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18 July 2014

The Information So Far: Malaysia Airlines flight 17

Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was a passenger jet en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The aircraft was a B777-200ER, registration 9M-MRD, manufactured in July 1997 and with a total of 75,322 hours. In a sad coincidence, the first flight of the aircraft was 17 July 1997.

There were 283 passengers (including three infants) and fifteen Malaysian crew members.

MH17 departed normally from Amsterdam at 10:14 UTC (just past noon local time) and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 22:00 UTC. The expected flight time was 11 hours 45 minutes.

The planned route for the flight took the aircraft directly over the Ukraine and Russia. The flight plan requested a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet but when MH17 entered Ukrainian airspace, they were given an altitude of 33,000 feet.

At 14:15 UTC, four hours into the flight, Ukrainian Air Traffic Control lost contact with the flight. At the moment of lost contact, the Boeing 777 was 30 km (20 miles) from the TAMAK waypoint, which is about 50 km (30 miles) from the Russian-Ukraine border. There was no distress call.

The aircraft wreckage was scattered over a two kilometre area at the village of Hrabove near the Russian border. The state of the wreckage made it clear that it had broken up before impact with the ground. The news was quickly released: the commercial aircraft full of civilians had been shot down.

Two key questions arose very quickly: Why was an aircraft flying over a war zone and who shot it down?

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has become focused on the question of the Ukraine entering trade agreements with the EU rather than maintaining closer ties with Russia. In November 2013 the then-president of the Ukraine rejected a much anticipated EU economic proposal which was criticised as setting up Ukraine for long-term economic disaster by taking away the Russian export market whilst tying it to markets from which it can only import. Instead, the then-president accepted a new deal from Russia offering $15 billion in aid and other economic benefits. The conflict reached a crisis point in February when Ukraine ousted their pro-Russian president and the new government refocused on a closer relationship with the European Union. Russia argued that a relatively small group of anti-Russian extremists in Ukraine had staged the coup and that they were a threat to the Russian-speaking people who live in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

In March, the Russians took control of Crimea. However, Ukrainian government continues to claim Crimea as a part of Ukraine. As a result, airline operators and aircraft were recommended to avoid the area over Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Asov. This was, however, not because of fears that civilian aircraft would be shot down but because there were two different services (Russian and Ukrainian) both managing the airspace at the same time.

Europe safety agency urges airlines to avoid Crimean airspace | Reuters

“It is unsafe if more than one Air Traffic Service provider is in charge of one single Flight Information Region (FIR); no compromise can be made with the safety of the flying passengers,” Patrick Ky, executive director at EASA, said.

Eurocontrol, the European air traffic management agency, said it strongly advised carriers against flying through the region, known as Simferopol FIR, and published a map of alternative routes.

The US and the UK both released a Notice To AirMen (NOTAM) advising that this area be avoided, but the area specified was south of the crash site.

In the aftermath, many airlines announced that they had previously taken the decision to reroute to avoid flying over the conflict zone. FlightRadar24, however, have pointed out that their logs show that some of these airlines were in fact still routing over Ukraine in the days previous. Many airlines certainly continued to route over the 32,000 foot no-fly zone. The most frequent flyers over Donetsk last week were Aeroflot (86 flights), Singapore Airlines (75), Ukraine International Airlines (62), Lufthansa (56) and Malaysia Airlines (48).

On the 14th of July, a new NOTAM was issued which covered the Dnipropetrovsk region. This NOTAM did include the airspace over Eastern Ukraine but only up to FL320, that is to say, the airspace up to a flight level of 32,000 feet. This was apparently in response to a Ukrainian cargo plane which was shot down at 21,000 feet.

The airspace over 33,000 feet was not controlled and was not closed. Malaysia Airlines have come under fire for routing over a war zone but have countered that the flight plan was approved by Eurcontrol, who are responsible for determining civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace.

In April, the International Civil Aviation Organization identified an area over the Crimean peninsula as risky. At no point did MH17 fly into, or request to fly into, this area. At all times, MH17 was in airspace approved by the ICAO.

Eurocontrol’s response is quite clear:

According to our information, the aircraft was flying at Flight Level 330 (approximately 10,000 metres/33,000 feet) when it disappeared from the radar. This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to flight level 320 but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying.
Since the crash, the Ukrainian authorities have informed EUROCONTROL of the closure of routes from the ground to unlimited in Eastern Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk Flight Information Region). All flight plans that are filed using these routes are now being rejected by EUROCONTROL. The routes will remain closed until further notice.

On that day, a number of commercial aircraft flew over the area, including Aeroflot, Air India, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic and of course, Malaysian Airlines MH17.
The New York Times reported that the missile was detected by military satellite.

Jetliner Explodes Over Ukraine; Struck by Missile, Officials Say – NYTimes.com

GRABOVO, Ukraine — A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 people aboard exploded, crashed and burned on a flowered wheat field Thursday in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists, blown out of the sky at 33,000 feet by what Ukrainian and American officials described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile.

Ukraine accused the separatists of carrying out what it called a terrorist attack. American intelligence and military officials said the plane had been destroyed by a Russian SA-series missile, based on surveillance satellite data that showed the final trajectory and impact of the missile but not its point of origin.

The Ukraine’s Interior Ministry specifically stated that MH17 was hit by a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM), specifically the SA-11 Buk missile system. The Soviet-designed Buk missile launcher has a maximum range of 13 nautical miles and can fire up to a ceiling of 39,400 feet, so the Malaysian Boeing 777 was easily in range of it — and still would have been if they’d been given their requested altitude of 35,000 feet. It has a radar guidance system and a 70 kilogram warhead. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have these high-end missile systems.

At this stage, it seems very likely that the aircraft was shot down by a power SAM but no one has taken responsibility for the shot. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claim that the separatists carried out the attack with Russian support. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make any statement on who shot the missile, focusing instead on the political aspect. “The state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”

Up until now, the pro-Russia separatists in the Ukraine were known to have portable surface-to-air missiles but there was not any hard information that they had access to high-end missile systems with that high of a range. However, on Twitter there was apparently a photograph posted by separatists, now deleted, showed a photograph of a Buk missile system. In addition, Associated Press journalists stated that they saw what looked like a Buk missile launcher in Snizhne, an eastern town which is held by the separatists. It is possible that they captured a Ukrainian Buk missile launcher or that they were supplied the technology by the Russians along with the training of how to use it.

There was also the question of a post on a social networking service by a military commander of the rebels, in which he ported that the rebels had shot down an aircraft at approximately the same time as MH17 disappeared, in the same area. The post was deleted shortly after the news of the MH17 crash was released, however it is still visible on the Wayback Machine (an Internet archive) and can be translated using online services such as Google Translate: Wall | VK. The poster appears to have believed that the aircraft was a Ukrainian military cargo plane and stated, “We did warn you – do not fly in our sky.”

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities released recordings of phone conversations which they claim are between the separatists and Russian military officedrs. The BBC has published the recordings of the three phone calls with translations.

BBC News – MH17 crash: Ukraine releases alleged intercepts

Malaysia Airlines appear to have learned a lot about crisis management this year and have released information as information has become confirmed but without the missteps seen after the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

As of this posting, the US has stated that the SAM missile was fired from an area controlled by the Russian-separatists in eastern Ukraine. The US and UK aviation authorities are deploying teams to Ukraine to assist in the investigation. I’m sure more news will be released over the next few days.

The tragic human loss can get side-lined in such a crash, especially with the political issues and the question of blame. I am heartsick but glad to see that the BBC has made an effort to tell the stories of some of those who were lost on the flight.

BBC News – MH17 crash: Passengers on Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine

Cor Pan joked on Facebook about his plane disappearing shortly before it took off…

Yuli Hastini and John Paulisen and their two young children were on their way to pay their respects at Yuli’s mother’s grave…

Australian teacher Francesca Davison and her husband Liam were returning home from a holiday in Europe…

Glenn Thomas, a former journalist and WHO media relations coordinator, was travelling to the Aids conference…

Flight Attendant Nur Shazana Mohd Salleh was a happy person who had a feeling this month was special…

This, and the photographs of the luggage and personal items strewn on the fields, are heartbreaking. This is not just about politics and warfare, it’s about people.

11 July 2014

Near Miss at Barcelona

Last week, a plane spotter named Miguel Angel was filming flights coming into Barcelona airport when he captured this video:

Five days later, that video has had over 20 million views.

The aircraft on the taxi-way is Aerolíneas Argentinas flight AR-1163, an Airbus A340 which was departing Barcelona for a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Coming into land was UTair flight UT5187, a Boeing 767-300 inbound to Barcelona from Moscow.

It is hard to see from the video just how close the two aircraft were to each other but it is clear that the Aerolíneas Argentinas flight is entering the active runway much too late for a safe crossing. The UTair was on short final and descended through to about 200 feet above ground level when the flight crew initiated a go-around.

The distance from the runway threshold (where the UTair Boeing would have touched down) and the taxiway Mike intersection (where the Argentinas Airbus was crossing) was 1,166 meters (3,826 feet).

Initial reports said that the Argentinas flight had been told to hold at the active runway and then crossed anyway. In fact, the UTair flight crew specifically said that they heard air traffic control instruct the Argentinas Airbus to wait for the UTair aircraft to land before crossing the order. Siberian Times quoted First Officer Kirill Kuzmin:

‘Before getting close to the runway we heard the air traffic controller’s command allowing Argentinians to cross the runway after we had landed.

‘The Argentinians repeated the comment which meant that they heard and accepted it.

‘But then suddenly – and without a clear reason – the Argentinians got onto the runway just as our altitude was going below 100 metres.’

AENA (Aeropuertos Españoles y Navegación Aérea) who operate the airport and the air traffic control at Barcelona, initially stated that there was sufficient separation and that UTair could have continued the landing without issue.

However at less than 20 seconds from touchdown and apparently about 40 seconds laterally from the Argentinas Airbus, it seems pretty obvious that aborting the landing was the only sane decision.

AENA stated that no safety report was filed and that both aircraft were where they should have been. A go-around doesn’t necessarily rate a safety report. At London Heathrow in 2010, there were 551 go-arounds, 0.24% of the total arrivals, often because the previously landing aircraft has not vacated the runway in the expected time.

The following day, CIAIAC (Comisión de Investigación de Accidentes e Incidentes de Aviación Civil), Spain’s aviation authority, announced that an investigation into the occurrence had been opened. The provisional information is on their website.

AENA’s statement that both aircraft were where they should be implies that UTair was cleared for landing and Argentinas were cleared to cross the active runway. A look at the Barcelona chart shows that the route that the Argentinas Airbus was taking would lead it to cross Runway 02 three times in order to get to Runway 25R.

An unverified account of the sequence of events has been posted to aviation forums and is supposedly an explanation as given by a Barcelona air traffic controller.

Airport was about to change from night configuration to day configuration. At night, runway 02 is used for landing and 07R for take-off, while during the day 25L becomes the take-off runway and 25R is used for landing (unless winds favor runways 07L/R).

Two of the three ground Air Traffic Controllers work in a smaller Tower located near the main Terminal (frequencies 121.65 and 122.225) while the other ground frequency (121.7), delivery and the two tower frequencies (118.1 and 119.1) are located in the main Tower. 121.65 (122.225 not used at night) cleared the Aerolineas Argentinas A340 to cross runway 02, which he thought was not active as he expected the airport to be in day configuration. Meanwhile, the UT Air Boeing 767 was cleared to land on the same runway by Tower (118.1).

Crossing the active runway usually requires some coordination between the two towers but this is not necessary in night configuration.

That is, this poster believes that the air traffic controller who cleared the Argentinas Airbus thought that Runway 02 was already inactive and thus didn’t need Tower clearance to cross. It’s certainly the case that Runway 02 is generally inactive during the day and thus can be crossed by the various taxi-ways without aircraft needing to hold. At night, specifically from 23:00 to 07:00 local time, Barcelona prefers to use Runway 02 for noise abatement reasons. The UTair flight landed 15 minutes after the go-around, at 07:06 local time.

Under normal circumstances, an aircraft would always speak to the tower before crossing an active runway, as Tower is responsible for coordinating the landing and departing traffic. Having listened to the Tower frequency at LiveATC, UTAir flight 5187 is clearly on the channel (and told clear to land) but Argentinas flight 1163 is not.

So the anonymous posting sounds feasible, although we will need to wait for a final report from the Spanish aviation authority to find out exactly what happened.

04 July 2014

Reconsidering the Cause of TWA Flight 800

TWA flight 800, a Boeing 747 that exploded shortly after take-off, was one of the most expensive investigations ever.

On the 17th of July in 1996, TWA flight 800 had just departed New York for a scheduled passenger flight to Paris when tragedy struck.

The moments before the crash were recovered from the cockpit voice recorder. The air traffic controller asked the pilots to maintain FL130 (13,000 feet). The Captain said, “Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four … see that?” The air traffic controller then cleared the flight to climb to and maintain FL150 (15,000 feet). A crew member selected climb thrust and a loud sound was recorded before the CVR stopped.

Forty seconds later, the captain of a Boeing 737 reported that he had just seen an explosion up ahead.

The aircraft had disintegrated fourteen minutes into the flight at 13,800 feet. The wreckage crashed into the sea off the coast of Long Island.

Initially, it was believed that the aircraft was the target of a terrorist attack which meant that there was both an FBI investigation and an NTSB investigation. There were 19 teams in the NTSB investigation, making it the largest air-crash investigation in U.S. history.

The debris was scattered across 150 square miles of ocean. US Navy salvage divers retrieved hundreds of thousands of aircraft fragments and the wreckage recovery alone took nine months. Despite the difficulties, 95% of the aircraft and its contents were salvaged from the ocean, including pieces as small as a coin. Investigators were now faced with a the incredible task of assembling these fragments into the original fuselage, a monumentally difficult but critically important jigsaw puzzle.

It was this reconstruction and the detailed analysis that led to the eventual investigation conclusion, as it showed that investigators needed to focus on the centre of the aircraft, especially the centre fuel tank. This small section of the aircraft had broken into 700 pieces and these fragments, as well as the locations where they been found, pointed towards an explosion inside the tank. The locations where the pieces of the aircraft had been found bore out this conclusion: the centre section was found closest to the flight path as the fuel tank and the area around it disintegrated. The nose then fell into the ocean while the rear half of the aircraft with the wings continued forward with the momentum of the flight.

The key question then was how it happened, as fuel-tanks don’t normally explode. The NTSB asked for help from Caltech’s explosion-dynamics lab to investigate this.

Now, in order to have a flame, you’ve got to have three things. One, you need fuel—in this case, the little bit of aviation-grade kerosene, called Jet A, that was left over when the flight arrived at JFK from Athens. The 747 is a marvelous airplane that can fly all the way from New York to Paris, with just the fuel in its wings. Airliners don’t like to carry around extra fuel, which is weight that could be used for more passengers, so they didn’t refill the center tank when they refueled at JFK. Two, you’ve got to have air. Well, the tank was full of air, except for about 50 gallons of kerosene lying on the floor of this 13,000 gallon tank—a layer maybe three-sixteenths of an inch deep. And three, you need some source of ignition.

But to get an explosion, you need fuel vapor. If you set liquid fuel on fire, you’ll just get a puddle of burning fuel. This is not something you want in an aircraft, but it’s not going to cause an explosion. So how do we get vaporized fuel? Well, July 17 was a hot day, and there’s a set of air-conditioning units that sit underneath the tank. As the air conditioners run, the heat from the machinery could have seeped upward and heated the fuel, causing some of it to evaporate. So now we have fuel vapor and air, and if we have ignition, we can possibly have an explosion.

Learning from a Tragedy: Explosions and Flight 800—Engineering & Science no. 2 1998

Caltech did research tests that showed that at 13,800 feet, with the dropping air pressure increasing the amount of vapour in the tank, the amount of energy needed to ignite the Jet A fuel was much less and that the temperature itself would rise more quickly in an almost empty tank. This meant that a very small spark would be enough to ignite the fuel tank. The next mystery was what had caused the spark. The cockpit voice recorder showed two “dropouts of background power harmonics” in the second before the recording ended, which were consistent with an arc on cockpit wiring. This, in combination with the Captain’s comment on the “crazy readings”, mean that a short circuit from damaged wiring was extremely likely. The Fuel Quantity Indication System is in the tank and although the voltages and currents used by the system are kept very low, the wiring is located within the centre tank.

Four years after the accident, the most extensive NTSB investigation ever held in the US was concluded with a final report in August, 2000. The report stated that the most likely cause of the explosion was a short circuit involving the Fuel Quantity Indication System which allowed a very small electrical spark to ignite the fuel in the centre tank. The low amount of fuel in the tank and the low air pressure affected the vapour-to-air ratio in the tank and the temperature of the tank was provably higher than expected as a result of the air conditioning and again the lack of fuel in the tank to soak up the heat. After years of costly investigation, they concluded that the flammable fuel vapours ignited and exploded, taking TWA flight 800 with it.

But the documentary group TWA 800 Project think that they are wrong.

In 2013, TWA 800 Project launched a website and documentary to argue that that the official investigation had been handled incorrectly seventeen years before.

According to the website, an investigator on the case was extremely unhappy with the investigation. He attempted to report this to his superiors, but was threatened with being kicked off the investigation and worse. The website says that the whistleblowers from the NTSB, TWA and the Air Line Pilots Association who submitted evidence for the documentary could not come forward until they had retired and were able to avoid retaliation.

In “TWA Flight 800” whistleblower and senior aviation accident investigator at the time Hank Hughes talks about bringing serious problems with the investigation to the attention of then-Investigator in Charge, Mr. Al Dickinson of the NTSB, with no results. Finally, on May 10, 1999 Hank Hughes, under whistleblower protection, appeared before a senate judiciary committee to detail a long list of serious problems with the TWA Flight 800 investigation, including informing the committee that “chemical swabbing wasn’t done on an ongoing basis,…ERT [Evidence Recovery Team (FBI)] qualification in basic forensics [was] very limited.” Hughes also informed the Senate of an incident where he caught an FBI agent hammering on a piece of wreckage in an attempt to flatten it.

The petition was submitted amidst the publicity of the documentary and alleges that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a proximity fused missile, a possibility they claim was not considered by the NTSB in their investigation.

Where an accident warrants an investigation and report, the NTSB is mandated to offer detailed narrative accident report, which includes the facts, conditions and circumstances of the accident as well as probable cause and appropriate recommendations.

A petition for reconsideration or modification of the NTSB’s findings, especially when it comes to the probable cause, can be filed by a party to the investigation or a person with a direct interest. The petition must be based on new evidence or be able to show that the Board’s findings were not correct.

The petition claims that new analyses and evidence demonstrate that a detonation or high-velocity explosion caused the crash.

The new evidence put forward included:

  • Two new analyses of FAA radar data
  • Twenty FBI eyewitness interview summaries apparently not previously available
  • Analysis of “spike-tooth” fractures found in multiple locations
  • Evidence of explosive residue

The petitioners claim that the radar evidence shows that there was a powerful and sideways projected explosion which occurred simultaneously with the loss of electrical power, which is not accounted for in the NTSB analysis. The petitioners also claim that the witness statements describe a firework or streak of light which they believe is more consistent with a high-velocity explosion, rather than the low-velocity fuel-air explosion that the NTSB determined.

The primary interest here is of course that a senior investigator on the case is a part of the petition to re-open the investigation. Hank Hughes was assigned as the Survival Factors Specialist on the NTSB’s Go-Team responding to the crash.

He claims that the investigation was “egregiously conducted” because of the FBI involvement. The FBI took control of the investigation at the start because based on eyewitness accounts, they believed that the aircraft may have been shot down by a missile strike: intriguingly exactly what the petition is trying to prove.

The NTSB allowed the FBI to virtually commandeer the NTSB’s investigation, permitting the FBI to determine who would and who would not have access to the evidence. As a result, from the beginning of the wreckage/evidence recovery effort, the FBI, an agency with virtually no aviation accident investigation expertise, with an Evidence Recovery Team so inexperienced that I was asked to give them a crash course on the subject several weeks into the investigation, had virtually complete control of the critical initial evidence handling phase, even to the point of refusing NTSB investigators access to key wreckage and other hard evidence. The FBI, critically, also refused to allow NTSB investigators to interview eyewitnesses for months after the crash. FBI interviews and recording methods were, per the NTSB’s standards, neither thorough nor reliable.

The cost to the investigation in terms of preserving evidence and getting thorough eyewitness accounts was incalculable. From the beginning to the end of the FBI’s participation in the Flight 800 investigation, the NTSB consistently violated previously mentioned regulations pertaining to continuing its own investigation according to normal NTSB procedures and working with the FBI to ensure that “evidence of the criminal act” was properly preserved.

It’s difficult to understand how the FBI’s interference in trying to prove a criminal act directly led to the investigation concluding — according to Hank Hughes, wrongly — that no criminal act occurred.

The NTSB assembled a team of investigators not previously associated with the original investigation to consider the petition. This week, the NTSB put forward an official response as a result of this investigation.

They determined that the petition advanced two claims which the NTSB could consider under to reopen the case. One was the radar evidence, which the NTSB says included no new data but simply a different analysis focused on the petitioners’ alternative explanation of the crash.

The petitioners apply various calculations to primary radar returns recorded by one facility after the time of the explosion. However, they overestimated the accuracy with which the radar could determine the position of the airborne object.

As a result, they tried to make calculations of speed and distance that were not meaningful, and the conclusions they drew were unsupported.

In addition, the NTSB notes that no radar data from any site showed an object, such as a missile, traveling toward or intercepting the airplane’s track.

The second was the twenty witness summaries obtained from the FBI, which the NTSB treated as new evidence. Project TWA 800 claimed that the summaries did not match the conclusions drawn by the NTSB in their final report and that the NTSB must revise finding 8 in the report which stated that the streaks of light which witnesses reported seeing were not related to a missile. The NTSB considered the witness summaries but stated that they contained no new unique vantage points nor information.

Of the 20 summaries, 8 include mention of a light ascending in the sky, and 3 of those 8 indicated that the light came from the ground, horizon, or ocean (5 of the 8 did not provide a point of origin). The NTSB’s final report discusses statements from 736 witnesses, 258 of whom saw a streak of light. Of those 258 witnesses, 25 indicated that the streak of light originated from the surface or the horizon. When the 20 new summaries (8 of which described a streak of light ascending, 3 of those 8 described a surface or horizon point of origin) are considered as new, unique witnesses, the percentage of witnesses who saw a streak becomes 35.2 percent (originally 35 percent) and the percentage who saw the streak originate at the surface or horizon becomes 10.5 percent (originally 9.7 percent).

As a result of their investigation, yesterday the NTSB officially denied the petition for reconsideration in its entirety.

The original investigation looked for evidence of fragments from a missile warhead and found none. Further, the damage patterns within the airplane were consistent with a center wing tank explosion. Lastly, the distribution of debris was also consistent with an in-flight breakup started by a fuel-air explosion within the center wing tank.

Ultimately, the petitioners did not show that the NTSB’s conclusion or determination of probable cause were wrong.

You can read the entire response from the NTSB here: Response to Petition for Reconsideration.

It’s difficult for me to understand why the FBI and the NTSB would enter a conspiracy to cover up the very theory that the FBI set out to prove from the onset. Having read through the Project TWA 800 website as well as the NTSB TWA 800 website, I’m inclined to believe that the most expensive investigation of its time was focused on determining the truth, although some (most?) of them believed from the start that it was a criminal act. After four years, the investigation discovered the truth, which was more convoluted and complicated than the simplistic terrorist theory. It’s hardly surprising that some of those involved with the investigation at the time are still disappointed that they were wrong.

13 June 2014

Remote Control Boeing

In the aftermath of a mystery such as the disappearance of MH370, conspiracy theories always thrive. This one is a big one, as it involves multiple governments, corporate America and the US State Department. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was not diverted by anyone on board, according to this theory, but was taken over remotely. There are two primary variations. First, that the US Military interfered with the flight, jamming the frequencies as remote controls were used to turn the aircraft away from Vietnamese airspace to land in an unknown location. Second, that criminals have gained control of this technology which is pre-installed into aircraft all over the world. This group of unknown terrorists was able to hack into the secret system to gain control of the aircraft and divert it from its path, without anyone on board able to stop them.

A problem with this theory is that any theoretical remote control of the aircraft would not include the ability to turn off the ACARS, the transponder and the radio. There are fighter jets that carry the ability to jam military radar, such as the EA-18G Growler. However, it would take multiple Growlers to jam the Boeing 777′s signal as it continued on its diversion. This means that it wouldn’t have been terrorist hijackers, who would struggle to get a single military jet from the US Navy, let alone a contingent of them. This narrows the possibility to government military interventions by someone who has the technology but doesn’t have access to Boeing 777s, which doesn’t seem likely. Finally, air traffic controllers on the ground would at least be aware that there was interference, even if they didn’t recognise that the signal was being jammed. The Boeing would not simply vanish from the secondary radar systems.

Scientific American put it best:
How Do You Hide a Boeing 777? – Scientific American

Other theories imply that electronic warfare techniques—jamming, spoofing or degrading signals—might be involved in MH370’s disappearance. Such technologies can prevent enemy fire control radars from getting a fatal lock on aircraft, but they are not a David Copperfield magic trick. They don’t make planes disappear, especially not large commercial airliners, from the screens of air traffic control systems.

I have not yet found a verifiable description of how the assailants could have made the aircraft disappear before the diversion began. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll ignore this issue and focus on the idea of the remote control Boeing.

Obviously, it is possible to fly planes by remote control. Unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, are remotely piloted aircraft with no humans on board. The first known military usage of the UAV was 1849. The Austrians besieged Venice and then launched the first air raid in history. The Austrians filled hot air balloons with bombs set to go off in twenty-three minutes. They were then launched from a war steamer where the prevailing wind blew them over Venice. UAVs are used all around the world but they are generally custom designed. Boeing have designed twelve models for use as unmanned aircraft and have two high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs under development: the solar-electric Solar Eagle and the hydrogen powered Phantom Eye.

But that’s not the same thing as taking over a commercial aircraft meant to be controlled by an aircrew with assistance from a Flight Management System. In April 2013, Business Week published an expose to state that it was possible to hack into the flight management system of an aircraft using only an android. However, the FAA were swift to deny that there was any danger. The hacking technique described did not work on certified flight hardware and would not pose a flight safety concern. No aircraft has ever actually been hacked in such a way that it could be used to divert the aircraft without complicity from the flight crew. If someone were to attempt this, it would almost certainly be on the computer-intensive Airbus, not the Boeing with its higher reliance on manual inputs. Besides, if someone were to hack into the Flight Management System to take control of an aircraft, all the flight crew would need to do is turn it off and continue the flight without it. Right now, the technology to remotely take over some random flight management system against the will of the flight crew does not exist.

However, Boeing are definitely interested in developing the ability to take control of their aircraft remotely. In 2006, Boeing applied for the following patent:

Patent US7142971 – System and method for automatically controlling a path of travel of a vehicle

The method and system for automatically controlling a path of travel of a vehicle include engaging an automatic control system when the security of the onboard controls is jeopardized. Engagement may be automatic or manual from inside the vehicle or remotely via a communication link. Any onboard capability to supersede the automatic control system may then be disabled by disconnecting the onboard controls and/or providing uninterruptible power to the automatic control system via a path that does not include the onboard accessible power control element(s).

This system is specifically designed to protect the aircraft against a hijack. Since 9/11, the security of the flight deck has been much improved but the patent documentation explains that people are the weakest factor. The security door leading to the cockpit is still under human control and if one of the flight crew is tricked or threatened, a terrorist can still gain access. Armed guards or air marshals on flights may be overpowered or threatened. The pilot may allow access to the cockpit out of fear of harm to the passengers or crew.

[There is a need for] a technique that conclusively prevents unauthorized persons from gaining access to the controls of a vehicle and therefore threatening the safety of the passengers onboard the vehicle, and/or other people in the path of travel of the vehicle, thereby decreasing the amount of destruction individuals onboard the vehicle would be capable of causing. In particular, there is a need for a technique that ensures the continuation of the desired path of travel of a vehicle by removing any type of human decision process that may be influenced by the circumstances of the situation, including threats or further violence onboard the vehicle.

Here’s a key point: this patent is to protect the entire aircraft against trickery, coercion or threats of violence. It relies on being able to control the aircraft without human intervention of any kind. For example, under predetermined conditions such as an unexplained diversion from the flight plan, a signal is sent which sets an uninterruptable autopilot mode on the aircraft. The aircraft then follows pre-determined control commands to navigate away from populated areas and to a designated landing site where the aircraft would attempt an automatic landing. As described in the patent, the system would not allow someone on the ground or in another aircraft to take control of the aircraft and send it to a new location – the most they could do is set off the emergency evasive manoeuvre to follow the preset pattern.

Another point: this is a patent. The theory goes that the technology not only exists but that Boeing have secretly been putting this system into place in aircraft all over the world. Could this remote-control technology be included in every aircraft? Well, from a commercial point of view, it seems a bit spurious. I can certainly imagine the US military wanting these controls put into aircraft, making it impossible to take control of an aircraft through threats of violence. And yes, I am absolutely convinced that there are aspects of the War on Terror which are not publicly known.

And yet, I find it hard to believe a conspiracy of this magnitude. Boeing’s financial situation is based on the fact that they are selling aircraft to airlines all over the world. Would they really risk ceding the entire international market to Airbus by inserting this technology against the will of their customers? And is it reasonable to believe that not a single engineer or maintenance company would have noticed these additional systems in place which were undeclared and undocumented?

The main argument in favour of this on websites which are presenting the remote control Boeing scenario as likely is the Boeing controversy over the QRS-11 chip.

Here’s an example of the conspiracist explanation:

Are Boeing fitting their aircraft with illegal devices that could enable terrorists to remotely hijack airliners and crash them into high profile targets? In light of what happened on 9/11, Boeing’s blanket denial that this practice has taken place is both highly suspicious and a threat to national security . . .

According to the Seattle Times, “The QRS-11 chip, made by a unit of BEI Technologies in Concord, Calif., is just over 1-½ inches in diameter and weighs about 2 ounces. It sells for between $1,000 and $2,000. Described as “a gyro on a chip,” it is used to help control the flight of missiles and aircraft.” . . .

Recent newspaper reports discussing these devices and the policy to have them in all airliners within three years assure us that they would prevent another 9/11 style outrage – but because anysuch system is vulnerable to hacking allied with the fact that pilots have no way of overriding the autopilot, not even with secure access codes, this only increases the chances of another 9/11 style attack.

One frustrating aspect of these types of theories is that bizarre conclusions are twisted into half-truths in such a way that it isn’t immediately obvious what is true and what is not. Quoted in the Seattle Times, and every other reputable source about the QRS-11 chip controversy, is that the US State Department wanted to stop the aircraft being installed with this chip, as opposed to having a policy to secretly install them into all airliners.

So the factual part of this explanation is that the QRS-11 Gyrochip exists, it is well-documented, it is not a secret and that there was controversy. But it was quite the opposite of “secretly installing it into aircraft sold overseas”.

The QRS-11 is a coin-sized guidance chip used as a part of a commercial navigation system made by French company, Thales. These navigation systems are used by Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier and other aircraft makers.

The US state department fears that the QRS-11 chip could be used in Chinese guided missiles, although the chip was not developed for military applications but was designed as a commercial product. It has been used within some military missile systems because the technology is extremely affordable. Thus, the QRS-11 chip was determined a munitions item, which require a specific presidential waiver from the White House for commercial export to China.

US State department then brought charges that Boeing had embedded the chip in 96 planes sold to Beijing, without the permission of the US State Department. Boeing fought back. “[The gyrochip] is a low-value card that they could find other ways to buy,” he said. “If they want to buy a 737 to pull that part out, I’d love them to buy more 737s.”

Boeing and Airbus continue to sell the chip as a part of their instrument boxes – there’s no secret about it – and Boeing argues that the fines and sanctions in this instant are the overzealous application export controls that threatened to derail overseas sales. That is to say, they rank their position in the global marketplace over US State department sanctions. There’s no question that this chip is being secretly installed in order to gain remote control of aircraft to avoid another 9/11 scenario. The QRS-11 chip is a complete red herring.

If the system exists at all, it is undocumented. Then we still have to presume either that a terrorist group has access to top secret US technology and military aircraft (and yet wants control of a Boeing 777 for nefarious purposes) or that the US has taken the aircraft for unknown reasons, willing to brave an international scandal in order for secret reasons. Without any sort of identifiable motive, I find both of these scenarios hard to believe.

Finally, there’s a question of timing. The Boeing patent for this system was put forward in 2006. The Boeing 777 in question, NM-MRO, was delivered new to Malaysia Airlines in May 2002. Even if one believes the theory that after 9/11, the US State Department started an initiative to install remote control capabilities into every commercial aircraft, the aircraft predates the patent by four years. Even if the technology were a reality, it would not yet have been installed to NM-MRO.

Effectively, in order to believe that remote control abduction of the Boeing 777 explains the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, you must accept multiple conspiracies and accept that most everything we know about commercial airliner technology is wrong. It’s not impossible but I find it highly improbable.


This is an update to my book The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which offers a detailed analysis of the flight and disappearance of MH370. If you are interested in reading more, you can buy it here.

09 May 2014

Ejection 0.8 Seconds Before Impact

The incident happened in 2003 but I only just saw the photograph and video on /r/aviation last week.

Thunderbird no. 6 ejection at Mountain Home airshow in 2003. Photo by SSgt Bennie J. Davis III – Still Photographer, USAF

This looks like a photoshopped picture or a stunt still from of a Hollywood movie but it is 100% legitimate.

The photograph was taken at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where the Thunderbirds were putting on an aerial display. The photographer snapped this photograph of 31-year-old Captain Chris Stricklin from the tower, capturing the exact moment when Captain Stricklin ejected from the F-16. Stricklin ejected less than a second before the F16 hit the ground.

The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the United States Airforce, the equivalent of the Red Arrows of the UK Royal Air Force or the Blue Angels of the US Navy.

The Thunderbirds were formed in 1917 as an operational squadron. In 1953 they became the aerobatic display team in 1953, taking the name Thunderbirds from the southwestern US folklore around Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. They became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team in 1956 but had to stop after the FAA banned all supersonic flight at air shows.

They tour the US and the world to perform air demonstrations but they apparently are able to rapidly integrate into an operational fighter unit. They fly F16 Fighting Falcons.

Their standard demonstration is documented on Wikipedia:

From the end of the runway the 4-ship Thunderbird team get ready to begin their take-off roll with the words “Thunderbirds, let’s run em up!” being retransmitted from the team leader’s mic through the PA system for the crowd to hear.

Diamond: Historically, as Thunderbirds 1 through 4 lift off, the slot aircraft slips immediately into position behind 1 to create the signature Diamond formation. Thanks to the 2009 upgrade to the Block 52, the Diamond now has more than enough thrust to continue to climb straight up into their first maneuver, the Diamond Loop.

Solos: Thunderbird 5 takes to the air next performing a clean low altitude aileron roll followed by 6 who performs a split S climbing in a near vertical maneuver rolling over and diving back toward show center pulling up just above the runway and exiting in the opposite direction.

Much of the Thunderbirds’ display alternates between maneuvers performed by the diamond, and those performed by the solos. They have a total of 8 different formations: The Diamond, Delta, Stinger, Arrowhead, Line-Abreast, Trail, Echelon and the Five Card. The arrowhead performs maneuvers in tight formation as close as 18 inches Fuselage to Canopy separation. They perform formation loops and rolls or transitions from one formation to another. All maneuvers are done at speeds of 450-500+ mph.

Stricklin was flying Thunderbird 6, performing the Split S manoeuvre as a part of his solo performance with the Thunderbirds.

The Split S (known in the RAF as the Half Roll and in the Luftwaffe as the Abschwung) is a dog-fighting technique used to disengage from combat. The pilot half-rolls his aircraft so that he’s flying upside down and then dives away in a descending half-loop, pulling out so that he’s flying straight and level in the opposite direction.

At the Mountain Home airshow as that Captain Stricklin did not have enough vertical space to pull out of the half-loop, leading to his last-second ejection. He had performed the Split S manoeuvre over two hundred times.

The astounding photograph was taken by a professional photographer at the control tower and was swiftly leaked to the public despite the fact that the military immediately locked down into an investigation. The photographer posted on the f-16.net message boards.

Thunderbird crash photo (head-on)

I have noticed all over the internet the shot I had taken of the Thunderbird crash at Mountain Home AFB, ID and though I am not at liberty to share the photo; it is out there. I would like to end some speculation and let you know the photo is real.

I’m a Still Photographer for the USAF and I was stationed at MHAFB during the air show. I was on the catwalk of the tower at Mtn Home along with another photog (video) and about seven other (military) spectators. I have shot the T-birds from the tower before and I was pretty excited to do it again (the sky was perfect blue). I followed Thunderbird 6 from takeoff and watched as he pulled into his maneuver. I then noticed something seemed to be wrong, his direction was a little off; he was pulling out and heading right towards the tower. At this point I figured two things: 1. He’s either going to fly past this tower and we’ll feel the heat or 2. This is going to be ugly… I waited for the aircraft to level and clicked the shutter, what I saw through the lens will never go away…

At the same time as I shot I seen a flash of light and horrific sound. I was shooting on high speed continuous and the next couple frames were a ball of fire and my feet, right before I ran. We all ran to the other side of the tower, I tried to get everyone in along with my partner and finally made it in myself. By the time we got inside the 16 had stopped sliding and rested about 100 ft in front of the tower. I then continued documenting the work of our base firefighters as they put out the flames. It was an experience and though I can’t officially make any comments to the matter, I would like to say Capt Stricklin saved lives… enough said.

For those who are wondering the image is not cleared for public release.

Also for those fellow photogs I was shooting with a D1x with a 300mm, 2.8 @ 1000 and 2000

Thanks,
SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
Still Photographer, USAF

The photograph was officially released a few days later, along with the video from the cockpit just before the crash.

Redditors have pointed out that his left arm twitches twice towards the eject lever before committing to the action.

Captain Stricklin sustained only minor injuries. The $20.4 million F16 was destroyed.

This video shows the view from the crowd:

The investigation results were released as a press release a year later:

PRESS RELEASE — Secretary of the Air Force, Directorate of Public Affairs

Release No. 0121045 – Jan 21, 2004

Thunderbirds Accident Report Released

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – Pilot error caused a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 aircraft to crash shortly after takeoff at an air show Sept. 14 at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
The pilot ejected just before the aircraft impacted the ground.

According to the accident investigation board report released today, the pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the “Split S” manoeuvre. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S manoeuver.

When he realized something was wrong, the pilot put maximum back stick pressure and rolled slightly left to ensure the aircraft would impact away from the crowd should he have to eject. He ejected when the aircraft was 140 feet above ground — just eight –tenths of a second prior to impact. He sustained only minor injuries from the ejection. There was no other damage to military or civilian property.

The aircraft, valued at about $20.4 million, was destroyed.

Also, the board determined other factors substantially contributed to creating the opportunity for the error including the requirement for demonstration pilots to convert mean sea level and above ground level altitudes and performing a manoeuvre with a limited margin of error.

For more information, contact the ACC Public Affairs office at (757) 764-5007 or e-mail acc.pam@langley.af.mil.

The QNH (sea-level altitude) vs QFE (altitude above the ground) is thus seen as a contributing factor.

Stricklin’s home base at Nellis is at 2,000 feet whereas Mountain Home is at 3,000 feet, so the altitude he selected would have been correct at his home base.

The contributing factor of requiring pilots to convert sea-level altitude information to altitude above ground for radio calls was immediately dealt with by the Air Force. Thunderbird pilots now call out MSL (Mean Sea Level) altitudes rather than AGL (Above Ground Level) altitudes and must climb an additional one thousand feet before performing the Split S manoeuvre.

A bystander reported that after the ejection, Stricklin stood silently by the canopy of the aircraft. Then he threw his helmet at the ground and stomped over to the wreckage. He knew that his time as a Thunderbird pilot was over.

However, I was pleased to see that in 2009, Stricklin was commended for his work on safety programmes in the USAF:

2009: CSAF Individual Safety Award – Lt. Col. Christopher Stricklin, 14th Flying Training Wing, Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.
Colonel Stricklin led and managed flight, ground, and weapon safety programs for 3,000 personnel, including 20 essential safety personnel who provided over 3,120 annual hours of on-call service. As a direct result of his efforts, flight mishaps were reduced in nearly every category; down 50 percent in Class A, 70 percent in Class C, 44 percent in Class E, and 50 percent in Controlled Movement Area Violations.

It makes sense to me; if I’d been that close to smashing into the ground, I’d be pretty thoughtful about flight safety too!

02 May 2014

The Alien Abduction of Frederick Valentich

Frederick Valentich was 20 years old when he disappeared. His father believed that one day, the aliens would bring him back. Australia’s most famous case of alien abduction, Valentich’s lost flight is how the Bass Strait Triangle got its nickname.

Valentich's father holds a photograph of his son

Valentich was a pretty average Australian kid. His dream was to become a professional pilot: he applied to the Royal Australian Air Force twice and then settled for the Air Training Corps. He was studying part-time to become a commercial pilot but struggled with the examinations. He had a private pilot’s licence with about 150 total hours flying time and had completed his night rating.

The boy was enthralled with UFOs and the idea of an alien invasion. Shortly before he disappeared, Valentich claimed that he had seen a flying saucer, moving away very fast. His father said that his son was very worried about what would happen if the extraterrestrials attacked.

It was a sunny evening on the 21st of October in 1978, when Valentich booked a training flight in VH-DSJ, a rental Cessna 182 light aircraft at Moorabbin Airport near Melbourne. The weather forecast was good. He filed a flight plan for a trip to King Island, one of the islands of Tasmania.

The Bass Strait lies between Victoria and Tasmania. Pilots always try to reduce the amount of time flying over water, so rather than fly straight across the strait from Melbourne, Valentich’s routing would have taken him southwest along the coast to Cape Otway to then cross the strait to King Island, making it an 85-kilometre (50-mile) stretch across the water. Following this standard route from Moorabbin Airport to King Island Airport, it is a 90-min flight.

It’s not clear why Valentich was going to King Island. He told his family and his girlfriend that he was going there to pick up some crayfish. At Moorabbin he said that he was going to bring some friends back and took four life jackets with him for the return flight. He’d mentioned to his girlfriend that he’d be back by 19:30, clearly not possible with a 18:00 departure.

Another odd detail was that he didn’t phone King Island airport to tell them that he was inbound to them. The small airfield is uncontrolled and there would be no one there after sunset; he couldn’t land there unless he called to ask them to turn the runway lights on. He had the fuel to go there and back without stopping: the round-trip journey is about 235 kilometres (145 miles) and would take about three hours in the Cessna, well within its range. There was no danger, just that he was embarking on a pointless journey. It was simply odd, especially in combination with his unclear plans, and could imply that he had no intention of going to King Island that evening. He might have been up to something nefarious, smuggling along the coast. Maybe he wanted to be alone in the dark looking for UFOs and didn’t want to admit it on a flight plan. Or, it could have been a simple oversight, one that he would have been embarrassed about when he drew near the airport and realised there was no one there. All we know for sure is that he never made that phone call.

18:10 VH-DSJ was refuelled to capacity, giving it 300 minutes flight time.

18:19 Valentich departed Moorabbin Airport and flew southwest as per his flight plan.

18:43 The sun set. Valentich was flying in the dusk over water. Night flying requires a separate rating for visual flights in Australia because it can be disorienting. Flying at night over water is especially so, as the lack of lights means that there is no way of orientating yourself to the ground. So as the sunlight faded, Valentich would have seen a sky full of stars above and darkness below.

19:00 Valentich contacted Melbourne Air Traffic Control and gave his location as over Cape Otway on the south coast of Victoria. Cape Otway has a light-house, which makes it an easy visual reference point. He confirmed that he was proceeding to King Island. His flight plan showed that he would remain below 5,000 feet and that he had estimated it would take him 41 minutes to fly to Cape Otway and then a further 28 minutes from Cape Otway to King Island. He was right on schedule.

Valentich identifies himself by the final letters of the call sign of the aircraft, VH-DSJ. Melbourne Flight Service Unit use this callsign to make it clear who they are speaking to or, when used on its own, simply to acknowledge that the controller has understood what the pilot said.

19:06:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?

19:06:23 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.

19:06:26 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I am… seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.

19:06:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, what type of aircraft is it?

19:06:50 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. I cannot affirm. It is four bright… it seems to me like landing lights.

The obvious first question is: what did Valentich see out there in the dark?

After the event, some people believed that there was nothing there at all. There were rumours that the whole whole thing was simply a hoax and Valentich was having a laugh before purposefully disappearing. But he had no reason to go and all of the evidence points to the fact that Valentich truly believed in extra-terrestial space craft. The air traffic controller said afterwards that he was convinced that it wasn’t a joke. He was sure that Valentich saw something.

19:07:32 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.

19:07:43 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, Roger. And it is a large aircraft? Confirm.

19:07:47 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Er, unknown, due to the speed it’s travelling. Is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?

19:07:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.

It’s possible that the lights were another aircraft small enough not to show up on Melbourne’s radar but it seems to be travelling too fast for that, unless it was military. There were no reports of military aircraft in the area.

Meanwhile, there were a number of reports of UFOs that night. Mt Stromlo Observatory advised that the night of the 21st was the peak of a meteorite storm and they recorded 10-15 meteorite sightings per hour. The uptick in UFO sightings was expected: studies show that 29% of UFO reports are the result of bright stars and planets and a further 9% are explained by meteors. The UFO sightings that night were almost certainly reactions to the meteorite storm. A meteorite might also explain a fast moving craft in the sky. However the meteorite storm doesn’t explain the four clear lights that Valentich reported over him.

19:08:18 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, it’s approaching now from due east, towards me.

19:08:28 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.

19:08:42 —: [open microphone for two seconds]

19:08:49 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game. He’s flying over me two, three times at a time, at speeds I could not identify.

19:09:02 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What is your actual level?

19:09:06 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My level is four and a half thousand. Four Five Zero Zero.

19:09:11 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet and confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.

19:09:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Affirmative.

19:09:18 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. Standby.

19:09:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, Delta Sierra Juliet. It’s not an aircraft, it is… [open microphone for five seconds]

19:09:46 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, can you describe the, er, aircraft?

19:09:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. As it’s flying past it’s a long shape. [open microphone for three seconds] Cannot identify more than that it has such speed. [open microphone for three seconds] Before me right now, Melbourne.

Some of what he saw could be explained by fast-moving meteorites out of the corner of his eye. However, that doesn’t account for a hovering aircraft directly above him. James McGaha and Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry believe that they know what he saw.

The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved – CSI

As it happens, a computer search of the sky for the day, time, and place of Valentich’s flight reveals that the four points of bright light he would almost certainly have seen were the following: Venus (which was at its very brightest), Mars, Mercury, and the bright star Antares. These four lights would have represented a diamond shape, given the well-known tendency of viewers to “connect the dots,” and so could well have been perceived as an aircraft or UFO. In fact, the striking conjunction was shaped as a vertically elongated diamond, thus explaining Valentich’s saying of the UFO that “it’s a long shape.”

19:10:07 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. And how large would the, er, object be?

19:10:20 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. It seems like it’s a stationary. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me. Also it’s got a green light and sort of metallic-like. It’s all shiny on the outside.

It’s not clear what Valentich might have meant when he said that was orbiting, possibly that he was flying in a holding pattern in order to get a better look at the “object”. What’s absolutely clear is that his entire attention is taken by the unidentified flying object. The mention of the green light is new.

19:10:48 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet…[open microphone for five seconds] It’s just vanished.

19:10:57 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet.

19:11:03 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it a military aircraft?

This wasn’t really a conversation that he needed to be holding right at that moment. But Valentich’s curiosity was peaked.

19:11:08 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, confirm that the, er, aircraft just vanished?

19:11:14 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Say again?

19:11:17 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, is the aircraft still with you?

19:11:23 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet it’s ah no…[open microphone for two seconds] Now approaching from the south west.

There’s a dangerous configuration that has killed many pilots, especially visual pilots who have not been trained to fly by instruments. It’s known as the graveyard spiral or suicide spiral and is common in poor weather conditions…and at night. The spiral is caused by well-known sensory illusions that affect us in aircraft. The pilot becomes disoriented and loses the ability to judge the orientation of the plane. He believes he is flying straight, with the wings level but in fact, he is pulling the yoke slightly, leading the aircraft into a bank. The aircraft starts to to fly a large circle and, if the pilot does not recognise the situation, the plane will begin a gentle spiral towards the ground.

Graveyard spiral – Wikipedia

For example, a pilot who enters a banking turn to the left will initially have a sensation of a turn in the same direction. If the left turn continues (~20 seconds or more), the pilot will experience the sensation that the airplane is no longer turning to the left. At this point, if the pilot attempts to level the wings this action will produce a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction (to the right). If the pilot believes the illusion of a right turn (which can be very compelling), he/she will re-enter the original left turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of a right turn. If the pilot fails to recognize the illusion and does not level the wings, the airplane will continue turning left and losing altitude.

The graveyard spiral is initiated by an unintentional turn or a return to level flight after an intentional prolonged turn.

Basically, you get disoriented and put the plane into a slight bank. Now that feels straight and level to you, so if you correct the turn, you feel like you are turning. So you don’t. And the plane very slowly and gently flies in circles that get increasingly tighter as the aircraft descends

Valentich and plane

Valentich said that he was orbiting and “the thing” was just orbiting on top of him, so he was probably in a low, slow turn. He did not have much experience with night flights and only had the most basic instrument training. It was dark and he was flying over water, with no horizon to help him to orient himself. He initially saw four white lights but then mentions a green light. His right wing-tip has a green light on it, a navigation light. What he’s seeing points to an aircraft that is not flying straight and level, it’s slowly spiralling down.

19:11:52 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet. The engine is, is rough idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three/twenty four and the thing is coughing.

19:12:04 Melbourne Flight Service Unit: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger. What are your intentions?

19:12:09 VH-DSJ (Valentich): My intentions are ah to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. [two seconds open microphone] It’s hovering and it’s not an aircraft.

His engine is running rough but instead of wondering why this is, he’s still staring out the window at the UFO. Even when asked directly what his intentions are, he doesn’t consider breaking off the water crossing as a result of his engine trouble.

The rough engine coughing certainly sounds like a fuel issue. If he’s flying in a tightening spiral or even upside down, that will decrease the fuel flow, leading to exactly those symptoms. What Valentich needs to do right now is stop watching his UFO and fly the plane.

19:12:28 VH-DSJ (Valentich): Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. [17 seconds open microphone]

There were no further transmissions.

Melbourne declared a Search and Rescue alert immediately and at 19:33, when Valentich did not arrive at King Island, an intensive air, sea and land search started. They scoured the area for four days but were unable to find any trace of the aircraft.

Five years later, an engine cowl flap was discovered on Flinders Island, washed in from the sea. It was positively identified as coming from a Cessna 182 of the same batch as the rental aircraft that Valentich was flying. No other trace was ever found.

Frederick Valentich’s father joined the Victoria UFO Research Centre and continued to hope that his son was alive and abducted by aliens until his death in 2000.

And yet, there’s strong evidence that the young man’s belief in the extra-terrestrial led to his death. It appears that what should have been a brief distraction became a tragic event.


If you found this post interesting, you should pick up my new book, a detailed analysis of MH370: The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

28 March 2014

MH370 Search: Beacons and Pingers and Locators

The press is continuing to speculate as to causes and criminals, but I think we’re all clear now that until we find the aircraft itself, we won’t know what happened. Of course what everyone is hoping for is that we find the “black box” and that it has useful information on it.

A black box is actually a bright-orange container designed for high visibility, which houses the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. The black box is housed at the rear of the aircraft, on the presumption that following the initial impact, the rear of the aircraft will be moving at a slower speed. The black box is engineered to survive a catastrophe, including crashing down to the bottom of the South Indian Ocean. It is extremely likely that if we find the black box, the contents will be safe and we will get at least some data on the final flight of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

However, finding the black box is proving difficult because we simply don’t know where the aircrash was.

Aircraft are fitted with distress radio beacons, often referred to in aviation as ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitter) or more colloquially as pingers. These beacons send out a distress signal every second in order to help search and rescue determine the location of a downed aircraft. Traditionally, a distress beacon would interface with the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, a search and rescue satellite system established in 1979 by Canada, France, the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, it isn’t possible for a distress radio beacon to broadcast to a satellite from underwater. The point of the distress beacon was to find survivors as quickly as possible. It was not intended to discover sunken wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

In 1961, the UK Ministry of Aviation focused on how to locate and recovery aircraft lost in deep water, with the result that commercial aircraft since 1988 carry mounted acoustic beacons for underwater use. All modern commercial jets now carry an Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB). In the photograph above, the Underwater Locator Beacon is the small cylinder on the far right.

A ULB is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Once the beacon is immersed in water, the water closes an electric circuit and the beacon begins to transmit. The ULB will transmit a “ping” at an acoustic frequency of 37.5kHz every second at full power for 30 days. The detection range is 1-2 kilometres in normal conditions and 4-5 kilometers in good conditions. After the 30 days, the ULB will continue to transmit but the range will reduce day by day until it stops altogether. How long it will continue to transmit is based on various factors, including the environment it is in and the age of the beacon and the battery itself which is generally replaced every few years.

After the Air France Flight 447, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) recommended that the ULBs’ transmission period be increased to 90 days.

Honeywell Aerospace, the producers of the black box on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, have confirmed that the cockpit voice recorder will only have the final two hours of the flight on it. However, the flight data recorder will allow us to recreate the flight itself and the wreckage itself may help to unravel the mystery. The ULB will be attached to the black box and we’re hoping it will lead us to the wreckage of the aircraft in the South Indian Ocean.

Hydro International describes deep-water black box retrieval as “A game of hunt-the-pinger against the clock.”

Deep-water Black Box Retrieval – November 2009, Volume 13, Number 09 – Archive – Hydro International

Localising a pinger from the surface in shallow water is relatively easy, as described above. This task becomes increasingly difficult as water depth increases, however, because the direction is affected by both the horizontal bearing and the depression angle to the beacon (Figure 2). When trying to locate a pinger beacon in deep water, the detection equipment should be installed on a self-propelled underwater vehicle (either an ROV/AUV or a manned submersible). However, this presupposes that the position is already known to within the maximum 2-3km detection range. When aircraft debris is scattered over a large area, as with the recent Air France 447 accident off the Brazilian coast in depths up to 3.5km, a grid search must be conducted using underwater acoustic listening equipment. This equipment must be deployed as deep as possible to overcome the bearing/depression angle conflict (such as on the nuclear submarine described in a news feature in the July 2009 issue of Hydro International). The additional time required to mobilise and carry out this search highlights the second major limitation of fitting CAT aircraft with pinger beacons: that of their limited operational life.

Last week, two different search mechanisms were moved into place in the South Indian Ocean: a Towed Ping Locator 25 and a Bluefin-21, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle.

The Towed Pinger Locator 25 will be operated by a team on the Royal Australian Navy supply ship Seahorse Standard. The ray-shaped sensor searches for emergency relocation pingers on downed aircraft up to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet.

The US Navy Fact File: Towed Pinger Locator 25

The system consists of the tow fish, tow cable, winch, hydraulic power unit, generator, and topside control console, although not all of these components are required on every mission. Navigation is accomplished by using algorithms incorporating the amount of cable in the water, the depth indication from the pressure sensor and other parameters. The generator provides electrical power for the system or power from the support platform can be used if it is compatible. The tow fish carries a passive listening device for detecting pingers that automatically transmit an acoustic pulse.

The Pinger Locator is towed behind a vessel at slow speeds, generally from 1 – 5 knots depending on the depth. The received acoustic signal of the pinger is transmitted up the cable and is presented audibly, and can be output to either a Oscilloscope, or Signal Processing Computer. The operator monitors the greatest signal strength and records the navigation coordinates. This procedure is repeated on multiple track lines until the final position is triangulated.

The Bluefin-21 automous underwater vehicle is a sonar-equipped robot used to search for transmissions from the Underwater Locator Beacon as well as detect debris on the ocean floor in an attempt to find the wreckage of MH370. The torpedo-shaped vehicle can operate almost up to three miles underneath sea-level and uses an acoustic camera to provide very high resolution sonar still imagery and video.

Diameter 53 cm / 21 in
Length 493 cm / 16.2 ft
Weight (Dry) 750 kg / 1,650 lb
Depth Rating 4,500 m / 14,763 ft
Endurance 25 hours at 3 knots
Communications RF, Iridium and acoustic;
Ethernet via shore power cable
Data Management 4 GB flash drive for vehicle data
Plus additional payload storage

Last week, I was a guest on a radio show where I explained that trying to find the aircraft wreckage underwater with these locators was looking for a needle in a haystack. “It’s worse than that,” interrupted an ex-NTSB investigator. “We don’t even know where the haystack is yet.” That’s a pretty perfect summary of the situation.

The limited range and speed of the Towed Pinger Locator 25 and the Bluefin-21 mean that they are of little use in a large area. A vessel towing a pinger can search about 15 square nautical miles per hour in depths less than 2 km. As the water gets deeper, the grid-search becomes slower.

The current search area, moved today to a zone about 1,850 km west of Perth, is approximately 319,000 km². Even with two ships searching to a depth of less than 2 km, we’d be talking about over a year of non-stop, uninterrupted searching in perfect weather. Unfortunately, the South Indian Ocean is quite a bit deeper with an average depth of 3.9 km, and the Underwater Locator Beacon will start getting weaker in ten days.

The reason that the TPL-25 and the Bluefin-21 are in place is so that if we do find debris, they are ready for action rather than losing more precious time transporting them to the scene.

Right now, though, all our hopes are pinned on the ocean surface search for debris. The photographic imagery captured today is being assessed overnight and weather conditions for Saturday are expected to be “reasonable”.


Previous articles on MH370:

Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370

21 March 2014

Considering the Probabilities of the Fate of MH370

So, this has been an interesting week! I have been speaking to various journalists around the world, trying to help them make sense of the facts and wild rumours flying around the MH370 mystery.

I’ve put links to the various articles at the bottom of this post for you to read, if you are interested. I’m happy to say that in every instance, the journalists were bright, interested and very focused on sticking to verifiable information. They all spoke to me for an hour or more and asked intelligent questions.

After answering many questions and narrowly avoiding stating assumptions of fact, I quite liked this post on Reddit which discusses this type of analysis: Defining three terms: Occam’s Razor, The Principle of Total Evidence, and The Dog That Didn’t Bark : MH370.

With the news over the past week, it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities somewhat. However, all of this is still based on assumptions and until we find the Boeing 777, we honestly just can’t make conclusions with any confidence.

First, a recap of what we know:

The aircraft departed from Kuala Lumpur airport at 00:41 local time en route to Beijing. The take-off was normal.

01:07 The last ACARS data transmission was received.

01:19 The First Officer signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control. He should next have contacted Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control as they entered Vietnamese airspace.

01:21 Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control noted that they had not checked in and began asking questions.

01:30 The transponder was disabled or turned off, resulting in a loss of secondary radar information regarding the flight.

02:14 The aircraft appeared on military radar in the Strait of Malacca.

08:11 A satellite over the Indian Ocean registers the last ping from the ACARS on MH370. The series of pings confirmed that the aircraft was still moving.

This is not a lot of information to be going on.

Inmarsat and Rolls Royce have been appointed as technical advisors to the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch which is assisting the investigation by the Malaysian authorities. Inmarsat have confirmed that they are “absolutely certain” that the satellites picked up pings from the aircraft for hours after it vanished. This means that the aircraft had power and continued flying until at least 08:11 – at least six and a half hours after it lost contact.

I like this graphic by @_antialias_ because it very clearly shows the “two corridors” which have been narrowed down as possible flight corridors in which the aircraft must have ended up as a result of the (minimal) satellite data.

For more information on this data, I recommend this article:

TMF Associates MSS blog » Understanding “satellite pings”…

Firstly, it needs to be made clear that the radar transponder “squawks” and the satellite communications “pings” are from completely separate systems (just because its talking about a transponder, that is nothing to do with satellite transponders). The radar transponder sends an amplified signal in response to reception an incoming radar transmission, which has much more power than a simple reflection from the metal skin of the plane, and has additional information about the plane’s ID. If turned off, less sensitive civilian radar will struggle to pick up the plane’s reflection, though military (air defense) radar should still be able to see the plane. But military radar systems are looking for hostile forces and have missed civilian aircraft in the past.

Quite frankly, I don’t think we should even think about trying to solve the mystery with so little to go on, but in Sherlock mode, we can look at probabilities.

An aircraft disaster is never simple: there’s a cascade of failures which combine in such a way to lead inevitably to the incident. Thus, when I refer to something as coincidental, that isn’t proof that it didn’t happen that way. I just prefer simple theories to complicated ones.

So, let’s start with the basic premise: MH370 was either the victim of a deliberate diversion or a series of mechanical failures or a combination thereof.

Diverted to Unknown Location to Kidnap Passengers

It’s been thirteen days since we lost contact with the aircraft and no sign of the passengers has been found. The aircraft managed to land without anyone reporting an unexpected low-flying Boeing 777. No one has made a ransom demand. Not a single mobile phone has managed to connect. 227 passengers and 12 crew have been hidden and fed with no one noticing. Sadly, I think this theory is more a question of hope that they might be alive rather than a likely possibility.

Pilot Suicide

The profiles of the pilots are interesting and I recommend this article on the subject: MH370: profile of missing Malaysian Airline plane’s pilots starts to emerge. Both of them were stable and did not have any signs of extremist views or terrorist connections. The Captain was a family man and the First Officer engaged to be married.

But more importantly, I can’t work out any reason whatsover that a suicidal pilot would disable the plane in such a way to leave it flying for seven hours before crashing due to fuel starvation. It makes no sense: a competent pilot would just crash the aircraft immediately, on the spot. In the heat of the moment, he has the element of surprise, so it’s possible to kill yourself using a commercial jetliner, but there’s no possible advantage to dragging it out like this.

The same applies to the “assassination by aircraft” theory, in which the aircraft was crashed in order to murder one of the passengers. This seems like the most complicated way ever to murder someone, to be frank, and again, I can’t see any reason why you would want to take your time about it.

Stolen Cargo

I’d originally mentioned cargo theft as a possible motive. Take the aircraft, dispose of the passengers and unnecessary flight crew and land in a completely isolated area such as in the desert. There, you meet someone who has agreed to help you transport the gold bullions away with from the plane to sell.

However, the cargo has been confirmed to be lithium ion batteries and not gold bullions or some other item worth its weight in, well, gold, it’s very unlikely that the aircraft was stolen with the intent of landing in a remote area to make off with the cargo. Considering the bad press regarding lithium ion batteries recently, it also explains why the Malaysian government was loathe to release the information, although there is no reason to believe at this stage that the cargo was dangerous.

Mechanical Failure

We still don’t know for sure that there was definitely a deliberate diversion by someone onboard the aircraft. It could have been a purely mechanical failure with no devious intentions whatsoever.

I recommend the article on Wired: A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet.

There are two types of fires. An electrical fire might not be as fast and furious, and there may or may not be incapacitating smoke. However there is the possibility, given the timeline, that there was an overheat on one of the front landing gear tires, it blew on takeoff and started slowly burning. Yes, this happens with underinflated tires. Remember: Heavy plane, hot night, sea level, long-run takeoff. There was a well known accident in Nigeria of a DC8 that had a landing gear fire on takeoff. Once going, a tire fire would produce horrific, incapacitating smoke. Yes, pilots have access to oxygen masks, but this is a no-no with fire. Most have access to a smoke hood with a filter, but this will last only a few minutes depending on the smoke level. (I used to carry one in my flight bag, and I still carry one in my briefcase when I fly.)

It’s a good piece and it fits in with the routing – a left turn at the initial point of failure followed by another left turn at the Straight of Malacca, ready to head back to their home airport.

However, I’m not convinced. MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur normally and signed off with the air traffic controller as they left Malaysian airspace and entered Vietnamese airspace. This is extra-ordinarily convenient timing for turning off communication devices and disappearing, so it seems a large coincidence that the ACARS and the transponder coincidentally died as a result of fire just as the crew were changing airspace and switching frequencies. In addition, the fact that the fire took out the ACARS, the transponder and the radio and the flight crew but left the aircraft in a flyable condition for seven hours seems quite unlikely to me.

Aircraft Hid in the Shadow of Another Aircraft

Flying in close formation with another plane large enough to provide a shield is extremely difficult. I find it highly improbable that MH370 managed to catch up to a plane and hide in its shadow without being detected. It’s not impossible and as it has been thirteen days without finding the aircraft, I certainly am not ruling out, but it does feel more like a Bond film than reality.

Once you got into position, it be difficult but not impossible to keep up the formation: the pilots just have to listen to the radio communications for any changes in heading and altitude. I just can’t quite imagine how they got into position in the first place.

The Aviationist » “I’m sure: MH370 escaped in the shadow of another plane” retired Air Force Colonel says

The former radar navigator instructor and tactics officer backs this theory.
“When you fly over water or from point to point, pilots are frequently directed to change frequencies, told to turn, climb, descend, you name it. This is all “in the clear” and not privileged communications, anyone with the right radio on the right frequency would hear it. So, this pilot has planned this out to the nth degree and as he’s coming back across the Malay peninsula, he’s looking to fall in behind another airliner and shadow that airplanes flight path.”

Deliberate Diversion Gone Wrong

It seems likely that any deliberate diversion was not with the intention of crashing the aircraft but to take it to a new location. Without more data, we really can’t begin to guess what that motive might have been.

Any modern aircraft disaster consists of a sequence of failures, which within risk analysis is referred to as the Swiss Cheese model.

Swiss cheese model – Wikipedia

The Swiss Cheese model of accident causation is a model used in risk analysis and risk management. It likens human systems to multiple slices of swiss cheese, stacked side by side. It is sometimes called the cumulative act effect.

In the Swiss Cheese model, an organization’s defenses against failure are modeled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices. The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting (in Reason’s words) “a trajectory of accident opportunity”, so that a hazard passes through holes in all of the slices, leading to a failure.

So considering the data so far, I believe that the disaster that struck MH370 is likely to be combination of the two possibilities: a deliberate diversion followed by a mechanical failure.

By this, I mean that MH370 was intentionally “disappeared” as it left Malaysian airspace but before entering Vietnamese airspace, in hopes of delaying search and rescue missions. If so, this was successful: the Boeing 777 was recognised as not responding as expected very early on but was not in fact reported as missing until after its scheduled landing time in Beijing, even though Vietnamese and Chinese controllers knew it had not followed the route to its declared destination.

But then at some later point, something else went wrong, possibly as a result of a struggle for control of the cockpit. Now the aircraft behaviour is no longer in line with the motives for the deviation, which is why it is so impossible to make sense of what was planned.

I had previously considered a simple decompression event like Helios Airways Flight 522 to be unlikely. This was because the aircraft would continue to transmit ACARS and the transponder would continue to supply secondary radar information even though there was no one controlling the aircraft.

However, if the decompression happened after the deliberate diversion, perhaps as the direct result of a weapon (gun, bomb) going off, then it is possible that the aircraft was flying as a ghost plane for the latter part of the flight.

But this is all second guessing, trying to fit the sparse facts we have into some sort of sensible narrative. Have I mentioned that I also write science fiction? It’s a weakness.

Latest News on the Search Operation

Meanwhile, the most important thing is the search operation, to help us to find more.

Here’s the last update from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Missing Malaysia Airline search: ‘We’ve got a lot of hope’ says pilot

Favourable conditions were encountered in the area of ocean being searched for debris that might be related to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

But Royal Australian Air Force pilot Russell Adams’ squadron could not locate the two objects spotted on satellite images that sparked the ocean search on Thursday.


A hat-tip to the journalists who were interested in learning more:

Finlo Rohrer: BBC News – Mechanical v human: Why do planes crash?

Tom de Castella: BBC News – Missing Malaysia plane: 10 theories examined

Laura Villadiego: Cinco preguntas (y sus respuestas) sobre la misteriosa desaparición del vuelo MH370 – Noticias de Mundo

Ειρήνη Ψυχάρη: Ειδήσεις – νέα – Το Βήμα Online

14 March 2014

Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

I’ll be honest: I was really, really hoping that the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would be solved by today and I wouldn’t have to write about all the second-guessing.

Unfortunately, that’s still (hang on, checking the news one more time) that’s still not happened.

So, let’s go over what we know. All times are Malaysian local time.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, codeshare China Southern Airlines Flight 748, was a scheduled passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China.

On the 8th of March 2014, at Flight Level 350, the Boeing 777 disappeared with 239 souls on board less than an hour after take-off.

Unlike Air France Flight 447, there were no known system failures. The last engine data transmission was received at 01:07.

(Yes, I know about the Wall Street Journal piece. Those were not engine data transmissions. We’ll get to that.)

The flight crew ended communications with Kuala Lumpur air traffic control and should have contacted controllers in Vietnam but never did.

The aircraft disappeared from radar at 01:30.

This was the search and rescue forces as of the 12th and 13th:

Now the guessing games begin. The problem is, this is a mystery and we love mysteries. So everyone wants to try to solve it, to figure out what happened. And right now, we simply don’t have enough data.

One of my favourite articles so far on the subject is this parody in the Onion:

Malaysia Airlines Expands Investigation To Include General Scope Of Space, Time | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA—Following a host of conflicting reports in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last Saturday, representatives from the Kuala Lumpur–based carrier acknowledged they had widened their investigation into the vanished Boeing 777 aircraft today to encompass not only the possibilities of mechanical failure, pilot error, terrorist activity, or a botched hijacking, but also the overarching scope of space, time, and humankind’s place in the universe.

I’m seeing a lot of speculation, second-guessing and even anger that “they” have not yet found the plane, thus “they” are clearly not trying hard enough. Frustration is building because we haven’t been able to solve the mystery and find the plane. Communication has been bad, there’s no question, but this is partially because it is very hard to hold press conferences and updates when there is nothing new to say.

In addition, we are looking at different types of facts.

  • facts from governments
  • facts from those apparently close to the investigation
  • facts from media
  • facts from data that is freely available on the internet

Note I’ve neglected to mention facts from arm-chair investigators like me. We don’t have any facts, only possibilities. It’s important to remember that.

Let’s debunk some information first. We’ll start with the “last-minute turn” on the Flightradar 24 data.

You can replay the actual flight on their website:

Bear in mind times on Flightradar are in UTC, not local time to the flight.

Much has been made of the turn the aircraft made shortly before disappearing, which can be seen on the Flightradar 24 data. The implication is that this was the aircraft turning back or heading to an unexpected location. Here’s Flight Radar’s statement on this:

Here is a #MH370 situation update from Flightradar24 because of the many questions we get.

The ADS-B transponder of an aircraft is transmitting data twice per second. FR24 saves data every 10-60 second depending on altitude. On cruising altitude data is normally saved once per 60 seconds. By analyzing all our databases and logs we have managed to recover about 2 signals per minute for the last 10 minutes.

The last location tracked by Flightradar24 is
Time UTC: 17:21:03
Lat: 6.97
Lon: 103.63
Alt: 35000
Speed: 471 knots
Heading: 40

Between 17:19 and 17:20 the aircraft was changing heading from 25 to 40 degrees, which is probably completely according to flight plan as MH370 on both 4 March and 8 March did the same at the same position. Last 2 signals are both showing that the aircraft is heading in direction 40 degrees.

Today there are reports in media that MH370 may have turned around. FR24 have not tracked this. This could have happened if the aircraft suddenly lost altitude as FR24 coverage in that area is limited to about 30000 feet.

FR24 have not tracked any emergency squawk alerts for flight MH370 before we lost coverage of the aircraft.

Earlier in the week, much was made of the fact that two passengers on the jet had boarded with false passports. In the meantime, the two people who had been using the passports have been identified by Malaysian police and dismissed as unlikely to be terrorists.

The popular idea that this flight suffered the same fate as Helios Flight 522 in which the pilots lost cabin pressure and did not put on their oxygen masks seems unlikely. We never lost contact with Helios Flight 522 and in fact tracked it until the final crash. It was a ghost plane with all systems functioning.

In contrast, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. If it were the same scenario, the pilots of Flight 370 would have had to turn off the comms and transponder as a final act before submitting to hypoxia. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t seem very likely.

For the aircraft to disappear from radar like that, it would have been a case of explosive decompression, where the differential pressure at 35,000 feet actually broke up the aircraft. If this were the case, there would be no peaceful drifting of the aircraft until it ran out of fuel.

A bomb on the aircraft would have a similar effect. I’m leaning against terrorist activity because there’s been no verifiable claim of responsibility and for a terrorist action to hold weight, people need to know that it happened. That leaves assassination and I just can’t help but think there are easier ways to get rid of someone than to sneak onto a plane with a bomb and blow yourself up.

Hijack gets complicated fast because not only do you have to overwhelm the cabin crew and get control of the cockpit, you also have to deal with 227 passengers all of whom have mobile phones. Silencing the aircraft and all the passengers is technically possible but again, the ability to disappear without a trace is complicated and seems unlikely. That would also mean that the hijackers not only managed to disappear an aircraft without a trace, but also landing a Boeing 777 without anyone noticing. It seems unlikely unless there’s a conspiracy of the hugest kind.

OK, so now we get to the WSJ article.

Satellite Data Reveal Route of Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – WSJ.com

Malaysia Airlines MH370 missing jet transmitted its location repeatedly to satellites over the course of five hours after it disappeared from radar, people briefed on the matter said, as searchers zeroed in on new target areas hundreds of miles west of the plane’s original course.
The satellites also received speed and altitude information about the plane from its intermittent “pings,” the people said. The final ping was sent from over water, at what one of these people called a normal cruising altitude.

The data transmission they are talking about is the Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS).

ACARS is a continuous data monitoring system which transmits data automatically. It is what alerted us to the icing situation on Air France 447. And it is that last data received from the engines at 01:07 as the Malaysia Airlines 370 was in the climb for a cruise at 35,000 feet.

ACARS data is event driven, so the silence from 01:07 to 01:30 when the aircraft disappeared is not meaningful. There was simply nothing to report. The last transmission indicated that the aircraft was operating normally.

So when the Malaysian officials insist that there was no further data transmission from the engines after 01:07, that is completely correct.

However, apparently US sources have found that satellites received “faint pings” from the ACARS system, which appear to be the standard “are you there” broadcast which an ACARS system puts out every thirty minutes.

The Boeing’s ACARS communications connected through VHF. There is an additional fee for an ACARS satellite communication link, which Malaysia Airlines did not pay for. So no data would ever have been transferred from the aircraft to the satellite.

Now, if the aircraft was functional but out of VHF coverage, the ACARS system would automatically try to connect through the satellite communications. However, as that was not a service that the aircraft was signed up for, the satellite would not accept the connection.

This can be compared to going out of coverage with your mobile phone. The phone will continue to try to connect and every network which is not your network will reject those connections.

Now, what the Wall Street Journal is reporting is that eight such connection attempts (pings) were found on the log of the satellite. As those pings happen every 30 minutes, that implies that the aircraft had power four another four hours after it disappeared.

If this is correct (and it has not been verified by anyone actually involved in the investigation, so it might not be), then presumably the aircraft continued to fly for some time after the disappearance. If so, this absolutely implies a manual disabling of the comms system, rather than a systems failure.

Recent reports have jumped on this and come up with theories fit for a Dan Brown novel as to how the aircraft was stolen for nefarious purposes.

Today, various newspapers have claimed that the aircraft may have turned towards the Andamans islands and landed there in secrecy; however that still leaves the slight plot-hole that no one has seen an unexpected Boeing 777.

The editor of the Andaman Chronicle says there is no aircraft there.

“There are no chances that such a big aircraft coming to the Andaman islands can be missed.” And yet the headlines continue.

As long as there is no hard news, speculation and guessing will remain in the forefront. Everyone has a pet theory, ranging from pilot suicide to government plots. My favourite crazy ending to this tragedy so far is the only one that would give us a happy ending: that the disappearance is part of a viral advertisement for a new season of Lost.

I hope that the search parties find some evidence of the aircraft soon. My personal opinion is that the aircraft suffered some catastrophic failure at the beginning of the cruise and is now at the bottom of the ocean. But honestly, until we actually have more data, actual verifiable facts, there’s no real point in guessing.

28 February 2014

B-1B with its Nose to the Ground

On the 5th of October in 1989, a B-1B Lancer departed Dyess Air Force Base with four crew on a routine training flight. Three hours later, the flight crew discovered that the aircraft had a hydraulics fault. As they came in to land at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, the front landing gearhttp://fearoflanding.com/?p=7373&preview=true failed to lower.

Ex-28th BW Rockwell B-1B Lancer 85-0070

They circled the airfield for four hours, twice being refuelled by an airborne tanker, as they struggled to lower the nose wheel. Supporting the crew on the ground were military personal and mechanics for the aircraft manufacturer; however they were unable to resolve the issue.

The Air Force had the flight crew fly a further three hours and over 1,000 miles to Edwards Air Force Base, where they circled for another two hours. Air Force officials decided to land the plane on Rogers Dry Lake. Rogers Dry Lake bed is a natural clay runway and is the site of most of the Space Shuttle landings (see Brent’s comment below – it looks like I got this wrong).

The $280 million B-1B Lancer is a four-engine supersonic bomber which is 146 ft (44.5 m) long and a wingspan of 137 ft (41.8m). This is almost the size of a DC-10.

The B-1B has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25 (721 knots, 830 mpg, 1,340 km/h) at 50,000 feet and a range of 6,500 nautical miles. A total of 100 B-1Bs were produced.

The bomber made several low-level passes, which confirmed that the landing gear was still partially retracted. They attempted to jar the nosewheel loose with a touch and go. When that failed, they made a final approach onto the lake at 18:15 local time.

This newly released video of the landing was emailed to me by a reader and it is simply amazing.

None of the crew was hurt and the aircraft unbelievably only suffered minimal damage.

Once on the ground, one of the pilots told the press, “It’s been a great day for flying, except for a few glitches.”