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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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


MH370 Second Interim Statement Released

Today, March 8, 2016, Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport released its second annual interim report into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, as required by international treaty. This document was highly anticipated within the community of independent MH370 investigators, as many of us hoped that it would close some of the huge gaps in our understanding. Unfortunately, it was only three pages long and contained no new information about the disappearance itself. Instead it merely restated the most basic facts of the case and indicated that a more complete final report would be issued “in the event wreckage of the aircraft is located or the search for the wreckage is terminated, whichever is the earlier.”

Given that Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, has said that the search will end if nothing is found by July, and that the high-probability zones of the search area have already been scoured, it seems likely that we will have to wait at least four more months before a substantial reckoning is made.

The new report is not entirely devoid of information, however. For one thing, it acknowledges that while the main wreckage of the plane has not been found, “a flaperon was recovered in the French island of Réunion on 29 July 2015 and was determined to have been a part of the MH370 aircraft.” No mention is made of two pieces recently discovered in Mozambique and Réunion which may or may not have come from MH370. A cryptic undated press release recently issued by the Ministry of Transport both suggests and denies that the Mozambique piece came from a 777. So the possible relevance of these new finds remains ambiguous.

The final page contains a list of eight subjects on which “the Malaysian ICAO Annex 13 Safety Investigation Team for MH370” (aka “the team”) will be working on in preparation for the final report. One of these items is “Wreckage and Impact Information (following the recovery and verification of a flaperon from the aircraft).” Again, no mention is made of the new pieces, and the emphasis on “impact information” suggests that the focus will be on what the deformation of the flaperon indicates about the nature of the crash, rather than what the marine life found on the flaperon tells us about how the flaperon floated and where it drifted. On the bright side, the inclusion of this item suggests that the French are sharing information about the flaperon with Malaysian authorities, and so the public will learn at least something about this important clue in the foreseeable future.

Another item is “Flight Crew Profile.” As it becomes increasingly likely that the plane did not fly south on autopilot alone, the possibility that the plane was flown on a suicide mission by one of its two pilots comes increasingly to the fore. The “Factual Information” report issued a year ago indicated that the captain’s psychological condition had been evaluated, and it was determined that he showed no signs of suicidality. It seems to me that the inclusion of this item suggests that investigators are looking at this topic more closely.

Other items include “Air Traffic Services Operations” and “Organisation and Management Information of the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), Malaysia and MAS.” These, hopefully, will examine some of the curious goings-on that occurred after MH370 disappeared, such as the fact that Malaysia Airlines told air traffic controllers who were looking for the plane that it was flying over Cambodia. Likewise, the item “Aircraft Cargo Consignment” should explain why the plane’s manifest showed that it was carrying a large quanitity of mangosteens, when this fruit was not in season at the time.

While these latter investigations may shed light on chronic irregularities at the airline and at the civil aviation department, I don’t think that they will tell us much about MH370’s disappearance. Others, no doubt, will disagree.

Finally, one of the biggest takeaways for me in the report is the notable absence of radar as a topic of discussion. There is a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the primary radar trace that MH370 made after it turned around at IGARI and headed west toward the Andaman Sea. We hoped that some of these riddles would be cleared up in today’s report; instead, it seems likely that they will never be resolved.



New York: How an American Obsessed With the MH370 Case May Have a Found a Piece of the Missing Plane

Blaine Alan Gibson, a 58-year old lawyer who lives in Seattle, Washington, has spent much of the past year traveling around the Indian Ocean region trying to solve the mystery what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. He’s been to the Maldives to talk to villagers who say they saw a large plane fly low overhead the day after the disappearance; visited Réunion Island to interview the local who found the flaperon from MH370; and met with Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss to discuss the ongoing seabed search. He has no professional background in aircraft accident investigation or journalism, and no professional accreditation. He is simply motivated by the desire to know what happened to the airliner. “I do not have a theory,” he emailed me last September. “I am just looking for evidence that may have been prematurely dismissed.”

Last week, Gibson found himself in Mozambique searching for debris on local beaches. On February 27, he says, he hired a boat captain to take him someplace where flotsam from the ocean tended to wash up. The captain chose a sandbar called Paluma a half-dozen miles from the coastal town of Vilankulos. They arrived at around 7 a.m., and after about 20 minutes on the flat, low stretch of sand the boat captain spotted something unusual and handed it to Gibson.

The next morning, Gibson emailed me a description of the object:

The debris appears to be made of a fiberglass composite and has aluminum honeycomb inside. NO STEP is written on one side. It appears to be from an aircraft wing … The piece is torn and broken into a triangular shape, 94 cm long at the base and 60 cm high. The remaining highlock pin has a 10 mm diameter head. The pin itself is about 12 mm long. The bolt holes are spaced about 30 mm apart from center to center of hole. The distance from the edge of the hole with the pin to the intact edge is about 8 mm. At the bottom of the intact edge there is a very thin (1 to 2 mm thick) strip of dried rubber remaining that runs about 30 mm along the edge before it was broken off. The intact edge is only 65 mm long. All the rest is broken.
In a video that Gibson posted to a closed-access Facebook page, the fragment looks quite light and insubstantial, easy enough for one man to pick up and wave around — unlike the flaperon found on Réunion, which required several people to lift. Gibson asked me to keep his find a secret, explaining, “It is too large and metallic to be easily taken out of the country, and needs to have its provenance documented. The procedure with other possible debris discoveries in La Réunion, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia has been to report it to local authorities first. Then the responsible international investigators can come to inspect.”

Read the rest of this entry »


MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 2 — Motive


Symbol of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade

In the previous installment of this series, I looked at the psychological context for a hypothetical suicide run into the southern ocean. Today, I’d like to consider an equivalent issue with regard to a hijacking scenario. Presuming one occurred, what could be the motive for such an act?

As has often been observed, nobody claimed credit for the disappearance of MH370, and nobody visibly benefited from it. No benefit would seem to imply no motive.

Motive, however, can be a tricky thing to impute to another person’s actions. How can we be confident that we understand enough about a person’s position in the world—or more importantly, how they perceive their position in the world—to judge whether a given act would or would not be rational from their perspective?

A question more likely to yield results, I would argue, is: are there any potential perpetrators who might feel motivated to take such an action, however opaque their motive might be to us?

Here the answer is a resounding “yes.”

As it happens, the UK-based group Bellingcat today released the latest in a series of reports about the shootdown of MH17. For anyone who is not familiar with its work, Bellingcat is a very highly regarded group of amateur analysts who have pioneered the crowd-sourced investigation of open-source data. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins first attracted attention after using social media to locate evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons; later the group used similar techniques to identify the specific Buk missile launcher used to shoot down MH17 and has grappled with many other pressing topics of the day. If you haven’t visited their website, I heartily recommend it, as their coverage is fascinating and offers an excellent model for transparency and balance. Not for nothing the Columbia Journalism Review described Bellingcat’s work as “rigorous, evidence-based examinations of extremely specific questions… extremely valuable in helping us understand complex subjects.”

What has emerged from these reports is a strikingly concrete and layered depiction of events surrounding the destruction of MH17. And it is radically different from the picture that most journalists and analysts hold.

Read the rest of this entry »


MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 1 — Psychology


MH370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah: the face of a mass murderer?

It’s an exciting time for those of us who are trying to crack the riddle of MH370. By establishing that the plane did not wind up where an autopilot-only flight would have taken it, the Australian-led search effort has dramatically reduced the number of possible scenarios. In effect, only two remain: first, that one of the pilots (most likely Zaharie) took control of the plane and steered into the southern ocean on a suicide mission; and second, that sophisticated hijackers commandeered the plane from the E/E bay and tampered with the Satellite Data Unit so the plane only appeared to be flying south, when in fact it was flying in some other direction.

Given the scarcity of data in the case, how can we discriminate between the two possibilities? In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look at the case from a number of different angles. Today, I’d like to start by looking at the psychological aspects of the case. What do the actions of the perpetrators reveal about their psychology? Does Zaharie fit the profile of a mass murderer?

As has been noted here many times before, during the initial phase of the disappearance, whoever took MH370 seems to have been motivated primarily by the desire to evade and deceive. Electronics were turned off six seconds after the plane passed the last waypoint in Malaysian airspace, during the narrow window between saying goodbye to Malaysian air traffic controllers and saying hello to Vietnamese controllers. Its disappearance from secondary radar led searchers initially to look for the plane in the South China Sea. Only later did the Malaysian military find a radar track showing that the plane had turned 180 degrees and headed west, hugging the Thai/Malaysian airspace boundary before dashing across the Malay Peninsula and disappearing again over the Andaman Sea. The search was therefore moved there. Only later still did Inmarsat reveal that signals its satellite received suggested that the plane had flown south for six hours. These signals were received only because the satellite data unit had been turned back on again—a procedure that most airline pilots don’t know how to do. Thus, the plane didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

Wondering whether this kind of elaborate planning was common among people bent on suicide, I reached out to Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University who has written 54 books, including Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. Below is an edited condensation of our conversation.

Read the rest of this entry »


Life after the “Ghost Ship”

Well, we’ve been saying it here for a long time, but at last the ATSB has ackowledged the inevitable truth: the failure to locate any wreckage on the seabed in the southern Indian Ocean will mean that MH370 must have been piloted until the very end.

To quote today’s story in the Independent:

“the possibility that someone was at the controls of that aircraft on the flight and gliding it becomes a more significant possibility, if we eliminate all of the current search area.” [Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the ATSB, told The Times.] “In a few months time, if we haven’t found it, then we’ll have to be contemplating that one of the much less likely scenarios ends up being more prominent. Which is that there were control inputs into that aircraft at the end of its flight.”

To be clear, Dolan wasn’t saying that they’ve ruled out the ghost ship yet, but seems to be preparing the public for this eventuality when the search runs out of money and time this June. But the fact that he said it all suggests that he views it as quite a likely outcome.

The only “much less likely” scenario that Dolan pointed to was the idea that a suicidal pilot might have flown to seventh arc within the current search area, then held the plane in a glide after it ran out of fuel so that it wound up some distance beyond. If such was indeed the case, then the area to be searched would be too large to be economically viable. This led to some catastrophic headlines, such as Bloomberg‘s “Missing Malaysia Jet MH370 Weeks Away From Keeping Secrets Forever.” But this is a tad presumptious, in my opinion.

Though Dolan didn’t ennumerate them, there now three scenarios that could match the data we have in hand.

1) The one Dolan described, which we might call “straight and fast.”

2) Another controlled-flight-into-the-southern-ocean scenario, which I’ll call “slow and curvy.” This would result in the plane ending up further to the northeast, and would necessitate an even larger search area.

3) A “spoof” scenario, in which sophisticated hijackers tampered with the satellite communications system and hijacked the plane to the north.

While some at the ATSB (and maybe within the IG, too) might be wearing long faces over Dolan’s admission, in my estimation it marks the most hopeful turn in the case in a very long time. As David Gallo recently pointed out on Twitter, the ATSB search hasn’t failed to locate the plane; it’s succeeded in proving where the plane isn’t. The most likely scenario — the scenario that we’ve been told is the only reasonable one — the scenario that we’ve been told will imminently be proven correct — has been falsified. And that brings us one very big step closer to finding the truth.

The illusory “sure thing” is over. (The wonderful film The Big Short, which I saw over the weekend and which I think any MH370 obsessive will find very entertaining, at one point quotes Mark Twain: ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’) It may make some people uncomfortable, but we now know that whatever happened to MH370, it was weird and unprecedented.

Now we can get down to work. I hope that now that the broad community of MH370 researchers, and especially the hardworking and intelligent folks at the ATSB, can embrace a new spirit of enthusiastic skepticism and turn their attention to fully evaluating all of the possibilities.

There is some important information coming down the pike that will be very illuminating, and I am very excited about pressing this story forward in the weeks and months ahead.


Minor MH370 Mysteries, #1: The Case of the Wayward Etihad A330 — UPDATED

UPDATED 1/29/16: Here’s an image from Victor Iannello showing how EY440 diverted from its normal flight path about two minutes after takeoff on January 7, when it was still climbing and at an altitude of 5000 feet:

EY440 Departure

Just to clear up any potential confusion, it seems most likely that this incident does not have anything to do with MH370, but it’s very interesting in its own right. What is the dynamic at work here? Is it part of a trend? If so, does it potentially represent a system-wide vulnerability?

Here’s another image from Victor showing the plane’s continued path over Malay Peninsula. He writes: “I re-examined the FlightAware ADS-B data and noticed that there is a gap starting at BIBAN and ending at Kota Bharu. The FlightRadar24 coverage looks more comprehensive than the FlightAware data, especially in the South China Sea (SCS). I have re-plotted the flight path such that each underlying FlightAware data point is shown, and estimated the path in the SCS from the FlightRadar24 video. The path does indeed seem to follow airways across the SCS. (It would be helpful to have the underlying FR24 data.) The route seems to be ANHOA-L637-BIBAN-L637-BITOD-M765-IGARI-M765-Kota Bharu-B219-Penang-G468-GUNIP-HOLD-Langkawi-B579-Phuket.”

EY440 Flight Path w data


The case of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is an incredible strange one, as we all know. But what only the true obsessives know is that orbiting around the giant mystery is an Oort Cloud of lesser enigmas. I’d like to briefly diverge from this blog’s main line of inquiry to cast a glance at some of these issues.

My first installment concerns Etihad Airways Flight 440, which took off on January 7 for Ho Chi Minh City bound for Abu Dhabi. Scheduled to depart at 20:10 UTC, it actually left 13 minutes early. Then, instead of flying along its normal route, to the northwest, it flew almost due south, crossed waypoint IGARI, then flew along the Thai/Malaysia border to the Malacca Straits, where it flew in circles for an hour before finally heading off in the direction of Abu Dhabi. By this point, however, the plane no longer had the fuel to reach Abu Dhabi, so it stopped to refuel in Bombay and reached its destination many hours late, leaving some passengers irate. (Special thanks to reader @Sajid UK for bringing this to our collective attention via the comment section.)

This is all very strange, but what makes it interesting to the MH370 crowd is the fact that a portion of its bizarre route was an exact match with that taken by the Malaysian 777 when it initially took a runner. Had EY440 been taking part in some kind of experiment to recreate MH370’s route, perhaps to get a better understanding of the Inmarsat data or the radar data?

We may never know. Katie Connell, who heads up Etihad’s media relations for North America, was very friendly when I called her and asked her what had happened. She said she’d check with her colleagues at the head office in Abu Dhabi. “It was simply a scheduling decision by ops that was later adjusted,” she wrote me in a text earlier today. I wrote back, asking if her contacts had been able to explain why the plane had flown south instead of northwest, and why it had flown a holding pattern over the Malacca Strait. She answered: “No; I did not get into that level of detail. I go with what my folks said.”

So there you have it. Make of it what you will. Read the rest of this entry »


Could Gulf of Thailand Debris Come From MH370? — UPDATED


According to FelineNut, who I generally regard as extremely unreliable, Thai media are reporting that a piece of debris has been found off the coast of southern Thailand, not from from the Malaysian border, the Gulf of Thailand. I have no idea how debris from a single crash could wind up in both Réunion Island and the Gulf of Thailand; I certainly have not seen any drift models with endpoints in both places. (Apparently the current through the Malacca Strait runs from southeast to northwest, so it couldn’t have come via that route from the Indian Ocean; maybe through the Sunda Strait?) On the other hand, the piece does look aircraft-like (though perhaps a bit more like a section of rocket casing, as was recently recovered off the UK coast), and the marine life on it is strikingly reminiscent of that on the Réunion flaperon, with scattered clumps of goose barnacles and patchy brown algal film. I’ve spent a short while doing Bing and Google image searches but haven’t found any shots of a Rolls-Royce Trent engine that match what we’re seeing here. Any thoughts?

UPDATE: Reader Gysbreght has just pointed out that AirAsia 8501, and A320, crashed about 800 nautical miles on December 28, 2014. If this is indeed a piece of jet-engine cowling, that would seem a more likely source. Debris from that crash had previously been discovered at a distance of several hundred miles. (Gerry Soejatman points out that the currents in the vicinity of the QZ8501 crash site flow to the southeast, meaning that if this piece did come from that plane it must have taken a rather circuitous journey–not impossible, given that more than a year has passed.)

UPDATE #2: Thanks to some excellent detective work by the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Ostrower, it now appears clear that the debris is from a Japanese rocket. Gerry Soejatman has a nice blog post about it here.


A Couple of MH370 Things

There have been a number of interesting developments in MH370 land:

NEW MH370 PATH ANALYSIS by frequent commenter sk999 has impressed a lot of the old hands. Using somewhat different statistical techniques than the ATSB and IG before him, sk999 analyzes the Inmarsat data to assess where the plane would wind up under various autopilot modes. His results generally jibe with his predecessors’ work and add more weight to the idea that if the ATSB really believes that the plane was flying on autopilot-only, they would be better served by searching further to the north along the arc, beyond the limits of the current search box (though not north of Broken Ridge), rather than further away from the 7th arc as currently planned. What’s also notable, in my opinion, is sk999’s very clear elucidation of the problems with the routes that he assesses; for instance, he points out that all of the routes have problems accounting for speed inconsistencies in the 90 minutes between the fifth and sixth ping. These discrepencies are too large to be easily explained away as being due to inaccuracies in the winds-aloft data. Sk999’s frankness about these issues is refreshing; in the past, there has often been a tendency by those describing possible routes to adopt a position of, “Hey, here’s a route I came up with, it works really well, take my word for it.” (I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone.)

NAJIB IS IN TROUBLE and at last it looks like he may have to go. Is it possible that his ouster will lead to disclosures about what really happened in the aftermath of MH370’s disappearance? In a report last year, ICAO offered an uncharasterically harsh assessment of Malaysian government interference in the search process. Among their most glaring sins: allowing the search to proceed in the South China Sea for a week even though the military had spotted the plane turning toward the Andaman Sea the night of the disappearance; refusing to pass along crucial Inmarsat data to Australian officials who were tasked with searching the ocean for the plane; and lying about the determination that the flaperon had come from MH370 (it did, but that hadn’t yet been determined at that point). What the heck??

THE ATSB zinged airline pilot Byron Bailey, who wrote an error-filled article in the newspaper The Australian arguing that the only possible explanation for the disappearance of MH370 was pilot suicide. The ATSB had never before gone after an article in such detail before; they didn’t even touch Clive Irving’s piece in the Daily Beast, which was much worse (but which, on the other hand, was friendlier to the ghost-ship scenario that the ATSB still favors.) Personally I think it’s great to see the ATSB engage with the media coverage in this way; there’s too much nonsense about MH370 being peddled in the general media. Bailey responded to the ATSB critique with a second piece in The Australian.

THE ATSB ALSO perked up my ears with their response to an inquiry from reader Susie Crowe, who asked ATSB spokesman Dan O’Malley whether the Australians had received information from the French regarding their investigation into the Réunion Island flaperon. O’Malley replied, “The ATSB looks forward to receiving the report on the flaperon from the French judicial authorities, once it is completed.” In other words, Australia is spending over $100 million in taxpayer money to dispatch search crews to one of the most difficult and dangerous stretches of ocean in the world, and the French have not even shared with them information about the flaperon that might indicate whether or not they are looking in the right place! To which I might add: !!!!!!