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I’ve been back in Singapore a week, and the headlines suggest we’re caught in a time warp. Groundhog Day II: The MH370 Story Revisited sort of thing. In recent days we got a geography refresher course on the French West Indian Ocean possession Réunion, east of much larger Madagascar.

Reunion-island map 2015 Jul

Source: http://www.therakyatpost.com/news/2015/07/30/mh370-is-wreckage-found-on-Réunion-island-that-of-missing-plane/

Trash recovery workers walking a beach on the north end of the island found an almost-two meter (6 1/2’) by one-plus meter (3’+) stabilizer flap from the trailing edge of a B-777’s right wing.

Flaperon Reunion 2015 Jul

 

Flaperon closeup

Source: http://www.therakyatpost.com/news/2015/07/30/mh370-is-wreckage-found-on-Réunion-island-that-of-missing-plane/

The authorities flew the flaperon to Toulouse, France for analysis by Malaysia, US and local experts. As of 8 August . . . well, either the flaperon was or wasn’t off MH370. The MAS Boeing 777 9M-MRO was dubbed MH370 for the 8 March 2014 flight. The French said that the plate containing the serial number from 9M-MRO was missing, but there were other painted numbers . . . some of which weren’t entirely consistent with Boeing’s maintenance records. Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the piece was from MH370 and, furthermore, additional wreckage (e.g. window panes, luggage and seat cushions) had also been found on Réunion. The French refuted that second statement, tartly stating that no other plane wreckage was in their possession. Search vessels and volunteers headed for Réunion to look further. Academics went back and tweaked their models.

The CNN and BBC websites have been leading with the story, with subsidiary articles revisiting predictable sub-themes. Relatives of passengers aren’t accepting a single stabilizer as proof of anything relating to the fate of their loved ones. Scientists who painstakingly mapped debris drift patterns for the Indian Ocean were left scratching their heads: if MH370 crashed where it was supposed to, then there was little likelihood of anything reaching Réunion. With the main east-to-west currents north of the main seabed search area, the southern arc protractor crowd was left to contemplate a possibly slower, more erratic flight path that could have led to a more northerly crash site.

Meanwhile, the hardcore conspirators found plenty of shortcomings all around.

Debris Simulation Reunion 2015 Aug 10

Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33846493

This week’s blog uses the hoo-hah as an opportunity to examine the current state of play regarding all aspects of the MH370 investigations. To my eye, the evidence against Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah now approaches the legal standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ required for a conviction even though all of it is circumstantial. Let me know what you think at author@bradleywest.net.

Bradley West, Singapore, 9 August 2015

 

One fragment off a B-777 wing? So that’s all you got? Really?

A barnacled, aluminum-clad airplane part hasn’t changed many minds. If you were a hard core conspiracist before the flaperon, then faking ocean wreckage is something you expected. After all, such a program would be an order of magnitude easier than hijacking the plane to begin with, especially if that hijacking required spoofing BFO signals (see The Vanishing of MH370 II: A Little Information is a Dangerous Thing, 9 June 2015). There isn’t much imagination required to posit that those behind the hijackers tore a flaperon (and probably other floating parts) off the plane, and salted the wreckage far, far away from where MH370 actually landed. Or if your mind works in a particularly untrustworthy mode, the putative searchers (directed by the US) could have dumped these parts into the South India Ocean (“SIO”) up to a year ago to create a false trail.

Once again we see the fundamental problem with debating a conspiracy: there’s no way to prove or disprove the assertions. Nevertheless, let’s run this latest wrinkle through the Conspiracy Filter introduced in The Vanishing of MH370: One Conspiracy to Rule Them All (14 June 2015):

 

  • The fewer the conspirators required, the more likely: Other than the original hijackers, you’d need a half dozen people to pull pieces off (and from within) the plane, another half dozen to arrange the transportation and transfer to a vessel, and then a few more to crew the ship (or plane: push the faked flotsam out the cargo hold at low altitude) that made the final delivery. That’s a minimum of 12-15 more people, on top of the planners and hijack team of two or more. To my eye, that extra number of people vastly increases the likelihood a leak.

 

  • The less complicated the required skills or actions, the better: Here’s where the conspiracists take heart. If a group had the technical wherewithal to hijack a 777 in a way which flummoxed the entire world, sourcing and scattering debris across the ocean would have been child’s play.

 

  • The stronger the motive for a Government (or sponsoring intelligence agency) cover-up, the more likely is a conspiracy: This is a another point for the conspiracy crowd. Any government-backed hijacking that led to the murder of 239 (or a couple fewer) people has every incentive to create a phony evidence trail to mislead pursuers.

 

If you were a conspiracist before the flaperon, you’re still a conspiracist. If like me you were a non-conspiracist who was unhappy with the withholding of evidence by the authorities, and concerned by the evident contradictions in the official versions of events fed to journalists, then finding the flaperon is another point in favor of a flight ending in the SIO. After all, there have only been five B777 crashes (or disappearances) ever, and only one of them was anywhere near the Indian Ocean, that being MH370. And while there’s nothing overwhelmingly difficult about secreting a flaperon on a remote island, it’s not a trivial undertaking either. So if MH370 fell victim to a hijacking and cover-up, then this latest episode increases the chances that someday the story is going to come to light.

 

In a tizzy about the flaperon

MH370 Michael Exner published Implications from the Réunion Debris found July 29, 2015 on Independent Group leader Duncan Steel’s website. (Download the PDF using Dropbox via http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/category/mh370.) Then on 5 August (updated each of 6 and 7 August), Dr. Steel followed it up with Further MH370 Debris Analysis (access via www.duncansteel.com).

Steel and Exner (and researchers whose work they reference) have scrutinized every flaperon photograph that’s made it onto the Internet. The flaperon is almost certainly from MH370. The damage pattern to the flaperon tells an interesting story. Had the flaperon been attached to the wing when the plane hit the sea, it’s very doubtful it would have survived almost intact. Anyone thinking that MAS Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah emulated Captain Sullenberger’s 2009 Miracle on the Hudson soft landing should know that the SIO in March has two-to-three meter swells at a minimum, and that a giant Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engine was hanging below the right wing just in front of the flaperon. Recall that when Silk Air 185 crashed into the Musi River in Sumatra in 1997, the biggest pieces of wreckage recovered were about the size of magazine covers: the plane hit the water so hard it disintegrated on impact.

The more likely explanation is that the flaperon tore off the wing while the plane was in flight. There are two plausible causes, the more likely one being that the plane had already run out of fuel and was in a high angle, high speed, spinning dive that ripped the stabilizer away from the wing (destroying forty percent of the surface area in the process). The appearance of the metal is consistent with the torn-off-in-flight interpretation. The second explanation would require a piece of the right engine to fall off and hit the flaperon while it was deployed, also knocking it out of its slot. Either one of these explanations accounts for why the leading edge of the flaperon has very little damage while the trailing edge is ragged. Exner concludes that the plane making tight spiral into the ocean is consistent with a final resting point very near to the 7th arc, the focal point of the search efforts to date. With US$100 million spent and 60,000 square kilometers searched, how come nothing’s been found at the crash site?

 

‘X’ Marks the Spot at 34ºS, 94ºE

Duncan Steel’s survey article references Henrik Rydberg’s MH370: Finding the Debris Origin (http://www.duncansteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/debris-origin.pdf) which uses reasonable assumptions to narrow the likely crash site down to a two-by-two degree box centered at 34ºS, 94ºE. Independent Group member Richard Godfrey conducted his own analysis and the resulting paper Combined Inmarsat, Drift and Fuel Model (http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/category/mh370) cane to the same conclusion as H. Rydberg: 34ºS, 94 ºE.

There would be more excitement around this announcement if there hadn’t been so many other false leads over the 500+ days since MH370 disappeared and if the proposed crash site hadn’t already been searched thoroughly already as it lies in the middle of the present, heavily-scrutinized target zone.

 

Meanwhile, Back to our Regularly Scheduled SATCOM Re-boot Debate

The MH370 sleuths were busy since the last MH370 True Lies blog entry and the discovery of the flaperon on Réunion. Readers of the prior installments in The Vanishing of MH370 series know that the power to the satellite communications (“SATCOM”) equipment was turned off and then back on at almost the exact time that the plane was being flown in an intricate manner (i.e., climbing sharply and turning: not something that could be done readily on autopilot). Perhaps coincidentally, the plane also left radar range 02:22 Malaysia time, within a minute of the power being restored to the SATCOM. (We know these things because of the information received from Inmarsat satellite 3F-1 that was communicating with MH370.)

Airplane crash investigator and author Jeff Wise published a series of three articles on his blog between 9 and 20 July entitled The Mysterious Reboot (http://jeffwise.net/2015/07/09/the-mysterious-reboot/). MH370 buffs will find all three of Wise’s articles worth reading. In conclusion, after over a year (!) of study and debate, cockpit avionics experts have (more or less) agreed that there are four or five ways to turn off SATCOM power. Each approach is complex, so much so that none of them is taught to trainee pilots. A couple can be done from the cockpit, while the others either require someone to go below deck (via a trapdoor in the front galley) to access the E/E bay or to tamper with the specific satellite communications equipment via luggage bins or roof tiles in the ceiling near the middle of the plane.

What grabbed my attention was the list of the other onboard systems fed by the most likely power system array that would have been switched on and off, the “left AC transfer bus”. The cockpit door lock was listed, along with inflight entertainment, one high frequency radio, and the main passenger cabin lights. Copilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, locked out of the cockpit by the captain, could have switched off-and-on every circuit breaker he could find in an attempt to disable the cockpit door lock.

This theory fits Occam’s Razor: it’s simple and explains a plausible version of events. Hamid may have decided to power down a system for three minutes or so, have cabin attendants keep trying to open the cockpit door, and if that circuit breaker didn’t work then return it to the “On” position (to make certain that he wasn’t inadvertently de-powering a vital aircraft system that might cause a crash), and go on to the next one. There’s a TV movie plotline that the crew managed at some point to get into the cockpit, the pilot responded by depressurizing the plane, and maybe no one involved in the struggle was able to use an oxygen mask before they passed out. The result was everyone on board perished from hypoxia, and the ghost flight flew on for another five to seven hours before running out of fuel and crashing. That’s one plausible hypothesis.

In his first blog entries dealing with the SATCOM re-boot, Wise didn’t see why anyone on the plane would turn the power on and off unless they were tampering with the SATCOM. In particular, Wise had been a proponent of the Norther Arc conspiracy in which ethnic Russian’s hijacked the plane and landed it in Kazakhstan. To do so would have required them to flip the SATCOM signals to the satellite so that a plane flying along the northern 7th degree arc would instead appear to be flying a mirrored path along the southern arc. (See http://jeffwise.net/2015/03/07/new-york-how-crazy-am-i-to-think-i-actually-know-where-that-malaysia-airlines-plane-is/ for the original article that laid out this hypotheses. Subsequent articles on http://jeffwise.net elaborated on his theory, aided by Jakarta-based aviation expert Gerry Soejatman and Independent Group member Victor Iannello.)

Wise’s last Re-Boot entry on 20 July quite interestingly added one other instrument that ran off the same circuitry controlling the SATCOM: the cockpit voice recorder (“CVR”). So now we have two plausible explanations—both consistent with pilot mass murder—for why the SATCOM could have been switched off and then back on. A pilot bent on covering his tracks could erase the CVR records by turning the on and off the power supply (via that same left AC transfer bus switch) from the comfort of the cabin. There’s also a regional precedent Zaharie Ahmad Shah would have been familiar with, as Silk Air 185’s pilot also disconnected the CVR before flying the plane straight down into the Musi River. Discovering that the depowering sequence was possible took aeronautical engineers over a year. It’s fair to ask how an ordinary pilot—even one as experienced and methodical as Shah—could have worked this out on his own.

Wise concludes this blog entry by almost endorsing the pilot suicide interpretation. I’m all the way across the line at this point, with a second hijacker now no longer necessary to explain the sequence of events.

 

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So does a conclusion that MH370 crashed into the Indian Ocean mean that I have to re-write Sea of Lies? Nope. It’s a novel, not investigative reporting. And until the authorities raise a piece of fuselage containing identifiable human remains, I’m afraid the question of what really happened to MH370 will remain an open one in many relatives’ and skeptics’ minds. These are the times that try conspiracists’ souls, but a single flaperon does not put to rest the great MH370 debate. Far from it.