Three years after flight MH370 vanished, we know more about the decline of the media and the untruthfulness or obfuscation of Malaysia’s authorities in dealing with the mystery than we do about the events that brought the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER down, or the location of the heavy and sunk parts of its wreckage.
Since March 8, 2014, when MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur with 239 people listed on its manifest for a red-eye flight to Beijing, most reports have been generated by the antics of self-proclaimed experts or media pundits declaring that one or both of the pilots of the flight “dunnit” (as they might have), or demonising the managers of the search, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), for having looked in the wrong area. Which is about as fair as criticising those who search unsuccessfully for children or the elderly when lost in the bush, even though their bones undoubtedly lie scattered in “the bush”.
As for the greatest ever aviation mystery of all time, some leads have come to light, and some reasonable scenarios have been proposed, but nothing has come together as a solution or answer.
However, we do know some things. We know that MH370 had been airborne for some seven hours, 39 minutes when a geostationary Inmarsat satellite over the western equatorial region of the Indian Ocean heard a last (and incomplete) sequence of automatically generated signals from a server on the jet.
We know that the Inmarsat satellite had to be at an apparent elevation of around 44 degrees above the horizon in relation to MH370 when it lost final contact with the jet.
That means, when considered alongside other clues found in the signals, that it had to have been somewhere along an arc of locations all equidistant from the satellite across a section of the southern, or perhaps not-so-far southern, stretch of the Indian Ocean variously southwest to west off the coast of Western Australia. This is referred to as the seventh arc.
But we also have reasons to be concerned that Inmarsat might not have serviced or upgraded the equipment for the aircraft-satellite link, since it doesn’t take detailed technical questions on these matters. There is concern among researchers, notably among the members of the self-styled Independent Group (IG), that full and useful disclosure of all of the satellite data hasn’t necessarily been made, or that they haven’t been given as full an understanding as is possible as to how that data was analysed to model the various “likely” flight paths of MH370, many of which were officially discarded.
It should also be acknowledged that the IG isn’t a homogeneous body of opinion on MH370. It is an eminently qualified, but at times argumentative, body of analysis, and its publicly available papers generally make it clear that its members are not proposing a “solution” to the mystery, but seeking to rationally analyse the possibilities and probabilities that the limited available information permits.
MH370 conspiracies abound
Earlier in the saga, the IG booted one member, Jeff Wise, after he had a brain fade and proposed that photographs of terrain within Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan showed where the missing 777 might have been buried.
He offered a vague, unsupported and absurd scenario involving Russian culpability or involvement in the disappearance.
Later in the saga, in a comic footnote to Wise’s unfortunate nonsense, a ship tracker called Mike Chillit worked the susceptible conspiracy-focused MH370 community into a lather by claiming he had satellite imagery analysis indicating a large chunk of the missing jet was possibly in a lagoon offshore from Mauritius. It proved to be a well known, half-submerged shipwreck.
It didn’t require any analysis, just the use of Google Earth, or a phone call, in French, to any of the fishermen living near the mystery object.
However, the most perversely stupid popular myth was not just that the pilot or pilots had diverted their own jet, which remains possible but fraught with difficulties. The theory is it was then flown it for so long that both engines finally failed from fuel exhaustion (about 13 minutes apart, according to the satellite signals), thus depriving them of full hydraulic and electrical assistance for moving the control surfaces of the jet, then reconfiguring the wings for a touch down on the sea, after which they sank the jet intact.
There are many difficulties with this subset of MH370 scenarios, but not if you are a subscriber to News Corp publications or a viewer of 60 Minutes. News Corp and the current affairs program have invested deeply in wrapping up the MH370 mystery for their more gullible readers and convincing them of the pilots’ guilt and the intact plane-ditching theory.
The logical failings in these stories are skewered by Australian researcher Mike Gilbert in a set of papers reported in Crikey blog Plane Talking and with hyperlinks to original versions.
(One thing about the ignorant tendency in social media is that it is collectively too lazy to read any hyperlinked original material, and usually attacks the serious media reporting of MH370 stories for failing to address issues they had actually dealt with.)
However, the most telling evidence to the contrary about the last moments of MH370 keeps being retrieved from various beaches or estuaries in the southwest corner of the Indian Ocean or the shores of South Africa and Mozambique, often by, or inspired by, recently retired MH370 sleuth Blaine Gibson.
Gibson has documented claimed sightings of a large plane by residents of Kudahuvadhoo in the Maldives. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile those sightings with the satellite signals, the known duration of the flight, and a lack of body parts or wreckage from the Malaysian airliner being washed ashore in the Maldives and no doubt ruining the holiday ambiance of some of its superb resorts. On the other hand, the documentation of the Maldivian visitation cannot be completely dismissed. There might well have been a large plane with what are commonly used colours on its livery in the area at that time, although no one has provided an alternative identification that has withstood scrutiny thus far.
How 60 Minutes sold out a crash investigator, and the next of kin
Wreckage identified as being from inside and outside MH370 shows abundant evidence of a high-energy and very destructive impact with the sea. This became public knowledge before 60 Minutes broadcast the hapless Canadian air crash investigator Larry Vance saying there was no sign of internal wreckage and insisting that external wreckage recovered proved that a part of the wing called a flaperon had been deployed in the landing position. This was untrue.
But 60 Minutes was sufficiently contemptuous of its audience to screen a video that was weeks out of date, thus rubbishing Vance, as well as the expectations of the viewers that television was an up-to date medium for reporting on current affairs.
The chaotic columns of The Australian’s aviation pages had declared that the damage to trailing-edge wing fragments showed proof of a controlled sea landing, and rubbished without any convincing evidence, the ATSB released analysis showing that the critical wing mechanism for such a landing appeared to have been stowed in the cruise position when the assemblage was torn apart either by mid-air flutter or an uncontrolled impact.
In December, the ATSB released a First Principles Review of the search for MH370 putting the case for one final look at a newly defined area of high probability for holding the wreckage of the 777 just to the north-east of the major search zone that was exhausted early this year.
Was calling off the search a mistake?
Up to that point, all of the signs from the ATSB had been that this additional search would be carried out, however the plug was pulled by Darren Chester, the minister responsible for aviation, in conjunction with Malaysian authorities.
The optics of this about-face were (and are) terrible, and lent some support to those who might believe there is a determination in Kuala Lumpur that MH370 must never be found for some unknown set of reasons.
As Crikey and Plane Talking have often reported in the past three years, the Malaysian authorities were astonishingly indifferent to the jet’s disappearance on the night of March 7-8 three years ago. Malaysian PM Najib Razak grievously misled the early search partners that month, insisting the search continue to look deeper into the South China Sea and even across the Himalayas into central Asia when his acting aviation minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, says cabinet knew on the morning of the disappearance that the plane had diverted across the Malaysia Peninsula and into the northern approaches of the Straits of Malacca.
However, it is also possible that the obfuscation that came out of KL was cultural. MH370 catapulted a government that was notoriously uncomfortable with media scrutiny into weeks of live news conferences dominated for the most part by a hostile contingent of reporters from numerous China news agencies, all of them apparently mindful that half the victims on board the jet were Chinese nationals flying on a Malaysia Airlines code-share with China Southern Airlines.
It would probably take something akin to a royal commission to examine fully the multiple inconsistencies in graphics and narratives released by the Malaysia authorities and iron out the wrinkles and uncover any hidden truths.
Which is asking for something that would perhaps be more difficult than the sea floor search itself.
The agonising possibility is that sonar-scanning towfish passed over MH370’s remains but did not recognise them. These towfish were being used to find large-scale signs of a debris field, so that it could then be examined very close up by a specialised underwater probe resembling a small submarine. The process found two shipwrecks. The ATSB has forcefully rejected this possibility, yet it has also contradicted itself in that the sea floor search was always predicated on a recognisable debris field. Given the evidence of the high-velocity impact of MH370 with the ocean and the possibility that the air-frame began to disintegrate on the way down and followed a multitude of final trajectories into the sea, there might not be such a concentration of wreckage after all, and the sea floor has already been found to be both silty and complex in many areas.
The risk that MH370 might not be found until well after all of those alive today are dead, and its mystery thus irrelevant and forgotten, is very real. Similarly, the risk that Chester and the Malaysian government might be found to have made a very bad call in refusing the make that last search is quite high.
*For the latest aviation news, visit Crikey blog Plane Talking.