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“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Welcome to MH370 Conspiracy Week at True Lies, where little is accepted at face value, less can be proven and virtually nothing disproven. Anything goes, and often does. Within the realm of “if I had to pick a conspiracy”, I posit a China state-sponsored hijacking with a landing in Xinjiang Autonomous Region as the best (least bad?) fit of the facts on hand. Bear with me, and I’ll show you how I arrived at this loony conclusion.

I now appreciate why normal people flee when the words conspiracy theory get mentioned. Fellow conspiracists who don’t share your logic chain or analytical bent become hostile, while the general public think you’re nuts. Against that backdrop, this blog entry concludes True Lies’ MH370 treatment. There will be plenty of opportunities to issue corrections and clarifications in future. My novel (with a publisher, but not out yet) Sea of Lies touches on a half-dozen scandals, tragedies and mysteries. In future we have Khun Sa, Nugan Hand Bank, Edward Snowden, Stuxnet and more to explore.

I’m also pleased that high quality comments are being posted. Please add your voice, or if you prefer shoot me an email at author@bradleywest.net.

As before, my editorial comments appear in italics.

Bradley West, Singapore, 14 June 2015

 

When is enough enough?

On 15 May 2015, researcher Brock McEwen published the results of a Monte Carlo analyses (statistics-based computer simulations) and concluded that the MH370 search team had covered 99% of the original 60,000-square kilometer target area.1 Like Sherlock Holmes finding meaning in a dog that didn’t bark2, shouldn’t we start testing new theories when no evidence is found to support the favored hypothesis? Instead, in mid-April the official investigation team had announced that they were going to enlarge the search area and keep on plugging away even if the first target zone turned up empty. Then in an about-face, on 4 June 2015 the Australian search officials said that their efforts would cease once the current search zone completes in the next month. After costing A$100m (US$78m) plus RM$60m (US$16m), further search didn’t make sense in the absence of new leads3.

Way back on 21 April 2014, an anonymous Malaysia investigator told the Malaysia New Straits Times, “The thought of [MH370] landing somewhere else is not impossible, as we have not found a single [piece of] debris that could be linked to MH370. However the possibility of a specific country hiding the plane when more than 20 nations are searching for it seems absurd.”4

I agree with that statement, but what’s even more absurd is to keep on looking for the missing plane in the South Indian Ocean (“SIO”) if all we have to go on is calculations based on Burst Frequency Offset (“BFO”—see “A Little Information is a Dangerous Thing”, 7 June for a definition) data and fuel burn rate estimates. Einstein is often credited with saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Regardless of the provenance, there’s enough embedded truth that both Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous use it in their programs. Maybe the Joint Investigation Team (“JIT”) (consisting of the US, UK, Malaysia, France, Australia and China) should consider taking a different tack. Then again, maybe one or more JIT members don’t actually want MH370 to be found for their own nefarious or mundane reasons.

Jumping back to the present, there are still research papers being published5 that posit final resting places for MH370 that haven’t been searched thoroughly to date. So maybe the plane is in the SIO after all, but everyone’s been looking in the wrong places.

A. MAKING SENSE OF CONSPIRACIES

 

Conspiracies arise when the unexplained meets omissions, obfuscations and lies

What are the preconditions to conspiracy theories sprouting like toadstools after a fall rain? It starts with a breakdown of trust. The public doesn’t believe what they’re being told. And there’s a shortage of information, so that we never have the same data that the official investigators possess. And there are delays in confirming what’s been in the public domain for days. Then maybe the official story doesn’t actually tie back to the facts. In extreme cases (think political activists in countries with military dictatorships), people start disappearing. Los desaparecidos (“The disappeared ones”) originated in the Argentine dictatorship’s dirty war of 1976-1983.6 A look on Wikipedia under ‘forced disappearance’ turns up twenty-six countries featuring disappeared ones today.7 So disappearing without a trace is more prevalent than before. No wonder people are disbelieving and even frightened of their own government officials.

Public trust in the US (and other) governments took a beating at least the last forty (Watergate) and maybe fifty (Vietnam) years. Not just for the lies and omissions, but for the incompetent behaviors on display. That in turn points us towards the natural counterweight of the conspiracy theory, the “Screw-up” theory. (Many people spell Screw-up with an initial “F”.) Employees of government agencies and large companies know that otherwise smart people do incredibly stupid things when in large, dysfunctional groups. What outsiders see as well-oiled, cunningly orchestrated schemes are later often revealed by insiders to be colossal blunders reinforced (even encouraged) by higher-ups with personal agendas. The big bosses reward blind loyalty over merit. This in turn means that the subordinates who rise the highest do so by supporting the man above them, rather than do what’s right, or even what’s best for shareholders.

There’s no doubt that the MH370 search and investigation have been riddled with incompetence, much of it emanating from Malaysia. So maybe the MH370 disaster is better viewed from the perspective of Screw-up rather than Conspiracy. But as time passes, the balance of probability swings towards conspiracy when fifteen months pass without any evidence surfacing. The MH370 conspiracy industry is on the cusp of a boom. With many alternative solutions to the vanishing of MH370 to choose from, how can we evaluate conspiracies in a rationale fashion?

Occam’s Razor Creates a Workable Conspiracy Filter

William of Occam was an English philosopher and theologian who is credited with saying, “Use the simplest explanation that fits the facts”.8 Taking this to heart, I’ve formulated a Conspiracy Filter consisting of three guidelines:

  • The fewer the number of conspirators needed, the more plausible the theory. If there’s a big group of witnesses, someone always talks if you can find a way to interview them.

 

  • The less complicated the required skills or actions, the better. Not every hijacker is a B777-certified pilot.

 

  • Governments are always hiding something, but you also require motive and relevance. There’s a reason for everything, even if it makes no sense.

The Conspiracy Filter can co-exist with the Screw-up theory, with neither necessarily ruling out the other. But always we strive towards simplicity . . . as well as the recognition that sometimes bad luck (e.g. the coincident simultaneous occurrence of low probability events) is actually the hidden hand behind the scenes.

Let’s examine the Conspiracy Filter guidelines in greater detail, citing examples from several popular MH370 authors.

The “Law of Small Numbers” must apply for a conspiracy to stay secret

The probability of a secret leaking grows as the number of people in-the-know expands. Consider the probability of a leak using “1-1/n2” with “n” the number of people in on the secret. With n =1, the probability is zero. At n = 2, we jump to a 75% chance of a leak, then at n = 3 it’s 87.5% and so forth till we reach n = 10 and the chance of keeping something quiet is 0.1%. Possibly this formulation is too pessimistic: maybe up to three co-conspirators can know without jeopardizing confidentiality giving us an expected leak probability of “1-1/ (n-3)2” (always with “n > 3”).

But while we monkey with phony equations, there’s another variable that would need to be modeled as well, the “Wow!” factor. Not many people care if 7th grade Billy cheated on his geometry quiz. Quite a few colleagues would be interested to learn that Bill cheated on his oral defense of his PhD thesis. If Senator William underpaid his income taxes by $10 million, then there’s a newspaper headline in it. Up the ante even further to include presidential assassinations, faked moon walks and disappearing airplanes, and there’s considerable public interest. Maybe a proxy for “Wow!” is the amount of money someone would receive for telling the story. The MH370 saga has enough of a “Wow!” factor that there’s at least a million dollars to be had for conclusively proving what happened. And if there’s proof of a government being involved, or a cover-up, or murder . . . well, the “Wow!” payout ratio just multiplied.

So as the number of people who know grows, and the juiciness of the scandal increases, then the probability of a leak magnifies. Standing in opposition is the geography where the acts played out, and the degree of access outsiders have to prospective witnesses. If something scandalous happens in North Korea, then it’s less likely to get into the papers than if it occurred in London.

What does this have to do with MH370? If there’s a conspiracy that’s lasted almost fifteen months, then it has to be a very closely held one, or the scandal took place behind closed doors (e.g. in China, Russia or one of their vassals). Otherwise, we would have heard about it by now.

The less complicated the required skills or actions, the better

Jeff Wise was one of the aviation experts CNN brought into the studio after MH370 disappeared. He’s an articulate and persuasive speaker and writer, and has been helpful to me in trying to get the SATCOM machinations and other facts straight. Wise has written in his blog and a book published in Feb 2015, The Plane That Wasn’t There: Why We Haven’t Found Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (http://www.amazon.com/The-Plane-That-Wasnt-There-ebook/dp/B00TP07B0I/ref=dp_olp_1). His proposed solution is that two ethnic Russians carrying Ukrainian passports and a Russia national hijacked MH370. They put it on autopilot and flew along the BTO-defined northern arc to Yubileyniy (translation, “Jubilee”) airfield in Kazakhstan, adjacent to the Baikonur Cosmodrome where the Soviet space program used to have a large base.

Wise has put enormous effort into constructing a story that fits the known facts. And he might be right, but if you read his blog entries (start at http://jeffwise.net/the-spoof-part-1-why-a-speculative-scenario/ and keep going: it’s a fast, interesting read for MH370 junkies) you’re taken by the extremely high level of technical expertise required to pull this off. That doesn’t make Wise’s theory wrong—as you’ll see below, I come out in about the same place—but you have to realize that the greater the number of preconditions to a successful hijack, the lower the likelihood it actually happened that way.

Jeff Wise Theory Map

Source: Jeff Wise, How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is? New York Magazine (23 February 2015)

While I was perusing www.jeffwise.net (there’s a lot articles on MH370 on there: it’s easily the most reader-friendly site I’ve found), I ran across his December, 2014 blog entry entitled Occam’s Razor is Overrated9. Needless to say, I was intrigued and read more. Wise explains that, when he hears someone invoke Occam’s Razor, he instead recalls the words of the partner of an MH370 passenger, “There are 40 crazy stories that you could tell about MH370, and one of them is going to turn out to be true.”10 Applying the Conspiracy Filter, you’d reply, “When deciding which of the forty crazy explanations to investigate, rank them in order from simplest-to hardest-to-execute, and consider the easier ones more closely.”

Yes, there may be an intricate explanation for what actually happened, but the level of complexity that Wise’s, IG member Victor Iannello’s and my hypotheses incorporate is so high that it’s at least equally likely that there’s been a confluence of low probability chance bad luck events which brought the plane down in a highly improbable, yet accidental manner. Pilot mass murder is the simplest explanation that would work, but only if inconvenient facts are ignored starting with the need for two people to have been involved. (This was the focus of the 7 June blog, A Little Information is a Dangerous Thing.) Or maybe the BFO data have been badly misinterpreted, so that the present 60,000km2 search area doesn’t actual encompass MH370’s final resting place. Any of these conjectures is more likely to be true than any single conspiracy theory.

For now there are dozens of people modeling possible crash sites and dozens more contemplating conspiracies. It’s a real mess because there isn’t a single conspiracy that isn’t complicated and individually improbable to boot. So Wise may have a point: if you consider the cumulative probability of forty wild conspiracies, maybe that exceeds the likelihood that the searchers will find the wreck within the grid before end June 2015, or that the plane actually crashed at all into the Southern Indian Ocean. But in my business career, I shied away from Bayesian forecasting techniques that in essence boiled down to multiplying the probability of one crazy event occurring by the chance of a second unlikely event to give a new joint probability for both events. What Wise has suggested doesn’t feel right.

Governments are always hiding something, but we also require motive and relevance

There’s no doubt that the US pointed the search team towards the Southern Indian Ocean (“SIO”) well before interpretations of arcane Inmarsat burst frequency offset (“BFO”) data came to the same conclusion.

“. . . long-published claims that US satellites monitor the thermal trails of aircraft and seek to match them to known civilian and military movements and had detected MH370 as something anomalous in the near empty and thus obvious skies of the eastern Indian Ocean11

In particular, each superpower has satellites focused on their rivals’ ICBMs to detect missile launches or heavy bombers in the air. China bases its ICBMs largely in Yunnan province in the southwest, across the border from Thailand, Burma, and Bangladesh. If there had been an explosion on the plane (esp. if blew up or fell to the earth ablaze), then a US reconnaissance satellite above the border surely would have noticed.

Meanwhile, in Singapore the US military has its most important naval base for a thousand-mile radius. Nuclear-powered and armed aircraft carriers and their escort ships are either in port or nearby much of the year. It’s incomprehensible that the Navy doesn’t have radar tracking everything in the air within “X” miles (500? 1000?) that could potentially threaten the base or warships. Yet not once have we seen anything about what US military radar was or wasn’t tracking that night. Maybe the US radar records have been re-badged (and edited?) as Malaysia and/or Thai military radar tracings. This could explain why both Malaysia and Thailand were slow to share what their military radars had recorded: they were waiting for the Americans to deliver something they could talk about.

Similarly, the US’s Sound Surveillance System (“SOSUS”) combines specialist US Navy ships and satellites with a passive linear array hydrophone listening system grid that presumably extends across the Indian Ocean. (I did a quick Google search and couldn’t find a specific reference to the SIO.) One would have thought that the Navy’s needles jumped when (or if) a Boeing 777 crashed into the ocean. Academic listening posts tracking seismic activity off Australia are far less sensitive, and recorded nothing definitive around the likely crash time window, either. That the USS Kidd veered away from the Gulf of Thailand and headed down to the Indian Ocean off Perth suggests that non-public information was on hand (e.g. the submarine eavesdroppers had heard an almighty thud).

The cloak of national security comfortably covers each of the above examples. My complaining isn’t going to change anything. What I can’t accept in good faith is Inmarsat, the JIT and ATSB hanging onto even one scrap of non-military-sourced evidence that might help a researcher somewhere make a better interpretation of the data. Professor Middleton again, “. . . the Inmarsat information cannot be tested by intelligent and capable people because they do not have access to the proprietary information from Inmarsat.”12

When the initial Inmarsat data came out, the governments wouldn’t release the data to outside parties. The skeptics and conspiracists howled until the Malaysia government put out a report on 25 May (ten weeks after the crash). 1 March 2015, the Independent Group put out the following plea for more information:

Our investigation continues to be hampered by the lack of public release of the following information, which we have previously requested through official channels: (a) a complete Inmarsat data log; (b) information pertaining to the jitter characteristics of the onboard satellite communication terminal, this jitter limiting our determination of the location of the 7th arc; (c) ADS-B and ACARS derived positions for the aircraft in the early part of its flight, and the remaining fuel at the top of the initial climb; (d) PDA (Performance Degradation Allowance) information for the two engines installed on the aircraft; (e) the CI (Cost Index) for flight operations used by Malaysia Airlines in the original flight plan; and (f) Radar-derived positions of the aircraft known to exist for the period it was over the Malacca Strait and north of Sumatra.13

Meanwhile, there’s also been plenty of screwing up. What the public doesn’t know falls into Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”. Why the governments are not telling the public the truth only adds to the sense that the answer maybe isn’t a straightforward pilot suicide cum mass murder, or colossal series of coincidences culminating in an accident that left no clues. Maybe there’s a conspiracy afoot . . . .

 

B. APPLYING THE RAZOR

 

Occam’s Conspiracy Filter looks for a minimal number of changes

Let’s consider some of the better-known conspiracies against the backdrop of trying to change as little as possible from what is the official line on MH370’s vanishing. In order from least-to-most complicated:

  • Failed hijacking attempt ending in a ghost flight into the Indian Ocean

 

  • Hijack by Russians, alter the BFO data, fly the northern arc and disappear

 

  • Land at Bandar Aceh Airport (West Sumatra), offload cargo, and take off

 

  • Hijack MH370 to Diego Garcia via the Maldives

 

  • Hide MH370 in the radar shadow of SQ68

 

  • Alien abduction, time warps, black holes, shoot-downs and other longshots

In Part C, I share my own conspiracy which resembles Wise’s Russia hijack hypothesis with the outrageous wrinkle that China hijacked a flight that was headed to Beijing anyway. But for now, let’s focus on the least-difficult-to-enact conspiracies.

Failed hijacking attempt ending in a ghost flight into the Indian Ocean

Conditions to relax: Hijackers on board with weapons. Crew unable to signal a hijack in progress. One of the pilots depressurizes the plane to thwart the hijackers, but ends up killing everyone aboard and leaves a ghost ship on autopilot that crashes in the SIO.

Discussion: Security at the KL airport was lax pre-MH370. Light screening could have allowed a weapon to be smuggled aboard by one of the crew. Background checks of passengers should have identified potential hijackers, but no one was ever named. For lack of anyone else, notionally assume that the two Iranians were the hijackers. (Though of course, they almost certainly were not as they were the two most heavily scrutinized passengers on the plane.) If something like this happened, pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul  Hamid were probably heroes, and not villains.

Remaining problems: No debris field on surface or wreckage ever found. SDU power down and then power up sequence when all on board are presumed dead. Silence by the crew on the radios. Sophistication required by the hijackers to know how to disable the ACARS and SATCOM, coupled with the incompetence required to allow themselves to be suffocated via a cabin depressurization.

Russian hijack, alter the BFO data, fly the northern arc and land in Kazakhstan

This is Jeff Wise’s premise. See references above to his website, multiple blog entries and book.

Conditions to relax: Hijackers on board (maybe hiding in cargo hold or E/E bays) with weapons. Crew unable to signal a hijack in progress. Hijackers must be supported by a highly-sophisticated organization, either a major intelligence agency (in a rogue capacity) or a major government. Need to arrange a landing area (and then hide the plane), or two landing areas.

Discussion: Plane flies northern arc in border zones so as not to raise any alarms, meaning that a military-level pilot would have been required. MH370’s pilot wouldn’t have had the skill levels even if he were an accomplice. So either an expert pilot was part of the hijack team, or the hijackers had a sophisticated knowledge of flying to be able to activate autopilot routines to allow the plane to fly the precise route required.

“This aircraft was disabled in three primary systems. To be to disable those requires a knowledge of the system which even our pilots in Emirates don’t know how to do. Somebody got on board and knew exactly what they were up to.”

Tim Clark, President, Emirates (in an interview with Aviation Week at the IATA general meeting), Doha, June, 2014.14

Jeff Wise (and others) mentions that a B777 can be landed 100% on autopilot. If so, that reduces the need for military-level flying skills from the hijackers.

Many investigators mistrust the accuracy of the BFO data; most observers do believe the BTO numbers. It’s a big leap, however, from arguing over whether BFO anomalies suggest 10 nautical mile or 30 nautical mile search bands along the BTO 7th southern arc to suggesting that the BFO data were falsified and the plane went north instead. Wise is not alone in this belief, but he’s in the minority. Even if the plane did fly along the northern arc-of-the-pings, it could have reversed course, but stayed on the arc. If so then it could be at any one of a number of points along or within an hour’s flight time of the arc.

According to aviation industry consultant Gerry Soejatman, hijackers would have had to pull the circuit breakers in the E&E bay, and then falsify (“Spoof”) the BFO with a GPS enabled laptop hooked up the SATCOM antenna in place of the disconnected SDU.15 Victor Iannello believes that the BFO values from MH370 were sufficiently constant around 150 Hz that was unlikely that another SDU was swapped in. Instead, he describes a method by which someone in the cockpit could have used the Multi-Controller Display Unit (MCDU) to change the BFO inclination parameters stored in the SDU and shut down/ restore the power.16 When power came back up, then the altered BFO data would make the plane appear it was headed south when it was actually headed north.

Putin is hostile to the West and its allies, and may not have needed a concrete reason to take the plane other than to distract his foes (and demonstrate proof of concept for a later, strategic hijacking). Or maybe Putin needed a spare Malaysia Airlines B777 . . . something that occurred to many only after MH17 was shot down over Ukraine four months later in July.

Remaining problems: There are four formidable hurdles. First, maybe five countries (or intelligence agencies) in the world are able to pull off a hijacking of this sophistication: US, UK, Israel, China and Russia. Second, we’d need to determine a motive powerful enough that it justified murdering most or all of the passengers (unless they are being held captive). Third, that no country’s military radar spotted the plane either at the time (or presumably later on careful study of the 8 March radar recordings) is a real puzzler, too. I’ve previously written that China and India would have identified any unknown plane over their airspace that night. To those two, add Afghanistan and Pakistan with the US-supplied hardware in place.

Four, according calculations by Victor Iannello, MH370 wouldn’t have had sufficient fuel to reach Yubileyniy Airport adjacent to the Baikonur Cosmodrome.17 However, the plane could have landed in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan or Boraldai Airport (outside the capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty). So this fourth objection doesn’t completely dismiss the Russia Hijack Hypothesis, but it does relocate it.

Land at Bandar Aceh Airport (West Sumatra), offload cargo take off

Victor Iannello suggested this “highly speculative” (his words) scenario in a 23 August 2104 article called MH370 Scenario with a Landing at Banda Aceh.18

 Banda Aceh

Source: Victor Iannello, MH370 Scenario with a Landing at Banda Aceh (23 August 2014 as published on www.jeffwise.net)

Conditions to Relax: Same as for a successful hijacking, except the plane has to land either at Maimun Saleh (see below) or Sultan Iskandar Muda (Bandar Aceh) Airports. The Bandar Aceh runway is 3,000 meters long, equipped for night landings but is based within fifteen kilometers of 222,000 population Bandar Aceh city. If the offloaded cargo was needed somewhere else, then another plane or planes would have had to have landed and departed unseen as well.

Discussion: Hijackers could be ordinary (non-technical) terrorists as there’s no need to spoof the BFO unit, but the hijacker who took off from the West Sumatra airport would have to have been suicidal as he piloted MH370 into the Southern Indian Ocean as per the BFO and BTO readings. Presumably, the reason for the swift landing and take-off was to offload high value cargo (either people or materials) that the hijackers wanted others to think were lost. But to land and again take off again with no curious bystanders noticing defies belief and violates the law-of-small-numbers guideline.

Perhaps Maimun Saleh Airport better fits this premise. (Iannello mentions Maimun Saleh and then reverts to Bandar Aceh as his preferred airport, but I could find no mention of the reason.) Maimun Saleh is on a much less-densely populated island to the north of Bandar Aceh. Its runway is 1840 meters long, in theory long enough for a B777 to land and then take off again, but shorter than ideal. No commercial airlines use this airport at present, and it is not equipped for night operations.

Remaining Problems: Even though Maimun Saleh isn’t set up for night landings and take-offs, it would have been easier to temporarily light the short runway than to expect 220,000 inhabitants of Bandar Aceh to miss a B777 landing and taking off in the early hours of Saturday morning. We still require well-organized (if not necessarily state-sponsored) hijackers who were wealthy enough to charter a plane big enough to whisk away the high value targets, stealthy enough to evade Indonesia military radar, and ruthless enough to murder 239 people. That no group ever took credit for a hijacking suggests that either it was state-sponsored, or the hijackers were criminals seeking financial gain rather than political capital.

Hijacked to Diego Garcia via the Maldives

Conditions to Relax: Both BTO and BFO readings would have to have been faked. The 1700 US-employed people on Diego Garcia didn’t see anything, or aren’t talking. MH370 would have been unable to fly at the high speeds and low altitudes ascribed cited by Maldivians and reached Diego Garcia without refueling.

Discussion: Maldives residents of Kuda Huvadhoo in the remote Dhaal Atoll reported that the airplane flew overhead at 6:15 a.m. local time (08:45 Malaysia time) on Sat 8 March at low altitude.19 Foreign authorities have dismissed these claims. One reason is that MH370 would have almost certainly run out of fuel by that time: certainly not enough to reach Diego Garcia or any other runway of note. Yet no wreckage was ever found.

With or without the Maldives angle, there’s a still-active Diego Garcia conspiracy following20. The US rents the island from Britain, and has a huge electronic surveillance listening capability augmented by a large military airport and naval base. So the US (and probably the UK) would have had to be behind the hijacking. Later the US either ditched the plane, or hid it forever more. At least it satisfactorily answers the question why no one in Indonesia ever saw the plane on radar.

Remaining Problems: If both the BTO and BFO data were faked, then almost every other place on the planet within seven hours of the last radar contact becomes a viable destination. A Diego Garcia landing spot would require 1700+ people to be in on the cover-up. The US murdered more or less 239 passengers: if news got out, this would sour world opinion towards America, end Obama’s presidency and send many people to jail for a long time. Surely there’s a more discreet setting for a US-led hijacking-cum-mass murder?

Hide MH370 in the radar shadow of SQ68, and fly the northern arc

I sourced a little of the following material from a Forbes Asia article21, and the majority from Keith Ledgerwood’s blog (www.keithledgerwood.tumblr.com/). I sent Keith an email in early June asking if he had any further thoughts on the SQ68 Shadow hypothesis, but didn’t receive a reply. The site hasn’t been active in many months.

SQ68 Route

Source: Keith Ledgerwood, March, 2014 as sourced from http://MH370Shadow.com, copyright 2014 Keith Ledgerwood

Conditions to Relax: Both BTO and BFO readings would have to have been faked. World-class piloting required to keep MH370 in the SQ68 radar shadow for seven-plus hours, meaning that someone other than the Malaysia Airlines pilots was at the controls. At least one MAS pilot almost certainly in on the hijacking which would explain the absence of distress calls. State-sponsorship required to provide a landing strip somewhere in South or Central Asia. (No need for SQ68 pilots or other airline staff to be in on the plan.)

Discussion: That same night SQ68 (SIN-BAR) flew close enough to MH370’s reversed route that if MH370 could have located SQ68 and flown within 1600’-3,300’ in altitude and proximity of the SIA plane then MH370 would have been invisible to land-based radar. This in turn suggests that the MH370 pilots weren’t at the controls for this crucial part of the hijack, hence the need for a pilot who had previously practiced (or at least studied in advance) the shadow maneuver. The actual SQ68 flight path that night was across the Andaman Sea into the Bay of Bengal and then into India airspace.  At 08:19 when the last MH370 ping was received, SQ68 should have been just north of Afghanistan and over the border in Turkmenistan. Note that as distance from ground-based radar increases, then the necessity to be close together to leave a single radar blip decreases, and that military radars are much more sensitive than commercial equivalents. Crossing India unseen would have been very difficult.

If a pilot was in on the hijacking, then he would have had pre-flight access to the actual ICAO flight plan for SQ68 (and other targets). The MH370 pilots would have been able to listen to any ATC instructions given to SQ68, too. If a vector was verbally provided by ATC, both MH370 and SQ68 would have received the same instruction at the same time.

Furthermore, a pilot or hijacker with the Flight Management System (“FMS”) flight plan route for SQ68 could have programmed the same into the MH370 FMS and then used autopilot to hold altitude above SQ68, making the small adjustments in speed and altitude manually from time to time.

For MH370 to be able to find and track SQ68 it wouldn’t have taken anything more than a hijacker-pilot could carry on board in his carry-on luggage: an inexpensive portable ADS-B receiver paired with an iPad and Foreflight software application.

Remaining Problems: The preceding makes for compelling reading and absent the Inmarsat data would have received longer-lasting attention. But as long as the Inmarsat data are correct—at least the BTO distance-determining pings—then the SQ68 hypothesis must be incorrect. (See the previous blog entry, A Little Bit of Information is a Dangerous Thing of 7 June for the case for the authenticity of the BTO data.)

Two pilots interviewed by Transportation magazine’s Alex Davies were dubious as to whether even a test pilot-level aviator could locate SQ68 at night, then position MH370 undetected above and stay there for hours. In theory, it could work. In practice, they doubted it. “It sounds totally crazy,” said ex-test pilot Doug Moss.22

Alien abduction, time warps, black holes, shoot-downs and other longshots

These explanations lie at polar opposites to Occam’s dictate of keeping explanations simple. Irrespective of the passions of the advocates, the proposed solutions are so complicated (or require such unusual prerequisites such as a black hole that swallows an aircraft, but nothing else) that they fall out of our scope. Besides, they’re ridiculous.

I suppose there’s room between shadowing SQ68 and alien abduction that is occupied by “someone shot MH370 down by mistake and won’t own up”. On reflection, maybe that isn’t so outlandish after all . . . .

 

C. MAYBE CHINA HIJACKED A PLANE FULL OF ITS OWN NATIONALS

Suggesting that China sponsored the hijacking is nuts for at least three reasons:

  • The plane was headed to Beijing! Anything or anyone the Chinese wanted to inspect, impound, interrogate or detain could have been handled on arrival.
  • There were 153 China passport holders on board, far more than any other nationality. China had a lot of people and prestige to lose if they went missing.
  • The US (and probably Russia) would be tracking the plane, so once it landed in China it couldn’t be hidden or flown elsewhere without its rivals knowing (and presumably announcing this to the world).

So the need for motive looms large, followed closely by feasibility. Let’s look at them both. I’m not claiming there’s an ironclad case for a China Hijack, far from it. It still seems more likely that we’ve misunderstood vital information and the lead pilot flew the plane into the SIO with no survivors. But fifteen months and US$94m later, it’s time to exercise bigger minds than mine to look harder at the unconventional explanations.

Several plausible motives for a China-led hijacking, but nothing compelling

The key difference between hijacking a plane and having it disappear versus detaining (or even kidnapping) people of interest is that in the case of a managed disappearance (hijacking), your foes think that the people are dead. If you want to deprive your adversary of talent, you kill them. If you want to know what the talent knows, kidnap or arrest them and ask questions. But if you do so, expect your foe to adjust accordingly and immediately. For the longest-lived strategic advantage, dupe the world and reap maximum benefits from your illicitly-acquired knowledge.  Making a plane disappear is a prime way of being able to interrogate a high value target who is assumed dead.

We can make an analogous argument substituting high value cargo for people other than you don’t interrogate a computer chip or a design, you just use it. The Malaysia authorities never have released a full manifest of what cargo was on the plane. There’s a lot of hardware possibilities covered in a description of 5,000lbs (2230kg) of “radio accessories and chargers” plus 500lbs (221kg) of “lithium batteries.” Who owned these items? Who were the end-users in China?

So for the moment, assume that there was someone or something that the government of China wanted to take off MH370 that no one could know about. That’s motive. I don’t have any specifics beyond this general case, but any reader of espionage thrillers could tell you that it would be very useful to be able to interrogate a spy without their employer knowing. So among the 153 China nationals on board, could one of them have been a Russia or US mole or double agent? Semiconductor design and fab Freescale had twenty executives on the flight. There was an ex-IBM senior executive aboard who could have been a high value target. Jeff Wise’s blog outlines the biodata of three ethnic Russians, anyone of whom could be of interest to China.23 There may have been a China national who represented a potential domestic threat, and knew the names of the leaders of this particular cause.

Do I have any proof of the above? Not a scrap, but I wonder how much productive time and effort has been expended by Western intelligence agencies in examining the China nationals on board. Ten percent of $94m? I doubt it. Five percent? One percent? Closer to the mark. And, of course, nothing’s to prevent passengers who otherwise would have rung alarm bells under their own names from flying using false IDs. Certainly two Iranians didn’t have any problems passing through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport using stolen Austrian and Italian passports.

Let’s shift tack. Pretend you are a bright naval intelligence officer in Beijing tasked with determining the US’s submarine detection capability in the Southern Indian Ocean. China has spent billions perfecting and building ultra-quiet diesel-powered submarines that the US has difficulty tracking in the Western Pacific. Does China have to deploy these expensive stealth subs in the Indian Ocean, or are US sub-detection capabilities subpar given that region’s historical unimportance vis-à-vis the Atlantic or Pacific? That’s a strategic decision with implications for how fast China can project its blue water navy into the Indian Ocean. Maybe you go to your boss and tell him about a wild plan that will force the Americans to show enough of their cards—acoustical signatures, satellite images, surface tracking techniques—that you may be able to fill in the gaps yourself. Plus it could divert your foes’ (and its allies’) ships for a long time, capture a lot of mindshare and cost a boatload of money. “Tell me more, Lieutenant, I’m listening,” the PLA Navy admiral says.

None of the preceding motives is compelling, but each is plausible. We’ll come back to motive. Let’s move on.

There’s a much stronger case for China rather than Russia to be the sponsor

If BTO readings were accurate, then according to IG member Victor Iannello there are three locations that MH370 could have reached along the northern arc with its fuel load and under the prevailing weather conditions: Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan; Almaty (or nearby Boraldai Airport), Kazakhstan; or Kuqa Qiuci Airport, China in Xinjiang Autonomous Region.24

Flight paths to Northern Airports

 

Source: Victor Iannello, Northern Routes for MH370 Ending at Airports, 27 April 2015 (as published in www.jeffwise.net)

Kuqa Qiuci Airport services an area of land, not even a city. It’s a perfect place to land the plane about the time the Inmarsat pings ended. For this plan to work, however, does require the BFO data to be falsified. Spoofing the BFO output is a formidable challenge. So a hijacking would have to be state-sponsored rather than, say, undertaken by a pair of disgruntled Uighur Muslims trying to draw world attention to China’s behavior in Xinjiang.

Unlike the Russia Hijack hypothesis where there are three (and only three) possible suspects, we now have 153 China nationals, plus maybe another three dozen or more ethnic Chinese holders of other passports. Let’s assume two-thirds can be ruled out immediately as geriatrics, children or stay at home housewives with scant opportunities to undergo advanced training. We still have sixty potential suspects as hijackers. It’s more likely that an expert pilot, satellite software expert and/or ruthless hijacker could be found within this group than any other subset of passengers that one could identify.

The China angle also solves what for me is a huge problem with the northern arc, namely why China didn’t spot the plane on radar. The northern arc would have taken the plane over Yunnan province which is home to sophisticated military radars set up to guard China’s ICBMs. The plane would have had to fly through delicate airspace for a long time without provoking a response. Maybe the radar operators were all asleep at their desks that night, or didn’t notice. Certainly that seems to have happened in at least Malaysia, and perhaps Thailand and Indonesia, too, with military as well as civilian operators. But given that China’s equivalent of NORAD is defending the country’s strategic nuclear deterrent, to say that China didn’t monitor an unknown radar blip flying along its borders for over one thousand kilometers doesn’t make any more sense than if you told me that an unidentified B777 could fly along the Canada-US border and no one in Cheyenne Mountain noticed it.

So if the plane flew along the northern arc, at some point China had it on a radar screen. And with China being the principal “victim” of the hijacking, the officials would know where to push the investigation. At a minimum, they would have said, “Leave to us the background checks on our own nationals, plus anyone else based in China full-time.” All of the above would make for a good novel. (Unfortunately, I wrote the book before this latest information came to light so Sea of Lies does not employ the China Hijack hypothesis.)

Motive reconsidered . . . maybe the hijack went bad

I’ve saved the most outlandish motive for last in the hope that (a) not many readers make it this far; and (b) a higher power will be inspired to produce a better version. What if the reason behind the choice of landing sites was the wish for China to turn public opinion against the Xinjiang independence movement? Otherwise, why go to the risk and trouble of hijacking a plane and landing it in the middle of nowhere where there’s a sporadic armed insurrection underway? There are plenty of safer places to put down. Part of the answer lies in the northern-southern arc symmetry. If the BFO data were falsified, the goal of the misdirection along the southern arc would be to indicate that the flight ended in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Fly MH370 too far east and the southern arc would then shift across the Australia mainland where domestic radar would quickly report that there wasn’t anything in the sky at that time. But there are still many other airstrips that could have been chosen.

Maybe the idea was to land the plane at Kuqa Qiuci Airport, remove whatever was of high value, and then fake a rescue operation. We’ve seen enough TV to imagine the purported Uighur terrorists in headscarves and dark glasses brandishing assault rifles from the open door of an airliner parked on the tarmac. Before the phony storming of the plane makes it onto television screens worldwide, the hijackers have already offloaded the high value targets and/or cargo. The BBC shows their anti-terrorist commandos approaching the jet when it goes up in a giant ball of flame. A horrible end that discredits the separatists, gets rid of all the evidence, and gives China a two-for-one with both a substantive and a propaganda benefit.

If that was the original plan, what happened instead? Maybe MH370 crashed around 08:19, either because it ran out of fuel before it reached the runway, the hijackers botched the landing, or the B777 automated landing routine didn’t work as expected. There wasn’t a lot of fuel on board, so there wasn’t fire when it crashed. It was in a remote area, so there weren’t many (any) witnesses with access to CNN anchors or NYT reporters. Everyone lost out: the passengers, the hijackers, MAS and the sponsoring state. China didn’t want any international investigation of the crash site for fear of the evidence that might turn up. So within a couple of days, anything that might have been spotted from the air had been removed. Within a week, most of what could be seen from the ground would have been swept away.

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

No matter how many times I spin it, the China Hijack hypothesis is pretty flimsy.  Let’s poke another hole in it, namely that the US has a lot of hardware circling over Yunnan Province to make certain that no ICBMs launch on the sly. A handful of US agencies operate military satellites that track radio communications that would precede launch prep (much less a launch). NSA has imaging satellites reading license plates in Kunming restaurant carparks. The NRO has birds that see thermal images in the dark, tracking heat signatures to ensure there aren’t any outbound unpleasant surprises. As a US taxpayer, I sure hope that this panoply of surveillance hardware could and would have tracked any and every plane in that sensitive airspace. And Russia no doubt has a similar capability, but perhaps not as sophisticated.

So if MH370 flew along the northern arc, China and the US definitely tracked it, and Russia probably had it on screen, too. To believe otherwise invokes the Screw-up Theory on a major scale. We’re stuck unless someone can come up with a reason why none of the big three adversaries wanted the world to know the actual fate of MH370. Even for a conspiracy theorist, that feels like a stretch.

Despite all the caveats and misgivings, the China Hijacking conspiracy fits through Occam’s Filter better than the other conspiracies considered (with the exception of the failed hijack–>ghost flight hypothesis). Certainly there’s no shortage of outlandish theories as to what happened to MH370. We now have another.

 

End Notes

 

1http://031c074.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/MH370-End-of-Flight-Modeling-v2.pdf as requested by Brock McEwen, 19 June 2015.

 

2 http://brieflywriting.com/2012/07/25/the-dog-that-didnt-bark-what-we-can-learn-from-sir-arthur-conan-doyle-about-using-the-absence-of-expected-facts/

 

3http://www.9news.com.au/world/2015/06/04/08/24/search-for-mh370-will-end-with-no-expansion-to-area-unless-new-leads-found

 

4http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/malaysia-airlines-flight-mh370-concerns-grow-among-search-officials-that-missing-jet-may-have-landed-somewhere-else-9275374.html

 

5http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/category/mh370/page/2

 

6https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_War

 

7https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forced_disappearance

 

8 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/occam’s%20razor

 

9http://jeffwise.net/2014/12/01/occams-razor-is-overrated/#more-3530 Wise on Occam

 

10http://jeffwise.net/2014/12/01/occams-razor-is-overrated/#more-3530 Wise on Occam

 

11http://blogs.crikey.com.au/planetalking/2014/10/06/mh370-mystery-is-as-weird-on-dry-land-as-it-is-on-the-sea-floor/

 

12http://time.com/3826131/mh370-malaysia-airlines-missing-jet-stop-search/

 

13http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/1222

 

14http://aviationweek.com/commercial-aviation/emirates-clark-sees-mh370-investigation-deficiencies

 

15http://www.gerryairways.com/index.php/en/mh370-i-hate-conspiracy-theories-but-what-can-we-learn-from-them/

 

16http://jeffwise.net/2015/05/17/guest-post-northern-routes-and-burst-frequency-offset-for-mh370/

 

17http://jeffwise.net/2015/04/29/guest-post-northern-routes-for-mh370-ending-at-airports/#more-3915


18 http://jeffwise.net/mh370-scenario-with-a-landing-at-banda-aceh-by-victor-iannello-august-23-2014/

 

19http://www.haveeru.com.mv/news/54062

 

20http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-03-18/did-missing-flight-mh370-land-maldives-or-diego-garcia-full-updated-summary

 

21http://www.forbes.com/sites/donaldfrazier/2014/03/20/malaysia-airlines-370-in-central-asia-a-theory-thats-less-outlandish-than-it-seems/

 

22http://www.businessinsider.sg/pilots-react-to-the-most-elaborate-malaysia-370-weve-heard-yet-2014-3/#.VWfoDc-qpBc

 

23 http://jeffwise.net/the-spoof-part-5-people-on-the-plane/  

 

24http://jeffwise.net/2015/04/29/guest-post-northern-routes-for-mh370-ending-at-airports/#more-3915