MH370: Questions Remain
I’ve always been strict about keeping to astronomy for this website, but I bent my own rule for a week or two by posting a few pieces on the disappearance of flight MH370. I’ve decided to archive the final article here.
Why my interest? Perhaps because I worked for a while writing software for military aviation, including a spell on Malaysia’s own Butterworth Airforce Base and because, as a former private pilot and son of a pilot, the whole thing struck close to home. The whole business seemed to confound everything I knew, or thought I knew, about aviation. Finally, there’s (a very slim) chance you might be able to help!
Whether or not wreckage and/or the plane are ever found, the whole MH370 affair is stranger than fiction.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I know the Moon landings were genuine. I don’t believe Kennedy was assassinated by the ‘military-industrial complex’ and I am as sure as I can be that the Queen didn’t murder Princess Di’. But MH370? I am no longer sure what to believe …
Questions remain that may never be satisfactorily answered. Among them:
1 What about radar, in particular OTHR?
According to an article in the New Straits Times, the Australians have an Over The Horizon Radar (OTHR) Facility called the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), capable of ‘picking out the type of aircraft taking off from Changi airport in Singapore’. If true, then they would have tracked MH370 into the southern Indian Ocean, identified it as a civilian airliner, known that it had ditched and known roughly where; conceivably known these things from day one. Yet no admission has ever been made and no SAR mission was sent out, despite the fruitless searching elsewhere, despite the desperate relatives, despite the fact that there may initially have been survivors.
· Almost from the start, unnamed US officials were briefing US media that MH370 crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, long before Inmarsat had completed their investigation into the ‘pings’.
· When the Australians began their search, they focused solely on a small area of the southern Indian Ocean: they knew where to look.
· Two weeks in, all pretence of looking at other places on ‘the arc’ of possible last locations for MH370 had ceased.
· Possible sightings elsewhere have been summarily dismissed by the Australian search team: they clearly have a certainty about MH370’s fate that goes way beyond Inmarsat’s Doppler-effect calculations that look to me on the limits of the data precision.
Interestingly, both Australian and US officials have declined to comment on their OTHR capabilities, beyond saying that they saw nothing. But if that’s true, why not? According to the Wikipedia article on JORN it has a range of at least 3000-4000 km stretching north and west of Australia and can spot a Cessna 172 (I used to fly one of those – it’s tiny!) taking off 2500km away. From the graphics I have seen, MH370 should have been seen by JORN on the part of its flight path off the north east of Australia, if it ended up where they have been searching.
2 What about the pilots?
From very early on it was clear to me that if the plane had indeed been diverted and then flown until it ran out of fuel and crashed or ditched, then one of the pilots was most likely responsible.
Furthermore, if one of the pilots was responsible then, with no indicators or admissions of terrorism, then it had to be suicide. But why go to such elaborate efforts to commit suicide?
To an oceanographer it might look like whoever was responsible wanted to ditch MH370 in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, perhaps in order to avoid debris ever being washed ashore and thus to ensure that MH370 remained an open mystery forever (consider that but for the Inmarsat ‘pings’ and perhaps the OTHR, MH370 would have performed the perfect disappearing act). But why do that?
The only answer, it seemed to me, was to hide the suicide: perhaps to avoid family stigma, perhaps to create an open inquest verdict that left relatives able to collect life insurance.
But in either case, the clue to any suicide would lie with immediate personal and family circumstances. Yet, two weeks into the investigations the Malaysians still hadn’t interviewed the pilot’s family, still hadn’t got to the bottom of the final phone call, had released no information on professional or personal circumstances or life insurance particulars.
3 What about the flight simulator?
An article in an Australian newspaper revealed, after a few days, the disturbing fact the Captain Shah had a sophisticated 777 simulator at home. Perhaps indeed he was so fanatical about his job that he spent evenings playing at it, but why would he need to? Surely as a simulator instructor, Shah would have been able to get all the time he needed on a professional simulator? Until proved otherwise, the suspicion must be that Shah was practising illicit flying, including perhaps at extreme low and high altitudes, that would have aroused suspicion on his simulator at work.
And yet … the Malaysians failed to investigate the simulator for over a week, despite the lack of information on where to focus search efforts that the simulator might have shed new light on.
4 What about the passengers?
Let us remind ourselves that MH370’s seven hour flight to oblivion happened with 240 people on board, including IT and communications professionals and skilled crew members apart from the pilots. What were they all doing meanwhile?
It’s a painful question to ask, but it needs to be asked.
It is true that those 240 souls were locked behind an impregnable door to the flight deck. But that means, given that this increasingly looks like a solo act, they were probably able to act as they wished, free to team up, pool their expertise and plan, still in possession of their phones and mobile devices.
It is also true that making mobile calls from a plane is difficult. But did none of those phones and devices connect to a cell? Was not a single text or email sent, no GPS fix obtained and registered? It seems unlikely, yet I have seen no evidence that much effort has been expended in looking for such evidence.
Other questions about the passengers remain unanswered. Could the cabin pressurisation have been switched off to incapacitate them? If yes, then how effective and lasting would this have been?
5 Why do people still talk about fire?
If the scant facts about MH370 are true, then a fire or systems failure could not have caused them. Can we conceive of a fire so ferocious and swift that it knocked out all comms before a mayday could be sent, yet left the autopilot, flight controls and airframe intact to keep functioning for a further seven hours while MH370 flew into one of the remotest regions on the planet, well off any rational flight path? This stretches credulity in my opinion.
Yet time and again, professionals say it was fire. Is this simply denial in an industry ultimately based on trust in pilots?
6 Is there anything you can do?
Maybe. Astrophotographers are always having their shots ruined by planes and vapour trails. And MH370 was a night flight, after all. So it seems to me possible (if highly unlikely) that someone, somewhere in SE Asia (or elsewhere) photographed a 777 that shouldn’t have been there. If you have an image with what looks like a 777 in it, taken at the right time, let someone know …
I am not an expert, not involved, not in possession of the full facts. But from any rational standpoint, it’s hard not to see MH370 as, if not a conspiracy exactly, then at best a series of cover-ups and bungles. The worst culprits though are not in my opinion the Malaysians themselves, but the US and Australia.
The Americans and Australians are unwilling to provide any closure for the relatives by simply admitting they know roughly where MH370 ended up. Yet know I strongly suspect they must do, thanks to OTHR facilities such as JORN.
Huge efforts are being made by people – search crews and merchant ships – but these efforts would have been far more effective if directed to the right place in the first place. But at least we can guess at the reason for this cover-up: military secrecy in the face of China.
Meanwhile there seems no clear reason for the cover-up, or at least delay in making public, of any motives or evidence for pilot malfeasance and possible suicide. This may be down to a combination of Malaysian culture and a general desire not to spook airline customers.
If MH370’s fate was act and not accident, it may be that the search operation has progressed just as the shrewd individual who planned the disappearance must have hoped it would: to aid and abet in concealing the real fate of MH370, perhaps for ever.