air safety

Mar 15, 2014

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

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

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

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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