back to article MH370 airliner MYSTERY: The El Reg Pub/Dinner-party Guide

So, the mysterious case of the missing flight MH370. We've mainly stayed out of this - apart from noting that no, the jet wasn't hackjacked using a mobile phone. But naturally we've been poking around a bit to see what we could find out, and it's not completely nothing. Here's what we bring to the party. Some of us know a bit …

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Mobile phones and tracking

Mobile phones make for really good tracking devices when within range of the a mobile network. So if there was something that was obviously wrong then passengers would be reaching to switch their mobile phones on. If the plane had indeed gone over Thailand then the phones will have attempted to log onto the networks in Thailand. Malaysia Airlines offers a “air-to-ground phone” service in business class that also allows passengers to send email. But such systems can also be switched off too.

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Re: Mobile phones and tracking

Maybe low to the ground, but up high it is rare to get reception due to the antenna patterns on phone masts - no sense in radiating power 7 miles straight up. Not saying it absolutely cannot happen, but the absence of such data for this flight is not indicative of anything.

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TRT
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Re: Mobile phones and tracking

Would you know what phones were even on the plane to filter out from the background chatter of a hundred thousand other devices?

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Re: Mobile phones and tracking

If you know the name & address of the user, you can pull the records of where they attempted to register once you've obtained their IMSI from their home network. Assuming the networks in the country in question have any data retention policies for legal intercept/tracking activities.

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Re: Mobile phones and tracking

Yeah, they might start doing that now.

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Re: Maybe low to the ground

Except of course that's exactly how they took down one of the hijacked 9/11 flights - passengers got calls on their cell phones.

Moreover, if there was a sign of trouble I expect at least one passenger tried to phone home. Which means no awake passengers saw signs of trouble.

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pfft

it's clearly just got stuck in the time portal.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_(film)

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This is well worth a read, it's on Nate Silver's new web site:

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-statisticians-could-help-find-flight-370/

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Anonymous Coward

I suppose stranger things have happened, but I'm struggling to think of many. I, obviously stupidly, assumed that radar would be tracking absolutely everything up there, and controllers would know exactly where all relatively large flying stuff would be, at all times. Particularly a large jet. Clearly that's not the case. Hopefully without decending into pananoia, one of the tenets of nuclear non-proliferation has been the diffuculty of delivery of a weapon. It's been assumed since the sixties that traditional bombers would be detected, and intercepted. Starting to wonder whether popping something on a plane and flying it to a target is as problematic as people make out, if a 777 with hundreds of people on it, can just vanish, and military radar in south east asia seems to have completely missed it. Malaysia isn't the back of beyond, either.

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" It's been assumed since the sixties that traditional bombers would be detected, and intercepted. "

Yes: Over Europe.

Assuming that it's so in south east Asia is like assuming everyone there has a smartphone, just because most people in London do.

And remember that Malaysian radar DID track it. It then headed out over the ocean, where Malaysia wouldn't really care and nobody else would track it (aside from maybe India, who reportedly seem to have had their stuff turned off).

"Starting to wonder whether popping something on a plane and flying it to a target is as problematic as people make out"

Probably, given that this seems to have had the assistance of a pilot with 18,000 of experience who keenly took his work home with him. It's as easy to say that hacking a bank is easy because one of their sysadmins could do it.

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I don't know about this peticular area but once you are a few hundred miles over the atlantic or pacific the only data ATC has will be from data sent by the aircraft. Over busy areas of land it's a diffrent story of corse.

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Anonymous Coward

Yeah, at least one good point you make there. I guess my first sentence is the killer. I was assuming that there are rooms full of people with tin hats, who push model planes around a map with sticks while drinking cocoa. You may call me 'meier', and should you land on my greenhouse, I'll send a kid out with the box of Woodbines. Tally ho.

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Mystery

The most likely explanation speculation would seem to be a failed hijack attempt. Hijackers make pilot turn off comms, try to get him to fly somewhere, but something goes wrong/passengers resist and the plane sadly crashes into the sea. Or, electrical fire happens, smoke overcomes pilots.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Mystery

There's certainly a famous historical precedent for that scenario, at least in terms of the evident mental impairment, intent and orders of the hijackers, if not the outcome: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961

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Re: Mystery

What makes you think the highjack attempt has failed?

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Re: Mystery

"The most likely explanation speculation would seem to be a failed hijack attempt. Hijackers make pilot turn off comms, try to get him to fly somewhere"

Yup, and the tech-savvy pilot would turn off the radio and transponder but leave on the subtle signals, such as engine data uploads. It would be very hard to get everything off without the flight crew being implicit, to my mind.

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This is a job for......

Where's Daniel Craig when you need him?

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Re: This is a job for......

In Aliens vs. Cowboys?

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Black Helicopters

Afghanistan is under heavy US military aerial radar

Maybe whatever as yet undisclosed contents or persons that may have been on board were of interest to the US military and the plane is indeed at a US militray airbase in Afghansitan.

Solved, hijacked by the US.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Afghanistan is under heavy US military aerial radar

Thank goodness you cleared that up.

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Facepalm

Re: Afghanistan is under heavy US military aerial radar @Andrew Fernie

Sometimes you've just got to laugh otherwise you'd cry

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Afghanistan is under heavy US military aerial radar

I would down vote you for such a ridiculous post.. but unfortunately I can't put this past the US military...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Afghanistan is under heavy US military aerial radar

You know thinking about it, if that Snowden chap was thought to have been on board it might not be such a far fetched hypothesis. Who knows what lengths the US would go to to get at him.

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Re: Afghanistan is under heavy US military aerial radar

Who knows what lengths the US would go to to get at him.

You would be able to express them in nautical miles.

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Question

If the transponders are vital to keeping track of the plane then why can they be disabled by *anyone* in flight? I can understand being disabled while on the ground for maintenance but is there some reason I'm not aware of (highly likely) they can be disabled while airborne?

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Re: Question

How can you stop someone from cutting the wires??

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Re: Question

By not having them in an area you can easily get to while in the air. I'm not talking about smashing the equipment or anything like that I'm asking about why the ability to turn the thing off exists while it's in the air.

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Re: Question

That's already been answered further up the page and numerous times in the media.

Short answer:

1) If they (there's two) break, you turn them off and on again.

2) They can cause interference and air controllers routinely ask for them to be switched to standby.

3) If it catches fire, the pilot would like to be able to turn it off.

The moment you have things in the plane that pilots can't turn off, the plane is LESS safe, not safer. We trust these people with our lives and have to hand them all the tools they need to protect them.

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Re: Question

"How can you stop someone from cutting the wires??"

By putting it an unpressurised part of the airframe; but as others have posted there is always the potential requirement to be able to turn it off in the event of an electrical fire. Up to now no-one has designed tracking features into an aircraft on the assumption that the pilots may be "hostile"; same as before 911 you could get into the cockpit without having to break down an armoured door.

I expect a number of changes to airline procedures to come out of this, whatever the actual explanation turns out to be.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Question

>I expect a number of changes to airline procedures to come out of this

Let's see, just thinking out loud.

Most obvious one first, pilot and co-pilot should have different religions. Pilots in seperate cabins. Plane controlled from ground with a pilot on standby outside the cabin for emergencies.

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Re: Question

"pilot and co-pilot should have different religions."

Having flight crew with strongly held, differing religious viewpoints is not going to make the plane a safer place.

"Pilots in seperate cabins."

Who gets to over-ride the other one if one is suicidal. Surely having them in the same space is actually safer.

"Plane controlled from ground with a pilot on standby outside the cabin for emergencies."

Which means you have a plane that can be controlled by either the ground station or someone who can spoof the system, who is not on board. Given how people feel about drones, hackers and the NSA right now, I don't think that would go down well.

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FAIL

Re: Question

"Most obvious one first, pilot and co-pilot should have different religions."

30 years war IN THE COCKPIT!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Question

>Having flight crew with strongly held, differing religious viewpoints is not going to make the plane a safer place.

It will reduce the chance of cooperation due to religious beliefs so it will make the plane safer

>Who gets to over-ride the other one if one is suicidal. Surely having them in the same space is actually safer.

It will prevent one pilot overpowering the other. With improved monitoring ground control should be able to see see which pilot is being a naughty boy and hand control over to the other.

>Which means you have a plane that can be controlled by either the ground station or someone who can spoof the system, who is not on board. Given how people feel about drones, hackers and the NSA right now, I don't think that would go down well.

No it doesn't. These planes can be sent off already pre-programmed for the journey so it's not as if there will be constant control (as I said I was thinking aloud so didn't explain properly) just a burst to open the cabin door in an emergency, no other function allowed. As for how people feel about drones and what have you, I think there is more danger from service personnel who clean the planes, load the baggage, etc, than an attack on technology.

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Re: Question

"It will reduce the chance of cooperation due to religious beliefs so it will make the plane safer"

And it will reduce the chance of cooperation due to religious beliefs, so it won't.

Seriously, have you ever put two over-tired people with wildly differing, strongly held religious views in close confines and made them work together? It's grounds for arguments, passion and flared tempers. None of that should be going on in a cockpit of an airliner.

Frankly, I'd prefer my pilots to be selected because they were the best at their jobs, not recruited on the grounds of religion. And when/if there is an issue on the flight deck, I want the pilots to fall back to relying on their skill and nothing else. I do not want fervent prayer to replace skill and dedication.

I don't agree with any of your points. They are poorly thought-out knee-jerk reactionary solutions to a problem that we are not even sure exists.

The best person to fly a plane is the pilot in the cockpit, working in close harmony with their first officer. Putting two different flavours of religious maniac in two separate boxes, refereed by someone on the ground, in a plane with a remote control over-ride which could be subverted is frankly not a good solution. I wouldn't get on that plane.

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@Psyx Re: not going to make the plane a safer place.

You know the sad part is, I can picture a bunch of pols in a room arguing his points instead of yours, and then enacting them into law.

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Anonymous Coward

Obviously

With 50 empty seats (blocked from the ticketing system), there's probably 3.5 tonnes of Chinese govt gold in the hold, now sitting at a military airbase somewhere in the Indian Ocean and an ambassador delivering a "now, don't you dare threaten to dump our treasuries again" note.

A handful of westerners on the plane = low collateral damage.

Lesson learned.

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Re: Obviously

A Boeing 777 costs more than 3.5 tons of gold at today's prices, so the plane itself would still be worth more than the cargo.

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Re: Obviously

One of these things is not like the other.

Selling a stolen 777 or even operating such a procurement.

Selling stolen gold.

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Re: Obviously

"now, don't you dare threaten to dump our treasuries again"

3.5 tonnes of Gold?

Yeah, that's gonna be comporable to the multi-trillion unredeemable debt crater that must NEVER EVER be though of as unredeemable.

But not that Saudis hold more of these.

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Smartphones

I don't get the smartphone thing. I know not everyone has one but a LOT of people do. And yes, I know Asia isn't as rich as the west but these are people who can afford a long haul flight so a pretty fair proportion will have smartphone, tablet, laptop etc.

With Android and Windows Phone (and I assume the same goes for iOS devices) you can log onto a website and see exactly where that phone is. Or rather, you can see exactly where that device was when it last had any kind of a data connection.

Of all the devices that must have been on that plane and given the current theory that it was over India/Pakistan/wherever if that plane was below 20,000 ft and intact at ANY point then there will be a record of it on google play/windows MyPhone etc. And not just one record. LOTS of records.

To my mind that is one of the major arguments in favour of the theory that it hit the sea with everyone either disabled or unaware.

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Re: Smartphones

poor in South East Asia?

there's plenty of poor people, but there's lots of well off middle class and lots of very wealthy in the cities - who all have the latest gizmos

Fire > ditched > pings are from seabed

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Re: Smartphones

"pings are from seabed"

Emanating from a radio transmitter powered by what for several hours after ditching, operating despite its container not being designed to take several (hundred potentially) Bar of pressure, with the radio signal propagating to a satellite up through the water?

The US Navy spent quite a lot of money to develop radio systems to communicate to submarines, so I don't think it's as simple as that.

I could be wrong, but I don't think it was underwater and still pinging away.

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Pint

Re: Smartphones

@Psyx

'Underwater Locator Beacon', a.k.a. 'Underwater Acoustic Beacon'.

Beer can sized gadget. Triggered by water. Pings acoustically at about 37kHz at about 160 dB for either 30 or 90 days.

Usually attached to the "Black Boxes'.

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Re: Smartphones

I don't understand how that is relevant, I'm afraid.

That's not what the ACARS transmitter is. It's a radio transmitter, externally powered, not resistant to high pressure AFAIK.

Additionally, the acoustic transmitter fixed to black boxes is just that: It's an acoustic transmitter that makes a noise, not a radio transmitter: It would have to be pretty bloody loud to be heard in spaaaaaaaaaaace!

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Pint

Re: Smartphones

My post is relevant to "pings are from seabed".

Now, the relevance of that ("pings are from seabed") is up to you.

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Re: Smartphones

"My post is relevant to "pings are from seabed"."

"pings are from the seabed" was referring to the poster's theory that the radio handshake pings from ACAS and received by satellite were broadcast from submerged wreckage, not pinging noises from an acoustic transmitter.

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What now?

Even though -nothing- can be said for sure right now about what caused this tragedy, something -can- be done -right now- to preclude it -ever- happening again: Absolute real-time GPS tracking of -every- commercial airplane everywhere on the planet. Period. Can't be turned off by the crew. Data available -immediately- to the public. No "military" secrecy, no PR spinning, no holds. Period. Worldwide, it's a relatively small data set. An iPad in each plane, connected to the existing satellite transmitter--now completely locked and secured--could do the job. Data sent in the clear for everyone to see.

Why not do this? Who is against this? The cost, even with redundancy, would be less than a single first-class seat.

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Re: What now?

An iPad in each plane, connected to the existing satellite transmitter--now completely locked and secured--could do the job. Data sent in the clear for everyone to see.

What are the relative risks of a mysterious plane disappearance being foiled, versus a short-circuited ShinyGadget battery causing a fire and subsequent crash?

Or the advantages of everyone knowing where a plane is, versus the disadvantages of "terrorists" etc. knowing where every plane is?

What's the likelihood of unnecessary panic when some system glitch erroneously shows a flight as having disappeared, or going off course, when it's actually fine?

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Pint

Re: What now?

Same concept as the GPS car tracking devices, except Iridium instead of cellular. A tiny little puck, installed on any flat surface. All it needs is a connection to the Essential +28VDC Power bus, with the CB in a remote location. How often do you want it to 'ping' its position? How much money do you want to spend on data services for your fleet?

(I don't think that it necessarily needs to be an iPad.)

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Facepalm

Re: What now?

Absolute real-time GPS tracking of -every- commercial airplane everywhere on the planet. Period.

Step up with your tax dollars, gramps.

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