MH370 – One week later, wreckage found. Really?

So, an Australian satellite has potted debris in the Indian Ocean at the far end of the arc MH370’s engine data fixed the aircraft on for seven hours. There’s now going to be a rush to find it, no doubt.

Fuzzy picture of what Australia hopes is wreckage of MH370
Its it a plane? Is it a wave? It is a statistical certainty

Apparently these images are four days old and have only just come back from analysis.

I think this could well be a wild goose. What we’re looking at is a cluster of white dots in a texture of black and white. Experts have declared this likely debris; to me it looks more like waves. Or perhaps it’s a container washed off a ship, or who knows what? That’s it’s part of MH370 seems very unlikely. Probability is against it.

Let’s look at that probability. Firstly, why is the aircraft presumed to be on this arc leading north and south from Malaysia? It’s actually the line of equal distance (more or less) from the Inmarsat satellite collecting the data from the engines, and this is based on a 1d fix; namely the elevation. I believe it’s known to be 40 degrees declination from the satellite. That’s sound.

The arc ends where the aircraft stopped transmitting, which is also when it is likely to have run out of fuel, and the maximum distance it could have flown along the arc.

However, to get to the far end of the arc, someone would have to have flown it there – or set the autopilot to follow THAT course. Not any of the other courses it could have taken from the point, but that precise arced course. It’s not impossible; it could have taken this course. But is it likely? Probability says “no”.

What seems more probable to me is that the aircraft hung around in a holding pattern close to where it was lost. That’s where to look. If the satellites have found it, great – and the explanation as to why it followed that precise course will be interesting, but I’m not hopeful.

If you’re working on a conspiracy theory, the data sent to Inmarsat could have come form a ground-based transmitter; it could be fake to throw investigators off the scent.

Missing Malaysian Airliner

I’ve got more interest than usual in this, as I happened to be on a ‘plane in the same airspace a few hours afterwards. It makes you think while waiting to board in Singapore.

Three days later, no wreckage has been found and there are rumours of the aircraft changing course. Hijack? That’s what it looks like to me, based on the facts released. First off, there was no distress call. The same was true of the Air France 477 in 2009 (discounting the automated transmissions), but that was way out over the ocean a long way in to the flight; MH370 had only recently departed and was in crowded airspace, in range of ATC and showing up on civil radar.

Much was made of the passengers travelling on stolen passports; given that part of the world I’d be surprised if there weren’t several on every flight out of KL. If it was a terrorist attack, someone would have claimed it by now anyway. And if it was external hijackers, the crew would have raised the alarm.

So what could have happened? The release of the final radio message is a huge clue – they were handing over from Malaysia to Vietnam, mid-way across the sea. Hand-overs are important – they say goodbye, change frequency and says hello. Only the goodbye happened.

If the aircraft had suffered a very sudden and catastrophic failure, the wreckage would be floating on the ocean below at that point. So that leaves the aircrew. They could have turned off the transponder and done what they liked.

If external agents had hijacked an aircraft the pilots would have triggered the hijack alarm on the transponder and made a distress call. They were in radar range, and radio range. And the security on the cockpit door would have allowed them time.

If I was flying an aircraft and wanted to take it over, mid-sea on ATC handover would be the obvious place to do it. Malaysia wouldn’t expect contact because they’d left; Vietnam wouldn’t notice loss of contact because none had been made; they’d assume they were still talking to Malaysia. Just speculating out loud…

Only military radar would be taking any interest in the aircraft, and in that part of the world you bet they were watching but don’t really want to talk about it.