The Botchulism of MH370

Hindsight is Pretty Good

This is a brief history of how the search for MH370 has come to be botched so badly that we find ourselves – now – right back where Australia and China originally found the plane in early April 2014, but erroneously concluded it was an “old fishnet pinger”.

Surprise! Global Fishing Watch has been monitoring those waters for commercial fishing activities since 2013 and it says there was NO fishing activity out there at all for months before or after Ocean Shield’s “fishnet pinger” claim. And, of course, Australia did not go to the trouble of fishing out the “fishnet pinger” it claimed at the time had sent false pings. So, no physical evidence that there was ever a fishnet pinger in the vicinity. Moreover, Australia did not have the equipment to physically scan the ocean floor in one of the deepest areas of the entire Indian Ocean.

Those who have followed me for a while know I did not initially believe the Zenith Plateau area held the plane’s remains. I initially went along with the crowd down to the ongoing search area SW of Perth. But, fortunately, I have more faith in the analysis that ATSB, Inmarsat, and others did to put them there than they had in their own work. I also tend to try to learn from new information. Probabilistic models convinced me by January 2015 that the plane was not down there; had never flown south of Broken Ridge. But where should I look?

If Not Penguinville?

My next inquiry was back up to the Waypoint Igari area where the plane was last known to be before the tragedy occurred. That led me to review possibilities in the Gulf of Thailand, in the South China Sea, and eventually all the way up into the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal where concern had been expressed by some that the North Sentinelese had Shish Kabobbed half of the Indian Marine Corps that had ventured out to beat the bushes for Boeing debris. But there was nothing to any of those investigations and two+ years later they now all seem to be fairly well out of favor by even the most now wizened debris sleuths.

But I didn’t give up. By June 2015, with not so much as a used flaperon to suggest the plane was anywhere in the vast Indian Ocean, I decided the next place to look was the Annamite Mountain Range in Vietnam. It was very close to the 7th Arc, and it appealed to me because it is remote and easy to hide large objects from satellites and people. Such a location would also certainly prevent debris from drifting or coming in contact with water.

But, fortunately, it was about then that the first debris find occurred on Reunion Island. It was the flaperon and there was a steady stream of finds after that that at least helped confirm the plane had indeed gone down somewhere in the Indian Ocean; not in the Annamites; not on North Sentinel Island. To be more precise, it had gone down south of the equator, somewhere between southern Sumatra and … who knows where? We knew that much because if the plane had gone down north of the equator, it would have been highly unlikely a flaperon would have drifted all the way south to Reunion Island (i.e., across 10 degrees of slack and haphazard currents, and then another 11 degrees all the way down to -21 degrees south).

The flaperon find was the singular event that suggested to me the plane went down somewhere east of Reunion Island; somewhere in the vicinity of Exmouth, Australia. Indeed, a smallish private fishing boat (less than 30 feet) near Exmouth had broken loose from it’s moorings in a storm a few months earlier and had ended up not so far north of Reunion Island. It was documented, but how reliable was a sample of one in an area measured by thousands of kilometers in all directions?

It turns out, after another year of investigation, that that sample of one was quite accurate. Some 35 years of NOAA satellite-tracked drifter data ends up in the same place when it begins 977 km west of Exmouth, Australia. So now we have our cross-hairs, something lacking with ping rings alone. We don’t quite have an “X Marks the Spot”, but we know we are very close. What we need is a partner more interested in shedding light on this tragedy and concluding it than in deflecting political fallout.

Now Back to the Zenith / Batavia Areas

There were a few surface searches initially, but invariably, debris that was spotted from the air could not be found and recovered by surface craft. That appears to include “a large debris field” spotted by the Chinese crew aboard Hai Xun 01 on April 2, 2014.

This is the best, most complete chart of the early search effort I have found anywhere. It is by Andrew Heneen and is available on Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and probably lots of other places.

The Search for Flight 370

As thorough as this map is, it fails to note a couple of important issues. First, the Sonobuoys that were deployed in the debris field in April 2014 were all defective, probably for the same reason Malaysia Airline’s ULB batteries failed to work properly: they had not been inspected and maintained. Second, Cyclone Gillian blew through the Zenith Plateau area (marked as “TPL search”) a week BEFORE Australia and China put vessels out there. That means the plane’s debris had already been widely scattered by the storm.

The Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

I have taken the liberty of adding notes of my own to this Heneen map. Mostly in white lettering, they show where Hai Xun 01 detected ULB signals and where the debris field was found “X”. But keep in mind that was AFTER Cyclone Gillian rearranged things the last week of March 2014. Gillian did not get that far south. She turned west near the north side of the most northern brown patch that straddles the black 7th Arc. Nevertheless, after three + weeks and one cyclone, it is reasonable to expect debris there to move one way or another about 22 km per day.

As troubling as it is to realize Australia and China had the plane within reach a month after if vanished, it also helps explain why none of the plane’s debris hit Western Australia as far as anyone knows. Cyclone Gillian’s “power quadrant” was on her east side as she came down from the middle of the Wharton Basin. She then turned sharply right (west) at Zenith Plateau, effectively pushing all remaining debris off to the west.

So on one hand, it is remarkable that China and Australia were able to find the plane so quickly given the paucity of information available to them at the time. On the other, it is a tragedy on top of a tragedy that they gave up and moved 2,000 km south just as it was within their collective reach. Still, better to emphasize the remarkable achievement of finding the right location. Now time to go back and finish the job.

2016-10-13-121544

This shows not only the general area where Ocean Shield and Hai Xun 01 picked up ULB pings, but also the exact location of four commercial (2 tankers, 2 cargo) vessels at 00:19 March 8, 2014 when the plane is believed to have crashed.

So, while I have generally favored the area where Ocean Shield detected ULB signals, it makes more common sense to me that the plane did not come down “on top of” Zenith Plateau where four commercial vessels happened to be at the time. I’ve tried to learn from new evidence at each stage, and right or wrong, I’ve decided those crews would have reported sightings to authorities if there had been anything there. (I believe the same to be true in the search area 2,000 km south where the vessel “Stella” would have been nearly hit by the falling plane if it had come down on ATSB’s preferred location.) It also makes sense to me that the debris field Hai Xun 01 reported was, to a near certainty, the remains of MH370.

Notice that there are no vessels around Batavia or farther north of Zenith in the graphic above. They are not show because there were none there at the time. Technicians with Germany’s Fleetmon AIS Services helped me investigate all vessel traffic along the entire length of the Seventh Arc (4,000 km), and what you see near Zenith is all that was there. (There were many vessels farther north near Java Island, but they aren’t shown. I’m more than happy to share that data pull with anyone who wants to examine it.)

Separately, I am trying to obtain high resolution images of the area Hai Xun 01 reported “a lot” of debris. There was some cloud cover that day, but I do not yet know how much.

The Big Picture

MH370 will be found somewhere between Batavia Seamount and Zenith Plateau. Water depth is more reasonable than it is at the base of Zenith where it is close to -8,000 or even -9,000 meters in places. I’m hoping satellite images from March 8, 2014 will be found. It is important to know if the debris field found by Hai Xun 01 on April 2 was there on March 8. Debris disperses rapidly in the open ocean. Hai Xun 01 and Ocean Shield didn’t arrive on the scene for nearly a month after the plane was lost. Within that time frame, at least some debris would have drifted (mostly west, north, and south) between 300 and 500 km, depending on winds and currents. For Hai Xun to report “a lot” of debris one month and one cyclone later means there was no attempt of any kind to minimize the resulting debris field by whomever was at the plane’s controls. It was an enormous debris field, and very visible on March 8. But did any of the world’s many satellites capture and preserve the moment?

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