How Crazy Am I to Think I Know Where MH370 Is? — NYMag

Standard
How crazy am I to think
I actually know where
that Malaysia Airlines plane is?*
* Kinda crazy. (But also maybe right?)
In the year since the vanishing of MH370, I appeared on CNN more
than 50 times, watched my spouse’s eyes glaze over at dinner, and fell
in with a group of borderline-obsessive amateur aviation sleuths. A
million theories bloomed, including my own.
Illustration by Ritterized

The unsettling oddness was there from the first moment, on
March 8, when Malaysia Airlines announced that a plane from Kuala Lumpur
bound for Beijing, Flight 370, had disappeared over the South China Sea
in the middle of the night. There had been no bad weather, no distress
call, no wreckage, no eyewitness accounts of a fireball in the sky—just a
plane that said good-bye to one air-traffic controller and, two minutes
later, failed to say hello to the next. And the crash, if it was a
crash, got stranger from there.

My yearlong detour to Planet MH370
began two days later, when I got an email from an editor at Slate
asking if I’d write about the incident. I’m a private pilot and science
writer, and I wrote about the last big mysterious crash, of Air France 447 in 2009. My story ran on the 12th. The following morning, I was invited to go on CNN. Soon, I was on-air up to six times a day as part of its nonstop MH370 coverage.

There was no intro course on how to be a cable-news expert. The Town
Car would show up to take me to the studio, I’d sign in with reception, a
guest-greeter would take me to makeup, I’d hang out in the greenroom,
the sound guy would rig me with a mike and an earpiece, a producer would
lead me onto the set, I’d plug in and sit in the seat, a producer would
tell me what camera to look at during the introduction, we’d come back
from break, the anchor would read the introduction to the story and then
ask me a question or maybe two, I’d answer, then we’d go to break, I
would unplug, wipe off my makeup, and take the car 43 blocks back
uptown. Then a couple of hours later, I’d do it again. I was spending 18
hours a day doing six minutes of talking.

As
time went by, CNN winnowed its expert pool down to a dozen or so
regulars who earned the on-air title “CNN aviation analysts”: airline
pilots, ex-government honchos, aviation lawyers, and me. We were paid by
the week, with the length of our contracts dependent on how long the
story seemed likely to play out. The first couple were seven-day, the
next few were 14-day, and the last one was a month. We’d appear solo, or
in pairs, or in larger groups for panel discussions—whatever it took to
vary the rhythm
of perpetual chatter.Most notable: The segment in which Don Lemon
floated the possibility that MH370 had been sucked into a black hole. A
screen shot that included my face flashed onscreen during a Jon Stewart
segment eviscerating CNN’s coverage. This represents my media apotheosis
to date.

I soon realized the germ of every TV-news segment is: “Officials say
X.” The validity of the story derives from the authority of the source.
The expert, such as myself, is on hand to add dimension or clarity.
Truth flowed one way: from the official source, through the anchor, past
the expert, and onward into the great sea of viewerdom.

What made MH370 challenging to cover was, first, that the event was unprecedented and technically complex and, second, that the officials  were remarkably untrustworthy.
For instance, the search started over the South China Sea, naturally
enough, but soon after, Malaysia opened up a new search area in the
Andaman Sea, 400 miles away. Why? Rumors swirled that military radar had
seen the plane pull a 180. The Malaysian government explicitly denied
it, but after a week of letting other countries search the South China
Sea, the officials admitted that they’d known about the U-turn from day
one.

Of course, nothing turned up in the Andaman Sea, either. But in
London, scientists for a British company called Inmarsat that provides
telecommunications between ships and aircraft realized its database
contained records of transmissions between MH370 and one of its
satellites for the seven hours after the plane’s main communication
system shut down. Seven hours! Maybe it wasn’t a crash after all—if it
were, it would have been the slowest in history.Not that slow crashes
are unprecedented. In 2005, Helios Airways Flight 522 en route from
Cyprus to Athens lost cabin pressure and flew for nearly three hours
with unconscious pilots before the engines failed and it crashed.

Fig. 3.

Photo: Government of Malaysia

These electronic “handshakes” or “pings” contained no actual
information, but by analyzing the delay between the transmission and
reception of the signal— called the burst timing offset, or BTO—Inmarsat
could tell how far the plane had been from the satellite and thereby
plot an arc along which the plane must have been at the moment of the
final ping.Fig. 3 That arc stretched some 6,000 miles, but if the plane
was traveling at normal airliner speeds, it would most likely have wound
up around the ends of the arc—either in Kazakhstan and China in the
north or the Indian Ocean in the south. My money was on Central Asia.
But CNN quoted unnamed U.S.-government sources saying that the plane had
probably gone south, so that became the
dominant view.Because the northern parts of the traffic corridor
include some tightly guarded airspace over India, Pakistan, and even
some U.S. installations in Afghanistan, U.S. authorities believe it more
likely the aircraft crashed into waters outside of the reach of radar
south of India, a U.S. official told CNN. If it had flown farther north,
it’s likely it would have been detected by radar. [article & video]

Fig. 5. A mysterious metal orb found on a beach in the Maldives
became internet-famous and spawned speculation the plane had wound up
there.

Other views were circulating, too, however.Fig. 5 A Canadian pilot named Chris Goodfellow went viral with his theory that MH370 suffered a fire that knocked out its communications gear and diverted from its planned route in order to attempt an emergency landing. Keith Ledgerwood, another pilot, proposed
that hijackers had taken the plane and avoided detection by ducking
into the radar shadow of another airliner. Amateur investigators pored
over satellite images, insisting that wisps of cloud or patches of
shrubbery were the lost plane. Courtney Love, posting on her Facebook time line a picture of the shimmering blue sea, wrote: “I’m no expert but up close this does look like a plane and an oil slick.”Fig. 6

Fig. 6.

Then: breaking news! On March 24, the Malaysian prime minister, Najib
Razak, announced that a new kind of mathematical analysis proved that
the plane had in fact gone south. This new math involved another aspect
of the handshakes called the burst frequency offset, or BFO, a measure
of changes in the signal’s wavelength, which is partly determined by the
relative motion of the airplane and the satellite. That the whole
southern arc lay over the Indian Ocean meant that all the passengers and
crew would certainly be dead by now. This was the first time in history
that the families of missing passengers had been asked to accept that their loved ones were dead
because a secret math equation said so. Fig. 7 Not all took it well. In
Beijing, outraged next-of-kin marched to the Malaysian Embassy, where
they hurled water bottles and faced down paramilitary soldiers in riot
gear.

Fig. 7. Making matters worse, the Malaysians informed some of the passengers by text message.

Guided by Inmarsat’s calculations, Australia, which was coordinating
the investigation, moved the search area 685 miles to the northeast, to a
123,000-square-mile patch of ocean west of Perth. Ships and planes
found much debris on the surface, provoking a frenzy of BREAKING NEWS
banners, but all turned out to be junk. Adding to the drama was a
ticking clock. The plane’s two black boxes had an ultrasonic sound
beacon that sent out acoustic signals through the water. (Confusingly,
these also were referred to as “pings,” though of a completely different
nature. These new pings suddenly became the important ones.) If
searchers could spot plane debris,
they’d be able to figure out where the plane had most likely gone down,
then trawl with underwater microphones to listen for the pings. The problem was that the pingers  had a battery life of only 30 days.

On April 4, with only a few days’ pinger life remaining, an
Australian ship lowered a special microphone called a towed pinger
locator into the water.Fig. 8 Miraculously, the ship detected four
pings. Search officials were jubilant, as was the CNN greenroom.
Everyone was ready for an upbeat ending.

Fig. 8.

Photo: Government of Malaysia

The only Debbie Downer was me. I pointed out that the pings were at
the wrong frequency and too far apart to have been generated by
stationary black boxes. For the next two weeks, I was the odd man out on
Don Lemon’s six-guest panel blocks, gleefully savaged on-air by my
co-experts.

The Australians lowered an underwater robotFig. 9 to scan the seabed
for the source of the pings. There was nothing. Of course, by the rules
of TV news, the game wasn’t over until an official said so. But things
were stretching thin. One night, an underwater-search veteran taking
part in a Don Lemon panel agreed with me that the so-called
acoustic-ping detections had to be false. Backstage after the show, he
and another aviation analyst nearly came to blows. “You don’t know what
you’re talking about! I’ve done extensive research!” the analyst
shouted. “There’s nothing else those pings could be!”

Fig. 9.

Photo: Bluefin Robotics

Soon after, the story ended the way most news stories do: We just
stopped talking about it. A month later, long after the caravan had
moved on, a U.S. Navy officer said publicly that the pings had not come
from MH370. The saga fizzled out with as much satisfying closure as the final episode of Lost.

The Search for MH370

Once the surface search was called off, it was the rabble’s turn. In late March, New Zealand–based space scientist Duncan Steel began posting a series of essays
on Inmarsat orbital mechanics on his website.Fig. 10 The comments
section quickly grew into a busy forum in which technically
sophisticated MH370 obsessives answered one another’s questions and
pitched ideas. The open platform attracted a varied crew, from the
mostly intelligent and often helpful to the deranged and abusive.
Eventually, Steel declared that he was sick of all the insults and shut
down his comments section. The party migrated over to my blog, jeffwise.net.

Fig. 10. It was Steel who very early on realized that the
satellite that MH370 was communicating with, 3F-1, was not truly
geostationary but wobbled in its orbit, a crucial detail upon which the
whole story would turn out to hinge. This image shows the path the
satellite took during MH370’s final six hours.

Meanwhile, a core of engineers and scientists had split off via group
email and included me. We called ourselves the Independent Group,Member
roster: Brian Anderson, Sid Bennett, Curon Davies, Pierre-Michel
Decombeix, Michael Exner, Tim Farrar, Yap Fook Fah, Richard Godfrey, Bob
Hall, Bill Holland, Geoff Hyman, Victor Iannello, Barry Martin, L. Rand
Mayer, Henrik Rydberg, Duncan Steel, Don Thompson, and me. or IG. If
you found yourself wondering how a satellite with geosynchronous orbit
responds to a shortage of hydrazine, all you had to do was ask.Answer:
It starts to wobble, creating an error in the frequency of received
signals from which scientists can later attempt to extract clues about
an airplane’s motion. The IG’s first big break came in late May, when
the Malaysians finally released the raw Inmarsat data.
By combining the data with other reliable information, we were able to
put together a time line of the plane’s final hours: Forty minutes after
the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, MH370 went electronically dark.
For about an hour after that, the plane was tracked on radar following a
zigzag course and traveling fast. Then it disappeared from military
radar. Three minutes later, the communications system logged back onto
the satellite. This was a major revelation. It hadn’t stayed connected,
as we’d always assumed. This event corresponded with the first satellite
ping. Over the course of the next six hours, the plane generated six
more handshakes as it moved away from the satellite.

The final handshake wasn’t completed. This led to speculation that
MH370 had run out of fuel and lost power, causing the plane to lose its
connection to the satellite. An emergency power system would have come
on, providing enough electricity for the satcom to start reconnecting
before the plane crashed. Where exactly it would have gone down down was
still unknown—the speed of the plane, its direction, and how fast it
was climbing were all sources of uncertainty.

The MH370 obsessives continued attacking the problem. Since I was the
proprietor of the major web forum, it fell on me to protect the fragile
cocoon of civility that nurtured the conversation. A single troll could
easily derail everything. The worst offenders were the ones who seemed
intelligent but soon revealed themselves as Believers. They’d seized on a
few pieces of faulty data and convinced themselves that they’d
discovered the truth. One was sure the plane had been hit by lightning
and then floated in the South China Sea, transmitting to the satellite
on battery power. When I kicked him out, he came back under aliases. I
wound up banning anyone who used the word “lightning.”

By October, officials from the Australian Transport Safety Board had
begun an ambitiously scaled scan of the ocean bottom, and, in a
surprising turn, it would include the area suspected by
the IG.The Independent Group had published a formal analysis of the
signals incorporating research we’d done into aircraft performance and
autopilot modes. We’d wound up concluding that the official search area
at the time was hundreds of miles off. [pdf]
For those who’d been a
part of the months-long effort, it was a thrilling denouement. The
authorities, perhaps only coincidentally, had landed on the same
conclusion as had a bunch of randos from the internet. Now everyone was
in agreement about where to look.

While jubilation rang through the  email threads, I nursed a
guilty secret: I wasn’t really in agreement. For one, I was bothered by
the lack of plane debris. And then there was the data. To fit both the
BTO and BFO data well, the plane would need to have flown slowly, likely
in a curving path. But the more plausible autopilot settings and known
performance constraints would have kept the plane flying faster and more
nearly straight south. I began to suspect that the problem was with the
BFO numbers—that they hadn’t been generated in the way we
believed.Others were having doubts, too, including Tim Clark, the
presidents of Emirates Airlines, which operates more 777s than any other
company in the world. “We have not seen a single thing that suggests
categorically that this aircraft is where they say it is,” Clark said in
an interview with Der Spiegel. If that were the case, perhaps the flight had gone north after all.

For a long time, I resisted even considering the possibility that
someone might have tampered with the data. That would require an almost
inconceivably sophisticated hijack operation, one so complicated and
technically demanding that it would almost certainly need state-level
backing. This was true conspiracy-theory material.

And yet, once I started looking for evidence, I found it. One of the
commenters on my blog had learned that the compartment on 777s called
the electronics-and-equipment bay, or E/E bay, can be accessed via a
hatch in the front of the first-class cabin.You can see how easily in this video.
If perpetrators got in there, a long shot, they would have access to
equipment that could be used to change the BFO value of its satellite
transmissions. They could even take over the
flight controls.Incredibly, an Australian graduate student named Matt
Wuillemin had recognized the potential the hatch presented for hijackers
and tried to warn authorities. He was ignored. [pdf]

I realized that I already had a clue that hijackers had been in the
E/E bay. Remember the satcom system disconnected and then rebooted three
minutes after the plane left military radar behind. I spent a great
deal of time trying to figure out how a person could physically turn the
satcom off and on. The only way, apart from turning off half the entire
electrical system, would be to go into the E/E bay and pull three
particular circuit breakers. It is a maneuver that only a sophisticated
operator would know how to execute, and the only reason I could think
for wanting to do this was so that Inmarsat would find the records and
misinterpret them. They turned on the satcom in order to provide a false
trail of bread crumbs leading away from the plane’s true route. 

It’s not possible to spoof the BFO data on just any plane. The plane
must be of a certain make and model, Has to be one of the newer models
of Boeing; in Airbus jets the E/E bay hatch is inaccessible from the
passenger cabin, and older Boeing planes lack the ability to
autoland.equipped with a certain make and model of
satellite-communications equipment,A crucial piece of satcom hardware,
the satellite data unit, must be built by Honeywell/Thales, not its
competitor, Raytheon, for this to work. and flying a certain kind of
routeOne that begins near the equator and heads in a direction opposite
to a large body of water. in a region covered by a certain kind of
Inmarsat satellite.One that is running low on fuel. If you put all the
conditions together, it seemed unlikely that any aircraft would satisfy
them. Yet MH370 did.

I imagine everyone who comes up with a new theory, even a complicated
one, must experience one particularly delicious moment, like a perfect
chord change, when disorder gives way to order. This was that moment for
me. Once I threw out the troublesome BFO data, all the inexplicable
coincidences and mismatched data went away. The answer became
wonderfully simple. The plane must have gone north.

Using the BTO data set alone, I was able to chart the plane’s speed
and general path, which happened to fall along national borders.Fig. 21
Flying along borders, a military navigator told me, is a good way to
avoid being spotted on radar. A Russian intelligence plane nearly
collided with a Swedish airliner while doing it over the Baltic Sea in
December. If I was right, it would have wound up in Kazakhstan, just as
search officials recognized early on.

Fig. 21. In particular, the flight path skirts the border of
China and just misses the disputed and much-watched India-Pakistan
border.

Fig. 22.

Photo: Jeff Wise

There aren’t a lot of places to land a plane as big as the 777, but,
as luck would have it, I found one: a place just past the last handshake
ring called Baikonur Cosmodrome.Fig. 22 Baikonur is leased from
Kazakhstan by Russia. A long runway there called Yubileyniy was built
for a Russian version of the Space Shuttle. If the final Inmarsat ping
rang at the start of MH370’s descent, it would have set up nicely for an
approach to Yubileyniy’s runway 24.

Fig. 23: To the best of my knowledge, this airstrip is
the only one in the world built specifically for self-landing airplanes.
The 777, which was developed in the ’90s, has the ability to autoland.
From a hijacking perspective, this feature allows people who don’t have
commercial-piloting experience to abscond with an airplane and get it
safely on the ground, so long as they know what autopilot settings to
input.

If MH370 did land at Yubileyniy, it had 90 minutes to
either hide or refuel and takeoff again before the sun rose. Hiding
would be hard. This part of Kazakhstan is flat and treeless, and there
are no large buildings nearby. The complex has been slowly crumbling for
decades, with satellite images taken years apart showing little change,
until, in October, 2013, a disused six-story building began to be
dismantled. Next to it appeared a rectangle of bulldozed dirt with a
trench at one end.

What got my attention was the size of the thing. I’ve added the silhouette of a 777 for scale.

Work proceeded deep into the winter. In the four days
before the following image was taken on January 9, 2014, the temperature
fluctuated between -15F and +14F.

By March, the building was gone and everything had been bulldozed flat. Eight days after MH370 vanished, it looked like this.

Construction
experts told me these images most likely show site remediation: taking
apart a building and burying the debris. Yet why, after decades, did the
Russians suddenly need to clear this one lonely spot, in the heart of a
frigid winter, finishing just before MH370 disappeared?

Whether the plane went to Baikonur or elsewhere in
Kazakhstan, my suspicion fell on Russia. With technically advanced
satellite, avionics, and aircraft-manufacturing industries, Russia was a
paranoid fantasist’s dream.At the time of MH370’s disappearance, he had
just used special forces to annex Crimea and was running civil war by
proxy in eastern Ukraine via military intelligence. (The Russians, or at
least Russian-backed militia, were also suspected in the downing of
Malaysia Flight 17 in July.) Why, exactly, would Putin want to steal a
Malaysian passenger plane? I had no idea. Maybe he wanted to demonstrate
to the United States, which had imposed the first punitive sanctions on Russia
the day before, that he could hurt the West and its allies anywhere in
the world. Maybe what he was really after were the secrets of one of the
plane’s passengers.Aboard the flight were 20 employees of Freescale
Semiconductor, which develops processors and sensors for the “Internet
of Things.” Maybe there was something strategically crucial in the hold.
Or maybe he wanted the plane to show up unexpectedly somewhere someday,
packed with explosives. There’s no way to know. That’s the thing about
MH370 theory-making: It’s hard to come up with a plausible motive for an
act that has no apparent beneficiaries.

As it happened, there were three ethnically Russian men aboard MH370,
two of them Ukrainian-passport holders from Odessa.All were in their
mid-40s, old enough to be experienced, young enough for vigorous
action—about the same age as the military-intelligence officer who was
running the show in eastern Ukraine. Could any of these men, I wondered, be special forces or covert operatives?
As I looked at the few pictures available on the internet, they
definitely struck me as the sort who might battle Liam Neeson in midair.

Fig. 27. I was later able to confirm that they worked for
Nika-Mebel, an Odessa furniture company that sells online only, accepts
only cash payment, provides no landline number or address, and had no
content on its website before 2013. Both Nika-Mebel and the men’s
families refused to talk to me. This picture of the men was posted by a
friend on VK.com, the Russian version of Facebook.

About the two Ukrainians, almost nothing was available online.Fig. 27
I was able to find out a great deal about the Russian,Fig. 28 who was
sitting in first class about 15 feet from the E/E-bay hatch.Fig. 29 He
ran a lumber company in Irkutsk, and his hobby was technical diving
under the ice of Lake Baikal.His dive club’s annual New Year’s party under the ice.
I hired Russian speakers from Columbia University to make calls to
Odessa and Irkutsk, then hired researchers on the ground.When MH17 was
shot down, it seemed to so perfectly tie the bow between the Ukraine war
and the other Malaysia Airlines 777 that I was terrified I’d gotten my
freelancer in Irkutsk in deep trouble; I texted her, and she replied
that she was fine. She didn’t seem concerned.

Fig. 28.

The more I discovered, the more coherent the story seemed to me.In fact, I wrote the whole thing up in an e-book, The Plane That Wasn’t There: Why We Haven’t Found MH370. [amazon]
I found a peculiar euphoria in thinking about my theory, which I
thought about all the time. One of the diagnostic questions used to
determine whether you’re an alcoholic is whether your drinking has
interfered with your work. By that measure, I definitely had a problem.
Once the CNN checks stopped coming, I entered a long period of intense
activity that earned me not a cent. Instead, I was forking out my own
money for translators and researchers and satellite photos. And yet I
was happy.

Fig. 29. At position B. The Ukrainians were at D and C—underneath the satellite antenna.

Photo: Seatguru

Still, it occurred to me that, for all the passion I had for my
theory, I might be the only person in the world who felt this way.
Neurobiologist Robert A. Burton points out in his book On Being Certain
that the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional
response separate from the processing of those beliefs. It’s something
that the brain does subconsciously to protect itself from wasting
unnecessary processing power on problems for which you’ve already found a
solution that’s good enough. “ ‘That’s right’ is a feeling you get so
that you can move on,” Burton told me. It’s a kind of subconscious
laziness. Just as it’s harder to go for a run than to plop onto the
sofa, it’s harder to reexamine one’s assumptions than it is to embrace
certainty. At one end of the spectrum of skeptics are scientists, who by
disposition or training resist the easy path; at the other end are
conspiracy theorists, who’ll leap effortlessly into the sweet bosom of
certainty. So where did that put me?

Propounding some new detail of my scenario to my wife over dinner one
night, I noticed a certain glassiness in her expression. “You don’t
seem entirely convinced,” I suggested.

She shrugged.

“Okay,” I said. “What do you think is the percentage chance that I’m right?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Five percent?”I recently reminded her of
this conversation. “I was trying to be nice,” she said. What she really
thought was, Zero.

Springtime came to the southern ocean, and search vessels
began their methodical cruise along the area jointly identified by the
IG and the ATSB, dragging behind it a sonar rig that imaged the seabed
in photographic detail. Within the IG, spirits were high. The discovery
of the plane would be the triumphant final act of a remarkable underdog
story.

By December, when the ships had still not found a thing, I felt it
was finally time to go public. In six sequentially linked pages that
readers could only get to by clicking through—to avoid anyone reading
the part where I suggest Putin masterminded the hijack without first
hearing how I got there—I laid out my argument. I called it “The Spoof.”

I
got a respectful hearing but no converts among the IG. A few sites
wrote summaries of my post. The International Business Times headlined
its story “MH370: Russia’s Grand Plan to Provoke World War III, Says
Independent Investigator” and linked directly to the Putin part.
Somehow, the airing of my theory helped quell my obsession. My gut still
tells me I’m right, but my brain knows better than to trust my gut.

Last month, the Malaysian government declared that the aircraft is considered to have crashed and all those aboard are presumed dead.
Malaysia’s transport minister told a local television station that a
key factor in the decision was the fact that the search mission for the
aircraft failed to achieve its objective. Meanwhile, new theories are
still being hatched. One, by French writer Marc Dugain, states
that the plane was shot down by the U.S. because it was headed toward
the military bases on the islands of Diego Garcia as a flying bomb.His
scenario ignores the ping rings entirely.

The search failed to deliver the airplane, but it has accomplished
some other things: It occupied several thousand hours of worldwide
airtime; it filled my wallet and then drained it; it torpedoed the idea
that the application of rationality to plane disasters would inevitably
yield ever-safer air travel. And it left behind a faint, lingering itch
in the back of my mind, which I believe will quite likely never go away.

Jeff Wise is the author of The Plane That Wasn’t There

*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

 — NYMag

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