So all week, people have been forwarding me Jeff Wise’s piece from New York Magazine in which he comes up with a “new” theory that explains everything about why we can’t find Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
Obviously, I immediately read it with interest. Even excitement. As soon as I got to his theory, my mood changed to dismay.
The first section is about his own experience, so I’m happy to accept all that as truthful and based on his perception. I particularly liked the reference to Believers: people who had already chosen a single theory as true and wanted to convince the world. I had the same experience after I published The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, where readers would mail me (or review me) complaining that the book was a waste of time because it didn’t deal properly with the only explanation that made sense. I didn’t mind if that was a theory I hadn’t covered, that’s fair enough. But in most cases, I had discussed the theory: the reader was just upset that I hadn’t proved it as true.
This is also an interesting section of Wise’s article because in it, he effectively establishes his credentials as understanding the various theories and ability to recognise a crackpot. This sets up legitimacy for the second half. He certainly had my sympathy by this time. It helped that I’d read his blog before and found him interesting and knowledgeable.
But once he started putting forward the pieces of his theory, it fell apart.
For a long time, I resisted even considering the possibility that someone might have tampered with the data. That would require an almost inconceivably sophisticated hijack operation, one so complicated and technically demanding that it would almost certainly need state-level backing. This was true conspiracy-theory material.
For the record, I agree with this. That’s not to say it is impossible, but there are easier ways to achieve the same results. Generally, the path of least resistance is the way to go. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and Wise says he found evidence, so lets run with it.
I realized that I already had a clue that hijackers had been in the E/E bay. Remember the satcom system disconnected and then rebooted three minutes after the plane left military radar behind.
Woah, no, wait! I don’t remember that at all. This refers to an earlier description in the text:
For about an hour after that, the plane was tracked on radar following a zigzag course and traveling fast. Then it disappeared from military radar. Three minutes later, the communications system logged back onto the satellite. This was a major revelation. It hadn’t stayed connected, as we’d always assumed. This event corresponded with the first satellite ping.
The first satellite ping is the only data we had once it disappeared from military radar. The communications system wasn’t logged onto the satellite before this and it didn’t log onto the satellite at that point. The system pinged the satellite and was refused [see comment below for more on this] because Malaysia airlines had not purchased the satellite service.
So Wise describes a three minute period between disappearing from military radar and the first ping to the satellite and suddenly this is rephrased as Remember the satcom system disconnected and then rebooted.
To be honest, it’s the phrasing that made me read more suspiciously. However it was just a sentence later when the whole theory derailed for me.
I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how a person could physically turn the satcom off and on. The only way, apart from turning off half the entire electrical system, would be to go into the E/E bay and pull three particular circuit breakers. It is a maneuver that only a sophisticated operator would know how to execute, and the only reason I could think for wanting to do this was so that Inmarsat would find the records and misinterpret them. They turned on the satcom in order to provide a false trail of bread crumbs leading away from the plane’s true route.
Inmarsat had never released records like this before. No aircraft had ever been tracked like this before. The idea that it was even possible was a major revelation, even to Inmarsat. The data was never intended for tracking purposes.
“Now that we know we have these ‘pings’, why not make use of them?” says Inmarsat senior vice-president for external affairs Chris McLaughlin.
Wise seems to have forgotten this in his excitement. His inconceivably sophisticated hijack operation now is based on seeding false data in the form of pings on a satellite service that had not been paid for. What a crazy amount of effort this is on a hope and a prayer that someone would spot it, realise it was useful data and use it to lead the world in the wrong direction.
Once I threw out the troublesome BFO data, all the inexplicable coincidences and mismatched data went away. The answer became wonderfully simple. The plane must have gone north.
So if he throws away the data that no one expected us to have and accepts that the hijackers spoofed everything, then whatever theory he likes can be fit into the minimal information that remains. This is a mark of a Believer, without a doubt.
Using the BTO data set alone, I was able to chart the plane’s speed and general path, which happened to fall along national borders. Flying along borders, a military navigator told me, is a good way to avoid being spotted on radar.
Oh yes, definitely, borders are not at all important politically and most nations pay no attention to them whatsoever. Definitely not covered by military radar…no wait.
What military navigator would say such a thing? I mean, seriously, is this someone who disliked Wise? Of course borders are covered by radar; strategically this is a critical requirement of radar.
There aren’t a lot of places to land a plane as big as the 777, but, as luck would have it, I found one: a place just past the last handshake ring called Baikonur Cosmodrome.
If MH370 did land at Yubileyniy, it had 90 minutes to either hide or refuel and takeoff again before the sun rose. Hiding would be hard. This part of Kazakhstan is flat and treeless, and there are no large buildings nearby. The complex has been slowly crumbling for decades, with satellite images taken years apart showing little change, until, in October, 2013, a disused six-story building began to be dismantled. Next to it appeared a rectangle of bulldozed dirt with a trench at one end.
This implies it is some sort of abandoned airfield in the middle of nowhere. He then goes on to show satellite images that show a building being dismantled in October 2013 and a rectangle of bulldozed dirt. He drew in the silhouette of a 777 to show that it is the perfect size.
By March 2014, he says, the building was gone.
Construction experts told me these images most likely show site remediation: taking apart a building and burying the debris. Yet why, after decades, did the Russians suddenly need to clear this one lonely spot, in the heart of a frigid winter, finishing just before MH370 disappeared?
Let’s get this absolutely clear: Baikonur Cosmodrome is not abandoned. It is the largest operational space launch facility in the world. There are commercial, military and scientific missions launched from the site. It is the sole launch site for International Space Station missions. Inmarsat launched a spacecraft there just a few weeks ago.
Not a lonely spot. Full of scientists and foreigners and even Inmarsat employees. Are they all in on this?
To the best of my knowledge, this airstrip is the only one in the world built specifically for self-landing airplanes. The 777, which was developed in the ’90s, has the ability to autoland.
He’s talking about CATIII. This is a category of ILS equipment which allows for auto landing.
I’m not sure what he means by the only airstrip in the world built specifically for self-landing aircraft nor why that would make a difference. Either the airstrip supports CATIII or it doesn’t.
Most modern city airports support CATIII and thus allow for self-landing aircraft. Most modern aircraft have the ability to autoland. Baikonur is not special in this respect and the use of “only one in the world” is misleading.
The point of CATIII is to make it possible to land in visibility too poor for a visual landing. Normally, your commercial pilot, flying in bad weather, has to have the runway in sight at a predefined height or else he has to break off the approach. This is known as the decision height.
To autoland, the aircraft knows precisely the aircraft’s height above the ground and initiates the landing flare at the correct height for the model, usually about 15 metres (50 feet) above the ground. This means there is no decision height: the runway never has to be in sight.
From a hijacking perspective, this feature allows people who don’t have commercial-piloting experience to abscond with an airplane and get it safely on the ground, so long as they know what autopilot settings to input.
Well, yes, with a bit of luck and perfect conditions, this might work. The absconder would still need to reduce the speed as the flaps are are selected and manually activate reverse thrust, at least, but it would be easier to teach a person to autoland than to fly the Boeing 777.
I know I sound a bit grudging there. Quite honestly, by this point, it feels weird when Wise says something logical and factually correct.
Whether the plane went to Baikonur or elsewhere in Kazakhstan, my suspicion fell on Russia.
Again, the phrasing here is a logical fallacy: he’s put forward a failed case for Baikonar and then dismisses objections with the assumption that it has gone to Kazakhstan, which he has never shown based on the data he has chosen to accept as correct.
He defends his suspicion of the Russians with a headline that the Russians were responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. Then Wise points out that there were three suspects on board who match his profile: one Russian and two Ukrainians. He suspects all three of being special forces or covert operatives.
All were in their mid-40s, old enough to be experienced, young enough for vigorous action —about the same age as the military-intelligence officer who was running the show in eastern Ukraine.
Convinced yet? Me neither.
He hired Russian speakers to make phone calls to Odessa and Irkutsk to find out more about the men. Not surprisingly, their families weren’t interested in discussing his theory. Nevertheless, he says that the more he discovered, the more coherent the story seemed, as if the existence of 40-something “ethnically Russian” men somehow proved his point. His confidence is meant to lead the reader into nodding along knowingly even though he’s never actually justified his logic.
As if that all weren’t bad enough, he ends on a completely false note.
Last month, the Malaysian government declared that the aircraft is considered to have crashed and all those aboard are presumed dead. Malaysia’s transport minister told a local television station that a key factor in the decision was the fact that the search mission for the aircraft failed to achieve its objective.
Simply not true. The transport minister said no such thing and the declaration specifically says the opposite:
The underwater search is still ongoing at this time and the exercise is currently being performed by 4 vessels, namely the Go Phoenix, Fugro Discovery, Fugro Equator and Fugro Supporter. To date, the search has covered over 18,600 square kilometres (as of 28 Jan15).
The declaration defined the incident as an accident, which includes aircraft that have gone missing.
I’ll tell you a secret: I know what he misread. The declaration talks about the search and rescue mission in the past tense. That’s because there’s no one left to rescue. There are two points of detail to defend that the search and rescue is completed even though the search is still continuing, but I guess Wise never read that far.
He is clearly convinced that the search is over.
The search failed to deliver the airplane, but it has accomplished some other things: It occupied several thousand hours of worldwide airtime; it filled my wallet and then drained it; it torpedoed the idea that the application of rationality to plane disasters would inevitably yield ever-safer air travel. And it left behind a faint, lingering itch in the back of my mind, which I believe will quite likely never go away.
It’s a quick visit to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau to get the latest Operational Update. The search has not (yet) failed and, just last month, Search chief Martin Dolan spoke confidently about finding the wreckage.
I think Dolan be horrified to hear that his accomplishment was to have filled and drained Wise’s wallet. And honestly, the application of rationality has absolutely yielded ever-safer air travel. The effects to Wise’s mind I leave as an exercise for the reader.
I sure do understand his desire to sell his book. I want to sell mine, too. I have spent the last year discussing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 and wondering what happened to it, just like him. But coming up with hare-brained schemes and using persuasion tactics instead of facts, well, Wise is better than this.
If you are interested in thought experiments about what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370, then please consider my book, which takes the leading theories and considers their plausibility. I don’t have any simple answers but, quite frankly, neither does Wise, whatever he might claim.
[Edit: added reference to Bill's comment below to the main text]