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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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
Ειρήνη Ψυχάρη: Ειδήσεις – νέα – Το Βήμα Online