Most Recent

Can Ocean Conditions Explain the Lack of Biofouling on MH370 Debris?

RG Gyre

Almost immediately upon Blaine Alan Gibson’s discovery of the “No Step” debris fragment in Mozambique, questions were raised about the relative scarcity of marine life growing on it. These questions were redoubled after two more finds came to light, one from South Africa and the other from Mozambique, which both looked surprisingly pristine for objects that had been in the water for two years. I explored the issue in a post on this site entitled “Bioforensic Analysis of Suspected MH370 Debris.”

This weekend IG member Richard Godfrey addressed the question in a post on Duncan Steel’s website. “One possible explanation for this obvious difference between the flaperon and the other items,” he wrote, “might be linked to the differing routes taken by the floating debris.”

As a point of reference, I’ve reproduced the current chart from that post (above). Though in reality the currents are not nearly as deterministic as depicted–there is a randomness to the motion of floating objects that causes them to spread out, like a drop of ink in a bucket of water–it does accurately portray the overall movement of things. The black bar represents the area where Godfrey thinks the plane most likely impacted the water, northeast of the current seabed search zone. He points out that to get to the locations where they were found on the coast of Africa, the pieces would have to have either passed around the northern end or the southern end of  Madagascar.

In the image below I’ve sketched out what these paths might look like, more or less. The pink oval represents the central gyre seen in the current map above. The yellow line is a hypothetical path proposed by Godfrey that the flaperon might have taken on route to Réunion. The orange line is a hypothetical path that the capsized boat which washed up on Mayotte may have taken during its eight-month drift from northwestern Australia in 2013-2014. I suggest this is a plausible example of a “north route.” The purple line is an even more hypothetical proposal for a “south route” that I just sketched out freehand after watching some drift simulations.

North & South Routes

In the first part of his post, Godfrey tackles the question of whether the African debris might have traveled through water too cold to allow the growth of Lepas anatifera, the species of goose barnacle found on the Réunion flaperon:

If floating debris took a path passing slightly further south of Madagascar then it could remain in colder waters (especially between July and October) below 30S, under which circumstance barnacle attachment and growth is contra-indicated. Thus it might be that the three items found on the coast of Africa reached their destinations via such more-southerly routes… The Paindane item (‘676EB’) discovered at around 24S may well show some evidence of marine life, even though it most probably arrived via the southern route past Madagascar, mainly occupying cooler waters… The Mossel Bay find (‘Rolls Royce’) might not be expected to show evidence of marine life because it was discovered at around 34S and may well have spent most of its ocean transport time in the cooler waters below 30S.

To evaluate this idea, I consulted the newly published paper “Endorsing Darwin – Global biogeography of the epipelagic goose barnacles Lepas spp. (Cirripedia, Lepadomorpha) proves cryptic speciation” by Philipp H. Schiffer and Hans-Georg Herbig of Cologne University in Germany (preprint available here). According to this source, Lepas anatifera can be found in waters where the temperature is greater than 15 degrees Celsius. South of this line a sister species, Lepas australis, is found:

anatifera v australis distribution

To get a sense of where this transition zone occurs, I traced it out on Google Earth and superimposed a surface-temperature chart lifted from Godfrey’s post along with the previously described drift routes.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Rodrigues Debris Puzzle

Debris map

Above is a graphic made by Caleb Lambert (@CaleLambert), based on an original by Tim Sharpe. It offers a nice visual summary of the five pieces of known or suspected MH370 debris.

Meanwhile, an impressive piece of visual sleuthing has been spotlighted by Ben Sandlands, who’s written up a post about Twitter user @aussie500 and her identification of the likely spot in the cabin from whence the Rodrigues debris came. Below is an image I grabbed from a tweet by Edward Baker (@Edward_767):


While this discovery seems to bring us one step closer to understanding the significance of this find, Edward also raises another observation about the piece that does the opposite. Examining the images posted on Facebook by the Marouk Ebony hotel, he noticed that the images of one side of the piece don’t match those of the other:

Edward Baker 1

He superimposed them, having adjusted the images so that the size of the square holes match:

Edward Baker 2

It’s quite odd. The two sides don’t seem to match very well at all. Perhaps this is due to some trick of perspective or lens distortion? Observations and insights welcome.

UPDATE 4-8-16: This video clarifies the issue quite neatly. Thank you Michael Helms and @Gearo.



Suspected MH370 Interior Fragment Found


A piece of what appears to be a piece from inside MH370’s cabin has been found on Rodgriques Island in Mauritius. It was found by two residents of Réunion. The picture above was posted to Facebook by Marouk Ebony Hotel. Don Thompson has pointed out that a pattern on the skin of the piece matches Malaysia Airlines cabin material.

At first glance, the piece shares similarities with the two pieces of debris found in Mozambique, which the ATSB has declared as almost certainly having come from MH370, and what appears to be a part of a Rolls-Royce engine cowling found in South Africa: all are roughly the same scale, and bear relatively small quantities of marine fouling. However, a closer look at the new piece shows that it is actually dotted all over with small goose barnacles:

Rodrigues piece closeup

It’s hard to tell from this somewhat out-of-focus photograph, but the barnacles look relatively fresh, suggesting that the piece had not been on the beach very long before it was discovered. (Here’s a hi-res version.) If marine biologists are able to examine the barnacles quickly, they could learn quite a bit about the species makeup and age of the animals; testing the shells for barium and oxygen isotope levels could yield clues about where the piece drifted.

PS Here’s an interesting shot of the Flydubai wreckage. This is what happens to a fuselage after it impacts at several hundred miles per hour. Bears comparison to the Germanwings wreckage, which met a similarly ungentle fate. MH17 debris, which came apart at altitude so that pieces fluttered down, consisted of substantially larger parts. Based on the comments I’ve seen so far, it seems that many people feel that the fact that the interior of the cabin was shredded like this means that the plane could not have ditched. Perhaps even a botched ditching such as Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 should be considered unlikely.

An interesting observation from Duncan Steel:

Richard’s analysis of the oceanic drift of floating debris from MH370, based on the model available on the Adrift website (to which another tip of the hat is due), has a wide variety of outcomes in terms of general understandings. An important one is this: the probabilities derived for arriving at the various locations in the western Indian Ocean where MH370 debris has been found may be inverted so as to derive an estimate of how many individual fragments were left floating on the ocean after the crash. The answer is: upwards of 10,000. In itself that number indicates that the final demise of MH370 was a highly-energetic crash.

It seems to me that that number might be even greater, if one considers that all the pieces discovered so far (except, perhaps, Blaine’s) were found by tourists who stumbled upon them by accident; presumably only a small subset of the total coast in this region is subject to this kind of serendipity. By way of comparison, 650 pieces of debris were recovered in the course of a fairly exhaustive air and sea-based search for Air France 447.


Flydubai 981: What Really Happened?

FZ981 Final Alt w desc sm

After a Boeing 737 operating as Flydubai Flight 981 crashed in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, preliminary accounts suggested that the plane had clipped a wing or struck the ground with its tail while attempting to land in stormy weather. Indeed, in a story published later that day, quoted Rostov region governor Vasily Golubev as saying, “The plane was descending and then suddenly dived down. Experts say this was an air pocket that dragged the plane to the left of the runway center. And the plane debris were scattered to the left as well.” Obviously, there is no such thing as an “air pocket.” But it makes intuitive sense that a plane attempting to land in high, gusty winds might succumb to shear at low altitude and low airspeed as it nears touchdown. But this, it appears, is not what happened at all. Frequent contributor Victor Iannello has created a graphic based on ADS-B data transmitted by the plane during its final moments. What it shows is that the plane had descended to land, then aborted the landing and climbed, accelerating as it went. It had already gained 3000 feet altitude and reached a speed of 200 knots when it suddenly plummeted from the sky. Here’s the data in graph form:

FZ981 Final Alt sm Read the rest of this entry »


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 »