It’s been two months since I last posted about MH370, so I think I’m overdue for an update. The big news that’s happened in the meantime is that on June 26th, the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) released a report that laid out in admirable detail what the authorities felt they knew about the circumstance of MH370’s disappearance and how they had come to narrow down its likely location to the current search area. We now have a much clearer understanding of just what Inmarsat’s data reveals about the last four hours of the flight.
In the report, the ATSB explains that sometime after the plane vanished from radar screens at 18:22 GMT, whoever was in control most likely became incapacitated and the plane flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the depths of the Indian Ocean some time after 0:19 GMT. Its impact point, according to the ATSB’s calculations, was most likely somewhere in a region 1,000 miles off the coast of Western Australia.
As you’ll notice, that last sentence is extremely vague. The reason is that, as we now understand, the data is incapable of telling where the plane went with any degree of certainty. That is to say, you cannot recreate the airplane’s flight path using Inmarsat data alone. This is kind of a shocker, because for months now, Inmarsat has been telling the public that their mathematical wizardry had allowed them essentially to solve for the plane’s final location. This turns out to be false. For any given flight path, we can now calculate the expected BTO and BFO values; but given a set of BFO and BTO values, we cannot derive a unique flight path.
Take a look at the route chart at the top of this post, which comes from page 31 of the ATSB report. It shows the actual path of a Malaysia Airline jet that flew on the same day at MH370, as well as an “estimated” path generated from the BFO and BTO data recorded from that same airpline. If you’re like me, when you first saw this chart, you assumed that Inmarsat had decoded the BFO and BTO data so thoroughly that they could generate specific flight paths like this one. Give them BFO and BTO data, and they could draw you a line on the map; no wonder they say they know exactly where to spend $56 million scouring the sea bed. But if you read the accompanying text, what it says is: “Using only the starting location and an equivalent number, and approximate time spacing, of BFO and BTO values as the accident flight, predicted paths were created and compared against the actual flight paths.” Reading between the lines, the ATSB was able to generate not just the route illustrated here, but dozens or possibly hundreds, and chose this one as the most promising for MH021.
There’s another disappointing realization embedded in the ATSB report. Read the rest of this entry »