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Mar 14, 2014

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In a sensational development the Wall Street Journal reports that the last satellite ‘ping’ from missing 777 flying Malayasia Airlines flight MH370 came at least five hours after take off at a normal cruising altitude over water.

The story doesn’t identify the location of those ‘pings’ emanating from the flight, with 239 people on board, which disappeared early on Saturday morning 8 March.

However it makes the denials from Malaysia’s authorities look false and misleading.

At this early stage, it is important to keep in mind that the jet may not have flown in a straight line from where it was last known to be 42 minutes after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur, at 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand, heading as planned for Vietnam and then onwards to Beijing.

The course followed may have been erratic. We just don’t know yet, although it is very likely, intelligence in the US or China may well know where it went with considerable precision.

Today’s earlier announcement by the White House that warships are being deployed to the Indian Ocean because of information that the 777-200 may have crashed into it somewhere to the east of India is now highly significant.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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79 thoughts on “WSJ: Last ping from MH370 was after 5 hours and over water

  1. The importance of this analysis in my view was not about what should have been obvious but the perspective on how the aircraft may have evaded scrutiny in those early crucial hours. Another point is the detailed planning which would have gone into this event well before it happened if indeed this analysis is correct.

  2. It’s always easy to be wise after the event (though we’re not even at that stage yet).

    I’m sure in the weeks & months ahead, there’ll be much analysis about what was ‘obvious’ & when (with the benefit of hindsight.!).

    Although it’s not by any means over yet, those of us who’ve been following this from the start (& have publicly or privately speculated about what’s going on), haven’t had the benefit of the full information which was available to the SAR teams, the air-accident investigators, nor the various security services.

    My heart says there might still be hope for the passengers, my head says not.

    Anyone with a public ‘certainty’ about anything at this stage, after all the twists & turns which have so far been revealed, is probably less-informed than the readers of/contributors to this blog.?
    (Right now, I would imagine that anyone in the security or investigation services who REALLY knows what’s happened, wouldn’t be in a position to talk about it.?).

  3. Wonder pigeon. An auto pilot flies an aircraft where it is told. It will simply follow a heading, hold an altitude,fly an intricate flight plan (using waypoints) from a flt management computer or blind land an aircraft using suitable nav aids. That flight plan is selected/entered manually from data stored in the FMC.

  4. IF you landed it intact somewhere & actually wanted to re-use it again,
    Empty, but with a full fuel load, wouldn’t need anything like 8000 feet.
    I would think that 4000 feet might be possible on maximum thrust, bearing in mind whoever had it won’t be worried about overstressing the engines.

  5. I find that 777-200 requires 8000-feet for take off at maximum weight (MTOW)…correct me if I’m wrong, but that wouldn’t necessarily rule out substantially shorter strips to conduct reasonably safe landing/take-off, given that upper-limit MTOW figure, would it?

  6. Thank you, Confirmed Sceptic and discus for that info. Much appreciated, and interesting.

    @Stephen Fiyalko: a cursory perusal on Google maps show quite a few airstrips, including one that appears to be at least 3000 feet long on the eastern coast of Great Nicobar island marked as “Military Area” near what is labeled “RPRS Colony”. Other sizeable strips may be found on the islands to the north, including Car Nicobar appears to be in excess of 3000 feet in length, and at Port Blair on the biggest island in the Andaman-Nicobar archipelago which has one at a substantial 6000-feet or more. Can’t tell anything about how well equipped those places may be to service a big jet or refuel it, etc…just that they are there.

    What is the minimum airstrip length a 777-200 requires to perform a safe landing?

  7. Treeguy – presumably the Debord is as in Guy Debord, the most famous of the ’50s-’60s Situationists and author of the Situationist bible The Society of the Spectacle. Which may indicate that Abbigail is an attempt at a Situationist stunt. Really, the Left does humour much better 😉

  8. Stephen Fiyalko,
    It would be interesting to know when this ‘information’ was shared with these two organisations.?
    It would also be interesting to know if SITA was authorised to share this information with the investigative authorities & if so, when that happened.?

  9. Just discovered this blog and note statement from inmarsat at http://www.inmarsat.com/news/inmarsat-statement-malaysia-airlines-flight-mh370/ as follows: Inmarsat statement on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
    14 March 2014: Inmarsat has issued the following statement regarding Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
    Routine, automated signals were registered on the Inmarsat network from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 during its flight from Kuala Lumpur.
    This information was provided to our partner SITA, which in turn has shared it with Malaysia Airlines.
    For further information, please contact Malaysia Airlines.
    Not sure what this means.

  10. So I have a question for you people with flight experience: when auto-pilot is set, does it just fly the plane in a straight line unless told otherwise? Or does it ever make any turns on its own? I’m guessing it just goes straight but obviously I have no idea. It seems to me like the question of whether this was a dead plane flying or whether it was being intentionally diverted could be answered if we knew whether the plane flew in a straight line or not – assuming auto-pilot flies in a straight line.

    Reports from the Wall Street Journal and Reuters haven’t mentioned at this point whether the flight followed a straight line or not, but it seems like this must be a piece of information someone has. The latest Reuters article gives a number of waypoints that the plane went near, and it seems like one could put those together to figure out whether it made turns or not. It seems like it must have turned, just to have gone from its last point of contact, to the Palau Perak area, and then towards the Andaman Islands, as is now being reported by Reuters. That doesn’t clear up much about what is going on, but it does make it seem highly likely that this was intentional and not the result of a change of course followed by crew incapacitation.

    Another inference I’m willing to make is that if the U.S. is truly exploring the possibility that the plane was stolen and landed for later use, then it had to have been near enough to land at its last ping for this to have been possible given its fuel load – meaning it was keeping relatively close to the South Asian landmass, as opposed to heading southwest into the middle of the Indian Ocean.

  11. I think you will find “Abbigail Sarandon-Debord” is a badly constructed troll by a right winger trolling leftists for blaming everything on Tony Abbott. The use of the surnames of a prominent leftist actress and public activist together with that of a prominent French marxist is a bit of a dead giveaway. Suggest deletion to be honest. You’ve been had.

  12. my thinking is still along the lines of the world needs to respond to the real cost of safe flying. to me it does not matter if this is a possible 9/11 attempt or any other criminal activity or if it turns out to be an aircraft fault ..this is not as shocking as the fact that the world cannot find this plane and does not seem to know what has happened almost one week later. We have been warned and continually told of the threat of terrorism and yet this can still happen. We can wake up a remote spacecraft years later from the earth! But we cannot find a plane and protect innocent human life under our own noses. What is that telling the flying public?? If this shakes up Governments, the aviation world and the general public it is well past time as we already said after 9/11 and we are now 13 years after that shocking attack. I recently flew Perth to Adelaide and no ID required to collect my ticket or board the plane??? WHAT! not so long ago when I was working in travel I would have clients call me in distress because they had lost their photo ID and all other ID was not accepted by the airline regulations at that stage to board the flight. How could we become so complacent? Because we want everything to be CHEAP! hope this makes sense I know this is a one in a million wild card but so was 9/11.

  13. Confirmed skeptic, yes it is about regulations and the almighty dollar.

    A lot of CVR’s I believe are now mandated to have 2 hours (v 30 minutes of the older type) which under normal circumstance would be ample.

    DFDR’s 25 hours.

    Both I believe will be mandated (if not already on new airframes) to have battery back up for 10 minutes of operation independent of aircraft power.

  14. Source: Bloomberg news site.

    Airline chiefs are as stunned as the public by the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner and the failure of efforts to locate the wide-body plane even after six days of searching, the head of industry group IATA said.
    “Everyone is very surprised that it could happen like this and we share that surprise,” International Air Transport Association Chief Executive Officer Tony Tyler said. “The fact that an aircraft has disappeared we all find extraordinary.”
    Tyler said yesterday that the lost plane should prompt the industry to examine the case for real-time data downloads able to constantly track aircraft positions, and he added today in London that even once the Boeing Co. 777 is found the time that it’s been missing poses issues for the entire industry.
    “An incident like this raises a lot of questions, some for the airlines, some for the manufacturers and many for governments and air navigation service providers,” he said. “Whatever is eventually found to be the truth behind what has happened, these questions need to be answered.”
    IATA, which includes 240 airlines accounting for 84 percent of global traffic, will respond to the loss of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) plane by tapping a unique “convening power” provided by its breadth of membership to instigate an evaluation of constant data streaming, Tyler said in an interview.
    Triggered Transmissions
    Efforts would most likely be led by Kevin Hiatt, who joined IATA as senior vice president for safety and flight operations last month, said Tyler, who has led the industry group since 2011, when he stood down as CEO of Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Asia’s No. 1 international carrier.

  15. A simple motive:

    It seems the aggrieved pilot wanted to hurt the airline as much as possible, by causing as much blame as possible to be placed on the airline.

    The flight over the Bay of Bengal provides two incentives for him. It makes the aircraft wreck and flight recorders difficult to find. If they are found, the voice recorder has then looped over itself and erased audio of the struggle with the other pilot.

    The voice recorder itself was a motive for this turn back and detour.

  16. Anton…all good questions. Here’s a rhetorical one for you: why is my FMS still chugging along with an 8086 processor from the early 80’s?

    Airline avionics are always at least one technological generation behind. By the time a design is frozen and enters production it is well obsolete. And that’s before the twenty year product life cycle even starts!

    Also, airline avionics are very much regulation driven. There are many aircraft still flying with bare minimum acceptable avionics. I expect that this sorry episode will result in a flurry of rulemaking mandating pretty much what you and others have suggested.

    The thirty minute rule for CVR was written when that was the state of the art. It could easily be thirty days now. Or some industrially palatable interval. The technology is no longer limiting. Same goes for the FDR.

    I have a friend who works for the largest data recorder maker…he reports that it is a tough sell to get airlines to sign up for their best model recorders.

  17. Additionally, Abbigail, there are only two Anzac class frigates in those waters right now, and the Armidale patrol boats are all in harbour due to hull cracking. The Anzacs are about the only surface ships worth sending, but given the chaotic and contradictory SAR coordination thus far, which ocean would you have sent them to? As already mentioned, the P3 Orions are by far the mist capable platforms on the job, and we have sent two. NZ and USA have each sent one.

    The data released today about the radar track explains why nothing has been found so far.

    +1 on Abbott being many disagreeable things, but racist isn’t one of them, in my view.

  18. The ability to disable auto-system signaling is one thing. What has bugged me since the mid-nineties is that black box technology hasn’t been upgraded to be able to store COMPLETE TAKE-OFF-TO-LANDING DATA On EVERY FLIGHT, no matter what the duration. How many more times do mishap/accident investigators have to contend with situations where they have to attempt to piece together what happened because the box data can’t supply the relevant information, because the loop duration has been set at some arbitrary interval of time that all too often cannot supply the relevant data, because its been over-written?

    There seems no excuse for adhering to the same old protocol when so many mishap examples have repeatedly demonstrated a need for longer period recording. Given the technology available as of a decade+ ago – and especially the event of 9/11 – it seems unconscionable that these devices have not been, to my knowledge, significantly upgraded.

    Can anyone here specifically knowledgeable in this area set me straight and provide a succinct explanation as to why ‘black box’ data storage and/or retrieval coupled with its ability to withstand extreme shock, temp extreme and high pressure deep sea environment – presents any serious barrier toward employing high capacity data uptake that can both accumulate and store such data at hi res over the duration of any flight?

    There was some mention amongst these good commenters in a thread attending a post by Ben a few days ago, but it didn’t crystalize anything for me. My naïve thinking is analogously something like this: if the equivalent of a mechanical phonograph can be preserved against severe physical shock, temperature and pressure extremes, and preserve whatever data it recorded for some period of time after a catastrophic event, surely that same technology could provide sufficient protection for a system employing a digital accounting and memory far superior to the mechanical ‘phonographic’ means. Spacecraft are regularly outfitted with electronics and computer hardware that is ‘hardened’ – components that can withstand impressive resistance to shock, vibration, temperature extremes, as well as a hard vacuum, extreme static electrical potentials, and brutal radiation levels delivered by high-energy particles concentrated within planetary magnetospheres (think of the Jovian environment for the Galileo mission, and the Juno spacecraft currently en route to that incredibly harsh destination), not to mention those delivered by solar flares/CME events and a constant background pummeling of cosmic rays – some of which carry the energy of a baseball struck out of a stadium carried within a single proton moving at nearly the speed of light. (Something like that doesn’t need to smack bulls eye to a circuit board in order to wreak havoc – just striking any part of the external structure on the spacecraft can deliver an intense spray of many thousands of secondary particles that can induce severe ionization potentials that can seriously compromise spacecraft electronics.

    Pardon the side-rant, but it is puzzling that such digital technology has so greatly advanced over the last four+ decades with respect to the utility of (especially interplanetary) spacecraft, while this kind of robustness apparently has not been achieved or has unaccountably been deemed technically and routinely unfeasible at any reasonable cost for airliners. WHY is that? Why does there remain a relatively brief time-span looping in these systems? I have long had trouble understanding this, and have found it increasingly difficult to accept the ‘explanation’ that the current strain of systems as it exists is anything near the ‘state of the art’, let alone the only economical means thus far established to provide flight data. I don’t believe it.

  19. Abbigail – the Australian government have sent RAAF Orion aircraft which appear to me to be some of the best involved in the search (much better than Malaysia or Vietnam have surely). Personally I think we could deploy some more especially given many of them used to be based at Butterworth – and they are probably better tools in terms of area they can cover in this case. Irrespective of how little respect I have for our current PM; I’m not sure how anyone could accuse this particular response as racism.

  20. Why isn’t Abbott doing more to find MH370? We have so many naval assets north of Australia trying to stop boat people. Why don’t we try use them for good trying to find the missing plane? Maybe if Abbott offered help sooner, we would have found flight MH370 by now? We’ll never know. Maybe Abbott doesn’t want to help the Malaysians because he’s racist? That’s what a lot of people are saying.

  21. Thanks for enlightenment regarding transponders – confirmed sceptic n George glass.

    Point taken regarding ultimate controls in the hands of pilots n not every pilot is a mass murderer.

    My line of query albeit flawed is for times like this when the plane goes missing and no one has a clue of a crash location the presence of a standalone communication device that transmits the precise last known location of a crashed plane which cannot be interfered with by pilots or ground technicians. This device should be linked directly to the airplane manufacturer.

  22. wendal – was just about to post that myself. It’s dynamite:

    “In a far more detailed description of the military radar plotting than has been publicly revealed, the first two sources said the last confirmed position of MH370 was at 35,000 feet about 90 miles off the east coast of Malaysia, heading towards Vietnam, near a navigational waypoint called “Igari”. The time was 1:21 a.m.

    The military track suggests it then turned sharply westwards, heading towards a waypoint called “Vampi”, northeast of Indonesia’s Aceh province and a navigational point used for planes following route N571 to the Middle East.

    From there, the plot indicates the plane flew towards a waypoint called “Gival”, south of the Thai island of Phuket, and was last plotted heading northwest towards another waypoint called “Igrex”, on route P628 that would take it over the Andaman Islands and which carriers use to fly towards Europe.”