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Free the Data!


Last month, I published an article in New York magazine about a secret Malaysian police report which included details of a simulated flight into the southern Indian Ocean. As Victor Iannello revealed in a comment earlier today, that information came from French journalist Florence de Changy, who had come into possession of the full police report but only shared a portion of it with me.

I have not seen the full report, but would very much like to, because I would like to form my own judgement of what they mean, and I think everyone who is interested in trying to figure out what happened to the missing plane, including the next of kin, are entitled to the same. Some people who have read the full reports have suggested that they give the impression that the recovered simulator files do not in context seem all that incriminating. Other people who have seen the full report have told me that the report contains material that makes it hard to doubt that Zaharie is the culprit. Of course, it’s impossible to rely on someone else’s say-so. We need to see the full report.

The reason I am writing this post now is that earlier today Florence published an article in Le Monde in which she describes having the full report as well as another, 65-page secret document on the same topic. Meanwhile, another French newspaper, Liberation, has also published an article indicating that they, too, have a copy of the report. And private correspondence between myself and a producer at the television network “France 2” indicates that he has as well.

Meanwhile, I know that independent investigators here in the US have the documents as well.

At this point, the secret documents are not very secret. Someone within the investigation has been leaking them like crazy, obviously with the intention that their contents reach the public. My understanding is that this source has placed no restrictions on their use. So journalists and independent investigators who have copies of these documents need to do their duty and release them — somehow, anyhow. Some people that I’ve begged and implored to do so have said that they fear legal ramifiations. Well, if it’s illegal for you to have these documents, then you’ve already broken the law. Use Wikileaks or another similar service to unburden yourself.

Free the data!

UPDATE 8/14/16: Apparently Blaine Alan Gibson has the document, too, according to a rant he post on Facebook. He reveals that the entire set of documents is 1,000 pages long.


Did MH370 Plunge or Ditch?

End-of-flight sequence

The general-interest media has seized hold of a debate that his been raging on this forum for quite some time: after the last communication between MH370 and the Inmarsat satellite at 0:19, did the aircraft spiral unpiloted into the sea close to the 7th arc, or glide into the ocean under pilot control with the flaps deployed for a gentle, Miracle-on-the-Hudson type touchdown?

The answer is: neither.

I’ll explain why, but let’s back up a bit first. In the picture above, taken from the ATSB report “MH370 – Definition of Underwater Search Areas,” released on December 3, 2015, we see the final sequence of events believed to have occurred before the plane vanished for good. Sometime around 00:02:30, the right engine ran out of fuel and flamed out. At 00:11:00, the satellite data unit (SDU) transmitted its scheduled hourly ping as usual. A few minutes later, at 00:17:30, the left engine ran out of fuel and flamed out. This caused a systemwide electrical supply failure, and the SDU powered down along with everything else.  The ram air turbine (RAT) deployed to provide emergency hydraulic and electrical power—but this would not include the SDU or the flaps. One minute later, the APU kicked in and restored electrical power, and a minute after that, the repowered SDU logged back in with Inmarsat, creating the “7th ping.” Then, within seconds, the APU exhausted the dribble of fuel in its fuel lines, and the SDU lost power again.

When the 7th ping occurred, therefore, the plane had been without engine power for two minutes, and had spent approximately 15 minutes before that slowing and descending from cruise speed and altitude under the power of a single engine. Thereupon, it descended without autopilot inputs. So: what happened next?

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60 Minutes Australia on Secret Malaysia Report

Here’s a link to the report broadcast today on Australian 60 Minutes about the search for MH370. Part 1:

Part 2:

Discussion after the jump…

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Australia Confirms Zaharie Flight-Sim Route to Southern Ocean

In a posting to a section of its website called “Correcting the record,” the Australian Transport Safety Board today confirmed that the FBI found data on MH370 captain Zaharie Shah’s flight simulator hard drives indicating that Zaharie had practiced a one-way flight into the southern Indian Ocean, as I wrote in a story for New York magazine on Friday. Entitled “False and inaccurate media report on the search for MH370,” the post concerns several claims by Australian pilot Byron Bailey in The Australian, including Bailey’s interpretation of the flight-sim data:

Mr Bailey also claims that FBI data from MH370 captain’s home simulator shows that the captain plotted a course to the southern Indian Ocean and that it was a deliberate planned murder/suicide. There is no evidence to support this claim. As Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester said in a statement, the simulator information shows only the possibility of planning. It does not reveal what happened on the night of its disappearance nor where the aircraft is located. While the FBI data provides a piece of information, the best available evidence of the aircraft’s location is based on what we know from the last satellite communications with the aircraft. This is indeed the consensus of international satellite and aircraft specialists.

While ostensibly rebutting Bailey’s claims, the ATSB tacitly acknowledges the fact that the flight-sim data was in fact found by the FBI.


New York: MH370 Pilot Flew a Suicide Route on His Home Simulator Closely Matching Final Flight


The route found on the simulator hard drive is red, the suspected route of MH370 in yellow. The orange box is the current search area.


New York has obtained a confidential document from the Malaysian police investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that shows that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, conducted a simulated flight deep into the remote southern Indian Ocean less than a month before the plane vanished under uncannily similar circumstances. The revelation, which Malaysia withheld from a lengthy public report on the investigation, is the strongest evidence yet that Zaharie made off with the plane in a premeditated act of mass murder-suicide.

The document presents the findings of the Malaysian police’s investigation into Zaharie. It reveals that after the plane disappeared in March of 2014, Malaysia turned over to the FBI hard drives that Zaharie used to record sessions on an elaborate home-built flight simulator. The FBI was able to recover six deleted data points that had been stored by Microsoft Flight Simulator X program in the weeks before MH370 disappeared, according to the document. Each point records the airplane’s altitude, speed, direction of flight, and other key parameters at a given moment. The document reads, in part:

Based on the Forensics Analysis conducted on the 5 HDDs obtained from the Flight Simulator from MH370 Pilot’s house, we found a flight path, that lead to the Southern Indian Ocean, among the numerous other flight paths charted on the Flight Simulator, that could be of interest, as contained in Table 2.

Taken together, these points show a flight that departs Kuala Lumpur, heads northwest over the Malacca Strait, then turns left and heads south over the Indian Ocean, continuing until fuel exhaustion over an empty stretch of sea.

Search officials believe MH370 followed a similar route, based on signals the plane transmitted to a satellite after ceasing communications and turning off course. The actual and the simulated flights were not identical, though, with the stimulated endpoint some 900 miles from the remote patch of southern ocean area where officials believe the plane went down. Based on the data in the document, here’s a map of the simulated fight compared to the route searchers believe the lost airliner followed (see above).

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Popular Mechanics: Where Did the Search for MH370 Go Wrong?

It wasn’t supposed to end like to this. Earlier today, ministers from the three nations responsible for finding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—Australia, China, and Malaysia—announced that they would stop looking for the lost jet once the current 46,000-square-mile search zone is completed this fall. The decision was essentially an acknowledgement that they’d come up empty-handed in their quest to find the plane that disappeared from the face of the Earth in March 2014 with 239 people on board. This after two years of official assurances that success was right around the corner.

Why had they been so confident in the first place? How could they have been wrong? And if the plane isn’t where it was supposed to be, where else could it have gone? We’ve gone through two years of clues and conspiracy theories and false starts. But to understand how we’ve come to this point, it’s necessary to review the clues that search officials possessed, and how they interpreted them.

Calculating the Direction of Flight

There were two reasons why investigators felt certain the plane had flown toward a specific area of the southern Indian Ocean. The first was publicly acknowledged, the second kept secret.

The first reason had to do with signals exchanged between the plane and an Inmarsat satellite. On the night of March 8, 2014, 40 minutes after takeoff, MH370 suddenly went electronically dark over the South China Sea. Every form of communication it had with the outside world was turned off. The plane then pulled a 180, flew back over peninsular Malaysia, headed up the Malacca Strait, and disappeared from radar.

Then, surprisingly, three minutes later, it began communicating again. A piece of equipment in the back of the plane called the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) sent a log-on request to an Inmarsat satellite perched in a geosynchronous orbit high above the Indian Ocean. For the next six hours, the SDU stayed in contact, automatically sending intermittent pings that were automatically recorded by Inmarsat computers on the ground.

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How We Know Where MH370 Went

DSTG report 1

One of the most misunderstood insights into the riddle of MH370 is how the plane’s final path can be derived from Inmarsat BTO data alone.

Recall that the data, which was generated after someone on board caused the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) to re-logon to the Inmarsat Satellite 3F-1 over the Indian Ocean at 18:25, comes in two flavors. The first, the Burst Timing Offset (BTO) data, reveals how far the plane is from the satellite at a given time. This can be mathematically converted into a set of “ping rings” along which the plane must have been at a given time. The BTO data is very well understood and fairly precise, providing an accuracy of within 10 km.

The second, the Burst Frequency Offset (BFO) data, is more more complicated and much fuzzier than the BTO data; its inherent uncertainties are equivalent to a position error of hundreds of miles. It doesn’t have a single physical correlate but is related to how fast a plane is going, what direction it is headed, and where it is located.

For a time after MH370 disappeared, searchers hoped that they could combine these two data sets to identify the area where the plane issued its final ping. After months of work, however, they determined that this would be impossible. The BFO data is just too vague. However, along with the bad news came some good: it turned out that by the clever use of statistics they could figure out where the plane went using the BTO data alone. The methodology developed by Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and explained in an ATSB report entitled “MH370 – Definition of Underwater Search Areas” released last December.

Many independent researchers do not understand the technique and believe that it is invalid. For instance, reader DennisW recently opined that “The ISAT data cannot, by itself, be used to determine a flight path. One has to invoke additional constraints to derive a terminus.” But I believe that the DSTG position is correct, and that one does not need to invoke arbitrary additional assumptions in order to calculate the plane’s track. I’ll explain why.

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Guest Post: Where MH370 Search Area Debris Has Historically Gone


By MPat

(Note: A comment by reader Lauren H brought my attention to an analysis I’d overlooked by reader MPat. As Lauren H points out, it’s as timely now as it was when MPat first aired it back in March. — JW)

The potential arrival of more debris in the East African region is triggering interest once more in the currents and drift patterns in the SIO. To sense check the concept that debris could drift from the current search area to these regions I did a little research of my own, the premise being that the observed behaviour of real floating objects (and I am considering of course the buoys of the Global Drifter Program) should be a useful indicator of possible drift pathways, as a counterpoint to cell-based drift simulation models (which may be calibrated to high level drifter behaviour but typically lack the resolution to reproduce drifter movement in detail).

The full drifter database contains meta-data and trajectories for almost 19800 buoys worldwide (some 1400 are currently active). The meta-data includes timing of drogue loss, and a ‘death’ code to categorise the end of life status of buoys that cease transmitting. It is clear from this that drogues are typically lost in a surprisingly short timeframe. It is also notable that only 20% of all the buoys have ended their lives by running aground, with 66% simply ceasing transmission for undocumented reasons.

I have filtered out buoys that have at any time in their lives passed through the locality of the current search zone, based on a rectangle bounded by longitudes 88 to 96 degrees and latitudes -32 to -39 degrees. None were present in this area at the time of the crash, but I consider in any case all buoys that have ever been in this location (dates range from 1995 to 2014). There are 177 in this category. Of these, 39 are listed as having subsequently run aground. The locations at which they washed up are shown in the plot above.

Of the 39, 31 beached on East African coastlines, only 7 in Western Australia, and 1 in Sumatra. An example of 3 randomly chosen trajectories from the 31 that drifted west are shown below together with the box defining search locality :


The average time for buoys to reach their western beaching point after leaving the search box is 534 days (~ 18 months) with minimum 234 days (~ 8 months) and maximum 1263 days (~ 42 months). All but 3 were un-drogued during this journey, and those 3 lost their drogues en-route. For those arriving in Western Australia, the average time to beach was 362 days, with minimum 79 days and maximum 513 days.

If we relax the criterion that the buoys must end by running aground, and simply look at the locations where they eventually stopped transmitting after leaving the search area, we see the following three plots which display the 54 buoys that ended up west of longitude 55 deg (the longitude of Reunion Island),


the 12 that ended east of longitude 109 deg (coast of Western Australia),


and the 111 that remained in between:


Clearly the transport qualities of the ocean currents and weather systems will vary from month to month and year to year. It is also not clear how representative the buoys would be of the drift characteristics of floating debris resulting from a crashed aircraft. Neverthless I believe it is reasonable to propose from the buoy behaviour noted above across a 20 year drifting history that :

i) there is a strong tendency for objects that have been present in the current search area to remain trapped in the mid ocean gyre over extended periods

ii) a proportion, perhaps as high as 10% of robustly floating debris, might be expected to make landfall within 18 months of the crash

iii) the vast majority of the debris making landfall is likely to do so across the coastlines and islands of eastern Africa, with relatively little beaching in Australia.

For what it is worth, I have more background and analysis in a write-up that I hope to post soon.

Please also note that a vastly more expert analysis of drifter behaviour has been performed in October last year by David Griffin of CSIRO, in which he uses composite drifter trajectories to infer a likelihood function for where the MH370 flaperon may have originated. This is well worth a read.

UPDATE 79/2016: Reader Richard Cole has posted a link to a .kml file that shows the trajectories of the drifters that reached Australia. Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like if you drop the file into Google Earth. Interesting to note that the greater part of the debris winds up on the southern coast and Tasmania rather than the western coast.

Google Earth screenshot of Australia


Further MH370 Drift Analysis Casts Added Doubt on Current Search Area

Brock McEwen has released a new reverse-drift analysis of the MH370 debris that has been found in the western Indian Ocean. The executive summary is below.

Broadly speaking, Brock’s new paper supports the conclusion of his earlier work on the subject, and also parallels the findings of GEOMAR and Météo France, as I’ve written about earlier–namely, that reverse drift analysis suggests that the debris did not originate within the current search zone.

In conducting his analysis, Brock has erroneously included objects found in the Maldives which did not come from MH370, but my understanding is that the inclusion of this bad data did not materially change his results.

The Australian is reporting that “Despite finishing his term as the head of the ATSB without finding MH370, [Martin] Dolan said he remained hopeful the aircraft would be found” and believes the search should continue. The full story is behind a paywall but Amanda Rose has provided a screenshot here. Also of interest in the article is the assertion that, due to bad weather, the search might stretch on through October.

Meanwhile the New Straits Times says that “The ministerial tripartite meeting on the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 will be held on July 19, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said Friday… Liow reportedly said that the meeting would deliberate on the next course of action regarding the search for the aircraft, which went off radar on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board while on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.” China, Malaysia and Australia have long said that the search will end after the current 120,000 sq km search area has been scanned, but some observers hold out hope that the rash of recent debris finds will encourage officials to press on.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 7.16.39 AM


MH370 News Update — UPDATED

Pemba 3

A couple of interesting developments in the MH370 story.

  • A number of independent investigators have been working to determine whether the debris found on Tanzania is from a 777, and if so, which part it corresponds to. Mike Exner (who supplied the link to the image above), Don Thompson, Ge Rijn, Victor Iannello, and Barry Carlson all pitched in and have found that most likely the object is inner 1/3 section of a 777 right outboard flap. Mike and Don have written up a report which you can download here.
  • Victor Iannello has long been working on a post-FMT route by which MH370 could have continued to fly on autopilot without human interference and still wound up outside the current search area. Many have tried to find such routes in the past and found it impossible to make them match the ping rings without arbitrary changes in direction and/or changes in throttle setting. Victor has at last published his route. It achieves changes in direction by having the plane follow a magnetic heading, and achieves the change in speed by imagining that the plane is descending at the lowest possible automatic descent rate of 100 feet per minute. It’s quite a clever piece of work by an ever-creative researcher. Of course, the fact that it is possible does not mean that this is what the plane actually did, as Victor himself has pointed out.


Victor magnetic route

  • UPDATE 6/28/16 #2: Mike Exner has informed me “I checked those photos yesterday and confirmed the compressor is a Chinese model powered by 230VAC/50 Hz. Not from any aircraft.” UPDATE 6/28/16: Reader Greg Holwill writes: “I have attached photos of a fridge floating out at sea in Mozambique while fishing… I am situated in Durban in South Africa. The debris is located at my lodge in Mozambique.” Here are some of the photos he sent:

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