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The Flaperon’s Path to Réunion

drifter-screengrabAs As I wrote back in September, Patrick De Deckker is an Australian scientist to whom the French authorities entrusted a 2.5-cm-long Lepas anatifera shell.  De Deckker has analyzed the shell to determine the ratio of magnesium to calcium within it. Because this depends on the temperature of the water in which the barnacle is growing, and the shell is laid down sequentially like the rings of a tree as it gets bigger, the barnacle can essentially serve as a record of the water temperature of the ocean it floated through. This raises the question: can this analysis tell us something about the route the flaperon traveled?

In August, De Deckker told an Australian journalist: “The start of the growth was around 24 degrees (Celsius) and then for quite some time, it ranged between 20 and 18 degrees (Celsius). And then it went up again to around 25 degrees.”

To me this suggested an obvious route of inquiry: all we had to do was sift through the Global Drifter Program for drifters that wound up in the vicinity of Réunion during the months of July or August of any given year (the flaperon washed up at the end of July, 2015) and see which of them experienced that kind of temperature profile.

I asked for volunteers to help sift through NASA or NOAA databases available online, but no one came forward. Fortunately, my brother-in-law John Swart, a database whiz, came to my rescue. He gave me a copy of Filemaker and showed me how to import data from NOAA’s Global Drifter Program.

Every day, four times a day, these drifters transmit their position and temperature via satellite to the nerds at NOAA. Using this location information we can plot how each one arrived in the vicinity of Réunion. In the Google Earth screengrab above you can see the path that each of 16 drifters took from the start of the calendar year to July/August (the data spans from 2000 to 2015). The upshot: many of the drifters started out fairly close to Réunion, and sort of swirled around. Some came from fairly far away, however–some from the northeast, others from the east or southeast (the direction of the 7th arc).

You can view the drifters’ movement by dropping this .kmz file into Google Earth.

So how did all these paths relate to temperature? With Mr Swart’s help I tabulated all the temperature data for the 16 drifters I examined. Here are the results for 12, as much as will fit in a Filemaker chart (click to expand):

reunion-drifter-temp-data

Not that, as time passes, the range of temperatures shrinks, as the drifters converge on the waters near Réunion. (If you have FileMaker you can look at the underlying data set here. CSV here. Excel here.)

I should point out that according to the world’s leading Lepas Anatifera expert, Cynthia Venn of Bloomsburg University, barnacles this size are probably only a couple months old, perhaps as much as four months if we want to be really conservative. So we should look for a U-shaped temperature pattern somewhere between day 90 and day 210.

The closest we see to this pattern would, I suppose, be drifter 71030 or 41337. But neither of these experienced water temperature lower than 21 degrees. (Of the four drifters that didn’t fit on the graph,  the coldest temperature experienced was 23 degrees.)

To my mind, this suggests that the flaperon may not have arrived at Réunion through a natural process of drift.

To be sure, there are other possible explanations for this apparent anomaly. We don’t really know, or instance, how accurate Dr De Deckker’s paleothermometry really is. And it may be that by statistical fluke the flaperon happened to wander off into cold water and back again.

But these findings emerge in the context of other hard-to-explain aspects of the recovered aircraft debris:

— As confirmed by French investigators, the flaperon somehow acquired a population of Lepas barnacles even though its natural tendency was to float high in the water

— The majority of the debris has been collected in a statistically unlikely way

— The majority of collected debris is uncharacteristically devoid of marine life

— On the pieces that do have marine life, it appears to be too small given the amount of time spent at sea.

Taken together, these incongruities raise significant doubts about the provenance of the MH370 debris recovered to date.

While the Australian authorities have bent over backwards to explain their analysis of the Inmarsat data and how it lead them to define the seabed search area, they have been completely silent on the topic of biofouling (except to say that it exists). I wonder if it is because, like the French investigators who were unable to reconcile how high the flaperon floated in the water, they are stumped by inconsistencies in their data.

Australian officials have stated that they will release a comprehensive report on their findings after the seabed search is finished. Given that the last ship, the Fugro Equator, has now started its final stretch at sea, and the last mission lasted about six weeks, the search will likely be wrapped up by the end of January. Hopefully we will have some answers soon after that.

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Is Blaine Alan Gibson Planting MH370 Debris? — UPDATED

UPDATED 12/12/16: Just to underline the extraordinary implausibility of Blaine Alan Gibson’s finds, I’ve taken the extra step of putting in bold the three (3) separate occasions when Gibson hit the jackpot with a one-in-a-million stroke of luck. See if you can spot them below. My personal favorite is the one with the ATV.

On December 8, 2016, the Twitter account voice370 (@cryfortruth) Tweeted the following:

In a Facebook post the same day, Grace Subathirai Nathan (one of the NOK on the current debris-finding expedition to Madagascar) posted about the same find:

Another piece of debris found earlier today. This time by private citizen Blaine Alan Gibson while he was with two French journalists Pierre Chabert and Renaud Fessaguet.
He walked past the spot on the beach where next of kin Jiang Hui found a piece yesterday and nothing was there then 30 mins later on the way back the waves washed the piece on debris to the shore.
This just goes to show that debris can be there one minute and gone the next and vice versa.

She included some of the images that were also in the Tweet, among them this one:

15400305_10157808937785697_4604697475377627048_n

I’ve already written in the comment section of the preceding post that I find it quite extraordinary that a purported piece of MH370 apparently washed up on the shore within half an hour of Blaine’s passing by the spot. The ocean is vast, the number of pieces of MH370 necessarily limited. The odds of finding a piece of the plane on any given stretch of sand is very small; the odds of finding something that washed ashore within the last half hour must be infinitesmal.

One would also would not expect a newly washed-ashore piece of debris to be free of biofouling, as I’ve discussed before. Something that just came out of the ocean, if free of biofouling, must have spent time ashore, gotten picked clean, then washed back out to sea, only to come ashore again within a few days. Truly miraculous.

I’ve voiced suspicions in the past about Gibson’s self-financed investigation. He said that he found his first piece of MH370 debris, so-called “No Step,” 20 minutes after starting his first beach search. Though it was found on a sand bar that is awash at high tide, it, too, was remarkably free of biofouling. Since then, he has found more than half of the pieces of suspected debris. All have have been completely innocent of marine life. His finds have excited remarkably little enthusiasm among the authorities; the Malaysians waited six months to retrieve one batch, and then only made that effort after their inaction was the subject of unflattering news stories.

Gibson is clearly an eccentric; before he found “No Step” he was bouncing around the Indian Ocean littoral, investigating crackpot theories and making himself known to the authorities and next-of-kin. In the past he has, he says, tried to find the Ark of the Covenant. A recent article in the Guardian had this bit:

Blaine Gibson, a lawyer turned investigator who arrived on Madagascar six months ago, said he has seen debris from the plane used to fan a kitchen fire by a nine-year-old girl on the island.

“It was light and it was solid and it was part of the plane,” said Gibson, 59. “When I put the word out around the village, another guy turned up with another piece he had been using as a washing board for clothes.”

Are we to believe that he walked up on a girl fanning a fire and, lo and behold, she happened to be fanning it with a piece of MH370? Instead of any of a billion suitable small, light, flat objects that exist in the world? What’s more, I am troubled by Gibson’s suggestion that the residents of this region are so materially impoverished that they would eagerly size on any scrap of material that comes their way and put it to immediate use—to incorporate into a shelter, to burn for fuel, to fan a fire with, or to use as a washboard. In fact I find this idea rather bonkers.

Some people feel that it is unacceptable to question Blaine Alan Gibson; they say that he has inspired and given hope to the next-of-kin. As I’ve said before, I feel that if we are going to solve this mystery, we have to put every piece of evidence under intense scrutiny, regardless of however someone may or may not feel emotionally about that scrutiny.

Indeed, I find the fact that Gibson and his associates try to aggressively silence questions about his finds even more arousing of suspicion.

UPDATE 12/11/16: A couple of points I’d like to add to the above:

— In September, Gibson enlisted the aid of Australian aviation journalist Geoffrey Thomas in claiming that two pieces of debris that he’d found likely came from the electronics bay, showed evidence of fire damage, and therefore supported the hypothesis that the plane had come to grief due to an accidental fire. This theory, while favored by some, is very much at odds with other evidence in the case. Australian authorities responded by saying that “contrary to speculation there is no evidence the item was exposed to heat or fire.”

— More on Gibson’s background from SeattleMet:

For the next 25 years, Gibson lived a life that could be described as unconventionally adventurous. After a short stint at Seafirst, he moved to Olympia and worked for three years in the office of Washington state senator Ray Moore. Then he joined the U.S. Department of State. But he didn’t last long there either; in the late ’80s he could see that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and decided to capitalize on it. For 10 years he lived off and on in the newly capitalist Russia, serving as a consultant to new business owners and fattening a bank account that would later fund his globe-trotting.

When I interviewed him after the “No Step” find, he told me that he speaks fluent Russian.

— Based on the total quantity of debris found in the last year and a half, one observes that the pieces turn up quite infrequently. Yet Gibson has now twice found debris with a camera crew present. In June he found three pieces while accompanied by a crew from the France 2 TV show “Complément d’enquête.” From the same SeattleMet piece:

In the first week of June he did, in fact, go to Madagascar. And on June 6 he led a French television news crew to a thin strip of land off the island’s east coast. They rode quads along the beach, and at the north end he signaled for the party to stop. The camera crew had a good reason to follow him: He is, to this day, still the only person to find a piece of Flight 370 while actually looking for it. And he’d done enough research to have a good idea where he might find more. But come on, it was still a one-in-a-million find. There’s no way he’d actually uncover another.
Right?

With the cameras trained on him, Gibson dismounted and started walking. And as he got closer to the object that had caught his eye, he could see that it was gray fiberglass. It was almost a clone of No Step. Later, he found a handful of other pieces, one of which looked exactly like the housing for a seat-back TV monitor. He couldn’t be sure, but he had a pretty good idea they came from Flight 370.

To recap, Blaine and a TV crew rode in ATVs along the beach until he signaled them to stop, got out, and pointed to a piece of MH370 debris. Holy. Shit.

— This is the piece that NOK Jiang Hui found the day before Blaine discovered his on the same beach. Again, pretty clean:

jiang-hui-found-this

 

— Note: I’ve take out a paragraph in the original in which I said that the location of the debris in the sand appears to be way too far from the water to have washed up there within the last half hour. Several commenters pointed out that the piece appears to straddle the wet/dry line demarcating the high water mark, and I concede that point.

UPDATE 12/12/16: There’s a story in Der Spiegel today about a tree trunk that washed up in New Zealand. The remarkable size and density of these organisms is so striking that this entirely natural phenomenon struck those who came upon it as something fantastical and alien.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 12: Muriwai local Rani Timoti walks to see a large driftwood tree covered in gooseneck barnacles on Auckland's west coast on December 12, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. The large object washed up on Muriwai beach on Saturday, 10 December. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Large Barnacle Covered Object Washed Up On Muriwai Beach

I bring this up to emphasize how extraordinary it is that all the debris recovered by Blaine Alan Gibson, and indeed all of the suspected pieces of MH370 debris save two, have been recovered in a nearly pristine state. Yes, objects which spend some time ashore can become picked clean in time. But many of the pieces of debris recovered so far have been found within hours of being deposited. As I’ve previously written in some detail, such pieces would be expected to be colonized by a variety of marine organisms. If you look at galleries of objects which have washed ashore after having spent a similar amount of time at sea, such as tsunami debris collected in the US Northwest and Hawaii, it collectively looks very, very different from MH370 debris. Don’t take my word for it; there are links to such image galleries at the end of the piece linked above.

 

710

MH370 Updates

debris-found-by-month

A few things have happened recently in MH370 world that are worth taking note of.

No FMT. The seabed search in the southern Indian Ocean is all over but the shouting, and as a result I see that a consensus is forming that there could have been no “final major turn” into the southern Indian Ocean. Rather, if the plane went south, it must have loitered somewhere beyond the Malacca Strait until after 18.40 before finally flying a straight southerly path from 19:40 onward. This loiter, following a high-speed dash across the Malay Peninsula and up the strait, is quite bizarre, given that no attempt was made by anyone on board the plane to contact the ground, either to ask for help or to negotiate a hostage situation. So the presumption of a loiter doesn’t really shed light on motivation, it does effectively put yet another nail in the coffin of accident/malfunction scenarios.

More of the secret Royal Malaysian Police report released. Mick Rooney, aka @airinvestigate, has released a portion labelled “Folder 6: Audio and Other Records.” The new section contains an expert report analyzing the cockpit/ATC audio up to 17:21, which concludes (with less than 100% confidence) that it was probably Zaharie who uttered the final words “Good night, Malaysia 370.” It also includes ACARS data and the Inmarsat logs which had already been released back in 2014. In perusing the document I was not able to identify anything that would alter our collective understanding of the case, but I hope that others will offer their own assessments. And I applaud Mick for being the only one with the moral backbone to release this information. I am sure that more will follow. UPDATE: The next batch is here: “Folder 5: Aircraft Record and DCA Radar Data.”

Debris trail goes cold. I’ve plotted, above, the number of pieces of debris that have been found each month since MH370 disappeared. After the first piece of debris was found in July, 2015, a smattering of further pieces was found until April, May, and June of this year, when the number spiked and then dropped off again before ceasing altogether. This is a puzzling distribution, since drift models show that the gyres of the southern Indian Ocean act as a great randomizer, taking things around and around and spitting them out after widely varying periods of time. Would expect, therefore, to see the number of pieces found to gradually swell and then fall off again.

There is a complicating factor to this assumption, of course. Even if the pieces do arrive in a certain pattern, overlaid on top of this is the effect of an independent variable: the degree to which people are actively searching for them. It must be noted that a considerable amount of the June spike is attributable to Blaine Alan Gibson’s astonishing haul on the beaches of Madagascar that month. Indeed, Gibson by himself remains responsible for more than half of the 22 pieces of debris found thus far.

Earlier this week, several frustrated family members announced that they would be organizing their own beachcombing expedition, to take place next month. If their efforts prove less fruitful than Blaine Alan Gibson’s, it may raise questions as to what exactly was the secret to Gibson’s success.

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More secret MH370 documents released

Mick Rooney, aka @Airinvestigate, has released further documents from the secret Royal Malaysian Police investigation into the disappearance of MH370. I asked him if he could tell me anything about how the documents were sourced or why they are being released now, but he says that he is bound by an oath of confidentiality not to discuss further.

Those familiar with recent events surrounding the case might be able to hazard a guess.

Here are the files:

data-from-flight-simulator-computer

This 14-page document includes technical information about the data found on Zaharie’s flight simulator hard drives. It appears that the machine crashed multiple times in the months before MH370’s disappearance. The document also includes a log of when the flight sim was played, the last time being on March 15, 2014, a week after the plane disappeared (presumably this reflects activity by investigators.) Prior to that, the sim had last been played on February 20, two weeks before the disappearance. This suggests that Zaharie was not using his flight simulator to practice vanishing in the weeks before his disappearance.

data-from-prelim-exam-report-translated-from-malay

This 7-page document seems to have been machine-translated from Malay, and appears to describe a preliminary investigation of the computer hard drives by a Malaysian police technician. It lists the various hard drives found with the flight-sim computer. Among the information recovered were passwords and account information for Zaharie’s hobbies and interests, as well as information about an online bookstore, Zaharie’s various social media accounts, and online shopping. Of particular note, investigators found a deleted folder labeled “777TwinTower” which contains pictures of a Malaysia Airlines plane flying toward the Kuala Lumpur city center. Given widely held suspicion that Zaharie took MH370 on a suicide flight, and that fact that terrorists flew two planes into New York’s twin towers in 2001, this will no doubt raise eyebrows. However, this document notes that: “These images have been taken from the computer screen to play a simulated airplane. The assessment believed that the owners of these computers have taken one of those images for the purpose of being used as an icon on the account.” That is to say, an innocent interpretation of this folder and its contents would be that Zaharie, a proud Malaysian 777 pilot, wanted to create an image of his plane flying past an iconic Malaysian landmark.

After a section discussing the seven deleted points from the flight simulator, which have been much discussed in this forum, the report concludes with a brief Summary: “The results of the examination of the goods were found that no any activity outside the common. The overall computer use to host gaming Flight Simulator only. Nor has any information source which directly indicates there any plans to eliminate MH370 found.”

sim-data

This 31-page document appears to contain all of the saved data in the seven above-mentioned flight simulator points. Hopefully independent flight simulator experts will look it over and render an opinion for the rest of us who lack the expertise to properly grapple with it.

Overview

How does this new information alter our understanding of the MH370 mystery?

For me, it is noteworthy that so little incriminating information was found on any of Zaharie’s computers, even (especially) among the deleted files. The way we use computers these days, they are essentially extensions of our brains. Any passing fancy that drifts through our head is likely to be reflected in our internet search history, in notes we write to ourselves, and so on. When Andreas Lübitz was in the throes of his final mental dissolution, he spent a great deal of time online reading about mental disorders and researching ways to commit suicide. It’s all right there to be seen. Yet on Zaharie’s computer there is nothing. Indeed, he seems to have been spending his time prior to the disappearance doing things like making instructional DIY home-repair videos and pretending to fly an antique DC-3 airplane. Not, it would seem, the behavior of someone contemplating his imminent extinction.

In the light of this newly released information, it is easier to understand why the Malaysian police came to the conclusion that nothing about Zaharie’s behavior points to him  being the culprit.

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Long-rumored police report of cell tower connection leaks at last — UPDATED

cxbkxxmwqaanpza

Twitter user @AirInvestigate just tweeted this picture. Thanks to reader Ventus45 for posting the link in comments. This presumable is part of the 1,000-page Royal Malaysian Police report that the Independent Group and others have been sitting on for months.

When Victor Iannello described the contents of this report to me, he implied that the only parts that were interesting were 1) the pages describing the flight simulator hard drive data points in the southern Indian Ocean, and 2) confirmation of the Penang cell-phone tower connection with Fariq’s phone. Apparently there was nothing in the rest of it that suggested any hint of what might have happened during the fateful final flight.

Here I’ve used Google Earth to drop a 32 km radius circle centered on Bandar Baru Air Itam on top of a map of MH370’s flight path taken from the “Bayesian Methods” e-book:

penang-turn-2

UPDATE 11/12/16: @Airinvestigate has posted a second part of the document on Twitter. He describes it as “parts clipped & redacted.”

rmp-cell-phone

Interesting to note that the Malaysian police are on the same page with many of those here in this forum in concluding that the plane was flying in excess of 500 knots and at an altitude of 35,000 to 45,000 feet–very clearly not the behavior of someone looking for an emergency landing spot.

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Thoughts on Australia’s New MH370 Report — UPDATED

end-of-flight

Earlier today, the Australian Transport Safety Board released a document entitled “MH370 — Search and debris examination update.” Perhaps occasioned by the recent completion of the towfish scan of the Indian Ocean seabed search area, the document updates earlier ATSB reports and offers some intriguing insights into what may have happened to the plane. Some thoughts:

— The first section of the report expands upon an assertion that the ATSB made in an earlier report: that the BFO values recorded at 0:19 indicate that the plane was in an increasingly steep dive. Indeed, the newly published calculations indicate that the plane was in an even steeper dive than previously reckoned: between 3,800 and 14,600 feet per minute at 00:19:29, and between 14,200 and 25,000 feet per minute at 00:19:37. On the lower end, this represents an acceleration along the vertical axis from 37.5 knots to 144 knots in eight seconds, or 0.7g. On the higher end, this represents an acceleration along the vertical axis from 140 knots to 247 knots, likewise about 0.7g. If the plane were freefalling in a vacuum, its acceleration would be 1.0g; given that the airframe would be experiencing considerable aerodynamic drag, a downward acceleration of 0.7 would have to represent a near-vertical plunge, which a plane would experience near the end of a highly developed spiral dive.

— The second section describes end-of-flight simulations carried out in a Boeing flight simulator in April of this year. These tests were more detailed than others carried out previously. Evidently, modeled aircraft were allowed to run out of fuel under various configurations of speed, altitude, and so forth, and their subsequent behavior observed. Thus, the exercise modeled what might have happened in a “ghost ship” scenario. Notably, it was found to be possible for the plane to spontaneously enter the kind of extremely steep dive described in the previous section. This being the case, the report states, the plane “generally impacted the water within 15 NM of the arc.” This is not surprising, considering that the plane had already lost altitude and was plummeting straight downward. This offers a tight constraint on where the plane could plausibly be if the 0:19 BFO analysis is correct.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Towfish Scan of MH370 Search Zone Completed (UPDATED)

richard-cole-search-map

Image courtesy of Richard Cole. Click through for full size.

 

Search crews in the remote southern Indian Ocean have completed a task so vast and technically ambitious that it once seemed impossible: to scan a three-mile-deep, 120,000 sq km swathe of seabed using a side-scan sonar “towfish” in hopes of finding the wreckage of missing Malayia Airlines 777 MH370. After considerable delay due to mechanical problems and bad weather, the final square miles were scanned on October 11 by the research vessel Fugro Equator. The $180 million project turned up no trace of the missing plane, though searchers did find several long-sunken sailing ships.

The Fugro Equator will next use an AUV, or autonomous sub, to scan selected areas where the rugged seabed topography was too rough for adequate imaging by the towfish. “The total combined area of the spots that will be surveyed with the AUV is very limited, but still required to ensure that no area has been missed,” says Fugro spokesman Rob Luijneburg.

The Australian National Transport Board (ATSB), which is overseeing the search, expects this fill-in work to be completed by the end of February.

The fact that that the Pennsylvania-sized towfish scan had been completed was first noticed by Richard Cole, a space scientist at University College London who has been meticulously logging the search ships’ movements via online tracking services and then posting charts of their progress on Twitter. “At the completion of Equator’s last swing in mid-October the target of 120,000 square kilometers had been achieved, at least as far as my calculations show,” Cole wrote me last week. Both Fugro and the ATSB subsequently confirmed Cole’s observation.

The 120,000 sq km area has special significance in the effort to find MH370, because ministers from the four countries responsible for the search have made it clear that if nothing turns up within it, the search will be suspended. Unless new evidence emerges, the mystery will be left unsolved.

Plans to search the seabed were first mooted during the summer of 2014, after officials realized that metadata recorded by satellite-communications provider Inmarsat contained clues indicating roughly where the plane had gone. At first, investigators were confident that the wreckage would be found within a 60,000 sq km area stretching along the 7th ping arc from which the plane is known to have sent its final automatic transmission. When nothing was found, ministers from the four governments responsible for the search declared that the search zone would be doubled in size.

In December, 2015, officials declared that the search would be completed by June, 2016. In July of 2016, Malaysia’s transport minister indicated that it would be finished by October; weeks later, a meeting of the four ministers pushed the completion back to December. Last week, the Australian Safety Transport Board announded that “searching the entire 120,000 square kilometre search area will be completed by around January/February 2017.”

In an email to me, ATSB communications officer Dan O’Malley said his organization will issue a report on the seabed search once the full scan is completed. Under ICAO guidelines, Malaysia will only be obligated to release a comprehensive final report on the investigation once it has been formally terminated; so far, Malaysia has only talked of suspending the search, not ending it.

The bulk of the work has been carried out by ships pulling a sidescan sonar device on a long cable. This so-called “towfish” uses reflected sound waves to create an image of the sea floor. By sweeping up and down the search zone in much the same way that a lawnmower goes back and forth across a lawn, searchers have been able to build up a comprehensive image of the search area’s bottom.

But, just as a landscaper might have to use a weedwhacker to clean up areas around rocks or stumps, searchers will have to fill in gaps in the scan where underwater mountains, volanoes and escarpments have prevented the towfish from getting a close enough look.

“A total area for search by the AUV is difficult to give because it concerns a number of relatively small spots that all are relatively difficult to reach and in difficult terrain,” Luijnenburg says.

The fill-in work will be carried out by an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle deployed from the Fugro Equator. The Kongsberg Hugin 100 is capable of diving to depths of up to 15,000 feet and can maintain a speed of 4 knots for up to 24 hours before being retrieved by the mothership. Whereas the side-scan sonar of the towfish has a resolution of 70 cm, the AUV’s sonar has a resolution of  10 cm, and so can image the seabed in much greater detail, as well as taking photographs when necessary.

Meanwhile, as the AUV work progresses, a Chinese vessel will deploy an Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to take photographs of targets previously identified as being of interest. The ATSB has stated that none of these targets are “category one” targets, namely those likely to have come from MH370, however. Says Cole, “In the absence of category one targets there must be a list of targets from the sonar search that look the most interesting, so the question is how far down that list they are going to go.”

While the fill-in work must be carried out in order for the work to be declared 100 percent done, little prospect remains that the missing plane will be found in the southern Indian Ocean.

NOTE: This story was updated 10/26/2016 to include comments from Fugro spokesman Rob Luijnenburg.

561

What If Zaharie Didn’t Do It?

zaharie-chat

Two men, strangers to one another, go into the cockpit of an airplane and lock the door behind them. They take off and fly into the night. One radios to ATC, “Good night, Malaysia 370.” One minute later, someone puts the plane into a turn. It reverses direction and disappears.

Question: Did one of the men take the plane?

For many, it’s inconceivable that there could be any other answer than “of course.” Moreover, that since the details of the incident suggest a sophisticated knowledge of the aircraft, the perpetrator could obviously only be the man with the vastly greater experience — the captain. As reader @Keffertje has written: “Though I try to keep an open mind to all other scenarios, the circumstantial evidence against ZS simply cannot be ignored.”

For others, blaming the captain without concrete proof is immoral. There are MH370 forums where the suggestion that Zaharie might be considered guilty is considered offensive and hurtful to the feelings of surviving family members. Even if one disregards such niceties, it is a fact that an exhaustive police investigation found that Zaharie had neither psychological problems, family stress, money problems, or any other suggestion that he might be suicidal. (Having broken the story of Zaharie’s flight-simulator save points in the southern Indian Ocean, I no longer think they suggest he practiced a suicide flight, for reasons I explain here.) And far from being an Islamic radical, he enjoyed the writings of noted atheist Richard Dawkins and decried terror violence. And he was looking forward to retiring to Australia. If he was trying to make the Malaysian government look bad, he failed, because in the absence of an explanation there is no blame to allocate. And if he was trying to pull off the greatest disappearing act of all time, he failed at that, too, since the captain would necessarily be the prime suspect.

So did Zaharie do it, or not?

This, in a nutshell, is the paradox of MH370. Zaharie could not have hijacked the plane; only Zaharie could have hijacked the plane.

I’d like to suggest that another way of looking at the conundrum is this: if Zaharie didn’t take the plane, then who did? As has been discussed in this forum at length, the turn around at IGARI was clearly initiated by someone who was familiar with both aircraft operation and air traffic control protocols. The reboot of the SDU tells that whoever was in charge at 18:22 had sophisticated knowledge of 777 electronics. And the fact that the plane’s wreckage was not found where autopilot flight would have terminated tells us that someone was actively flying the plane until the end. But who? And why?

If Zaharie did not do it, then one of the passengers and crew either got through the locked cockpit door in the minute between “Good night, Malaysia 370” and IGARI, or got into the E/E bay and took control of the plane from there.

If we accept that this is what happened, then it is extremely difficult to understand why someone who has gone to such lengths would then fly themselves to a certain demise in the southern Indian Ocean. (Remember, they had the ability to communicate and were apparently in active control of the aircraft; they could have flown somewhere else and called for help if they desired.)

Recall, however, that the BFO values have many problems. We get around the paradox of the suicide destination if we assume that the hijackers were not only sophisticated, but sophisticated enough to conceive of and execute a spoof of the Inmarsat data.

Granted, we are still left with the issue of the MH370 debris that has been collected from the shores of the western Indian Ocean. Many people instinctively recoil from the idea that this debris could have been planted, as a spoof of the BFO data would require. Fortunately, we don’t have to argue the subject from first principles. Detailed physical and biological analysis of the debris is underway, and should be released to the public after the official search is called off in December. As I’ve written previously, several aspects of the Réunion flaperon are problematic; if further analysis bears this out, then we’ll have an answer to our conundrum.

534

Implications of the JIT’s MH17 report

buk-telar

Last week, the Joint Investigation Team conducting a criminal investigation into the downing of idH17 issued their preliminary findings. Here’s what I think are the main takeaways.

— The findings strongly endorse the work of “open source intelligence” pioneer Eliot Higgins and his group, Bellingcat. In the immediate aftermath of the shoot-down, it was accepted by nearly every pundit and journalist that the missile had been fired accidentally by poorly trained militiamen who had somehow gotten their hands on an SA-11 Buk launcher and had a acquired a target without bothering to first identify it. But by painstaking work and great resourcefulness, the Bellingcat team was able to piece together an extremely convincing timeline, by which the launcher was brought across the border from a specific Russian military unit, was transported under the direction of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), shot down MH17, and was sent back across the border that night. As I’ve written previously, the timeline described by Bellingcat does not fit with the hapless-militiaman scenario very well. As the New York Times reported, “It is unlikely that anyone not connected with the Russian military would have been able to deploy an SA-11 missile launcher from Russia into a neighboring country.”

— While still admiting the possibility that the Buk crew acted on its own, the report shifts the emphasis to the once-unthinkable: that the missile launch was ordered by higher-ups:

…an investigation is conducted into the chain of command. Who gave the order to bring the BUK-TELAR into Ukraine and who gave the order to shoot down flight MH17? Did the crew decide for themselves or did they execute a command from their superiors? This is important when determining the offences committed by the alleged perpetrators.

As the New York Times put it, the JIT has signaled that it intends “to build an open-and-shut case against individual suspects and to diagram the chain of command behind the order to deploy and launch.”

One can just about imagine a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant, newly trained and sitting nervously in the cab of his Buk TELAR, messing up and accidentally firing a missile at an unidentified target. But it is harder to imagine an experienced senior officer mistakenly giving the order. Indeed, the higher one goes up the chain of command, the less likely that the decision was made without explicit or implicit endorsement by an immediate superior. The implication, then, is that the order to shoot down MH17, if it did come from anywhere, came from the very top.

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Assessing the Reliability of the MH370 Burst Frequency Offset Data

north-and-south-routes

Last week we discussed what we know about the first hour of MH370’s disappearance, based on primary radar data and the first Inmarsat BTO value. Today I’d like to talk about the BFO data and what it can tell us about MH370’s fate.

As longtime readers of this blog well know, the Burst Frequency Offset (BFO) is a type of metadata that measures how different the frequency of an Inmarsat signal is from its expected value. It is an important value to a communications satellite operator like Inmarsat because if the value gets too large, the system will be operating outside its approved frequency limit. One cause of such a change would be if a satellite begins wandering in its orbit, which indeed was the case with MH370. The fact that the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) aboard MH370 did not properly compensate for drift in the Inmarsat satellite overhead is the reason the BFO data contains a signal indicating what the plane was doing.

While each of the BTO values recording during the seven “pings” tells us fairly precisely how far the plane was from the satellite at that time, the BFO data points taken individually do not tell us much about the plane was doing. Taken together, however, they indicate three things:

  1. After the SDU logged back on with Inmarsat at 18:25, the plane took a generally southern course. If we didn’t have the BFO data, we wouldn’t know, from the BTO data alone, whether the plane followed a path to the north or to the south (see above.)
  2. The plane had turned south by 18:40. The BFO value at the time of the first incoming sat phone call at 18:40 indicates that the plane was traveling south.
  3. At 0:19:37 the plane was in a rapid and accelerating decent.

However, as I’ve previously described, if all of these things were true, then the plane would have been found by now. So at least one of them must be false. In the course of my interview with him, Neil Gordon said that the ATSB is firmly convinced that #3 is true, and that as a result he suspects that #2 is not. Specifically, he points out that if the plane were in a descent at 18:40, it could produce the BFO values observed. Thus it is possible that the plane did not perform a “final major turn” prior to 18:40 but instead loitered in the vicinity of the Andaman Islands or western Sumatra before turning and flying into the southern ocean. If this were the case, it would result in the plane turning up to the northeast of the current search area. An example of such a route has been described by Victor Iannello at the Duncan Steel website.

It is worth nothing that such a scenario was explicitly rejected as unlikely by the Australian government when they decided to spend approximately $150 million to search 120,000 square kilometers of seabed. The reason is that it was deemed unlikely that the plane would just happen, by chance to be descending at the right time and at the right rate to look like a southward flight. For my part, I also find it hard to imagine why whoever took the plane would fly it at high speed through Malaysian airspace, then linger for perhaps as much as an hour without contacting anybody at the airline, at ATC, or in the Malysian government (because, indeed, none of these were contacted) and then continuing on once more at high speed in a flight to oblivion.

Well, is there any other alternative? Yes, and it is one that, though historically unpopular, is becoming imore urgent as the plane’s absence from the search area becomes increasingly clear: the BFO data is unreliable. That is to say, someone deliberately altered it.

There are various ways that we can imagine this happening, but the only one that stands up to scrutiny is that someone on board the plane altered a variable in the Satellite Data Unit or tampered with the navigation information fed back to the SDU from the E/E bay. Indeed, we know that the SDU was tampered with: it was turned off, then logged back on with Inmarsat, something that does not happen in the course of normal aircraft operation. It has been speculated that this depowering and repowering occurred as the result of action to disable and re-enable some other piece of equipment, but no one has every come up with a very compelling story as to what that piece of equipment might be. Given the evident problems with the BFO data in our possession, I feel we must consider the possibility that the intended object of the action was the SDU itself.

When I say BFO tampering has been “historically unpopular,” what I mean is that almost everyone who considers themselves a serious MH370 researcher has from the beginning assumed that the BFO data was generated by a normally functioning, untampered-with SDU, and this has limited the scenarios that have been considered acceptable. For a long time I imagined that search officials might know of a reason why tampering could not have occurred, but I no longer believe this is the case. When I questioned Inmarsat whether it was possible that the BFO data could have been spoofed, one of their team said “all Inmarsat can do is work with the data and information and the various testings that we’ve been doing.” And when I raised the issue with Neil Gordon, he said, “All I’ve done is process the data as given to me to produce this distribution.” So it seems that the possibility of BFO spoofing has not been seriously contemplated by search officials.

If we allow ourselves to grapple with the possibility that the BFO data was deliberately tampered with, we quickly find ourselves confronting a radically different set of assumptions about the fate of the plane and the motives of those who took it. These assumptions eliminate some of the problems that we have previously faced in trying to make sense of the MH370 mystery, but introduce new ones, as I’ll explore in upcoming posts.