There has never been a commercial airline disappearance like the loss of MH370. Air corridors in Southeast Asia are full of planes around the clock. Below them, shipping lanes are bow to stern at all hours.
While it is inconceivable that a large passenger plane could simply vanish in that part of the world, a smaller Airbus A320 did just that in bad weather nine months later south of the Gulf of Thailand in the Java Sea. AirAsia Flight QZ8501, trying to climb over a thunderhead on December 28, 2014, stalled and disappeared from radar screens. It’s radar location was known and ships were dispatched to search for it quickly, but it was several days before the first debris was spotted. Even longer before the fuselage and black boxes were found.
MH370 and QZ8501 losses both occurred during the rainy season, which typically extends from October to April, although the weather on the night MH370 disappeared is not believed to have been a factor in its disappearance. Nevertheless, it was a factor in the QZ8501 loss, and may have been a contributing factor in the failure to find debris from MH370 once the search moved to the Southern Indian Ocean. Tropical Cyclone Gillian, the second most powerful storm of the year, formed in Australia’s northeastern Gulf of Carpentaria, skirted northern Australia in a trek to the west, was upgraded to a Tropical Cyclone at 09:00 UTC March 8, and reached peak intensity as a Category 5 storm on March 23 south of Indonesia’s Java Island.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know with certainty if MH370 went down in Gillian’s path. All we know is that no part of the plane has been found.
There has been a tendency in some forums to compare MH370 to the loss of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. It is true that there are a few similarities, but none appear to be related to the causes of those losses. For example, one aircraft was made by Boeing, the other by Airbus. Both were commercial airliners, both were lost or presumed lost over water; and both were carrying a lot of passengers. Those are probably not causal links.
In any event, both planes were modern commercial airliners by 2015 standards, and both were owned and flown by companies with good to excellent safety records.
A week after MH370 left radar screens inexplicably as if swallowed whole, the world was stunned again with news from Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) sources that the plane may have actually reversed course shortly after civilian radar contact was lost at Waypoint IGARI in the Gulf of Thailand. Suddenly, “deliberate” became part of the vernacular. Worse, there seemed to be data to support a conclusion that the plane flew on — somewhere — for hours. But where? And under what circumstances?
The case for a rogue flight to parts unknown was largely built on a series of nothings: no debris, no air defense radar contacts in the region, no distress calls; and no more perfect place for such an event than south of Malaysia in the vast, empty Indian Ocean. Whatever happened, investigators gradually decided in the absence of hard information, could only be explained if the plane had flown south until it ran out of fuel and crashed: hours of pings could be explained that way, lack of radar contact could be explained that way, lack of debris could be explained that way. Explained, yes. But could it be explained to the satisfaction of families and the flying public?
Even after months of searching a remote stretch of seafloor to no avail, the general public probably still believes MH370 indeed flew south — for reasons not yet known — and vanished in an endless expanse of water. Nevertheless, there are radar experts who doubt that the plane Malaysia’s RMAF says it tracked during the early morning hours of March 8, 2014 was MH370. Some are well qualified to know, and they believe the information released by RMAF is far from compelling. We live in a photoshopped world. How hard would it be to make it appear that a military radar unit tracked something it didn’t track? How many days would it take to create convincing representations? And it wouldn’t have to be predicated entirely on hardcore deceit. In the face of incredible public pressure, it could have been as simple as convincing oneself it really happened.
We cannot resolve questions about what RMAF radar tracked and what it didn’t track. We don’t have access to the data necessary to examine it the way it needs to be examined.
But we can illustrate what MH370 and whomever was at the controls had to have done if it turned back at Waypoint IGARI and flew to a location in the Straits of Malacca where RMAF insists it was 61 minutes later at 18:22 UTC near Waypoint MEKAR. We know how fast the plane was flying at IGARI, and we know how far the plane had to fly in the allotted time.
In order to fly from Waypoint IGARI to Waypoint MEKAR on the other side of the peninsula in the South Andaman Sea, via Penang, the plane had to slow down from its earlier known cruising speed of 458 knots to 424 knots for 31 minutes; then it had to slow down again to 359 knots over the Straits of Malacca for 30 minutes on its way to Waypoint MEKAR. That is a total speed reduction of 99 knots in two stages half an hour apart.
Then, after leaving Waypoint MEKAR and turning south (no credible proof it did); it would have maintained a 359 knot speed for another 79 minutes… all the way to the Equator. But at the Equator, if we are to believe Southern Indian Ocean theorists, it then accelerated to 448 knots and maintained that speed all the way to its terminal location more than four-hours later.
Would a pilot fly a large aircraft in that fashion for any reason? It’s a complicated way to do whatever the objective may have been. And what was so special about the Equator? It’s a non sequitur.
Early media reports feasted on RMAF disclosures that suggested it might have tracked MH370. There were widely reported assertions — presumably to substantiate speculation the pilot was on a suicide mission — that the plane climbed well above it’s certified maximum altitude, then descended rapidly. The exact source for that is unknown and unattributed, but it fed rumors of rumors that someone had been trying to suffocate passengers and crew.
Then in late June 2014, new information emerged that RMAF’s radar unit barely worked; that it hadn’t been calibrated in so long it couldn’t provide reliable altitude information… or much of anything else.
“… investigators discovered Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 did not soar and swoop as believed earlier, but remained in controlled flight for hours until it ran out of fuel over the southern Indian Ocean.” (Malaysian Insider, June 24, 2014)
For purposes of locating MH370, the single most important (known) data element is a gnat of a datum called Burst Timing Offset, or BTO. It is simple and straightforward, being just the distance between the plane and its satellite each time they exchanged handshaking pings. It is measured in microseconds.
But while BTO values are vitally important in the effort to find the aircraft, two things about them are important to remember: 1) Inmarsat refuses to release the original data logs; and 2) the 3-F1 satellite that gathered and stored BTO information, is ancient by satellite standards and has been falling out of orbit for years.
There are other issues. Among them, Inmarsat has been a slow learner. BTO values were collected for the first time in response to the loss of Air France Flight 447. It took five long days to locate the first bits of that wreckage, and two years to locate the airframe itself on the ocean floor near the Equator.
One of the lessons from that disaster was the addition of BTO data to give investigators a better idea of where a plane is in relation to its satellite, should a similar event reoccur.
Inmarsat, which owns the 3-F1 satellite that tracked MH370, added BTO data elements to data collection and retention schedules, but there is no evidence the company did quality control to understand the data, or to correct potential problems. At least, it is hard to imagine an alternative explanation for some of the failures that occurred with MH370’s BTO data. For example, BTO pings were supposed to be collected every 60 minutes; but they weren’t. Inmarsat seems not to have known that ground-station-initiated calls would reset the ping timer. That happened twice after MH370 left radar at 17:21 near IGARI. And we can easily imagine a scenario in which it happens a few more times, resulting in no BTO data collection of any kind. These are small issues if identified and corrected quickly; but after a plane goes missing, they are enormous legal and moral failures.
And this is not Inmarsat’s only failing. The company still doesn’t know how to interpret BTO values initiated across different terminal switching channels. Five of seven final BTOs for MH370 were transmitted on Channel Unit 4, one on Channel Unit 8, and one on Channel Unit 10. Inmarsat cannot interpret BTOs from Channel Units 8 and 10.
Doppler Shift is simply a change in the pitch of sound we hear when loud noisy objects like firetrucks move toward or away from us. Doppler Shift is everywhere. All motion creates Doppler Shift. A Goldfish is a Doppler Shift generator as it placidly swims around its bowl. We just can’t hear it without special equipment. We create Doppler Shift when we walk. Astronomers use Doppler Shift to measure expansion of the universe. Traffic enforcement officers use it to nab speeding motorists.
But, as common as it is, no one uses Doppler Shift collected by old satellites in decaying orbits to track planes 35,000 kilometers below. It just isn’t done. Moreover, the technique is not documented in any of the scientific literature, and efforts to demonstrate it have failed.
The Doppler Shift data passed between MH370 and its 3-F1 satellite is called Burst Frequency Offset, or “BFO”. In this context, “Offset” refers to small deviations or bias. Each BFO datum most closely resembles a digital onion that has to be peeled, layer by layer, to find whatever may be hidden deep inside. And that whatever is invariably nothing very useful.
If Inmarsat’s Doppler Shift, or BFO, claim had value, it would have been recognized in professional literature long ago. It is simply not a demonstrable claim. BFO cannot tell us in which direction MH370 flew before or after it left Waypoint IGARI.
Sadly, the notion that BFO and BTO data can be used to track MH370 closely resembles Cold Fusion: a 1989 high-profile scientific hoax by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, who claimed to have discovered cheap, limitless energy.
More recently, the notion that neutrinos travel faster than light, whether in space or beneath the Swiss Alps, shows how important it is to ensure that interested scientists are able to join conversations to help verify discoveries and channel efforts in useful directions. But in the search for MH370, Malaysia, Inmarsat, and ATSB have all made a concerted effort to prevent those who are not part of a small coterie from having access to data and information. Efforts to bypass that coterie have been difficult. And now, fifteen months later, the entire SIO effort is in disarray. It hasn’t found anything because MH370 is not there.
Various nations and organizations have acoustic microphones — hydrophones — in the world’s oceans. The United Nations’ Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization keeps an acoustic microphone off Cape Leeuwin, Australia to monitor treaty violations. Not far away, near Rottnest Island west of Perth, Curtain University’s Centre of Marine Science also has a hydrophone to support its educational and scientific efforts.
When investigators suggested the plane may have crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean, recordings from various hydrophones up and down the Indian Ocean were examined to determine if anything noteworthy might be related to the plane’s disappearance, such as a possible crash in that vast body of water. Tentative evidence suggested something large might have struck the water’s surface about the time MH370 would have been in the area, but the result was inconclusive. After further analysis, it was determined that it was unlikely to be linked to the plane in any way. These inquiries were made by competent scientists and resolved carefully.
Leaving no stone unturned, two individuals with no official connection to the search for MH370, tried their hands at contrail palmistry using satellite images they claimed had captured contrails from MH370 as it turned south near Banda Aceh, over the south Andaman Sea, and flew toward the Southern Indian Ocean.
Bear in mind that there is not a scintilla of reliable evidence MH370 flew over the South Andaman Sea after it left civilian radar in the Gulf of Thailand; or that it turned west and crossed the Malaysian Peninsula after it left Waypoint IGARI.
One obvious problem with contrails is that they are not digitally signed. Another is that most of them look pretty much like the rest. And they are ephemeral; at best they tend to last a few hours, but more often they scatter and dissipate quickly.
And even if investigators found a contrail trace that might be associated with MH370, it would have turned out to be one more enormous “maybe” in a long list of maybes.
How many times can man, machine, and gadgetry fail to detect something as large as a Boeing 777, even at night, before we conclude it probably wasn’t there? How many stealth passages, by a plane not designed for stealth, are too many? At what point are we forced to conclude we’re looking in the wrong place?
So far, RMAF military radar at Penang is the only radar link known to claim MH370 turned back to the west near IGARI in the Gulf of Thailand, and flew otherwise undetected through one of the world’s busiest air corridors and above one of its busiest shipping lanes. Add to that an important caveat: RMAF’s radar unit at the time may have been even less useful than Inmarsat’s 3-F1 satellite; it hadn’t been calibrated in so long most of the information attributed to it, including altitude, was quickly dismissed. Moreover, at least one Indonesian and one Thai military radar unit on MH370‘s purported flightpath through the Straits of Malacca failed to detect anything at all.
While the Indian Ocean is not exactly peppered with radar installations, a plane would probably have to be more than just lucky to miss every single radar facility, every single pair of eyes, every single early morning sky watching sailor, and every single acoustic microphone to transit from end to end without being detected. And the incident was so widely publicized, it is hard to imagine anyone seeing it and not reporting it.
This brief section offers just four graphics to illustrate where commercial vessel traffic was located in the search area immediately before, during, and after Malaysia, Inmarsat, and ATSB claim MH370 crashed west of Perth a few minutes before sunrise at 00:19 UTC on March 8, 2014. Could anything have been so stealth?