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Week 1 MH370: Wall of Hope is full, crash site pointers emerge

The anguish of KLIA's Wall of Hope. Social media photo

It’s a week ago this morning that Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200, took off from Kuala Lumpur airport at 12.40 local time bound for Beijing with 239 people on board.

At 1.07 the automated ACARS system on the jet sent engine performance data and some other information to the engine maker Rolls Royce as intended. At 1.22 after during the handover from Malaysia to Vietnam air traffic control, while it was at 35,000 feet and making the crossing of the Gulf of Thailand and headed for the South China Sea, its transponder went off-line and it was no longer visible to the secondary ATC radars.

At 1.30 am, some eight minutes later, it is variously reported that an emergency radio link to MH370 fell silent. This claim is controversial, but coincidentally or otherwise is also the last time Malaysia Airlines was in contact with MH370, in its third revision of that time in as many days.

It is not necessary to see these revisions as meaning anything more than correcting its own records.

However there is significant reason to believe than an unidentified radar return, seen on the primary defence radar of Malaysia, was that of MH370, flying west across the Malay peninsula, just north of the border with Thailand.

At 2.07 that trace was last seen on the defence radar as being a primary (unidentified) trace 200 nautical miles NW of Penang, or close to Phuket.  The time 2.40 am which was originally given by Malaysia Airlines as the time it lost contact with the flight was in fact when its duty officer was called by Malaysia ATC to say that MH370 was missing.

Through all of the ensuing confusion and false leads, and some disturbing disclosures about persons with false passports being on the flight, it was quickly made known by Malaysia investigators that they were looking at the profiles of every passenger in so far as possible and all the crew members on MH370, particularly their psychological or mental health status and any evidence of personal relationship difficulties.

Officially the flight had vanished without trace. And as of this Saturday morning 15 March no confirmed wreckage from MH370 has been found.

However by Monday, most likely because of the mystery jet turnback stories and disclosures by the Royal Malaysia Air Force, the search areas in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea were joined by searches in the northern approaches to the Straits of Malacca on the western side of the Malay peninsula, with particular reference to Pulau Perak (Silver Island) where an eyewitness sighting of the lights of an aircraft had also been logged.

By Wednesday, for whatever reasons, the US Navy was looking closely at the Andaman Sea, and the Malaysia authorities said that the search areas in the South China Sea and to the west of Malaysia had been expanded.

Media reports appeared on Wednesday suggesting that ACARS transmissions from MH370 had continued for hours, implying that the aircraft had remained aloft for up to four hours or more after it officially disappeared. (In fact it wasn’t the ACARS messages that continued, but its always-on always-ready architecture that was letting satellites know it was stil flying.)  Those reports had followed disconcerting stories that some passenger mobile phones had been ringing but not answering on the Saturday after relatives learned that the a Malaysia Airlines flight to Beijing was missing.  Those reports were not conclusively verified.

This western area focus grew in importance in the official narratives on Thursday, and by Friday it became public knowledge that it was on the Thursday (at the latest) that the government of Malaysia requested help from India for very specific coverage of the Indian Ocean east of India including Great Nicobar Island and the many and complex small islands in the Andaman Islands area.

It was on Friday (on this side of the dateline) that the White House said fresh information suggested there may have been a crash in the Indian Ocean, and confirmed that America had deployed more naval assets further into the areas of interest led by the USS Kidd.

The media learned that even if MH370 was ‘dark’ after 1.22 am local time last Saturday, its automated communications equipment would ping the Inmarsat satellite constellation at regular intervals indicating it was ready to transfer data, much the same way a mobile phone that is on, yet not being used, will update mobile phone networks of its ‘standby’ status.

The Wall Street Journal led the charge, learning from ‘dark’ sources that MH370 had been up for at least a total of five hours and was over water somewhere when it stopped pinging the satellite network.

Reuters followed this up with a story that revealed the ping pattern showed MH370 had flown a purposeful path since the transponder ‘failure’ at 1.22 am on the morning of the flight, following waypoints that define well travelled routes from the direction of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur toward India and Europe for large numbers of flights per day, yet keeping a distance from potential traffic to avoid the risk of detection.

MH370 didn’t want to seen, or tracked.

Overnight Inmarsat issued a statement confirming that it did record pings from ACARS equipped jets, whether they were actively sending service data packets or not, when they were in the air, and that it had made this information available to the Malaysia Airlines  and the MH370 investigation.

Note that the information Inmarsat harvested could almost certainly have been picked up by spy or surveillance satellites as well. Any security agency versed in passive and active electronic surveillance would be intimately familiar with the procedures for identifying some classes of aircraft and tracking them.

One question not yet resolved is how much fuel was taken onboard by MH370 before departure for Beijing.  The flight is believed to have carried about seven hours worth of fuel for the five hours 50 minutes scheduled trip, making standard allowances for statutory reserves and taking account of flight times to alternative airports.

It could be that with slightly more than normal fuel, and perhaps less than full underfloor freight, the jet might have been able to reach Somalia.  Not everyone is persuaded that this speculation is plausible, although it can be surmised as having been a questioned asked within US intelligence, and other places.  Heavily laden 777-200s don’t usually go straight to 35,000 feet but MH370 did.

Sadly, the human tragedy of MH370 is likely to be fully confirmed soon. The criminal and technical questions (also raised in this latest WSJ report) may take much to answer.

Children leave their messages with those of parents and lovers at MH370's Wall of Hope

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  • 1
    basketcase86
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    It is looking more certain every day that this incident will come down to pilot suicide or intervention. Why suggest Somalia Ben? If this is true such an act is possibly the most heinous known to mankind. When you think about it not many other acts come close to ending the lives of 250+ people in such a cowardly way. I hope my prediction is not true.

  • 2
    Ed Snack
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Good summary Ben, best available on the web. Congratulations.

  • 3
    rockwallaby
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks again Ben, this summary pretty well is aligned with my understanding.

    Questions:
    The ‘pings’, they are, I understand, from the SATCOMM, which is mounted up in the tail section of the aircraft is it not?

    And the ACARS unit I imagine, sends data to the SATCOMM, which probably takes in feeds from other aircraft equipment also?

    The SATCOM, again, from what I understand, has it’s own local CPU used to point the phased array to a selected Inmarsat satellite and handle the necessary data transmission protocol, such as seting up a link together with some relevent data. This data, I understand is basic aircraft location, which of course is needed to connected up to a selected Inmarsat satellite, would my assumption be correct?

    Obviously, the SATCOMM either has its own GPS or takes in current location data from another onboard GPS unit.

    From that, another question is, I guess the SATCOM also supplies ID data, maybe specific SATCOMM ID or aircraft ID, not flight number, would this be correct?

    If so, I guess having the data logs from Inmarsat would confirm that the pings from MH370 were actually from this aircraft.

    Next question is around the discussion that family had made phones calls to their family members on the aircraft.

    I read that the phone calls were made by family members on hearing of the possible loss of the aircraft, which I believe was quite some hours later.
    Add to this the delay from this point to any family member actually knowing about the problem for them to then try to make a call, would, I expect put the time of those alleged phone calls nearer to the time the aircraft would be out of fuel, or to say it another way, well past the Malaysian coast, and far out past any land mobile tower, right?

    So, my question is, does this 777-200 have onboard mobile facilities, as one does on the A380?

    It’s not something that has been talked about specifically, except with reference to the likely-hood of any alleged call being made via land base mobile towers.
    ____
    Paul

  • 4
    David Marshall
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Ben,

    The past tense of “to lead” (i.e., to show the way) is “led”, as in “The Wall Street Journal led the charge”.

  • 5
    BugSmasher
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    If the aircraft flew for four hours at cruise speed on a westerly track after it went ‘dark’, wouldn’t that put it somewhere in the Arabian sea? It would certainly be well west of the Andaman Sea and most likely west of the Indian subcontinent. So why is the search concentrated to the east of India?

    Maybe this is why Ben mentioned Somalia – apart from the obvious other reason. It might also be why authorities have not released the location of the final ‘ping’.

  • 6
    BugSmasher
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Whoever had control of the aircraft obviously had a very good understanding of the aircraft systems. If there was discretionary fuel on board, whoever that person was may have decided after 4 hours of cruise that they now had sufficient supplementary oxygen on board to safely reach their intended destination and decompressed the cabin. With the cabin decompressed and on oxygen, that person would then be free to leave the cockpit to disable the SATCOM in the tail without resistance in the cabin.

    In other words, maybe the aircraft flew for more than an extra 4 hours – only the SATCOM was no longer functioning.

  • 7
    Tom W
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I hope the Indian Military has checked their radar history of the area, given the Andeman Islands are Indian territory.

  • 8
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    David,

    And the Word document said led. It was autocorrected in the cloud. The corrupting influence of intuitive or autocorrect functions in digital publishing is destroying the language, and grandma, darn, grammar.

  • 9
    Dan Dair
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    From what we think we know right now,
    I don’t think this is going to end well.
    It seems probable that the aircraft was intended to remain intact.
    Even so, the passengers are most likely to have been deliberately killed (by one means or another), which can not even be thought of as ‘collateral damage’.

    The idea that the aircraft could be deliberately retained can only lead to the conclusion that there would be an intention to re-use it.
    It’s hardly like exporting a stolen car half way around the world, to somewhere it’s provenance is of no interest & no-one would be looking for it.
    How would you hide the use of a very large airliner.? It will show-up on radar & totally fail to project the necessary transponder signals, which will make everyone notice it immediately.
    It could only be retained for some kind of dramatic one-off use, which in turn means it’s almost certain to be shot-down the moment it in any way threatens a national border.
    Irrespective of the (outside) possibility of the passengers still being alive & having been kept that way to act as ‘human shields’ for whatever actions the aircraft might be directed towards.?

  • 10
    Curious Onlooker
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised the fuel on board has not been clarified. This is something that would be know with certainty now – even if the pilots gave false information at the time. It would simply be a case of refuelling records and previous flight arrival records to know pretty accurately what the aircraft had.

    The cargo load is really only relevant to the raw number. 7 hours fuel with 25 tons of cargo on board and 7 hours fuel with zero cargo are two different numbers – but still 7 hours fuel. With the actual fuel number and payload they would know with accuracy what the ultimate endurance was.

    They would have had an absolute minimum of 7 hours fuel. Changing from a normal cruise profile to a max range profile would increase that. But on the flip side flying at 29,500′ instead of the planned 35,000′ would decrease it, so overall about evening out. 5 hours from the last military radar contact (it had flown for 2 hours already by then) wouldn’t allow it to get to Somalia – IF it had 7 hours to start with.

    29,500′ is not an altitude that would normally be flown and so you would fly between any traffic you might stumble across. The reports of following the airways is curious, as if you are up to something nefarious, why wouldn’t you track directly to your destination?

    If murder and suicide were the intention, following the airway and between the normal cruise altitudes, could have been planned to allow the aircraft to be deliberately flown into an on coming aircraft. Thank goodness that horror didn’t eventuate.

    Ben’s suggestion of Somalia makes sense if you are hoping the aircraft and passengers are still intact, as there would be very few places you could land a 777 and not have anyone notice or report it, and somewhere like Somalia would be top of the list. But again, they would have had to have had considerably more fuel than would reasonably have been planned for that flight for that to be possible and the authorities would know with certainty if that had happened.

  • 11
    Confirmed Sceptic
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Let me add my kudos to Ben for his consistently sober and intelligent analysis and summaries.

    The Satcom summary:

    It is interconnected to many of the aircraft’s systems and computers. It gets its position from the same place the navigation computers do. Same for its speed and altitude. It has hardwired coding to represent the aircraft hull numbers.

    The satcom is just another dumb radio, pretty much like your cell phone. It is used for voice communications with the crew. Some airlines also have telephone connectivity. It is used independently by the ACARS when no VHF ground stations are in range. (I think this feature has to be enabled, or at least can be disabled)

    So the satcom is like sharing a cell phone between a few users. The users can all be shut down, butt he basic satcom still goes through its initial log-on and periodic updates.

    What do you do with a stolen airliner? I read a novel about twenty years ago which used the plot device of a stolen airliner, fissionable materials on board, tucked up under a trans-Atlantic airliner to penetrate the US ADIZ. Tucked just in trail and a hundred feet lower you could in fact do that undetected for long enough.

    Who though? I thought that well organised and funded terrorists outfits were all Predator fodder by now?

  • 12
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    rockwallaby,

    I don’t have the necessary familiarity with the system on a 777 to answer those questions.

    However I am sceptical as to the reports about mobile phones ringing out on board the vanished aircraft for a number of reasons, including the reduced likelihood of the aircraft being near a cellular ground based network, and the fact that no one went on to say they had left an answer bank message, which is what would normally arise if you didn’t hang up.

    I have seen in seat satellite phones on older generation jets, I cannot specifically recall seeing any on a 777, but certainly on 747s in the 90s, and they were so horrendously costly to use that most airlines either didn’t install them, or ripped them out. They are still present today, but built in to internet capable IFE systems, as on Emirates A380s, which means they are hardly ever used, since the email alternative on those flights is incredibly inexpensive.

  • 13
    Tango
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Good synopsis Ben:

    Known US assets are a single Aegis destroyer in the area aka Kidd (and two helicopters on board). Pickney was there (same type) but went to Singapore for work.

    A P3 and a P8 are on the prowl. You still need a fix to drop the sonar buoys (and the P8 is having some problems in its sub hunt role.

    Thin assets, no carrier group handy (one is in the N. Arabian sea but thats tasked with keep the lid on and the other one is in the Med keeping an eye on the Russians.

    Not sure if there are any US landing ships that have the helicopter decks (we will know if they join).

    Hopefully a fast attack or two out listening but they need a rough location to do any good (yes its down and it went into the ocean)

    I think he was trying for Mecca.

    As for the conspiracy theory:
    All the it was intended to be used are pure techno thriller hogwash.

    First, you need 5000 ft minimum to land one of these things. And you better be damned good at that. 7500 is more realistic.

    You want to guess how much fuel you would need to fly?

    You want to guess how long a runway you would need for the amount of fuel?

    All actions are a pilot who has gone over the edge. What made sense to him would not to anyone else so unless they find something in the search of homes and computers (or the flight simulator the head pilot had) thats a useless exercise.

    I have not seen fuel calcs for 29500 and how far that gets you (and do we know he stayed there?)

    One report is a S.W. track, I did not catch or they did not say where that came from.

    If Australia would help by sending out there subs to listen? P3s to help?

    And an excellent point made on how much fuel is on board and what the weight of the aircraft was, Malaysian authorities have withheld that along with the rest.

  • 14
    discus
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Tango, Australia has sent two P3′s to assist. The NZer’s one afaik.

  • 15
    rockwallaby
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I understand we, (Australia) have two of our well equiped Orion AP-3C’s out there on the job, but of course we don’t know exactly where at present.

  • 16
    Wobbly
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Ben, I’ll add to the kudos that your blog is almost the only thing worth reading about this. News services just seem to be either re-running debunked or unsubstanciated rumours loosely. Other purported industry blogs seem to be speculating without clearly outlining the probabilities of the key data.

    Because (AFAIK) the Malaysian government have not categorically confirmed that either:
    a. the primary military radar detection was indisputably MH370 crossing the Malay Peninsula
    & b. the Insarmat detected pings were were indisputably from MH370
    – could it be that the SAR efforts are diverting too many resources away from the South China Sea and that the search efforts there thus far have not been effective?

    Whilst I (and it seems many other MH370 news followers) have learnt a lot this week about radar capabilities and limitations, surely, surely if it crossed the Malay Peninsula over or very close to Thailand and then onwards to any where near the Andamans then there would have been some anomylous detection on Thai and/or Indian military radars that could have been cross-referenced to the reported Malaysian detection?

    Also not discussed anywhere I’ve noticed is that if you follow the westerly piloted scenario along the Indian/European waypoints – what about other aircraft following that route in either direction? I saw a FlightAware map plotting all other commercial aircraft in the vicinity at approx. 1.30am, but how populated were the adjacent skies over the subsequent hours following the westerly tracking scenario?

  • 17
    BugSmasher
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    If it has gone down east of India, then it spent four hours at considerably less than normal cruise speed. Less than 350 knots ground speed by my estimates, and that would put it right on the Indian coast.

  • 18
    Wobbly
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    and as I take another look at my desk globe, I should have added Indonesian (Banda Aceh), Sri Lankan and Maldives military radars to the suggestion about Thai and Indian military radar logs.

  • 19
    Confirmed Sceptic
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Bloomberg reporting last position 1000nm west or Perth…

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-14/india-looking-for-malaysian-jet-as-u-s-sees-air-piracy.html

  • 20
    KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Tango/Skeptic/Anyone – On the evidence is available, what is the last time that the pilot (or someone else) must have been in manual control of the plane? Is it possible nobody was in control for many hours before the plane ran out of fuel?

  • 21
    Confirmed Sceptic
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    K17… Anytime after IGARI the flight path could have been programmed, assuming a constant flight level. If he article noted above is correct, then clear of primary radar. He could have set course for mid-ocean. Except for the satcom pinging it could have been never solved or found.

    As it is mid ocean out there is apparently 10,000′ deep.

  • 22
    michael r james
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    The crowdsourced search is interesting. 2.3m users have examined each of 750,000 images at least 30 times. But so far this search (below) might be from the Gulf of Thailand so presumably it is being repeated (in a much bigger job) for the Andaman sea & Indian Ocean. If it went down one would expect this to find something eventually. (If it crashed on one of the hundreds of uninhabited Andaman & Nicobar coral atolls perhaps the debris would be much harder to pick out from reefs, sand, breaking surf etc?)
    Unless the US spooks, RR or Boeing decide to let us in on what they have known all along. But as time goes on without them finding something it doesn’t look good for whatever assumptions they have made (those auto-pings are only once an hour (?) and so still can leave a large potential area of search).

    Tomnod is run by commercial satellite company DigitalGlobe, which soon after the plane’s disappearance repositioned two of its five satellites over its last known location in the Gulf of Thailand, and have since moved them as the search headed west.
    .
    Tomnod users are provided with a randomly chosen map from the search area and are told to drop a pin if they see signs of aeroplane wreckage, life rafts, oil slicks or anything that looks “suspicious”.
    .
    An algorithm then finds where there is overlap in tags from people who tagged the same location, and the most notable areas are shared with authorities. A Tomnod spokesperson said that as of Thursday every pixel had been looked at by human eyes at least 30 times. Despite the huge online search party, the Tomnod hunt has so far have proved inconclusive.

  • 23
    michael r james
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    NYT is reporting some strange things: that the plane went up to 45,000 ft before descending to 23,000 ft (all this before its flight west north of Penang).

    Radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appeared to show that the missing airliner climbed to 45,000 feet, above the approved altitude limit for a Boeing 777-200, soon after it disappeared from civilian radar and turned sharply to the west, according to a preliminary assessment by a person familiar with the data.
    .
    The radar track, which the Malaysian government has not released but says it has provided to the United States and China, showed that the plane then descended unevenly to 23,000 feet, below normal cruising levels, as it approached the densely populated island of Penang.

    but:

    “A lot of stock cannot be put in the altitude data” sent from the engines, one official said. “A lot of this doesn’t make sense.”

    and:

    An Asia-based pilot of a Boeing 777-200, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said an ascent above the plane’s service limit of 43,100 feet, along with a depressurized cabin, could have rendered the passengers and crew unconscious, and could be a deliberate maneuver by a pilot or a hijacker.

  • 24
    Aidan Stanger
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I suspect it was an unsuccessful attempt by the pilot to thwart a hijacker. It could have backfired badly, with all the pilots getting killed and the hijackers making navigation mistakes.

  • 25
    Anton Szautner
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, it could have all transpired according to a well choreographed sequence on the part of well-trained hijackers who had already taken full control of the aircraft with the specific intent of rendering the passengers…well, let’s just say ‘inert’…before or during the course change westward back over the peninsula and to an objective beyond.

    Furthermore, I can’t entertain any notion that the technical diligence required to disable all data linkage at precisely the opportune time for maximizing success in eluding detection can be consistent with this aircraft ending up in the sea. Or that they would risk trying to elude radar all the way to some far-flung objective like Somalia, given the limited fuel supply…(except possibly, in stretching into truly unthinkable territory, that they evicted passengers and cargo in order to reduce weight to achieve a required range).

    This is getting very seriously troubling.

    I continue to suspect this to be an extremely sophisticated operation to acquire a long-range aircraft with considerable carrying capacity…and that it may well be sitting on the ground in some remote unknown location being retrofitted for whatever ignominious end. To add to the alarming nature of this affair, in the week within which this farce has played out, it can already have moved along to yet another locale, and there be made ready for its intended final purpose at any time in the future, as a delivery system to a location almost anywhere in the extended Euro-Asian region that can be anybody’s guess.

    I hope that international aviation authorities and militaries covering the globe is capable of sufficiently immediate response and coordination in the event any rogue large aircraft suddenly shows up on some sinister course and business – the mind recoils at the potential consequences.

  • 26
    Anton Szautner
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    BTW: Just because terrorists are monsters doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

  • 27
    Anton Szautner
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    The longer the whereabouts of this aircraft remains unresolved, the more the world will be forced to play a global game of “Where’s Waldo”.

  • 28
    Ivan Kennedy
    Posted March 16, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Ben, why not accept the word of the Kiwi who was certain he saw the Malaysian plane for at least 15 seconds, remaining on fire but intact at the right place and time, from his perch 100 metres above the sea south of Vung Tau. To me, that’s the only direct factual evidence available likely to relate to the fate of MH370. Everything else seems to be highly speculative interpretation of vague signals lacking specificity.

    Fumes from a fierce fire in the hold (e.g. from lithium hydride batteries) could quickly overcome the passengers and crew. Aluminium ignites at 900 C, vaporises at 2200 C and burns intensely with a temperature of 3-4000 C. Travelling at high speed fanning the flames, the structure of the plane would rapidly convert to aluminium oxide and droplets of aluminium, losing its forward momentum and then rising in a hot cloud by convection until it cooled to ambient temperature, drifting away on the wind or a jet stream. In a worst case, only small intact steel objects like engines, black box, etc. might remain to fall into the sea. However, the progress of such a metallic cloud would be detectable by radar for some time.

    Look for these remains from MH370 (my usual flight to Beijing – my diaries have the MH370 boarding passes) at the location the New Zealander gave, the hardest evidence available.

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