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MH370

[ 133 ] March 15, 2014 |

Ever more bizarre…

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia announced on Saturday afternoon that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 left its planned route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing as the result of deliberate action by someone aboard.

Mr. Najib also said that search efforts in the South China Sea had been ended, and that technical experts now believed that the aircraft could have ended up anywhere in one of two zones — one as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia, and the other crossing the southern Indian Ocean.

That conclusion was based on a final signal from the plane picked up on satellite at 8:11 a.m. on March 8, nearly seven hours after ground control lost contact with the jet, he said.

There have been a few comments around the internets to the effect “How, with all of our military hardware, could we possibly have lost an entire plane?”  The answers are relatively straightforward.  First, most of what we know about a given aircraft’s position and direction comes from information supplied by the plane itself.  When position monitoring devices are disabled by the crew or by malfunction, we lose most of the data we have access to.  Second, “active” radar monitoring is, especially at sea and in relatively underdeveloped areas, far more sparse than you’d expect.  We don’t have a series of radar picket ships or floating radar stations monitoring every expanse of sea, and unless radar-operating warships have some reason to track a civilian airliner, they generally don’t pay much attention in any case.

Still, this has moved firmly into realms of “weird” and “disconcerting.”

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  1. ExpatChad says:

    As a neighbor of Malaysia, (Southern Leyte, RPh) I can say that we would have known all this several days ago, were it not for the stunning incompetence of the dog and pony show that passes for the gummint there.

  2. RepubAnon says:

    Curiouser and curiouser. One wonders whether the idea was to repaint the plane as belonging to a different airline, and then use it for either drug smuggling or some kind of sneak attack.

    • Andrew says:

      I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to riding a sleek new 777 on the Mogadishu-Kismayo route.

      • Snarki, child of Loki says:

        Want weird? The reports go over around the Andaman islands.

        And a NASA satellite picked up a long smoke plume from North Sentinel Island (in the Andamans).

        Oh, sure, “official sources” are saying the smoke started before the flight went missing, but OF COURSE they’re going to light up the navigation marker ahead of time!

        Since the Sentinalese “went Galt” about 60,000 years ago, according the The Gospel According To Rand, they should have super-advanced technology. I suggest Obama move quickly and appoint Rand Paul as ambassador.

        • Tristan says:

          Oh my God that would be amazing. The world’s last truly non-industrialized people, possibly alarmed by global warming, seize our technologies and turn them against us demanding we adopt a hunter/gatherer lifestyle if we want the attacks to stop.

          It’s like the premise for a really bizarre, slightly racist, summer disaster/horror blockbuster.

    • Informant says:

      If you wanted to steal a plane for either of those purposes, there are a hell of lot of lower-key ways that you could go about doing that.

    • RepubAnon says:

      There was apparently a large cargo of lithium batteries aboard. If it weren’t for the course changes, I’d suspect the batteries caught on fire, the passengers and crew were incapacitated by toxic fumes, and the plane kept going until it ran out of fuel.

      As it stands, if some group really did hijack the plane, I expect the Chinese and US governments have found an area of agreement. They’ll be competing to see who can find the plane first…

      • Major Kong says:

        That happened to a UPS 747 coming out of Dubai back in 2010. The smoke in the cockpit got so thick the crew couldn’t even see the instruments. They fought it all the way to the end.

        I don’t like hauling lithium batteries but it’s common on cargo aircraft.

        • KmCO says:

          Curiosity compels me to ask: if they present such a grave danger, how come lithium batteries have not become contraband? In an age when passengers can’t carry half-filled bottles of water past the security gates, you’d think that these lithium batteries–which actually do have the ability to indirectly take down a plane–would be banned on all commercial aircraft.

      • Dana Houle says:

        Lithium batteries can’t, as far as I know, manually turn off the transponder.

        There was definitely some human decision to evade detection. Maybe after that whoever was piloting the plane made an error and everyone was incapacitated–the sharp ascent to over 40,000 feet, if the (sketchy) data is accurate, suggests the possibility that the plane lost pressure, everyone was incapacitated and then it flew on until running out of fuel, a la Payne Stewart. But that’s only after the decision to turn off the transponder.

  3. Manju says:

    What were the passenger’s wearing?

  4. Maybe someone’s got a sleek new missile to attack someone else with?

    And why are crews allowed to disable the tracking and other systems?
    That makes no sense to me.

    Maybe Major Kong can answer that.

    • Andrew says:

      If you pull the circuit breaker for e.g. the transponder then you can prevent that circuit from catching fire if it’s damaged. And if you can pull the breaker for individual systems, then you can isolate a malfunction and keep everything else working while you try to find a place to land, where you can solve the problem at your leisure. Fire is a greater safety threat by one or two orders of magnitude than terrorism, theft, or whatever is going on here. Moreover the only people who are in a position to do this are the pilots, and if they’re compromised then the tracking system isn’t going to help you much.

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        while you try to find a place to land,

        What’s presently puzzling me is that, if this is deliberate malevolent action, then not only would the malevolent actors need to land the 777, they’d have to be able to take off in it again&mndash;which presumably rules out a lot of airstrips, no? Can there be that many available and suitable airstrips that are neither military (and thus controlled by some state or other, as well as—surely?—surveilled by several other states) nor commercial (and thus unsuitable without collusion on a truly stunning scale)?

        • Dana Houle says:

          If this were Africa or Amazonia I’d think it would be far, far easier: huge landmass, vast tracts of territory without sophisticated radar, the ability to build a suitable landing strip without anyone knowing about it, etc. But from what I’m reading, and if I’m understanding it correctly–and if what’s being said is correct, which I’m in no position to judge–then they either went north in to a nest of militarized areas with serious radar, or south in to the Ocean with no landmasses until Antarctica (which they didn’t have fuel to reach anyway).

          So, my working theories: went north and were engaged by some military that doesn’t want to admit it shot down a civilian airliner a la the KAL incident, or, it just went down somewhere in the ocean (deliberately, because of incompetence by whoever was flying, because the competent pilots were incapacitated, etc).

          • Dana Houle says:

            Also, in many parts of Africa and Amazonia, low population density.

            • Lee Rudolph says:

              From X-Plane (wozzat?), via WNYC and the Guardian, a map of the 653 (publicly known?) 5000-ft-plus runways that the plane could have reached. (Unless they got refueled midair, say!) Clearly many of these must be commercial and can presumbably be ruled out by now.

              • Major Kong says:

                I presume you were joking. Airliners are not equipped for air refueling.

              • PhoenixRising says:

                Took a quick glance at that map of airstrips. One thought that sprung to mind was, They may be adequate places to land in the sense of ’5000 ft paved’. However, the way you refuel a minivan or box truck in a lot of those places in Cambodia, VN Thailand and China is by buying unleaded on recycled Coke bottles by the side of the road. Hard to imagine a plot that requires another takeoff succeeding in putting enough jet fuel back in the plane.

          • Just Dropping By says:

            went north and were engaged by some military that doesn’t want to admit it shot down a civilian airliner a la the KAL incident

            If that had happened, the United States (and in that part of the world, probably China too) would absolutely know about it because of all the electronic communications traffic a military engagement would have generated contemporaneously with the event.

        • anomomouse says:

          If MH370 was headed for a existing airstrip, it is possible that the folks who run the facility were either; 1)in on it from the get go, 2) somehow bought off after the fact, or 3) Dead men tell no tales. All of these so called possibilities would be highly unlikely, but then, so is the disappearance of the airliner in the first place.

          • Warren Terra says:

            I thought 777s require a long strip to land and especially to take off again? You don’t just hack out a landing strip for a big jetliner.

            I continue to insist that it sounds improbable this plane could have landed anywhere without attracting attention. Even aside from the plane itself, they’d have a couple hundred passengers and crew to deal with … no matter how bloodthirsty some criminals might be, that’s a tall logistical order.

            • Ian says:

              Has anyone thought to inquire as to the whereabouts of Rastopopoulos?

            • Ann Outhouse says:

              I don’t know about landing. I’ve seen empty jumbos with light fuel loads take off in < 2000 feet at SFO. That's at sea level, of course, where the air is densest, and it's usually not very hot at SFO, heat also making air thinner (runways in the middle east are a billion miles long).

        • Jon H says:

          They wouldn’t need to take off again, if the plane were going to be dismantled.

          My pet theory is that some Chinese company well-connected to the military wants a 777 to dismantle and reverse-engineer, so that China can finally have their own passenger jet industry.

          Chinese nationalists must find it galling that their flag airline uses Boeing and Airbus.

          • ajay says:

            My pet theory is that some Chinese company well-connected to the military wants a 777 to dismantle and reverse-engineer, so that China can finally have their own passenger jet industry.

            If a Chinese company with good connections to the Chinese government wanted to get hold of a Boeing 777, the best way to do it would be to give the Chinese government-owned China Southern Airlines a call, because they have a fleet of 16 and would be able to lend you one.

    • Major Kong says:

      Andrew has it exactly right. In an electrical fire we may have to pull circuit breakers to isolate a system.

      Also we’re allowed to dispatch with certain systems inoperative.

      For example if one VHF radio is inoperative we may be allowed to dispatch with just the other two. Our Minimum Equipment List (MEL) would have us pull the circuit breaker for the inoperative component.

  5. Barry Freed says:

    Maybe it got too close to one of the old Dharma Initiative stations?

  6. upyernoz says:

    Because of that second point, I think we can rule out Kazakhstan. If it had turned north and crossed over that many countries in Asia, it almost certainly would have been noticed (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s airspace is pretty closely monitored, because of those countries roles on supplying allied forces in Afghanistan.)

    • Warren Terra says:

      I don’t understand why that would make it important to monitor their airspace all that closely. It’s not like the Taliban has an air force. Sure, that maybe makes for a fair bit of traffic to monitor – but that doesn’t mean you’d pay a lot of attention to an extraneous aircraft so long as it didn’t threaten to interfere with your traffic pattern, does it?

      • upyernoz says:

        You’re right that coalition forces in the countries surrounding Afghanistan are not concerned with the Taliban air force. So they probably are not poised to intercept any unknown aircraft. But they are watching the airspace closely simply because those armed forces are moving a lot of supply planes in and out of the area.

        My point is mere that, with regard to Farley’s point that “‘active’ radar monitoring is, especially at sea and in relatively underdeveloped areas, far more sparse than you’d expect.” Central Asia is not currently an area of sparse monitoring, like the open sea is.

  7. cathy says:

    Would hijacking be the scenario involving the least liability for the airline?

  8. dilbert dogbert says:

    The neighbor, a airline captain, told me of an incident when he was flying Lear Jets in Europe. Seems he was to take a flight to South Africa. Another pilot got the flight instead. Plane disappeared. It was shot down and that fact was determined from US National Space assets. 15 years ago. I think we might know where the Malaysian plane is but don’t want to reveal what our assets can do.

    • Warren Terra says:

      I don’t think it’s a secret that we have satellites capable of imaging the ground. The precise resolution may be a secret, but as a 777 is something like 240 feet long I don’t think that’s necessarily an issue, either. Tasking is also an issue (we may not want to admit how much coverage we’re getting of a given region), but it wouldn’t damage that to disclose a little of information if we had it.

  9. Monte Davis says:

    Re active radar over the Indian Ocean: remember the aftermath of 9/11, when it seemed to come as a surprise to many that we didn’t have fighters ready to scramble 24/7 anywhere over the continental US?

  10. cpinva says:

    I await alex jones’ take on this.

      • Dana Houle says:

        The idea that Flight 370 passengers and crew may still be alive is not a bizarre theory. Even Reuters is now reporting that U.S. authorities have stated, “…it’s also possible the plane may have landed somewhere.”

        It’s not crazy that people are alive, because Reuters says the plane may not be demolished. By that reasoning, the people on Payne Stewart’s plane must have been alive until it crashed.

        A tiny example of all the logical contortions required for most conspiracy theories.

  11. N__B says:

    I was just the other day discussing how better communications killed off the Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theories, one of which was that there were a dozen such disappearance zones around the globe.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Simple statistics suffice to kill off the Bermuda Triangle disappearance theories. There simply isn’t a greater risk of disappearance there.

      • guthrie says:

        Also people compiling lists of real and claimed disapperances; I have one of them which makes it clear, IRRC, that many of the stories people tell are just fake, and other disappearances took place well outside the triangle.

  12. mud man says:

    How… could we possibly have lost …

    Everybody thinks it’s Disneyland out there. Well, it ain’t, see?

  13. Paul Campos says:

    This article argues that the plane was almost certainly hijacked by at least one of the two pilots.

    Short version: Plane followed a new flight path determined by GPS way points, which means a new flight path was programmed into the navigation system, which is something only someone specifically trained to fly 777s can do.

    • Major Kong says:

      Anyone familiar with a Boeing FMS could do it. The 777 is supposedly very close the 757/767.

      But yes, I would suspect the flight crew. One thing I haven’t heard is if any other pilots were jump-seating on that flight.

      • Warren Terra says:

        How good is the recordkeeping on pilots jump-seating? Certainly you get the impression from (old) stories that people with vaguely passable IDs and uniforms jut pop in the doorway and hitch a lift.

        • Major Kong says:

          I’ve never tried to jump seat on an international flight.

          With a US carrier you have to present your passport, which will be checked against the CASS database.

          Then the Captain of the flight you’re trying to jumpseat on will at least want to see your company ID. I’ve also been asked to present my pilot license and medical certificate.

          • Barry Freed says:

            My brother flies for Delta internationally and he jump seats all the time (lives Cocoa Beach, FL works JFK). I think he usually uses Delta flights to commute and I suspect that they’d be as strict about showing various types of ID for one of their own but I’ll have to ask him.

            • Barry Freed says:

              I mean that they wouldn’t be as strict about one of their own.

              • Julia Grey says:

                And we are not talking about American domestic airlines, here, we’re talking about Malaysian Airlines, which seated a co-pilot who’d been a bit…CAVALIER?…about rules/regs in the past.

                Maybe any hanky panky that resulted in this disappearance was not actually done BY him, but was allowed by his less-than-rigorous behavior patterns in relation to cockpit security.

    • KmCO says:

      The extremely shady nature of this seems to point to the much younger, relatively unprofessional co-pilot–although “expert” overstates it. He didn’t even have 3000 hours of flying time under his belt.

      Could this really be the work of the captain? I suppose we’ll know more when the Malaysian police release their findings of his home search.

  14. stickler says:

    I’m still baffled by the fact that 200+ people, many if not most of whom had smart phones, didn’t emit so much as a peep. Sure, it was the middle of the night, so they wouldn’t have known (at first) that anything was amiss. But at some point, people would have known somthing was up — so why no cell phone calls? Asking everyone to turn over their phone seems crazy. Is is possible to incapacitate the passengers but keep the cockpit pressurized or something?

    • Dana Houle says:

      I assume this is what happened, exactly for the reason you mention. My only question is whether cell phones would work well out over the ocean. But I imagine a satphone would, so even if regular cell phones wouldn’t I’d imagine they probably wouldn’t want to risk that someone had a satphone.

      But that does, btw, raise the question of whether it’s possible to track any of the passengers’ cell phones. You know there were people who didn’t turn theirs or or put it in airplane mode.

    • Major Kong says:

      Even if they weren’t over the ocean you probably wouldn’t get a signal when you’re 8-9 miles vertically separated from the cell phone towers.

    • Crunchy Frog says:

      Despite all the stories on 9-11-01 of people on those flights calling with their cell phones almost all of those calls would have been done with the airfones that were common on planes at the time.

      Cell towers have a range of only 2 miles at best – the exception is the CDMA protocol which can, under some circumstances, extend the range to about 5 miles, but most of the world uses GSM (GSM phones are those that have SIM cards in them). In addition, cell towers are designed to send and receive signals horizontally, not vertically.

      In addition, cell systems require “hand-offs” of calls from one tower to the next as people travel, and in cases of very fast travel the handoffs often cannot be processed fast enough. In countries with high-speed rail (i.e. not Acela) the cell towers along the tracks need special technology to avoid frequent call drops.

      On 9-11-01 there probably were a few cell phone calls made because the planes were flown at low altitudes and at relatively slow speeds. Forget making a call at 30k thousand feet.

      If the plane later descended to a low altitude to avoid radar detection there still would be no persistent cell signal even if over a land mass that had a density of cell towers unless the plane was flying slowly.

      Alternatively, many trans-oceanic planes like the 777 have on-board WiFi, which of course allows (limited, given bandwidth) phone calls via services like Skype. However, while I don’t know if the Malaysian airline supports this service in general, or on that flight specifically, as a frequent flier I can tell you that it is not at all unusual for the WiFi to be out of service for large parts of the flight. So if someone turned the transponders off that same person could have turned the WiFi off and none of the passengers would have thought it out of the ordinary. The same goes for the “airfone” service, if the plane had it (which I’m guessing is unlikely as fewer and fewer planes do).

      • Warren Terra says:

        Apparently there’s been a lot of confusion because family members on the ground tried to dial the phones of their loved ones who were on the plane, and the phones rang before the connection was lost.

        Turns out, your cell phone starts making a “ringing” noise without having connected to the phone you’re trying to call. But people raised with landlines know it means something if the phone you’re trying to call successfully starts singing, and so the conspiracy theories bloomed …

        • ericblair says:

          Apparently there’s been a lot of confusion because family members on the ground tried to dial the phones of their loved ones who were on the plane, and the phones rang before the connection was lost.

          Correct, the ringing tone at the caller’s device means that the network is either trying to find the target phone or the target phone is ringing. The networks know which it is, but you can’t tell from just the phone.

          A satphone would be very unlikely to work from inside an aircraft cabin.

        • Julia Grey says:

          But people raised with landlines know it means something if the phone you’re trying to call successfully starts singing

          Not necessarily, at least not in the past. Our phone service was out for days after the Wichita Falls tornado in 79, and although our loved ones got apparent ringing sounds at our end, the connection points were just masses of twisted wreckage.

          I figured at the time that the “ringing” response somehow came from switching equipment farther upstream than our house or even neighborhood/street (we were right on the edge of the War Zone, aka “The Flats.”)

  15. aoeu says:

    Generals and admirals are staring sheepishly at various carpets.

    In this case Chinese Generals and American Admirals.

  16. Derelict says:

    Let’s try this scenario on for size:

    The aircraft reaches cruise altitude, autopilot set and perfectly trimmed out. The Lithium batteries start burning, taking out the ACARs, followed by other segments of the electrical system. The crew doesn’t notice the problem until the cockpit goes dark–at which point the airplane depressurizes as the battery fire burns through the pressure vessel.

    The crew’s time of useful consciousness would be fairly short, and their immediate reaction would be to initiate a turn back to the west. After they and the rest of the people on board lose consciousness, the airliner continues to cruise along uncontrolled. It maintains its trim state, which means it will wander in altitude and heading–but it will remain airborne until it runs out of fuel.

    If I remember correctly, something like this happened to Paine Stewart, and to a 737 over the Med. a few years ago.

  17. calling all toasters says:

    American News Media Held Hostage: Day 8

    …so, so glad that I can’t even escape it here.

    • Dana Houle says:

      Disappearance of over 200 people, with the potential to cause serious political fallout in Malaysia, and with numerous possibilities of what happened, some which may have implications for the safety of air travel…yeah, how stupid that anyone cares about that, right?

    • Barry Freed says:

      Too bad there’s no new dead horse posts, right?

    • Warren Terra says:

      Frankly, I’m impressed that the coverage I’ve seen (which admittedly doesn’t include TV) has (1) remained surprisingly calm and hasn’t committed to any bits of wild speculation and (2) hasn’t focused on any Americans or other Westerners on board (maybe there just weren’t any?)

      • DocAmazing says:

        No young blonde women, or there would already be a graphic and a signature bit of music.

      • dmsilev says:

        There were a few (three? something like that) Americans on board. Plus a smattering of Europeans and so forth. The bulk of the passenger list were Chinese and Malaysians (as one might expect for a flight going from Malaysia to China…).

      • PhoenixRising says:

        The reason CNN hasn’t devoted a channel to this disaster is almost certainly racism. The Americans on board were of Asian ethnicity, with one exception.

      • KmCO says:

        I’ve seen quite a few articles written about the adult American citizen on board, Philip Wood. By contrast,the fact that the two other Americans on board are both children under five and not the children of Philip Wood, has received scant commentary.

        The blond South African model who was invited into the cockpit of one of the co-pilot’s flights back in 2011 has gotten plenty of information, some of which is of course relevant to the incident at hand–inviting passengers into the cockpit in this day and age is a gross safety violation and an extremely unprofessional move–and some of which is not relevant (most news outlets I’ve seen that cover the 2011 incident with the model make sure to note that it had “sleazy” or salacious undertones).

  18. How many (remote?) airports in the Maldives are good enough to land a 777? Seems like the perfect remote spot for landing a plane! Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

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    MH370 – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

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