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The All-Time Mystery in Global Aviation

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MH370 vanished early Saturday, 8 March 2014, on a routine five and one-half hour, 4500km flight. The plane departed at 00:41 from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and was scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 06:30 that same morning. The Malaysia authorities waited three weeks before issuing the following press release.

Malaysia Airline declaration of 29 January 2015 (www.MH370.gov.my):

Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.

If you’re OK with the preceding, you can skip these next blog entries dedicated to MH370 facts, conjectures and conspiracies. But my conversion from businessman to author was inspired by that ill-starred flight. I spent the next three months researching MH370 (alongside other conspiracies and peculiarities of the last thirty-five years), then nine months full-time writing Sea of Lies. So it’s apt that this blog starts with a three-part series, The Vanishing of MH370.

As I re-read press clippings, file notes and examine recent articles, what’s remarkable is how much we still don’t know. Almost fifteen months later, the official explanation of what happened to MH370 is less satisfying than ever before as new analyses come to light. Understanding what we know, what we think we know and what we only suspect are the dividing lines for this series of posts. The Facts of the Matter starts us off today before handing over to A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing. The mantle passes to One Conspiracy to Rule Them All before a break of two months until August when additional developments prompted me to write So What’s the Big Flap All About? and Chasing our Tails. Read enough of this stuff and you’ll likely find yourself addicted to MH370 just like the rest of us.

My editorial comments appear in italics.

Bradley West, Singapore, 30 May 2015 (revised June, 2016)

 

Points of (Pre-)Departure

The Boeing 777 has been flying for since 1995 and has an excellent safety record with only four losses of complete hulls during those 19+ years. The version flown by MH370 was the 777-200ER (“extended range”). Salient facts1:

  • 209’ long x 199’ wingspan
  • 150-tonne weight (330,000lbs)
  • 11,100’ typical takeoff distance
  • 3800’ minimum landing distance if empty at sea level
  • 5800’ minimum landing distance if full and at 6000’ elevation
  • 560 mph cruising speed and maximum speed of 590 mph
  • Maximum range 8900 statutory miles (7700nm, 12,800km)
  • World record distance held by MAS of 10,823 nm (Seattle to Kuala Lumpur)
  • Powered by either two Rolls-Royce Trent 800-series, or Pratt & Whitney PW4000, engines
  • 1200 777’s in service at present worldwide
  • $260m price when new

9M-MRO was the registration of the model 777-200ER airframe, manufactured in 2002 and powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 892 engines. Insiders say that it was lightly utilized, two or three trips a week on average. MAS operates thirteen 777’s in its fleet.

The weather was good all along the route as well as the areas in which the plane subsequently flew. In particular, there were no rain or thunderstorms along either the planned flightpath or the subsequent path described by radar records.

Sunrise was at 6:30 Beijing time and 7:22 Malaysia time (no time difference).

The cockpit voice recorder contained in the black box contains only the last two hours’ of conversation. It was constantly recording new material over the two-hour old material.

There wasn’t an Air Marshal on board.

Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah (“ZAS”), 53, was an ethnic Malay Muslim from Penang, Malaysia. A self-styled aviation geek, he’d joined MAS in 1981 as a cadet and logged over 18,000 hours flying in a thirty-three year career. MAS colleagues viewed ZAS as low-key, methodical and generous. However, his wife had recently left him. Some news outlets reported that he was seeing another woman and that relationship was strained. ZAS also was unique among the crew and passengers in having made zero personal or professional appointments after 8 March. After exhaustive interviews and reviews of the records, MAS and police enquiries concluded that ZAS was a solid performer with no known issues that would affect his mental health.

ZAS had a flight simulator in his home (something that other pilots don’t find odd). His brother-in-law believed that the hard drive crashed in 2013 and ZAS wasn’t using the simulator in 2014, other than to try to reboot the system from time to time.

27-year old co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid (“FAH”) was a married father of three. He made a cell phone call from the cockpit using WhatsApp at 23:30 prior to departure. Contents have not been disclosed, other than it was a familiar number. FAH was very close to his mother according to his cousin Nursyafiqah Kamarudin.

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport (“KLIA”), each piece of hand-carried luggage received only seven or eight seconds of scrutiny when it went through the pre-boarding X-Ray machine. CCTV footage from the KLIA pre-departure area showed ZAS and FAH going through airport security and only being subjected to front of body pat downs.

Pre-MH370 MAS’s standard operating procedures re cockpit access were lax. There’s even an old internet photo showing two blond tourists sitting with ZAS in the cockpit of a flight in progress.

 

Transponder, ACARS and SATCOM

There are three ways to identify if a plane is still flying:

  • The transponder provides comprehensive data (e.g. location, altitude, speed or direction) to air traffic control (“ATC”). ATC distinguishes among planes via a unique four-digit “squawk code” that a pilot programs into the aircraft’s transponder before taking off. The transponder communicates via ground-based radars. On a B777, the transponder is located in the center console of the flight deck and can be toggled off. There is never an operational reason to disable the transponder.
  • The Aircraft Communications and Recording System (“ACARS”), a subscription service operated by Inmarsat (a UK-based satellite company), is optional at the functional higher level, but also works automatically at a lower level. “At the higher [level] you have ACARS with all the series of messages that can be exchanged between the plane and the receiving station on VHF, HF or SATCOM. At the lower layer, you have the network that is used to deliver these messages: ‘pings’ are used to check the status of the underlying network.”2 In the case of MH370, MAS had subscribed to one feature of the Classic Aero system (as opposed to the post-2005 next generation aero terminal called SwiftBroadband).3
  • Subscription-based, higher level ACARS can feed information re location, altitude, speed and heading to either a ground station or a satellite. MAS subscribed to ACARS only to track the two Rolls Royce Trent 892 engines, broadcasting information in respect of RPMs, temperatures, pressures and oil levels. The electronics-and-equipment (“E/E”) bay located underneath a trap door (accessed from behind the cockpit in the first class galley) housed the ACARS circuit breakers.
  • The lower-level activity is akin to a periodic (user-defined: MAS set it to touch base hourly) digital handshake that produces a “log-on interrogation” (“LOI” or “ping”) on a set frequency. [A “ping” is equivalent to digital “Are you there?” with the recipient providing an answer, “Yes, I’m here”. A completed exchange of pings constitutes a “handshake”.] These SATCOM communications do not identify location, altitude, speed or direction. The satellite data unit (“SDU” or “AES”) plugs into the SATCOM antenna which extends above the fuselage near the middle of the plane. Maintenance personnel access the SDU through an overhead luggage bin accessible to anyone on board.4
Slide 30 (2)
Source: “MH370 Story,” Richard Godfrey for the Independent Group (22 Feb 2015)

  

There were four Emergency Locator Transmitters (“ELTs”) that were supposed to self-trigger upon a crash. None of these ever activated. One theory is that the plane broke up and sank in less than the few minutes it would have taken to activate the emergency transmitters. The ELTs don’t transmit from under water. However, it later transpired that the batteries were supposed to have been replaced in December, 2012. No one knows if the ELTs functioned as per spec due to the expired batteries.

 

Cargo and Passengers of Interest

There were 2232kg of cargo listed as “radio accessories and chargers” plus 221kg of lithium batteries in the cargo hold. MAS denied that there were lithium batteries on board for two weeks after the flight disappeared. On 1 May 2014, the airline finally released a partial cargo manifest after weeks of delays which raised suspicions. To my knowledge, MAS still hasn’t released a full cargo manifest, e.g. describing in greater detail what the radio accessories and chargers actually were and their owners.

There were also four crates of mangosteens, a tropical fruit. The total mangosteen weight was between 3000-4000kg.

The semiconductor executives: There were twenty technical staff and executives (twelve from Malaysia and eight China nationals) from Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor5 en route to a company facility in China. Freescale started in consumer computer chip design and fabrication, but as of 2013 had moved as well into semiconductors with “avionics, radar, communications, missile guidance, electronic warfare and identification friend or foe” applications. In addition, Freescale made “radio frequency power products” for the defense industry. And on 3 March 2014, the company announced it was releasing eleven new products for “high frequency, VHF and low-band UHF radar and radio communications”. Counter to some internet claims, no one on board owned any partial patents on Freescale chip designs.

The Iranian illegals: Pouri Nour Mohaammadi, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohmmadreza, 29, were two Iranians flying on altered, stolen Italian and Austrian passports bearing the names Christian Kozel, an Austrian, and Luigi Maraldi of Italy. One of the passports was on an international Interpol-supplied stop list, yet the Iranian man was able to clear emigration in Kuala Lumpur without mishap.

An Iranian human smuggler named “Mr. Ali” purchased their tickets in Pattaya, Thailand for cash. The Iranians had the cheapest one-way tickets to Western Europe which happened to be on the Beijing bound MAS flight.

The men presumably wanted to seek asylum in Europe. After exhaustive checks, Western intelligence agencies declared that the two men weren’t suspects.

 

A Twisted Tale: MH370 on Radar

MH370 was scheduled to depart at 00:35 and was airborne by 00:41.

At 01:19 the pilot said the last words heard from the plane, “Good night, Malaysian [sic] Three Seven Zero”. The transponder stopped functioning two minutes later at 01:21, causing the plane to disappear from air traffic controllers’ screens at an altitude of 35,000’.

The ACARS system stopped transmitting somewhere between 01:07-01:37. So ACARS could have failed or been switched off before or after the transponder shut down at 01:21.  Complicating matters, there’s still debate among pilots and aircraft experts as to whether a pilot could disable the ACARS by turning off the VHF and SATCOM channels in the cockpit (which would cut communications links without actually turning off the ACARS), or if someone would have had to operate outside the cockpit6. In either instance, whoever disabled the ACARS possessed specialist knowledge acquired outside pilot training or flight reference manuals.7

Malaysia ATC had handed the flight over to Vietnam ATC and the plane was in a gray zone where neither country felt responsible for monitoring flight progress. Vietnam air traffic controllers didn’t notice MH370 had disappeared off radar for seventeen minutes until 01:38 vs. the usual maximum of five minutes before most ATCs would have prompted the aircraft’s pilots to speak to them.

The timing for the switch-offs was either extremely bad luck (if due to an electrical fault or fire), or calculated to make the plane invisible for as long as possible. Most observers conclude that the timing for the transponder and ACARS failures was too precise to have been the result of an accident.

Soon after the two signaling devices went off the air (leaving just the SATCOM pinging function intact), the plane took a big left hand turn to double back and fly west over Peninsular Malaysia roughly headed towards Penang.

Malaysia civilian radar operators tracked the plane with the last clear contact at 01:21 and a plausible reading until 01:30. The civilian operators ignored the signals. Despite initially denying that Malaysia’s military radar had tracked the plane, Prime Minister Najib Razak later said that military radar had the plane on scope, but the radar trail was revealed only on 11 March, three days after the fact. (Many countries who had dedicated ships and planes to the Gulf of Thailand were dismayed that the Malaysians had not informed them earlier, thereby wasting money and time.)

Slide 24 (3)
Source: “MH370 Story,” Richard Godfrey for the Independent Group (22 Feb 2015)

 

Just after 01:30, Vietnam ATC asked a pilot of another MAS flight bound for Japan to contact MH370 directly on an emergency radio frequency. The pilot on the Narita bound plane “heard a weird ‘mumble’ or noise seemingly coming from a stuck microphone from MH370, but there is no way to confirm this.”8

Military radar tracks from Thailand and Malaysia suggest that MH370 flew 43,000’-45,000’9 for twenty-three minutes, then returned to a commercially-normal range of 31,000’-33,000’. These height changes could only have been done by someone flying the plane, and not via auto-pilot (even if pre-programmed prior to take-off). (Press reports at the time said that radars tracked MH370 flying as low as 10,000’ or even 5,000’10 feet in a terrain hugging path to evade detection. Authorities discredited these assertions.)

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (“ATSB”) interim report of 26 June 2014 (and updated on 18 August 2014), MH370 – Definition of Underwater Search Areas11, contained an unexpected revelation. At 02:25 the SATCOM (“ping”) system sent a log-on interrogation message, the first received by the Inmarsat satellite since the last ACARS transmission at 01:07. Coterminous with the LOI was a power-up request by the plane’s inflight entertainment system. So sometime between 01:07 and 02:22 (the SDU takes three minutes to process a request of this type), someone disconnected both the power supply to the SDU (which in turn sent and received locational ‘pings’ via the SATCOM antenna) and the in-flight entertainment system.

Aviation expert Gerry Soejatman described two ways in someone could disable the SATCOM:

Alternative 1: Get into the E/E Bay, or the main avionics bay below the front galley . . . and pull the circuit breaker on the right panel.

Alternative 2: Remove the power from the Left Main AC Bus, and kill the TCAS, and most of the cabin lighting, in addition to removing power from the Satcom system. This can be done by isolating the Left Main Bus Tie and switching off the Left Generator.” 12

Now I’m not going to pretend that I understand the details of Mr. Soejatman’s explanation, but in the three months since he posted his blog entry on 1 March 2015 no one has refuted his statements online. What I will point out is that alternative 2 would seem to be a better fit with the facts given that at 02:25 the in-fight entertainment system was powering up as well as the SATCOM.

After the successful SATCOM log-on, the plane responded to hourly status requests (“pings”) through 08:11 the next morning.12

At 02:22—the same time that power was restored to the SDU and in-flight entertainment system, and maybe half the plane—military radar last detected the flight. At that point, MH370 was 370km from Penang over the Andaman Sea, between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra.

Analysis published in August, 2014 said that an unanswered satellite phone call from MAS staff on the ground to the cockpit satphone at 02:39 suggests that the plane may have turned south earlier than previously thought.13 The call took place seventeen minutes after the last radar detection (which had the plane flying northwest).

Slide 38 (4)
Source: “MH370 Story,” Richard Godfrey for the Independent Group (22 Feb 2015)

 

The ATSB believes that the unanswered call was placed after the plane had turned south. By the time of the next satellite handshake (forty-six minutes later, on the hourly timetable pre-programmed by MAS) the plane was headed south.

At 07:13 MAS attempted second satellite phone call to the plane which also went unanswered.

At 07:24 Malaysia Airlines posted on Facebook, “Malaysia Airlines confirms that flight MH370 has lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2:40 a.m. today.”

SATCOM signals ended at 08:11, Malaysia time. MAS’s best-guess was that there was probably enough fuel for another thirty minutes of flight at 08:11. If there was a pilot trying to keep the plane airborne, when it ran out of fuel he could have glided it another one hundred nautical (115 statute) miles (185km) before it finally crashed.

At 08:19 the SATCOM sent an unscheduled log-on interrogation (ping). When Inmarsat’s bird replied, it didn’t get a confirmation making the 08:19 exchange an incomplete handshake.

The ATSB considered the possible explanations, and concluded that an electrical power outage was most likely. If the plane had run out of fuel, then all power would have failed. In a B777, this triggers the deployment from the tail of a small propeller-driven generator (the ram air turbine) to produce enough auxiliary power to serve basic systems, including the SATCOM. That was the last contact between Inmarsat and MH370.

What is certain is that plane missed a ping at 09:15, so by then it had crashed (or landed and the SDU again disabled) before then. Most calculations put the out of fuel time around this point, so that’s the base case assumption. If so, then MH370 flew for 7:37 in total, with the last 7:00 in radio silence and off radar screens for 5:57.

 

Events Subsequent to 8 March

A truncated list:

9 March, Inmarsat headquarters staff examined the SATCOM ping data and were surprised that MH370 was airborne for another seven hours from the last voice contact with the cockpit.

11 March, Inmarsat staff alerted the search team of its in-house findings re the ping data

12 March, the chief of the Royal Malaysia Air Force said that the plane had turned and was sighted on military radar headed west

13 March, the search shifted from the Gulf of Thailand to the Southern Indian Ocean (“SIO”). The USS Kidd diverted south to join Australian vessels.

13 March two US government officials told ABC News’ reporter Martha Raddatz, “We have an indication the plane went down in the Indian Ocean,” but in the same interview said that they didn’t know where that information had come from.14

14 March Malaysia Police classified their investigation as “criminal enquiry” and removed the flight simulator from ZAS’s home

15 March, Inmarsat’s story hit the newspapers

17 March, Australia took charge of the Joint Investigation Team’s (“JIT’s”) search operations in the SIO.

18 March, Thailand Military admitted that it, too, had tracked MH370’s reversal and flight across northern Peninsular Malaysia

31 March, MAS and Malaysia Airports announced tighter security measures including:

  • Anyone taking an international flight must now go through two metal detectors and undergo a body search before boarding
  • Neither the pilot nor co-pilot can be left alone in the cockpit in future
  • When bringing food into the cockpit, a flight attendant must stand guard at the door to prevent passengers from entering the area

11 April, Aussie authorities believed that they’d pinpointed the location of the wreck based on signals detected by a towed sonar buoy behind the Ocean Shield. But the black box 30-day battery lives were already exceeded and the searchers heard nothing more. This was ironic because the flight data recorder manufacturer Dukane Seacom came out at that time and said that their batteries should last 40 days, instead of the stock “30 days” quotation.

28 April, Australia called off the initial search with Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying, “This is probably the most difficult search in human history.”

25 May, Inmarsat released the full ping data sets to the public at the urging of an informal (but highly impressive) collection of scientists, engineers, and aviation experts calling themselves the Independent Group (“IG”). Led by UK- and New Zealand scientist Duncan Steel, the IG’s work found errors in Inmarsat’s calculations and helped the official investigators refine their search areas in the SIO.

26 June, the ATSB released, MH370—Definition of Underwater Search Areas.15 The report said that someone on board MH370 switched on the autopilot after the plane turned towards Antarctica, and that the last five hours of flight without dramatic turns suggested that the flight lost oxygen (a ‘hypoxia’ situation, indicating that all on board were already dead). Total search costs had reached US$56m.

18 August, the ATSB released a 64-page amended 26 June report with a better-defined 60,000km2 search area defined based on refinements to the Inmarsat data.

8 October, ATSB released, MH370—Flight Path Analysis Update17 with the recommendation that the next phase of the search concentrate farther south in keeping with recommendations offered by the IG after their contributors’ independent analyses were examined.

23 February 2015, US-based aviation consultant and CNN commentator Jeff Wise authors How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is?18 The article concludes that MH370 flew along a northern arc, not the southern arc, and that searchers were looking in the wrong places. He believed that the plane could have been hijacked and landed in Kazakhstan.

1 March 2015, Jakarta-based Gerry Soejatman publishes on his blog MH370: I hate conspiracy theories, but . . . What can we learn from them?19 The article points out several large gaps in airline safety that hijackers may have used to gain control of MH370, and suggests remedial steps.

8 March 2015, the Malaysia interim crash investigation report published.20 One statement that there was no evidence to support pilot suicide attracted criticism from many observers.

 

Endnotes

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_777

2http://theaviationist.com/2014/03/16/satcom-acars-explained/

3http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/10712034/How-MH370-vanished-and-how-it-could-have-been-avoided.html

4http://www.gerryairways.com/index.php/en/mh370-i-hate-conspiracy-theories-but-what-can-we-learn-from-them/

5http://www.freescale.com/

6http://theaviationist.com/2014/03/16/satcom-acars-explained/ 

7http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2582797/Hijackers-took-control-missing-flight-MH370-crawled-trap-door-disable-second-communications-system.html

8www.theaviationist.com (20 Mar 2014)

9http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/mh370-spent-23-minutes-above-maximum-altitude-may-have-caused-hypoxia-says

10http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/missing-malaysia-airlines-flight-mh370-flew-dangerously-low-altitude-evade-radars-1440543

11https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370-pages/updates/reports.aspx

12http://www.gerryairways.com/index.php/en/mh370-i-hate-conspiracy-theories-but-what-can-we-learn-from-them/

13https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_370, p. 5

14https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370-pages/updates/reports.aspx

15http://abcnews.go.com/International/malaysia-airliner-pinging-indication-crashed-indian-ocean/story?id=22894802

16https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370-pages/updates/reports.aspx

 17https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370-pages/updates/reports.aspx

18http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/02/jeff-wise-mh370-theory.html

19http://www.gerryairways.com/index.php/en/mh370-i-hate-conspiracy-theories-but-what-can-we-learn-from-them/

20http://mh370.mot.gov.my/download/InterimStatement.pdf

 

Recommended MH370 Websites and Articles

Anyone wanting to do a deep dive into MH370 will soon be overwhelmed by the volume of material on the web. A medium-level personal investigation would start with Wikipedia’s main article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_370 and then include the following sites:

https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370-pages/updates/reports.aspx for downloads of the two ATSB reports on the official MH370 investigations from June (updated August) 2014, and October 2014.

http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/category/mh370 for Duncan Steel’s blog relating to MH370. Duncan and the self-styled Independent Group offer high quality analyses of the off-radar movements of MH370 to try to pinpoint the downed plane’s location in the South Indian Ocean. Some articles also deal with possible northern arc routes and possible landing spots. Highly technical and high quality.

In particular see Further Progress Report from the Independent Group and Updated MH370 Search Area Recommendation (9 September 2014, updated 1 March 2015) on http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/1104 and downloadable in PDF format.

http://jeffwise.net/ for Jeff Wise’s blog. Jeff Wise is a New York-based aviation consultant, author and CNN expert contributor. Click on MH370 section. Contains his New York Magazine February, 2015 article espousing a northern arc, a Russian hijacking, and a Kazakhstan destination, plus interesting follow-up posts elaborating on the same topic.

For a PDF slideshow (accessible via Dropbox, but the file is 23MB) compiled by IG member Richard Godfrey summarizing the Independent Group’s findings as of 22 February 2015: http://jeffwise.net/2015/02/21/mh370-just-the-facts-maam/

http://www.gerryairways.com/index.php/en/mh370-i-hate-conspiracy-theories-but-what-can-we-learn-from-them/ for Gerry Soejatman’s blog. Gerry is a Jakarta-based aviation expert, former satellite industry executive, and consultant. His MH370 work is particularly good on SATCOM-related issues, and the security implications of his analyses.

http://keithledgerwood.tumblr.com/ for Keith Ledgerwood’s postings on the SQ68 piggyback hypothesis. Most of the material dates from March and April, 2014.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29083905 for a Sep 2014 BBC summary of most conspiracies

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_370_unofficial_disappearance_theories for Wikipedia’s summary of unofficial disappearance theories

Please add your comments below or email me at author@bradleywest.net.