The missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is proving to be an unprecedented mystery. We’re now in the sixth day since the plane was reported missing, and no one knows where it is. With no hard facts forthcoming, news feeds were beginning to lose interest until yesterday (Wednesday, 12 March) when two fresh leads emerged — though these too may eventually prove to be unrelated to the aircraft.
Meanwhile, criticism of the performance of Malaysian leaders is growing.
The most dramatic new lead was provided by an email dated 12 March 2014 and shared widely over the internet. It was penned by a New Zealander, Michael McKay, who said he was on the oil rig Songa Mercur. He gave his location as latitude 8° 22′ north and longitude 108° 42′ east. He said,
I observed (the plane?) burning at high altitude and on a compass bearing of 265° to 275° from our surface location. It is very difficult to judge the distance, but I’d say 50 – 70 km.
He said he saw the object burning for about 10 to 15 seconds from the time he first noticed it, but that it burned out before hitting the sea. He also said that he tried to contact Malaysian and Vietnamese officials a few days prior but didn’t know if his message had been received. It is not clear who he wrote this email to.
What is notable is that he didn’t say in the email what time he saw the object; to be able to match the time is crucial. However, he wrote:
I believe I saw the Malaysian Airlines plane come down. The timing is right.
A news report on Thursday (13 March) from Vietnam said Vietnamese boats had checked that location (but when?) and nothing has been found. It’s not clear if they were only checking for floating objects or if sonar was deployed to investigate the seabed. A quick look at an atlas indicates that this location is not particularly deep, perhaps no more than 200 metres. However, it seems to be at the edge of the continental shelf, falling off to greater depths not far away.
McKay’s location is pretty far from the last reported radar contact with MH370. I estimate it would have been about 600 km and perhaps 45 minutes’ flying time to the east.
As you can see from the map I prepared, it is well outside the primary search zone where resources have been concentrated, and so might not have had the attention McKay was calling for.
See also the story on Business Insider.
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Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur at 00:40h on Saturday 9 March 2014 (Malaysian time) for Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard. It last made radio contact with Malaysian air traffic controllers fifty minutes later when it was halfway to the Vietnamese coast. It never contacted Vietnamese air control.
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Late Wednesday, the Chinese government released satellite pictures showing three objects on the water that might be worth checking out. The location was reported to be latitude 6.7 degrees north and longitude 105.6 degrees east. The sizes of the objects, which seemed like they were smoking, were given as 13 x 18 metres, 14 x 19 metres and 24 x 22 metres.
It is not clear when precisely the satellite pictures were taken; some reports said Saturday, others said Sunday. It is also not clear why the pictures weren’t released earlier, though one can guess. Perhaps the Chinese were hoping that the search and rescue efforts would pay off within a day or two and there would be no need to reveal their satellites’ capabilities. These are military assets, and being able to spot objects no bigger than a bus is quite impressive.
Anyway, by mid-day Thursday, Vietnam said that aircraft flying over that location had spotted nothing, though boats were still on the way to check them out.
The South China Sea is a busy stretch of water. Major shipping routes cross it. Countless fishing boats (giving out much dirty smoke from engines) are on it at any given time. The Chinese have made no claim that the objects their satellite spotted have anything to do with MH370. Even in the unlikely event that these were pieces from the missing airliner, they could have sunk by now, which may explain why a surface search will turn up nothing.
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‘Nothing’ is the problem that Malaysian officials are acutely facing. Distraught relatives and a hungry media are getting extremely frustrated with ministers and officials. The Malaysians are not doing themselves any favours with their confusing and contradictory statements.
Foreign media such as the Guardian and the New York Times are beginning to carry scathing commentary about their performance. For example, it’s been pointed out that for days, officials had stood behind the initial story that five passengers failed to board and had their bags offloaded; then the Malaysian Chief of Police said that wasn’t true, and that “Everybody that booked the flight boarded the plane.” But no sooner had he said this, Malaysia Airlines said that wasn’t true either. Four passengers who booked had not showed up to check in.
Also, watch this performance by the Chief of the Malaysian Air Force, Rodzali Daud:
First you have to get past your immediate distaste for anyone appearing in public as elaborately ornamented with medals as he did, but when you do, you’d see that he was giving a content-free press conference — surely the worst thing to do under the circumstances.
He was merely sharing what one might call a half-conclusion, quarter-conclusion or wild speculation, without sharing the sources of his information. You cannot be credible like this. Repeatedly saying corroboration is not yet forthcoming isn’t good enough either. He should be revealing his raw data — show a video of the radar blips, for example — discussing the technological limitations behind the raw data, and detailing how and why he thinks the raw data have enough possible connection with MH370 is be taken into consideration.
David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector, said the Malaysian government seemed evasive and confused, and he questioned why, if the remarks attributed to Rodzali were true, the government took so long to reveal evidence about a westwards flight path.
“The relatives of the people who’ve gone missing are being deprived of information about what’s happened to the airplane – that for me is the issue,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “If somebody knows something and isn’t telling, that’s not nice under the circumstances.”
Adding to the confusion, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, had said in a telephone interview that he had checked with senior military officials, who told him there was no evidence that the plane had re-crossed the Malaysian peninsula, only that it may have attempted to turn back, the paper said.
“As far as they know, except for the air turn-back, there is no new development,” Tengku Sariffuddin had apparently said, adding that the reported remarks by the air force chief were “not true.”
— Yahoo, 12 March 2014, Malaysian authorities slammed for contradictory statements in search for MH370. Link. (Original source may be Malaysian Insider).
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Somewhere amid all this, no one seems to be asking what the Vietnamese saw on their radar. In contrast to the loquacious Malaysians, the Vietnamese are keeping remarkably quiet. They probably did spot an object entering their air traffic control area at around 01:30h on Saturday morning, but which was non-responsive. This would account for why they asked another airliner in the area to try to get MH370 to identify itself on the emergency frequency. But what remains unknown is how long that blip stayed on Vietnamese radar, and in what direction it went.
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In the absence of any solid leads, speculation thrives. However, the absence of a distress signal and a sudden cut-off of communication serve to support theories built around (a) catastrophic failure and (b) hijack and diversion. The latter however is undercut by the fact that so far no claim, no attempt at negotiation, has been made by any group. The former is bedevilled by the absence of any identifiable debris field.
Catastrophic failure itself can come in many forms, including a bomb (though again, this too is unlikely without anyone claiming responsibility). Two intriguing ideas I came across surfing the web are:
1. Meteorite hit — even a small piece, or a fragment of a splintering meteorite can do enormous damage because of speed and temperature;
2. Electromagnetic pulse from an ‘equatorial anomaly’, which can totally disable all communication and electronic systems on an aircraft, leaving the pilots not only unable to communicate, but also struggling with dead instruments unable to tell them where they are, how high, how fast, what direction they’re going. The electromagnetic pulse can also cause a short-circuit leading to a fire. However, this is a phenomenon of the ionosphere, which is about twice as high as the plan was flying.
Without any evidence, these ideas should be taken for what they are at this point: wild speculation.
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To add to the confusion, The Wall Street Journal has an article dated Thursday 13 March 2014 saying: “Missing Airplane Flew On for Hours”:
Aviation investigators and national security officials believe the plane flew for a total of five hours based on data automatically downloaded and sent to the ground from the Boeing Co. 777’s engines as part of a routine maintenance and monitoring program.
— Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2014, Missing Airplane Flew On for Hours. Link.
This is curious. I had seen an earlier report (can’t find it now) saying that Rolls Royce, the maker of the engines, only received two automated reports from the aircraft, one when it was taking off, and the other when it reached cruising altitude just before its disappearance. The Wall Journal Journal is now implying that this is not true and that subsequent reports came through after the radar disappearance of the aircraft.
That raises a host of new questions and possibilities about what happened aboard the widebody jet . . .
Indeed. And if it did continue flying, why did it not radio its position? Did it switch off its transponders? If so, why?
On the other hand, you could say the Wall Street Journal is doing no better than the Malaysian Air Force Chief. Where’s the evidence? Why not state clearly what times Rolls Royce or Boeing received additional messages and from where?
Six days on, this incident is fast climbing up the league of aircraft mysteries.