Malasia Airlines Flight 370 - A Media Circus
Malasia Airlines flight 370 lifted off the dearture runway at Kuala Lumpur early in the morning of March 8th, 2014, at 0021 local time (1621 UTC). The initial climbout to flight level 350 appeared to be routine up until the moment it neared the boundary between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace. Noting that radar service from Subang Center was terminated and taking a radio handoff to Ho Chi Minh Control, the flight transmittted a "goonight" to Subang. At that time, about 0122 local time (1722 UTC)its position was about 90 nautical miles northeast of Kota Bharu, Malaysia, and tracking its flight planned route. Flight MH370 never checked in with Ho Chi Minh Control, and disappeared into the early morning darkness.
Not only did the flight not make contact via VHF radio, it was neither reachable on the commonly used HF frequencies for "Singapore Radio" nor via Satcom. There is good ADS-B coverage in the area, but when the transponder went inactive so went ADS-B.
Primary radar data, the little bit released to the public, indicates that the Boeing 777 went on a wild ride from FL350 up to FL450 and down to FL230. The Malaysia 370 moved out of range of the area's primary radars.
About an hour and twenty minutes later, after numerous unanswered radio calls to MH370 and discussion with Ho Chi Minh about the plane's location, ATC notified the Malaysian Airlines that the flight had gone missing. What has followed since then has been nothing short of multi-ringed circus that would have stunned P. T. Barnum himself. I will give my views below about a number of aspects of the emergency response and media coverage in the aftermath of the vanishing of MH370.
Ring One: The Governments
Malasia's government is quite cagey, adhering to the dictum of saying "a lot of things which mean nothing." Officials have no intention of making public any but the smallest details of what happened. They admit nothing until the public has learned something from a source the government can't control. Consider something as benign as the radio transcript of MH 370's last transmisstion. There is no context, just "alright - good night." One would expect it to look more like this, but we don't really know what was said:
Lumpur Radar: Malaysia 370, radar service is terminated. Contact Ho Chi Minh control on one two zero decimal eight, bye bye. MH370: Alright, one two zero decimal eight, Malaysia three seventy. Good night.
On 18 March, 2014, the Malaysians gave up a stunning morsel of information: it was the copilot who said, "goodnight." Was that worth headlines? It surprises no one who knows how airline crews work. Usually, the Captain will be the "pilot flying" on the first leg, and the copilot will be "pilot monitoring." As the pilot monitoring, he will be the radio operator.
Very little has been said about the flight planned route, but I tell you all that it is not the clean and direct "great circle route" drawn with a straight line between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. If that is the basis of where to search, forget it. I call foul on the government for not being open about the actual routing the flight intended to use. Normally, flights depart to the northeast and pass Vietnam offshore. Thence, flights go northbound into Chinese airspace (Sanya Control). Continuing northbound, traffic proceeds into the airspace of "Hong Kong Radar." Hong Kong is responsible for flights until they reach the mainland, entering Guanzhou Control. Over China, the flight will use metric flight levels and follow a round-about routing avoiding vast expanses of military airspace. Eventually, ATC will send the flight to arrival fixes south of Beijing for the descent and landing. My point here is to say that nothing has been said about that initial routing which goes EAST, over the South China Sea - east of Vietnam and not directly over the land. Okay, if MH370 was on a different route, let's see it.
Here is a typical routing from Kuala Lumpur to China:>
WMKK (Kuala Lumpur)...[Fly one of the standard instrument departures]...KIMAT... Airway W533 to ADNUT... Airway G582 to VPK... Airway L629 to DOLOX... Airway M771 to DUDIS (Entry ino the airspace of Ho Chi Minh Control - Vietnam)... Airway M771 to DONDA (Entry ino the airspace of Sanya Control - China)... Airway M771 to DOSUT (Entry into the airspace of Hong Kong Radar - China, sort of) Airway M771 to CARSO then direct to SOUSA... Airway V1 to DOTMI (Airspace of Guangzhou Control - China... Airway A470 up the coast of China to PIX... Airway A593 to BTO... fly a standard arrival route into ZBAA (Beijing) Note: Based on new information, MH370 appears to have had a routing crossing IGARI and on airways west of the route shown above.
The Vietnamese have been a bit more helpful, sharing what they know with interested parties, and complaining when they felt that they were wasting time and money accomodating the erratic search needs of the Malaysians. Some of their complaining may simply be an attempt to save face after search efforts did not provide useful clues as to the missing aircraft's location. China, a stakeholder in the situation, has gone as far as giving up SASTIND images showing possible debris in the South China Sea, at position North 06.7 degrees / East 105.63 degrees. Those satellite images, upon further review, showed appeared to be some kind of maritime structure or helipad and not a debris field.
This looks more like a helipad or oil rig in the South China Sea.
Asia is in a stage of its evolution in which the countries depend on one another for trade but heartily distrust each other. Militaries are growing more capable, and one of their areas of competition is radar surveillance. In addition, big players such as the United States and China have radar, sonar, and radio surveillance nets watching the area. Events related to MH370's disappearance were very likely observed, but unlikely to be revealed due to the fact that such an act would reveal confidential military capabilities (or perhaps weaknesses). Who wants to admit the unseen passage of a Boeing 777 through their airspace? Who wants to admit actually having sophisticated surveillance data on events in a potential rival's territory?
Eventually, primary radar data was released that the flight did not go east, to the South China Sea, but southwestbound. MH370 is said to have gone toward the Indian Ocean and no one has a clue as to where the flight came to an end. Good military radars can resolve the position and motion of objects much smaller than a Boeing 777. In addition, advanced radars, with digital signal processing, can resolve the shape and orientation of objects. Think about it: are we to believe that modern radars which break down a missiles motion into a precisely measured three dimensional path cannot resolve the path of a large, relatively slow, and highly reflective jetliner?
Ring Two: The Media
I follow CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Aviation Week, and the BBC closely. Television news networks have done a particularly poor job of covering the accident! They have scrambled to say something about the loss of Malaysia flight 370, without enough effort to say something that matters. Often, the networks and newspapers have paid consultants who offer their opinions on the latest news even though they may not be current and qualified on the aircraft involved. Often the consultants are weak in pertinent areas of knowledge. Another problem is that the reporters don't ask the proper questions or try oversimplify concepts presented to the general public.
One hindrance to hearing more from current and qualified pilots is that most are prohibited by their employers from speaking to the news media. Airlines don't want instructors, managers, or line pilots saying something contradictory to positions taken by official spokespeople (the lawyers). It gets worse: a pilot from one company could start a legal battle with another company if he stirs up a controversy on a particular matter. Thus, the talking heads shown by CNN, the BBC, or other outlets are retirees, former government officials, or aviation lawyers. By and large, they did not step off the flight deck an hour ago and come to the studio with sharp and bright insight into what happened.
CNN actually had a reporter and instructor do a session in a Boeing 777 simulator to explore what may have happened aboard MH370. The reporter commented how hard it was to override the autopilot and noted the loud aural alert when the autopilot is disengaged. A glaring omission was the fact that a well trained hijacker doesn't need to disconnect the autopilot. In fact, if the autopilot is disengaged during the cockpit takeover, it would be smart to reengage it then use it, instead of manually flying, to take the plane to a new location.
China, as usual, has tight political restrictions on press coverage of the Malaysia 370 crash, and publishes nothing without considerable time spent on crafting the words in conformance with mefia controls. Media have been advised by censors to allow nothing but official wire copy and delete speculation on Weibo and other online forums. Television coverage consists of days-old file footage with careful voice-overs. NOTHING is carried live, and they didn't want the crash to overshadow coverage the National People's Congress.
Central Propaganda Department: The media may not independently analyze or comment on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight. Related coverage must strictly accord with authoritative information issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China and with Xinhua News Agency wire copy. The domestic aviation department can promptly provide related information to passengers’ family members. All media must refrain from interviewing family members without permission, and must not incite any discontented sentiment. All media continue to give increased publicity to the Two Sessions. 中宣部： 对马航失联客机事件，媒体不要擅自分析，评论此次事件。 有关消息发布严格依据中国民航方面的权威信息和新华社通稿， 可对我国民航部门为乘客家属及时提供相关信息、服务等方面的内容加以报道。 各地媒体不要擅自采访家属，不可挑动任何不满情绪。 各地各媒体要继续加大两会宣传力度。(March 8, 2014)
By 21 March, the Telegraph published a so-called transcript of Malaysia flight 370's last hour of ATC communications. It is a terrible, heavily edited caricature of the actual transmissions. Here are some of the most glaring edits:
Local Time: 00:38:43 (Flight 370 has been holding short of runway 32R at taxiway A10.) What was probably said: Lumpur Tower: Malaysia 370, line up and wait, runway three two right at alpha ten. MH370: Roger, line up and wait three two right from alpha ten, Malaysia 370. What was given in the transcript: ATC: MH370, please get on the runway from 32R A10. MH370: Runway from 32R A10, copy that.
Sure, the general public may not know ICAO English, or standard aviation radio phraseology, but people can figure it out. Knowing the truth means seeing things as they really are, but instead we are given something akin to a really bad machine translation. Considering the poor grammar, it may have been translated into Chinese and back to English. English is used for ATC communications. Here is another ridiculous edit from the same document:
Time: 00:42:05 (The aircraft has lifted off, switched frequencies from the tower to departure control, and is following the assigned standard instrument departure.) What was probably said: MH370: Departure, Malaysia 370 is airborne, passing one thousand feet. Lumpur Departure: Malaysia 370, Lumpur Departure, you are radar identified. Climb to flight level one eight zero, follow the SID, and proceed direct IGARI. MH370: Alright, climb to one eight zero, direct IGARI, Malaysia 370. What was given in the transcript: MH370: MH370 has left the port. Lumpur Departure: MH370 position confirmed, flight altitude 180, follow the command and turn right, target IGARI waypoint. MH370: Alright, altitude 180, direction IGARI waypoint, MH370 copies that.
Ring Three: The Internet
Internet speculation is ramant, due to the lack of solid information on what really happened to MH370. There are rumors of catastrophic structural failure, bombs, hijacking, missile srtikes on the airplane, and even an alien abduction.
In my opinion, there are only two web sites with enough solid and expert information to justify visiting in search of data relating to MH370: PPRUNE and Aviation Herald. These two sites have an order of magnitude less noise and nonsense than CNN, Fox, BBC, Xinhua, and other media outlets. Sure, there are a fair number of oddballs in there, but their postings are quickly challenged by more solidly informed participants. Both sites are full of current and qualified jetliner pilots. ATC specialists and others are also active participants.
Another website, Tomnod.com, is doing something new, special, and important in the search for Malaysia flight 370. Tomnod is crowdsourcing the search, providing public access to high resolution satellite images of vast areas AND easy to use tools to mark possible wreckage or oil slicks from the jetliner. This hasn't been done before, and it is the first time anyone with internet access can actually participate in the search. There are applications for distributed computing, in which anyone can contribute computer power to solve complex computations. Tomnod carries out a similar function, but it requires human analysis instead of computing cycles. Perhaps, in the future, the search for airplane wreckage can be carried out by a distributed automated computing system. Today, we must rely on the study of images by humans. Many areas have neen flagged by participants; one may actually be wreckage from Malasia 370.
Ring Four: Boeing, Rolls Royce, and Inmarsat
Boeing, for its part in the disappearance of MH370, has maintained that its planes are safe, and the company is sympathetic to the ordeal suffered by the people aboard the flight, their families, and the Malaysia Airlines. Rolls Royce has a similar position, and has asserted that its engines are not believed to be a part of the problem.
Inmarsat, the satcom vendor, has been the surprising witness in the investigation. They have usably precise timing data on the radio link between the missing jetliner and Inmarsat-3 F1, in geostationary orbit over the Indian Ocean. Based on the data, we now know that Malaysian Airlines flight 370 continued to fly for hours after its transponder and VHF communications went silent. There was an automatic comm check accomplished each hour, and considering the radio signal round-trip travel time plus processing delay in the comm equipment, the aircraft was probably located somewhere along an arc stretching from Kazakhstan to near Perth, Australia.
One very good bit of detective work has been carried out to narrow the probable area where the Malaysian Airlines 777 wreckage could be located. Starting at the last observed waypoint used by the wayward jetliner, and roughly multiplying speed X distance yields a position at the end of the southern arc wast of Australia.
To be more specific about those arcs shown in the media: each ping has an associated round-trip time. The time implies a spherical distance from the satellite, and that distance can be plotted as a curved line where it intersects the earth. The plane didn't fly the arc; it is on the arc, and the next ping will produce another concentric arc with the Inmarsat bird at its center.
No information has come out regarding internet service aboard the plane. It would be quite interesting to see what contact passengers had with the outside world before Malaysia flight 370 went down. Did they send emails or tweets about a hijacking? Did anyone ask for help? Did all traffic cease as the passengers lost consciousness after a depressurization? There probably is data on the bandwidth used, but perhaps not a record of IP adresses contacted or any actual content transmitted.
It Was Likely a Hijacking
What does a hijacker need to fly a 777 on autopilot? Not much skill:
- Fly altitudes using "Flight Level Change" or "VNAV."
- Fly to a target with "Heading Select" or "LNAV" (with geograpic coordinates or waypoint identifier).
- Keep the autothrottle engaged; it will maintain selected speeds.
How could a hijacker suppress a passenger rebellion in flight?
- Ignore it, if the reinforced cockpit door is closed and locked. No one can get in.
- Tell a lie over the PA system: "We're going to land at an airport and everything will be okay. Please sit down."
- Depressurize the plane until the passengers pass out. Note: Supplemental oxygen is only available for a limited time, even for pilots.
- Do wild maneuvers to throw them to the ceiling, floor, and walls, but risk aircraft structural failure.
Put on the evil hat for a few moments and think of what could have happened, starting with the moment the plane leveled off at FL350. Just as on the 9/11 flights, hijackers went into action precisely when the plane leveled off, the crew workload eased, and the cabin crew offers the pilots some food or coffee. Or maybe a pilot went out to the lavatory after the departure phase of flight was finished. For whatever reason, when the flight deck door was opened, opportunity presented itself. Then the bad guys would make their move, forcibly taking control of the flight deck.
If the attack was pressed strongly enough, there would not be time for the crew to make a distress call or squawk 7500 on the transponder. Assuming these attackers were better prepared than the ones on 9/11, they would not have a reason to grab the hand microphone and try to talk to the passengers. Just turn off the engine bleed air and wait for the passenger oxygen to be depleted. Hypoxia would kill all of the people eventually. Of course, pilot oxygen is limited too, so things would have gone really badly if the hijackers did not descend to denser air or turn the bleed air back on.
Enforcing hypoxia on passengers is not without complications. If the aircraft had chemical oxygen generators for the passengers, there is usually one extra generator and mask in each row of seats. There would be even more extra oxygen available from generators at unoccupied seats. Thus, a small number of people could greatly outlast the others by using extra oxygen generators. There are also flight attendants' portable oxygen bottles which would further delay hypoxia if used by perhaps one or two people determined to fight the hijackers.
As pilots in the post 9/11 world, we are trained to NOT give in to hijackers, but to land and await law enforcement action. If escape is possible, make it. If release is offered, take it. Forcibly resist if necessary to keep control of the cockpit.
I believe, based on current information, that Malaysia flight 370 was hijacked, and that the hijackers failed to maintain control of the jetliner. Perhaps the passengers and crew fought back in a similar manner to the heroes aboard United 93. As said before, one way to put down a disturbance aboard an aircraft at high altitude is to depressurize and thereby put everyone to sleep, but the pilots need to use the limited supplemental oxygen aboard the plane. If the hijackers didn't descend or repressurize, they would eventually pass out and die due to hypoxia. It appears the hijackers initially tried to fly the plane by hand, resulting in the wild excursions in altitude seen by primary radar, and reconnected the autopilot. The aircraft was observed on primary radar early during the hijacking, but contact was lost as the aircraft moved west of Malaysia. Flight 370 would then have continued on in "heading select" and "altitude hold" until it ran out of fuel and fell into the sea. No fuel - no fire or oil slick. No useful voice recorder data after two hours or more of flight without life on the flight deck. Possibly the NSA or a naval force detected the splash when MH370 hit the ocean; perhaps the sonar pingers will be detected before they go dead in another 20 days.
There is some speculation that one or both of the pilots committed suicide, and took the rest of the passengers and crew along too. It is unlikely, but not impossible, and I just don't think it happened. Such acts are much more rare than hijackings, and hijackings are quite rare, when measured as ocurrences per number of flights in the world. No, this looks like the work of terrorists.
I hope the wreckage is found someday and the mystery actually solved. Time will tell.
UPDATE: As of April 10, 2014, there has been intermittent pinger reception in an area along the southern arc, well off the west coast of Australia. Interestingly, a BBC report showed a naval technician using a recent version of SPECTRUM LAB to search for ping signals at 37.5 kHz. Spectran is especially suited to searching for weak, regular repeating signals. There's one DSP technique in which the hydrophone output is mathematically integrated over a specific period, and the integration reveals weak signals well below the noise level.
UPDATE: As of October 6, 2014, MH370 hasn't been located. An enormous area of ocean northwest of Australia is slated for inspection, and it is hoped that the wreckage may be found. Governments have published much information about the flight, but there is little to indicate what happened. Passengers' families in China are having a particularly hard time getting information due to government hostility, and are sometimes being detained or beaten for not silently taking their pain.
Note: please don't spam me with complaints about giving up confidential security or operational details on Boeing jets. Everything said on this page is public knowledge. Security by strength works better than anything else; security by obscurity is destined to fail.