The decision to shift the search zone appears to have been heavily influenced by a second set of data also derived from the handshakes exchanged between the plane and the satellite: the so-called BFO (“burst frequency offset”) data. After much head-scratching, Inmarsat believed that they had come up with an algorithm that allowed them to understand the physical implications of this data, and it told them that a) the plane had definitely gone south, not north, and b) the plane had not been flying straight and fast, as initially supposed, but instead taken a slower and/or meandering course and wound up about a thousand miles from the initial search area.

Frustratingly, for those of us who were watching from the sidelines and eager to understand what was going on, neither Inmarsat nor the Malaysians were willing to either release their numerical data nor to explain their BFO algorithm. We just had to take their word for it. Which was enormously frustrating, since it seemed tantalizingly plausible that if we had the data and understood the physical processes that generated it, we would be able to mathematically solve for the location of the plane. Et voila: mystery solved.

Finally, after much pressure from the public, the Malaysians did finally release most of the Inmarsat data in May; the following month, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released a report which explained how the then-current search area had been arrived at and explained in some detail how the BFO algorithm worked.

Many independent experts, including members of the Independent Group, leapt at the chance to finally get under the hood of the BFO algorithm and see if they could reach their own conclusions about where the plane went. In time, however, their optimism faded. In turns out that the BFO data offers only a very imprecise gauge of a plane’s location or direction of travel. To test the algorithm, for instance, scientists working for the search effort compared BFO data received from a known flight with the plane’s actual path. They found that, of the thousands of possible paths that matched the BFO data, even the one that most closely matched the actual flight was hundreds of miles off in places.

We seemed to be almost back to where we started: we had a set of ping rings that showed us seven quite accurate (within 10 km, the ATSB estimates) arcs along which the plane must have been at seven moments in time, but with only vague intimations of where along those arcs the plane actually was.

Gradually, however, without much fanfare, it has become clear that other, non-BFO techniques can provide insight into how MH370 was traveling after it disappeared from radar, and these in turn offer a strong suggestion about where the plane went.

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MH370 and the Mystery of Indonesian Radar


One of the many baffling aspects of the MH370 disappearance is the absence of radar data after the plane left Malaysian primary coverage at 18:22 UTC. If, as is generally presumed, the plane took a sharp left turn shortly afterward and flew into the southern ocean, it should have remained visible to Indonesian radar for more than an hour. Yet Indonesian military officials insist that nothing appeared on their radar screens.

This is an issue that has gotten less attention than it deserves, and for understandable reasons. Indonesia is a developing country, and a sprawling one at that. With a land area the size of Western Europe, it spans the same east-to-west distance as the continental United States. So one might reasonably assume that the country lacks the ability to comprehensively monitor its airspace. Why shouldn’t MH370 have passed through without a trace?

In fact, though, Indonesia has quite a capable air defense radar system, and one which it utilizes quite aggressively. In the last month alone, its air force has intercepted three civilian planes which wandered into the national airspace without first getting the proper permission.

The westernmost part of the country is covered by the Indonesian Air Force’s Radar Unit 231 at Lhokseumawe in Aceh, Northern Sumatera. The unit is equipped with a Thomson-CSF TRS-2215 radar, the type pictured above. The system, Indonesian military officials say, is capable of detecting aircraft up to 240 nautical miles away.

It demonstrated its capability last year, when the unit detected a Dornier 328 twin turboprop entering Indonesian airspace from the west. The plane was ordered to land at Sultan Iskandar Muda airport in Banda Aceh. It turned out to be a US Air Force Special Operations plane carrying five crewmembers; the pilot claimed he had been running low on fuel and didn’t realize that his paperwork to enter the country had expired. After being impounded for a few days the plane and its crew were allowed to leave.

Based on its specs alone, Radar Unit 231 (so much easier to spell than Lhokseumawe!) should easily have been able to detect MH370. The radar track released by the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) in June shows that the plane came within 60 nautical miles of the installation before it disappeared from Malaysian and/or Thai military radar. Afterwards, according to the consensus view, the plane’s track should have stayed within the radar’s viewing range as it headed west, made a turn to the south, and proceeded into the southern Indian Ocean. (See map after the jump)

So how could the Indonesians have seen nothing?

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MH370 Evidence Points to Sophisticated Hijackers

777 E:E Bay Access

The 777 E/E bay access hatch. Click for video.


Newly emerged details concerning Malaysia Airlines flight 370’s electrical system indicate that whoever took over the plane was technically sophisticated, possessing greater knowledge of Boeing 777 avionics than most commercial line pilots. They also suggest that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was not responsible for taking the plane.

The new information comes via Michael Exner, a satellite industry veteran who has been one of the most prominent independent experts investigating the airliner’s disappearance. Several days ago Exner gained access to a major US airline’s professional-grade flight simulator facility, where he was able to run flight profiles accompanied by two veteran 777 pilots. “This is a state-of-the-art 777 simulator, level D, part of one of the most modern training facilities on earth,” Exner says.

A little background. As is well known, approximately forty minutes after its departure from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, someone turned off all communications between MH370 and the outside world. Around the same time the plane turned sharply to the left and headed back over the Malayan Peninsula. Among the systems that were shut off were satellite communications; the transponder; and two automatic reporting systems, ACARS and ADS-B. The plane went dark just as it entered the space between two air-traffic control zones and was temporarily unmonitored, a sign that whoever planned the diversion wished to avoid detection and was well versed in international air traffic control procedures.

For approximately the next hour, MH370’s progress was visible only to military radar. The plane flew straight and fast between established navigational points, indicating that the aircraft had not suffered mechanical accident. At 18.22 UTC the plane was heading west out into the Indian Ocean when it passed out of range of military radar. At that point, the plane became effectively invisible. Shrouded in night, with approximately six hours’ fuel aboard, the plane could have reached any point within a 3000-mile radius and no one on the ground would have been any wiser. But it did not stay dark. Less than a minute later, MH370’s satellite communications system was switched back on.

Over the span of several minutes, between 18.25 and 18.28, the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) transmitted a flurry of brief electronic messages with Inmarsat satellite 3F-1, which occupies a geosynchronous orbit above the Indian Ocean. In a report issued this June, the Australian Transport Safety Board stated that the signals were “generated as part of a Log-on sequence after the terminal has likely been power cycled.”

Until now, it has not been publicly known how such a power-cycling could have taken place.

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MH370: Where is the Debris?

Indijup Beach

Indijup Beach, Western Australia

When Australia called off the surface search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on April 28, Prime Minister Tony Abbot explained that “It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk.”

But would the debris really have sunk? Modern aircraft are made of metal, composites, and plastic, materials that do not get waterlogged. If, as the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) believes is most likely, MH370 ran out of fuel and then crashed, it would have been moving at hundreds of miles per hour when it hit the sea. Much of the resulting debris would have settled down through the water column, but innumerable pieces would have remained afloat. After Air France Flight 447 went down in the middle of the Atlantic in 2009, searchers found some 3,000 pieces of debris scattered across the surface.

With the passage of time, the absence of MH370 debris becomes increasingly puzzling. Recently Emirates Airlines CEO Tim Clarke expressed frustration over the ATSB analysis of the plane’s fate, saying: ”Our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something.” This is true. As far as I know, there have been no cases where a commercial airliner has crashed into the sea and no parts were recovered, even if the crash occured in an unknown location far out in the middle of the ocean, as MH370’s presumably did.

Consider the fate of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser “Clipper Romance of the Skies,” which disappeared on the first leg of a planned round-the-world flight somewhere between San Francisco and Hawaii in 1957. An aircraft carrier was dispatched and found floating debris six days later, halfway between its origin and destination and 90 miles from its planned track, some 1,000 miles from the nearest land.

The area where MH370 is now believed most likely to have gone down is a bit further out to sea, some 1,500 miles southwest of Perth. But far more assets were been deployed in the search, including satellite, ships, and land-based aircraft. Indeed, the area was one of the first to be searched for surface wreckage back in March. 

Still, it’s easy to imagine that even pieces of debris might have been overlooked in the vastness of the sea, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the plane’s crash site. That’s why many have long thought that the first hard proof of the plane’s fate might well take the form of flotsam washing up on a beach somewhere.


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In Search for Missing Airliner, Peanut Gallery Shows the Way

source: ATSB, modified by JW

source: ATSB, modified by JW

If you were leading a high-profile international aircraft investigation, in command of the world’s most qualified technical experts and in possession of all the relevant data, would you bother listening to a rag-tag band of internet commenters, few of whom actually work in the space or aviation industry, and none of whom have access to all the data?

Most likely, you’d say: certainly not! But as time goes by, and the puzzle remains curiously impenetrable, you might find it worthwhile to pay a listen to what the amateurs were saying. You might even abandon some of your own conclusions and adopt theirs instead.

This appears to be the case in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing back in March. From the beginning, the authorities running the investigation — first, Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport, and later the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) — held their cards close to the chest, releasing very little information about the missing plane and maintaining a posture of absolute conviction.  The investigators’ self-confidence reached its apex in April, when their methodology led them to an area of ocean where underwater accoustic signals seemed to be coming from pingers attached to the plane’s black boxes. Officials assured the press that the plane would be found in “days, if not hours.” But then it wasn’t. A scan of the seabed found nothing; the pingers were a red herring (perhaps literally!). Back to square one.

Meanwhile, on the internet, a group of amateur enthusiasts had come together from all around the world to trade ideas and information about the missing flight. The group, which came to call itself the Independent Group (IG), emerged from various online comment threads and eventually grew to about a dozen individuals. This was a truly spontaneous, self-assembling crowd: there was no vetting of credentials, no heirarchy of any kind. (Full disclosure: I count myself among this group.) Basically, if you seemed to know what you were talking about and could comport yourself in a collegial fashion, you were accepted into the crowd.

While the mainstream press was reporting the ATSB’s pronouncements as received wisdom, the IG was raising red flags. IG members were among the most vocal critics of the ATSB’s contention that the accoustic pings probably came from black-box pingers. And later, after a public outcry led Inmarsat to release a trove of data received from the aircraft, and the ATSB issued a report explaining how it had come to identify its current search ear, the IG dove into the new information with abandon, quickly identifying holes in the data and weaknesses in the official approach. In a pair of papers, the group recommended its own search area, hundreds of miles to the southwest of the ATSB’s officially designated  zone.

Today, the ATSB has released an update to its earlier report, explaining why it has decided to reassess its conclusions and move its search zone to a new area — one that overlaps, as it turns out, with the IG’s recommended area. (In the graphic above, the white bracket shows the ATSB area; I’ve added a yellow dot to show the IG area.) Needless to say, this has caused elation within the ranks of the IG, who see the move as vindication of their methods, and indeed validation of their combined efforts over the last few months.

A few observations on the new report:

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