Who Is Blaine Alan Gibson?

[Note: Today is the last in a series of excerpts I’m posting from my new ebook, “The Taking of MH370.” There’s a lot more in there, but I want to get some of the major findings out behind a paywell in order to further the public discussion.]

If the hijacking of MH370 was a Russian plot, and MH370 flew to Kazakhstan, then the pieces of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean must have been planted by the Russians in an effort to support the misleading southern narrative. Blaine Alan Gibson had demonstrated an uncanny knack for locating and publicizing this debris. Was Gibson somehow connected to Russia? 

Ever since he’d first crossed my radar screen, half a year before he found “No Step,” I’d struggled to understand this eccentric character. In the media, he consciously styled himself after Indiana Jones, with a brown fedora and a brown leather jacket. He portrayed himself as an inveterate adventurer and world traveler who before MH370 had pursued any number of quixotic international quests, including an attempt to find the lost ark of the covenant (more shades of Indiana Jones) and an expedition to the site of the Tunguska explosion in Siberia. His was a wonderfully appealing persona. After I wrote about him in New York magazine, TV producers started getting in touch with me, hoping I could hook them up with him to pitch reality shows about his life.

I wondered how, exactly, he was able to support such an exotic lifestyle. He described himself as a retired lawyer, based in Seattle, who inherited the money to fund his search after his mother passed away. He said that he’d started watching the MH370 coverage on CNN and gotten obsessed with the case while packing up her belongings. The inheritance must have been a tidy sum for a 60-year-old man, with decades of expenses ahead of him, to have the financial freedom to travel the world full-time. Yet his background did not suggest lavish wealth.  Continue reading Who Is Blaine Alan Gibson?

The Russian Passengers Aboard MH370

Николай Бродский

[Note: In yesterday’s exerpt we looked at possibility that a component of the Inmarsat data had been hacked. If that were the case, then the plane went north instead of south. The portion of the Inmarsat data that is much harder to hack is itself sufficient to calculate the route along which the plane traveled. The endpoint of this route is Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan lacks the technical chops to carry out an operation of this sophistication, but it is a close ally to Russia, which would have that capability. But were there any Russians on board? I address that question in today’s excerpt from “The Taking of MH370.”]

There was only one Russian aboard MH370, a 43-year-old businessman from Irkutsk named Nikolai Brodsky. Brodsky was sitting in business class seat 3K, approximately 12 feet from the E/E bay hatch. Back in economy class were two Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity, Sergei Deineka and Oleg Chustrak. The men, both 45, were sitting together in row 27, almost directly underneath the SDU. I was unable to find anything about the Ukrainians from online news reports, but Brodsky had received some coverage in the Russian press. His wife, Elena, gave several interviews to local media. In one, she calmly indicated that her husband was still alive. “He’ll be back,” she told the Komsomolskaya Pravda, “and he will tell all.” I started putting out feelers to find freelance investigators in Russia and Ukraine.

I hired a freelance investigator in Irkutsk who was able to interview one of Nikolai Brodsky’s friends and three of his relatives. From their accounts she was able to assemble a rough outline of his life.

Born in 1971 in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Brodsky moved with his family to the eastern province of Yakutia when he was eight, and then returned to Irkutsk when he was 16. He attended a local polytechnic but was a poor student. When he was 18, his girlfriend Nadia became pregnant, so they married and moved to Yakutia along with Brodsky’s parents. The marriage was unhappy, however. Nadia left and returned to Irkutsk. Brodsky followed, but the marriage ended soon after.

Brodsky subsequently moved to a small town further north where he worked for a timber-products company. For a time he attempted to continue his education via correspondence course, but the school eventually expelled him for poor performance. Then he hooked up with a future oligarch, Vitaly Mashchitsky, and his fortunes improved dramatically. While still in his 20s, Brodsky founded a wood-products company whose operations ultimately extended to three cities in Siberia and the Far East. Continue reading The Russian Passengers Aboard MH370

The Drive: The Crucial Clue MH370 Investigators Missed

Angus Houston, chief coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre

[Note: this piece ran today on TheDrive.com. It hits upon some points I’ve made here previously, but ties them together more concisely than I’ve managed in the past and also fits into the series of major points and revelations I want to make over the next few days. So bear with me… thanks!]

This much we know: Precisely five seconds after MH370 left Malaysia-controlled airspace, someone turned off all of the communications equipment and cranked the plane into a hard left-hand turn. Beneath a clear starry sky, the plane completed a one-eighty, skirted the edge of Thai airspace, and barreled over the Malay peninsula. Hanging a right around the island of Penang, it flew pedal-to-the-metal up the Malacca Strait. Then, an hour and 20 minutes after takeoff, at 18:22:12 universal time, it slipped off military radar coverage.

At this point, MH370 had gone completely dark. It could have flown anywhere in the world and no one would have been the wiser. But then something happened—something that might rank as the strangest part of a very strange story. Two minutes after it slipped out of radar coverage, someone turned the power to an obscure piece of equipment called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU, back on. One minute later, at exactly 18:25, the SDU finished its reboot process and reconnected with the Inmarsat communications satellite orbiting 22,000 miles over the Indian Ocean.

Over the course of the next six hours, the plane exchanged hourly pings with Inmarsat. These pings didn’t contain any overt information about the location of the plane—this is a communications system, not a navigational one—but by closely examining the associated metadata, scientists were able to extract clues about where the plane had gone. Their analysis led them to a patch of ocean 1,500 miles west of Australia. The plane, they deduced, must be within this area.

Five years later, we know they were wrong. The plane wasn’t there. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent scouring the seabed with the latest technology, only to ascertain that the plane’s endpoint lay nowhere within an area the size of Great Britain. How could this be? The Australian investigators in charge of the search have declared that based on their analysis, the search has exhausted “all prospective areas for the presence of MH370.”

One of their assumptions must have been wrong, obviously. But which one? Continue reading The Drive: The Crucial Clue MH370 Investigators Missed

Wouldn’t MH370 Have Been Seen By Radar If It Went North?

The flight line at Hetian, China’s largest airbase in the extreme west of the country, shows only intermittant use, with jets on the field in September, 2013 (left) but none a month later (right).

[Note: As I wrote earlier this week, I’ve released an ebook “The Taking of MH370” summing up my research into the disappearance of MH370. For those who haven’t already read it I’m planning over the next few days to excerpt some of the chapters that I think will be the most useful in driving the conversation forward. Here is the chapter in which I explore the state of radar surveillance along the northern route.]

It seems like a common-sense assumption that most countries routinely monitor their whole airspace. That, however, turns out not to be the case. Military radar is expensive to build and requires a lot of electricity and manpower to operate. Unless there is a valuable target to defend, and missiles and planes capable of defending it with, running a radar station 24/7 is a waste of resources. So in most parts of the world coverage is like Swiss Cheese in reverse—the gaps far outnumber the areas under surveillance.

“During the Cold War, we got used to the concept that the radar is constantly on and jets are scrambled if anything unexpected is seen” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Asia, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “We sort of expect that to be the normal response, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehensive coverage in other parts of the world.”

Still, there are areas of the world that probably are under watch for most of the time. It would be interesting to know if MH370’s presumed northern route passed through any of them.

Let’s start with the beginning of the route. A half hour after leaving the Malacca Strait, according to the DSTG’s calculations, the plane would have passed over the Andaman Islands. The islands belong to India, which maintains a radar station there. But the radar is only turned on when a crisis is looming, which wasn’t the case on March 8. “We operate on an ‘as required’ basis,” the chief of staff of India’s Andamans and Nicobar Command told Reuters. Continue reading Wouldn’t MH370 Have Been Seen By Radar If It Went North?

New MH370 Book Ties It All Together

As readers of this blog well know, I’ve spent the last five years delving into every aspect of the disappearance of MH370, looking at everything from orbital decay and flight dynamics to marine worms and garbage patches. I’ve presented a lot of my findings in this space, and worked through some of the questions and difficulties with the help of a superb group of readers. Much of what I’ve found, however, had to be kept under wraps for fear of undermining further reporting.

With the five-year anniversary upon us I feel that the time has come to put it all together into a single narrative that lays out what we know and suggests how we can best make sense of it. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I here present:

The cover was designed by my lovely wife and I think it is peachy.

Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be walking readers through some of my most important findings. If you want to cut to the chase, you can click through the image above and get a copy of the ebook right now. It hardly needs saying but I would be extremely grateful to anyone who does and even more so if you leave a positive comment. {here endeth the shill}

The quest to unravel the mystery of MH370 is something that all of us have poured ourselves into for a very long time. At times the journey has been exciting, at times it has been exasperating or even despair-inducing. But the goal has always seemed important. And bit by bit we’ve steadily made progress, building up an impressive depth of knowledge about every aspect of the case.

Five years on, many people in the wider world believe that MH370 is an unsolvable mystery. That’s due in no small part to the fact that the two countries primarily in charge of the case, Australia and Malaysia, have given up. Adding to the general dismay is the fact that countless ideas have been put forward, some of high quality and some of low; the press has generally been unable to tell the difference, so everything gets lumped together into the stew of conspiracy theory. “Nothing is true and everything is possible,” as the saying goes.

Those of us who’ve had the opportunity to dive into the technical minutiae have a much clearer picture of where things stand. We’ve worked through which things are possible and which are not. By carefully tackling the evidence at hand, I believe we can arrive at a well-founded understanding of what happened to the plane and why.

The most important thing I can say about the case is this: it has been a collective undertaking, and I am extremely grateful to my collaborators, the readers of this blog. I haven’t always seen eye to eye with everyone all the time, and many of you may may feel that at times I’ve been kind of an asshole. But I hope not! At any rate I appreciate your patience, your enthusiasm, your ideas, and above all your determination to see this thing through to some kind of an ending.

More to come soon…

Identity of MH370 Mystery Caller Revealed

Kristin Shorten, a journalist working for The Australian newspaper, has published an article revealing that the aircraft engineer with whom MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had a 45-minute phone conversation prior to the missing flight was Shah’s cousin.

The call had been the subject of speculation since it was mentioned in the leaked Malaysian police report. Folder 4 of the report, entitled ‘SKMM Analysis’, states:

The analysis on the phone call made and received by MH370 Pilot showed that he received noticeably long call duration from 019-3394874, registered under Zuihaimi Wahidin, an aircraft engineer who works for Malaysian Airlines System Berhad. The call was made on 2 February 2014 at 9:49 am for 45 minutes. Further analysis showed no indication that the two have called each other from January to March 2014. Records also showed that Zulhaimi made an attempt to call the MH370 Pilot on 8 March 2014, when the aircraft is announced to be missing.

Who was Zuihaimi, and why did he call Shah before and after the plane’s disappearance? Had he, perhaps, provided Shah with the technical expertise needed to abscond with the plane?Shorten’s story puts paid to such speculation.

Speaking for the first time, former Malaysia Airlines engineer Zulhaimi Bin Wahidin ridiculed conspiracy theories that he had provided Zaharie with technical details to enable him to hijack his own aircraft. In an exclusive interview, Mr Zulhaimi told The Australian he was Zaharie’s first cousin, had been close to him all of his life, and insisted the experienced airline captain was not the sort of man who would take himself and 238 passengers and crew to their deaths.
Mr Zulhaimi last called Zaharie on February 2, 2014 — just weeks before MH370 vanished during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Royal Malaysian Police interviewed Mr Zulhaimi “three or four” times at his home and police headquarters following the plane’s disappearance on March 8, 2014, because of their suspicion he had provided his cousin with the technical advice to hijack the Boeing 777.
“I was at police headquarters for three days. It spanned from morning to evening,” Mr Zulhaimi said. “I told them that Zaharie is a smart guy. He doesn’t need me to get all of the information.” Mr Zulhaimi noted that Zaharie was a highly experienced aviator who held licences to train and test other pilots. “So he knew a lot about the aircraft.”

Zulhaimi insisted that Shah could not have been responsible for hijacking the plane.

Mr Zulhaimi, who now works for a different airline, feels “uneasy” about his cousin’s “name being tarnished”.

“They’re trying to blame him for what happened and it’s very hard for me to swallow that because he’s not that kind of a person,” he said.

“He was a jovial person. He had a lot of money. He was enjoying his life. Why would he kill himself for no reason? He had a good family and a good life. Successful children. I don’t think people are crazy (enough) to kill themself for nothing. Of course (he is innocent).”

While most staff at Malaysia Airlines knew the men were related, police initially did not. “I asked them to get all of the information from the telco company to see how many times he has been calling me,” Mr Zul haimi said. “When they found that he had been calling me so many times for the last 10 years then they did not question me anymore. They knew it was a genuine relationship.”

The father of three said Zaharie was actually “like a brother”. “He’s my father’s younger brother’s son,” he said. “We share the same grandfather. So that was the reason why (we had that phone call). Nothing more than that.”

Shorten points out that questions about the call had been brought to the fore by the Independent Group.

Police suspicions about the phone call became public when their initial investigative report from May 2014 was leaked online. This information, including that Mr Zulhaimi had tried to call Zaharie’s mobile three times after the plane was announced missing, fuelled wild speculation about their conversation.

Late last year, members of an independent group of experts urged Malaysia to provide “confirmation of the role and technical area of expertise” of the aircraft engineer.

“What was the substance of that long conversation?” the experts had asked through the media. “And who made the three attempts to contact Captain Zaharie Shah later on the morning of the disappearance?”

Mr Zulhaimi said he tried to call Zaharie three times between 10.27am and 11.12am on the day of the flight’s disappearance because he was in disbelief that his cousin’s flight was missing.

There were already many reasons to believe that Shah was not responsible for taking MH370, not least the fact that he had neither a motive nor in all likelihood the knowledge necessary for turning off the plane’s Satellite Data Unit and then turning it back on again. The absence of wreckage on the seabed of the Southern Indian Ocean also suggests that Shah was not the culprit. This latest testimony, however, serves to considerably bolster that position.

Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

ReCaptcha inventor Luis von Ahn introduced Duolingo in 2012, hoping to help users master a new language. In minutes a day, the app promised, you could learn English, Spanish, French, or German—no books required, no instructors. And all for free.

The pitch sounded convincing enough. But in the first year after its debut, Duolingo had a hard time persuading hopeful linguists to keep up with the lessons. For every eight users who downloaded and tried Duolingo, seven never returned.

So von Ahn set out with his developers to make the app as addictive as Candy Crush and other popular games—in a good way. The addiction Duolingo cultivates, he says, isn’t harmful in the way the World Health Organization says compulsive video-game playing is; the organization classifies excessive video-gaming alongside opioid or amphetamine abuse. Duolingo really is about self-improvement, von Ahn says—time otherwise spent playing games, on social media, or doing nothing, is applied to developing a skill. What’s so bad about that?

Good or bad, Duolingo’s addiction rate is way up. Next-day retention is 55 percent, up from 13 percent in 2012. “That’s about as good as a middle-of-the-road game,” von Ahn says. And with about 300 million users, Duolingo is the largest language-teaching company in the world, by user base.

Continue reading Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

The MH370 Miracle (updated)

If after nearly five years the disappearance of MH370 is still regarded as an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) mystery, that’s because something that happened in the course of MH370’s vanishing is generally talked about as if it were unremarkable when in fact it is ridiculously unprecedented to the point of being virtually impossible. And if that fact could be more generally understood, the case would seem a lot less mysterious.

Call it the MH370 miracle.

OK, back up. Here’s the story of MH370 in a nutshell: a plane takes off and vanishes from air-traffic control radar. Weeks later, it turns out that the plane had reversed course, flown through an area of primary radar coverage, and then vanished from that. It’s gone. It’s dark. Off the grid. There is absolutely no way that anyone is ever going to know where this plane went.

Then a miracle happened. Something that has never happened before in the history of air travel and in all likelihood will never happen again. It’s this: three minutes after disappearing from primary radar, the plane began sending out a signal. A signal with unique and wonderful properties.

A Miracle Signal.

The general public has never heard about the remarkableness of this occurrence. It has been glossed over entirely. The ATSB and the mainstream press talk about the signal as something generated as a matter of course, like the cell phone data carelessly left behind by a fugitive criminal. But the Inmarsat data set is not like that at all. Not only was it not normal, it was unprecedented and produced in a way that cannot be explained.

Those of you have have been following the case know what event I’m talking about. At 18:25 UTC, MH370 starts sending signals to one of the satellites in the Inmarsat fleet: Inmarsat-3 F1, aka IOR, hovering in geostationary orbit over the equator at 64.5 degrees east.

The standard story goes like this: “Then scientists studying the signal realized that it contained clues about where the plane went.”

What gets omitted is how completely bonkers this is. In fact, there are two insane things going on here. Continue reading The MH370 Miracle (updated)

New York:‘My Power to Demolish Is Ten Times Greater Than My Power to Promote’: How John McAfee became the spokesman for the crypto bubble.

In May of 2017, a 26-year-old social-media marketer named Peter Galanko made an investment in Verge, a little-known cryptocurrency trading under the symbol XVG. At the time, the great cryptocurrency mania, which saw Bitcoin climb 25-fold by the end of the year – it would fall fall all the way back to a fifth of its December 2017 peak by the end of 2018 – had only just started to heat up. Verge was just one among thousands of nearly indistinguishable digital currencies that traded at a fraction of a penny. But soon after Galanko got in, Verge took off like a runaway balloon, corkscrewing up to half a cent by late August. Galanko, who’d taken to styling himself @XVGWhale on Twitter, had more than quadrupled his money. But now he had an idea for how he could do even better: He needed John McAfee.

The Rocky Mountains were dappled in autumn yellow as Galanko and his girlfriend set out on the two-day cross-country trip from Colorado to rural Tennessee. Their destination was the home of McAfee, the 72-year-old antivirus software multimillionaire who, after escaping from a police investigation into the violent death of his neighbor in Belize in 2012 and boasting in graphic detail about his adventures with the powerful drug bath salts, had transformed himself into a public figure “who many see as a well-respected cryptocurrency soothsayer,” as Slate magazine put it. In mid-July, McAfee had tweeted that Bitcoin, then trading at around $2,300, would be worth $500,000 by 2020, and that if it were not, “I will eat my dick on national television.” By the end of August, the price had more than doubled, and many took this as evidence of McAfee’s foresight. Galanko figured that a good word from McAfee about Verge — whose market would be easier to influence than Bitcoin’s vastly larger one — could send the value of the cryptocurrency dramatically higher.

McAfee had promised an hour of his time, according to a long video Galanko later posted about the encounter on YouTube, but appeared perplexed when the couple showed up at his door. “Who are you?” he asked with a baffled expression. “I didn’t invite anyone over today.” Galanko’s spirits sank, but not for long: a grin spread across McAfee’s weather-beaten face as he let on that he was just playing one of his trademark pranks. With a hearty handshake, he invited them inside.

At first Galanko felt anxious, intimidated by McAfee’s fame and force of personality as well as by the home’s contingent of armed security guards. But as they settled down to talk, Galanko was soon drawn in by McAfee’s skillful storytelling. The evening rolled by in whiskey and conversation. Galanko and his girlfriend wound up staying for a week. The men shot guns together, and Galanko tweeted snapshots of himself riding in the back of McAfee’s car and of McAfee cooking breakfast.

“It was an amazing opportunity … he’s a genius,” Galanko later gushed in the video. (He declined to talk to New York for this article.) The only thing missing was the thing he’d come for. When Galanko asked McAfee to publicly endorse Verge, he demurred, explaining that he was already committed to a rival coin. But a couple of months later he came around, tweeting on December 13 to his 700,000 followers that Verge “cannot lose.” McAfee’s praise was like a match to a rocket fuse. Verge’s price nearly doubled overnight, and by the end of ten days it was up 2,500 percent, making it one of the most successful cryptocurrencies of 2017. A single dollar invested at the beginning of the year was worth more than $10,000 by the end of it.

Read the rest of the story in New York magazine.

What Sort of Person Was MH370’s Captain?

After nearly five years of investigation, it has long since become glaringly obvious that if MH370 did fly south into the southern Indian Ocean, as the Inmarsat data and recovered debris suggest, then the perpetrator was almost certainly the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

But Shah’s character poses a riddle. As I wrote in a post last year,

In the months after the disappearance of MH370, Malaysian police searched for any clues that might suggest that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was the culprit. This would have been the simplest explanation for why the Boeing 777 suddenly went electronically dark and pulled a U-turn forty minutes into its flight, and scarcely a minute after Shah’s voice was heard over the radio calmly telling air traffic controllers “Good night, Malaysia 370.” But to their chagrin, the evidence was slim. Zaharie had left no note. His family and friends had noticed no sign of mental disturbance. There was no evidence of political or religious extremism or of marital discord. He was under no financial pressure. He just didn’t fit the profile of someone who would kill hundreds of innocent people and take his own life in the process.

The suicidal pilot who brought down Germanwings 2925 (covered in my Kindle Single “Fatal Descent”) had a long psychiatric history and left numerous clues in his browser history. In contrast Shah seems to have been a boringly stable personality. Two of the leaked Royal Malaysian Police Reports contain detailed information about him. “Folder 1: Pilot” includes documentation of his work history, an assessment by a psychologist, and raw data pulled from his flight simulator. “Folder 4: SKMM Analysis” looks at his internet and cell phone use, as well as that of other crew members. The totality of all evidence left investigators with the impression that:

“The PIC’s ability to handle stress at work and home was reported to be good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict or family stresses… there were no behavioural signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect, drug or alcohol abuse…” (Safety Investigation Report, 1.5.11-1.5.12)

However, a recent  article in the UK’s The Sun suggested that, based on Shah’s Facebook activity reported in Folder 4, the MH370 captain was “self-destructive” and “should have been fired.” The main focus of the article is the 97 responses he reportedly posted to Facebook postings by minor-league Malaysian models, which prove (the article alleges) that Shah was a googly-eyed pervert.

This claim struck me as eminently worth investigating. In modern life one’s computer is practically a part of one’s brain; what one browses, emails and texts about is virtually a life cast of one’s personality and interests. If Shah was deranged, it would certainly show up in the tracings of his internet use.

According to Folder 4, Zaharie’s favorite site to comment on was one of two Facebook accounts maintained by model QiMin Lan. I scrolled through her feed and found that the pictures she posted to be chaste. They are mostly head shots; where her full body is shown, she’s fully clad.

She posted about 50 times a month, so over 100 posts from the beginning of 2014 until Zaharie’s disappearance. In that time I was only able to find a single comment from Zaharie:

He wrote:

Two months earlier he had posted the same comment…

Before that…

I don’t know what “chomel u!” means.

And that’s all I was able to find, going back to November 1, 2013. Far from a pestering nuisance, he seems to have commented rather sparingly, and his comments were benign (at least as far as I could understand them).

Now, the Star reports that one of his comments was “just showered?”, which does have a rather leering tone to it. But I wasn’t able to find that particular post. It’s hard to judge out of context, and the article provides none.

I’d be curious to know if any readers have better luck than me in tracking down Shah’s comments. The URLs, and thumbnails of the pictures he commented on, can be found on pages 9-41 of Appendix A-3 of Folder 4 (pages 60- 92 of the pdf linked above).