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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Unhappy

Re: Gruesome chance missed

So...if they had looked for a huge mass of sharks in the relevant area(s), there just might have been a 777 in there somewhere.

And for that we only have to look for a fleet of Chinese trawlers that cater to the shark fin soup industry.

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Best I've seen yet on this story

http://www.wired.com/autopia/2014/03/mh370-electrical-fire/

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Re: Best I've seen yet on this story

The link has been posted higher up a dozen times already, do keep up. Also, the author of the article you point to published an update in which he admits that the data now available makes the theory obsolete -again, as has been stated in this very column a couple times in response to the very same link that you repost. So, double-do-keep-up.

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Re: Best I've seen yet on this story

And now that the timeline is thought to be not as clear AGAIN, his theory is plausible AGAIN. Round and round we go.

I don't know why everyone knows the transponder was switched off. I have one in my lab and there's absolutely no difference between switching it off, pulling its power, or disconnecting its antenna. It just stops transmitting.

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Re: Best I've seen yet on this story

Here it is:

The mother ship with a tractor beam has the airplane.

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The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

The simplest explanation is that MH370 crashed into the sea near where it disappeared, and the rest of the shaky evidence and wild speculation is simply wrong (as much of it has already proven to be).

I'm working on an article to that effect with an associate who specializes in the psychology of investigators and the ways that investigations can go wrong (we don't expect the missing flight to be found before the article is published). This case is a classic, with all the signs. My associate doesn't know how to evaluate the technical details in the reporting, so I'm helping out as an engineer who knows a lot about air traffic control systems and satellite systems. While there is certainly some technical evidence of a flight diversion, I have to say that it has been very poorly reported, and I consider it at least as questionable as other evidence that has already proven false.

Most people don't seem to understand the need to evaluate individual bits of evidence independently in the early stages of an investigation to avoid "confirmation bias". One bit of questionable evidence leads to a theory, and suddenly everyone is trying to confirm that theory, adding more questionable evidence that isn't independent while ignoring other evidence that doesn't fit the theory.

There is certainly some evidence that the flight was diverted, and I wouldn't rule out that it might well prove to have been in the end. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far there are only two bits of evidence that amount to anything in my view:

1. The wreckage hasn't been found in the area of disappearance. In every previous case of an airliner crashing at sea, floating debris and bodies were found within days. There are possible explanations, but I still think it's a key point.

2. The supposed InMarSat data. The problem with this is that the news reports are extremely vague and often inaccurate. It may consist of a single data point, and having never looked for such data before, InMarSat officials probably have no idea how accurate or error-prone it may be. Any number of possible errors could render it meaningless, such as a mis-identification of the transmitter number, incorrect conversion of the time stamp, or incomplete data stuck in a buffer being flushed out hours later.

The military radar data is nonsense.

It's not much on which to base a lengthy and extremely expensive search effort when common sense suggests that the original search area is more likely to be correct. Since it's no longer an emergency, the investigators should sit back, clear their heads, and go over the evidence again with fresh eyes and more in-depth analysis.

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Vic
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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

> The military radar data is nonsense.

[Citation needed]

Vic.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

I agree with your comment that primary radar data is unreliable at best since it doesn't identify the aircraft as MH370.

I also feel that to assume that transponder and ACARS stopped transmitting because the aircraft crashed is less speculative, ie requiring less assumptions than other theories.

Its also entirely possible that the initial search in South China Sea missed the wreckage especially if the fuselage stayed intact and little floating debris reached the surface. This may also explain ping responses but I must admit, less likely.

Compared to the theories that are currently being investigated, this line of reasoning requires far less assumptions. Occam's Razor.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

> I agree with your comment that primary radar data is unreliable at best since it doesn't identify the aircraft as MH370.

Do you have the radar data? Military radar systems are designed to try and identify the "blips" they get; i'd bet a 777 has quite a characteristic radar signature.

> I also feel that to assume that transponder and ACARS stopped transmitting because the aircraft crashed is less speculative, ie requiring less assumptions than other theories.

So the plane crashed and ACARS stopped transmitting its ID but somehow kept pinging the satellite?

> this line of reasoning requires far less assumptions.

If that's what you think I have a theory with even less assumptions for you: it's just been misplaced behind the couch. Zero assumptions needed.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

"It may consist of a single data point, and having never looked for such data before, InMarSat officials probably have no idea how accurate or error-prone it may be. Any number of possible errors could render it meaningless, such as a mis-identification of the transmitter number, incorrect conversion of the time stamp, or incomplete data stuck in a buffer being flushed out hours later."

This is a lot of very improbable assumptions. You're right about the confirmation bias but you display all signs of it yourself, unfortunately.

An idea that Inmarsat engineers have absolutely no clue about their own system and made such a glaring mistake requires such a stretch of imagination that your theory is totally dead in the water.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

"The simplest explanation is that MH370 crashed into the sea near where it disappeared, and the rest of the shaky evidence and wild speculation is simply wrong (as much of it has already proven to be)."

Not born out by evidence, though. No wreckage. Plane crashes leave wreckage and the area has been repeatedly combed by aircraft capable of detecting debris.

"I'm working on an article to that effect"

So: An attention grabbing piece which selectively ignores evidence. Wouldn't it better to write something without a conclusion but which is best-fit for observations?

"The military radar data is nonsense."

Easy to say, hard to back up. Why?

"common sense suggest..."

Confirmation bias there. Common sense says that I put my keys where I usually do, but if I haven't find them after looking a dozen times, they're elsewhere.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

"This may also explain ping responses but I must admit, less likely."

I don't buy that it carried on transmitting for hours after a crash and that the wreck was repeatedly missed. I could be wrong, but it's a stretch.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

True. Its the weakest part of the theory, hence "less likely".

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

2. The supposed InMarSat data. The problem with this is that the news reports are extremely vague and often inaccurate. It may consist of a single data point, and having never looked for such data before, InMarSat officials probably have no idea how accurate or error-prone it may be. Any number of possible errors could render it meaningless, such as a mis-identification of the transmitter number, incorrect conversion of the time stamp, or incomplete data stuck in a buffer being flushed out hours later.

Whatever reaches the public media could well be incomplete and quite possibly misreported, but in a case like this, several engineers will have been poring over the data and any metadata, trying to get all available info out of it, checking with the others whether they've missed or misinterpreted something.

And Inmarsat was not put into service last month, with the bugs in their software still needing to be ironed out, insofar as they would be known. If they had, or even still have, problems with incorrect transmission, buffering or logging, those bugs would either be a thing of the past, or so rare that they're as good as irreproducible (in which case, good luck debugging) and in that case it would be extremely unlikely that it would affect exactly this flight.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

To be clear, the article we are writing is about the psychology of the investigation rather than the technical details, so we aren't attempting to decide which is the correct explanation based on the limited and often inaccurate information that has been published so far. However we obviously need to understand the technical evidence in order to understand how it has influenced the investigation.

I discount the military radar data because I am familiar with such radar data and I have a good idea what it does or doesn't show. For those who aren't personally familiar, I suggest you read the accounts of the incident where the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake. Although equipped with a very advanced AEGIS phased array radar system, they identified the Airbus airliner as an F14 fighter and thought it was descending toward the ship when it was actually climbing to cruising altitude. It was only 9 miles away when they decided to fire missiles at it. Does that tell you enough about the ability of military radars to identify unknown targets under ideal conditions of close range and no terrain clutter?

I have no doubt that the InMarSat engineers are very competent and are working diligently to clarify and verify their data. I also note that InMarSat has said nothing much officially since their initial hasty comments to the press. Why would I doubt their abilities? Here's a couple of things to think about:

1. I doubt that InMarSat's satellite ping data is identified as "Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370". It probably has a transmitter number assigned to Malaysian Airlines, and they are relying on Malaysian Airlines to give them the correct number from their records. Of course the aircraft itself is no longer available to verify that they have the right number...

2. Do you remember when NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into Mars and was lost because an engineer confused metric and imperial units? Engineers make mistakes, even basic dumb mistakes. Maybe like not converting time zones correctly when analyzing data in a way they have never been asked to do before?

I'm not saying that it's definitely a mistake. Just that we don't know until it's verified very carefully, and it's a lot to hang a very expensive investigation on. You would want to be really, really sure.

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Vic
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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

I discount the military radar data because I am familiar with such radar data and I have a good idea what it does or doesn't show.

I doubt that.

I went to Boscombe Down last year. In the radar room, we watched the parachute plane from Old Sarum drop its parachutists. You could count them out...

I suggest you read the accounts of the incident where the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake

That had nothing to do with radar problems and everything to do with the belligerence of the commanding officer.

I'm not saying that it's definitely a mistake. Just that we don't know until it's verified very carefully

Quite a lot is already verified. Australia seems just to have released some confirmation about what has been said, but I missed the article on account of my missus having an uncanny knack of talking through every single headline ever.

Vic.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

> I discount the military radar data because I am familiar with such radar data and I have a good idea what it does or doesn't show. For those who aren't personally familiar, I suggest you read the accounts of the incident where the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake. Although equipped with a very advanced AEGIS phased array radar system, they identified the Airbus airliner as an F14 fighter and thought it was descending toward the ship when it was actually climbing to cruising altitude. It was only 9 miles away when they decided to fire missiles at it. Does that tell you enough about the ability of military radars to identify unknown targets under ideal conditions of close range and no terrain clutter?

That incident tells us nothing about the ability of military radar but everything about the amount of misinformation that an embarrassed Navy / Government will spread in an effort to wriggle out of culpability.

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Vic
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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

That incident tells us nothing about the ability of military radar but everything about the amount of misinformation that an embarrassed Navy / Government will spread in an effort to wriggle out of culpability.

And that, I'm afraid, is probably the most likely explanation for most of this incident.

Vic.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

"To be clear, the article we are writing is about the psychology of the investigation rather than the technical details"

You don't have any insight into that, not being privvy to the investigation, not having talked to them. You and I have no idea about the inner workings of this investigation.

It won't be an article, it will be a completely speculative blog piece. Don't you feel that's perhaps not exactly good journalism?

"I discount the military radar data because I am familiar with such radar data and I have a good idea what it does or doesn't show."

Umm..clearly not. Vincennes was a fire control (human) error, not the radar. Military radar on Aegis cruisers is designed to track hundreds of targets, down to the size of individual missiles. You conclusions about military radar capabilities are entirely false and based on a single incident and zero first-hand experience. And you speak about confirmation bias in others?

"Of course the aircraft itself is no longer available to verify that they have the right number..."

Wow... so you want to assume that they have the wrong number and it's some other flight? Really?

In truth it would be a piece of cake to ascertain by checking back on the history of that handshake and confirming it was in the vicinity of the flight historically.

"Maybe like not converting time zones correctly when analyzing data in a way they have never been asked to do before?"

Hell of an assumption there. A massive one that it's unfair to make without being privvy to the investigation: which you aren't.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

> I discount the military radar data because I am familiar with such radar data and I have a good idea what it does or doesn't show. For those who aren't personally familiar, I suggest you read the accounts of the incident where the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake.

I suggest you read the accounts of the incidents where US forces shot their Brit allies by mistake, or where they bombed a whole block killing numerous civilians because they mistook a camera lens for a RPG launcher. It has nothing to do with radar tech, everything to do with the "shoot first, think later" culture of the US forces.

That particular radar had the 777 in sight for most of its flight, including the part when it was broadcasting its ID. There is little to no doubt that there identification is correct. Now that's not the same for altitude data, that is not reliable.

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Re: The simplest explanation and confirmation bias

Speaking of radars, I actually think it is quite possible to hide behind another plane, especially if it is of the same size as or larger than the plane you want to hide.

Most of my personal experience with radars concerned with the short range front-line SAM systems but we have also been taught the basics and had some experience with long range stations (P-18). The resolution in range for such a search radar is about 300m in good conditions, so two planes flying in close formation will be seen as one contact *if they are flying in echelon along the sight-line of the radar*.

The problem here is not so much the radar but pilotage - this will basically require the hiding plane to fly in formation for hours on end, at night, using only the other plane's nav lights for guidance and taking into account the location of the radar you want to hide from. That makes it seem very unlikely to me.

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A simple test…

Surely being considered, would be to fly another (similarly equipped) 777 along the suspected route from radio hand-off to Malaysia ATC. And see if the radar and Inmarsat data is as expected…

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Re: A simple test…

The amount of money being spent already, and the suggestion of any kind of budget being unthinkable in a public statement, running tests like this need to be be considered, at least. One problem though is that the satellite will presumably be in a different position, so the exact results will be different, but it will provide a benchmark of data where correct time zone information can be verified (a point made by someone earlier).

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Re: A simple test…

'One problem though is that the satellite will presumably be in a different position'

That'd be an interesting geostationary satellite if it is...

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Re: A simple test…

Yes I take your point. Maybe I should expand what I meant, rather than what I said. Yes, the satellite(s) might be in geostationary orbit, but presumably such things as weather conditions and traffic loading will dictate the "here" and "back" detection and relaying of the "ping" - Inmarsat no doubt having some kind of highly resilient network in place to ensure collection and delivery of data. I assume that Inmarsat can document the route the signal took, can that be reproduced?

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Coat

Wake up and smell the coffee

Keep your eye on the prize, don’t be distracted by the glitter.

The plane is on the ground somewhere... north, and it landed. Either there is cargo that is not disclosed to the public (gold, technology, explosive or toxic material), or more likely, 20 or so of the passengers are the prize.

Too many coincidences colliding in this story for it to be a burn and crash scenario

tags: drones, radar jamming, evasion

Getting my coat since my tinfoil hat is at home, and there’s no icon for the tinfoil hat.

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Re: Wake up and smell the coffee

> The plane ... landed ... [and] ... 20 or so of the passengers are the prize.

Don't be a plonker. If they were so important they can be head-hunted using good, old-fashioned money.

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Re: Wake up and smell the coffee

Not if you are headhunting them for information about a government they work for that is not on the best of terms with yours.

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Pint

Re: Wake up and smell the coffee

When you use 'tags', you have to actually use hash-tags. Not that they'd do anything here...

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Re: Wake up and smell the coffee

"Not if you are headhunting them for information about a government they work for that is not on the best of terms with yours."

Several thousand years of history replete with people and spies who happily worked for big bags of cash say you're wrong.

Pretty much no financial reason would result in a cost or profit which outweighs the price of a 777. No amount of gold it could have been carrying would cost as much as the airframe itself.

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Vic
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Re: Wake up and smell the coffee

> No amount of gold it could have been carrying would cost as much as the airframe itself.

Whilst that is certainly true, the economics work slightly differently if you're nicking the aircraft - because you don't pay for it.

I very much doubt that happened, though. I am hoping that there has actually been a ransom demand that the Malaysian authorities aren't telling us about. But that's a straw I'm grasping at - it's the only way I can imagine that the passengers are still alive.

Vic.

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Anonymous Coward

It's elementary

The simplest explanation, passing the Occam's Razor test is of course a failed alien abduction causing a crash. A side effect of the antigravity generator breakdown was a time-space warp resulting in a time slip.

The reason there is no debris along the flight track is the crash has not yet happened.

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Possible Scenario.

I can imagine the co-pilot saying "Good-night" to the air-traffic controllers, then drugging or incapacitating the pilot, and putting the aircraft on autopilot and flying until fuel exhaustion.

Notice that this leaves open various scenarios as to how the rest of the crew and the passengers were disabled. I suppose one could imagine that the co-pilot disabled the pilot, brought the aircraft down to 5000ft, breached the hull somehow - he could have even broken a window in the cockpit - and then had the autopilot fly up to 35000ft (or whatever altitude would be required), killing everyone on board by hypoxia, with the autopilot then flying the aircraft out to sea until fuel exhaustion.

Since there are people here with some familiarity with aircraft operations, I would be interested in hearing their opinions of this.

There was a case in Egypt a few years back where the pilot decided to commit suicide by crashing his passenger jet. MH370 co-pilot could have learned something from that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EgyptAir_Flight_990.

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Air_Maroc_Flight_630 where a pilot disconnected the autopilot and crashed the aircraft. Also relevant is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SilkAir_Flight_185 .

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Express_Flight_705 where a member of the flight crew smuggled a hammer aboard the aircraft, and attempted to bludgeon the pilot and co-pilot to death. He didn't use a gun because he had a $2.5 million insurance policy on which he wanted his family to collect and gunshots in the bodies of the flight crew would make that... problematical. The co-pilot of MH370 could have had a motive to want the bodies not found: insurance policy, sparing his family the shame of having a family member commit suicide, possibly other motives.

Auburn Calloway, a Federal Express employee facing possible dismissal for lying about his previous flying experience, boarded the scheduled flight as a deadheading passenger with a guitar case carrying several hammers and a speargun. He intended to disable the aircraft's cockpit voice recorder before take-off and, once airborne, kill the crew using the blunt force of the hammers so their injuries would appear consistent with an accident rather than a hijacking. The speargun would be a last resort. He would then crash the aircraft while just appearing to be an employee killed in an accident. This would make his family eligible for a $2.5 million life insurance policy paid by Federal Express.

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Anonymous Coward

Tankering?

"(Normally a captain tries not to overload a plane with fuel as air-freighting fuel from airport to airport costs fuel - and thus money - in itself.)

Not if the aircraft was 'tankering'.

Our man adds: "IF they were both in on some type of plan they could have filled it up to whatever level of fuel they wanted, all the way to maximum tanks fuel which could give them 13-14 hours endurance at the limit"."

The 'tankering' plan goes like this. Assume the aircraft is making a round trip between points A and B. If the fuel cost is the same at points A and B, the lowest round-trip cost including fuel cost, engine, airframe, undercarriage and brakes wear, forecast winds and weather, etc. is obtained by uploading the legal minimum fuel for the outbound trip at A, and topping up at B to the legal minimum for the return.

However, if the fuel cost to the airline at B is significantly greater than at A, a point will come in the disparity at which the overall round trip cost is minimised by uploading additional fuel at A and less at B. The logical conclusion comes when it's cheaper to upload the entire fuel requirement at A for the round trip.

The situation can become even more complex (or, perhaps, simpler?) when your airline and its domestic fuel supplier are owned by the same people. Look at the fast-expanding Middle-Eastern carriers. Furthermore, if the airline is not financially sound it might well pay over the odds for fuel at point B.

Fuel in Beijing is notoriously expensive, and both Cathay Pacific and Korean Air Lines are known routinely to tanker it in.

The Malaysians have said repeatedly that the aircraft was not carrying 'extra' fuel. They could quite truthfully mean by this "not extra to the tankering plan", which, leaving out a landing and take-off in the middle, could have given the 777 a total endurance of 12 hours or more when it left KL. AFAIK the Malaysians have still not disclosed the actual amount of fuel it departed KL with.

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WTF?

Tinfoil hattery galore

This afternoon on the (Dutch) radio:

"Oh, MH370 is on an airfield somewhere in Afghanistan or Kazakhstan or Iran. It's going to be used as a trojan horse next monday, when the NSS starts. There's a regular flight by Malaysia Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam that day, flown with a 777, and they will switch planes when it's over the region where MH370 is now. So it will land at Schiphol, full of terrorists, or maybe with the passengers as hostages, and then anything can happen"

The interviewer even kindof agreed that that was a plausible scenario.

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