There is much idle speculation on the internet about the possible fate of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, and much as I’ve shared the grotesque fascination of so many others with the incident, I have found the thought of adding to it simply too grisly.
But as huge resources are poured into searching thousands of kilometres of empty ocean for wreckage, and wild Central Asian theories abound, I have become increasingly frustrated that the simplest possibility has been ruled out, because of a simple misanalysis of the available data by the Malaysian authorities. It is entirely possible that MH370 landed or crashed in Malaysia, in Western Indonesia, or in neighbouring parts of the South China Sea.
I think this because of the information that has been released on the known possible final location for the plane. This pilots/hijackers switched off the plane’s automatic broadcast of location information for air traffic controllers – but they didn’t switch off the transmitter which sent the information up to a satellite for retransmission to the appropriate authorities. So, every hour, that transmitter sent a signal up to the INMARSAT communications satellite 38,000 km above the Indian Ocean, and every hour a signal was received back, just to make sure the link is still functioning. Your mobile phone does this with your local cell tower when it’s switched on, even if you aren’t using the phone.
The “handshakes” (as they’re called) with the INMARSAT satellite don’t contain any data. They just wave to the satellite system and tell it what device the signal is coming from. But the satellite can detect what angle the signal is arriving from, and therefore roughly along a broad arc where the signal has come from, on or above the ground. Without any other information, all one can do is draw a big circle on the map of the world, and calculate that it lies somewhere on that circle.
The last signal was received by INMARSAT almost seven hours after its system for broadcasting its location was switched off. No signal was received an hour later, but the plane could have flown for most of that time, although it must have been getting low on fuel – this was 100 minutes after its scheduled arrival time at Beijing.
That signal arrived at the satellite at an angle of around 40 degrees. The circles show where signals arriving at the satellite from different angles would have originated on the ground.
It’s hard to measure the arrival angle of the signal precisely, because radio aerials aren’t laser beams, so the tracks probably aren’t accurate to much more than a few hundred kilometres (40 degrees is a suspiciously round number) – but it does provide some winnowing down of the haystack which must be searched for a needle that is only 70 metres long.
How did they get from that “40 degree” circle on the ground to the two red arcs? Well, some other information is available. It is known how fast a Boeing 777 can fly, and how much fuel MH370 was carrying when it left Kuala Lumpur. So, if it flew hell for leather in a straight line from the moment it was last detected, it could have got as far to the northwest as Kazakhstan; or as far to the southwest as watery no-man’s-land deep in the South Indian Ocean. That’s why the search is now being directed in these two long corridors.
But why is the area in between the two arcs not considered a viable search location for the plane? According to the Malaysian briefing where the arcs were first publicly identified, that’s the minimum distance the plane could have flown had it stayed at the minimum speed at which it can stay airborne. Planes that fly too slowly to generate lift under their wings stall and crash. So, the Malaysian authorities have ruled out the plane coming to earth in an area from the Indochinese/Chinese borderlands to the southern tip of Sumatra.
But hold on – why is it being assumed that the plane necessarily flew in a straight line? The plane could have circled out in the northeast Indian Ocean or the South China Sea for six hours before landing or crashing. It sounds bizarre at first blush, but I can think of one pretty obvious reason – to burn off as much fuel, and therefore weight, as possible before landing at a makeshift runway that’s really too short to land a 777 on. But maybe it was on the ground for hours by this stage (see below).
In any case, it doesn’t matter. The crew may just have gone mad and the plane may have crashed in the end. But there is no reason to exclude the possibility that the plane came down to earth not very far from where it took off. Note, for example, that the part of the line of possibility between the red arcs pretty much splits the gap between Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian North Borneo. This useful map from the New York Times shows that within an hour of that final ping, the plane could have reached pretty much any part of Malaysia, as well as most of Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra.
I can think of all sorts of reasons, on the other hand, why it’s more likely than not that the plane, or its wreckage, is in or not very far from Malaysia.
For starters, it now seems to have been established because of the way new waypoint information was dialled in after the plane switched off its identification transponder, this was a deliberate and probably well planned act. Whoever did this had some working knowledge of Malaysian airspace and Malaysian air corridors. If the crew were in on the scheme, then they’ll know it like the back of their hands.
Let’s say you want to steal a plane and get it to ground undetected. If you know Malaysian airspace well, you probably know what has become apparent to the world over the past 10 days – that Malaysian air traffic control and the Royal Malaysian Air Force aren’t exactly the most efficient operations on the planet. In fact, if you regularly fly in Malaysian airspace, or know people who do, you probably the weak spots of the people who are supposed to control it, especially in the middle of a weekend night when no one is at their sharpest.
That seems more plausible than flying through some of the tensest airspace on the planet with US drones airborne constantly along with US military radar operating, having passed probably passed through the tense Indian-Chinese border region, and somehow gone undetected.
There’s some other information that hasn’t been released that would help narrow the location down and provide some guess as to the possible track of the plane. It’s obvious stuff and it amazes me it hasn’t been released yet.
The pings from previous hours’ ‘handshakes’ with the satellite
From the information released to the public, the plane communicated with the INMARSAT satellite every hour. From the signal arrival angles of each of these, an arc of possible locations of MH370 at every hour after its disappearance could quite easily be calculated. That could, for example, narrow rule out final locations at ends of each arc, possibly quite dramatically. This is such an obvious step that the fact that it hasn’t been done makes me suspicious.
Does the signal contain any time information?
I don’t know any details of what limited data is contained in a handshake on the INMARSAT system. But if it contains accurate time information, this could also be used to plot arcs of possible locations for the plane at each hour. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so the signals will take at least 0.13 seconds to travel in each direction to a satellite 38,000 km above the Earth’s surface. If the clocks on the plane and the satellite are accurate enough, that would give quite a precise distance from the plane to the satellite. This could provide a much more accurate arc of possible locations on the ground at each hour.
Why would the plane fly around for hours?
As I noted above, one obvious explanation is that it needed to burn fuel, and therefore reduce weight, before landing at a makeshift airstrip considerably shorter than the 777’s official minimum runway size. A group of people capable of a major conspiracy to hijack a plane are capable of clearing a runway out of the brush, as soon as the plane lands, the runway could be covered with brush and very difficult to spot from the air.
The other possibility is that it didn’t fly around. As I’ve also noted above, that track information isn’t very accurate and the plane could have landed within an hour of disappearing off Malaysian radar, and it just took some panicked and under pressure hijackers five or six hours to remember to switch the systems down. The information published by the Malaysian authorities is entirely consistent with the plane sitting in the Sumatran or Borneo jungle for hours, merrily tooting hello to a satellite every hour until somebody realised. Information from earlier hours’ pings to INMARSAT would tell us whether that’s credible or not.
Is this terrorism?
Who knows? As soon as something untoward happens to a plane in a Muslim majority country, everybody assumes it must be terrorism. Maybe it is. But there are a lot more people motivated by money than by politics or religion in this world. It’s curious that the Malaysians won’t tell the world what was in the cargo hold. The Straits of Malacca was the world’s sea piracy capital until a few years ago, when surrounding countries finally got their act together and clamped down on it. Some of that piracy was big scale organised crime. Maybe some people who lost their livelihoods when it got stopped decided to get into air piracy?
Are the Malaysians completely incompetent?
Maybe – their air traffic control certainly seems to me. But it strikes me like they’ve gone an awful long way to throw the world’s scent away from their own territory. So it’s just as possible that they know more about what’s going on that they’re letting on. I bet the Americans know more than they’re letting on too.
What happened to the passengers?
If the plane landed – who knows? All things are possible, including the worst. If you pray, please pray for them and also for their families and friends, who must be living a literal hell at the moment.
My speculation could, of course, be complete nonsense and undoubtedly I’ve got some key facts wrong; I’m not an expert. But I doubt it as complete a set of nonsense as we’ve heard officially up to now.