It’s now a month since Malaysian Flight MH370 became modern aviation’s greatest mystery. Certain things are clear and many of them are disturbing.
First, the oversight of commercial air space in this part of Asia is chaotic. Jealously preserved divisions of power within each state made it impossible to achieve the kind of open, rapid and efficient exchange of information between the states themselves that is essential in an emergency. As s result, too much time has been spent chasing false leads, some of them dubiously motivated, and assessing data that turned out to be badly flawed.
As long as any physical evidence remains out of reach this is not only the most demanding sea search for an airplane ever undertaken, it’s a virtually impossible forensic challenge.
The initial failure to report radar sightings of what was probably Flight MH370 had costly consequences in a time-critical situation. Days were wasted searching the South China Sea, not the Indian Ocean.
It took at least a week to produce anything resembling a reliable time line of the Boeing 777’s course after the last contact between it and controllers.
It turned out that the Malaysian military had noted an unidentified airplane flying west, not north toward China, but did not report this to the civilian authorities for two days. The Thai military tracked what was almost certainly the same unidentified flight continuing out over the Indian Ocean but did not report it for ten days “because it wasn’t asked.”
As enraging as these lapses are, they should not come as a surprise. They are not the result of momentary negligence or incompetence. They reflect a long and deeply embedded status quo in the way international aviation is handled in one of the busiest air spaces in Asia.
None of the nations involved is technically backward. Thailand, for example, not only manages, and manages well, one of the world’s busiest international hubs, Bangkok, a key gateway between Asia, the Middle East and Europe, but has two regional airports into which thousands of tourists fly safely every day, Phuket and Chiang Mai. All these airports are in the process of upgrading their navigation aids to future international standards.
There are, however, throughout the region, sealed compartments of military and civilian authority—the Thai military radar, for example, covers swathes of airspace beyond the areas allotted for commercial traffic. Not only national security is involved. The interdiction of drug traffic and piracy is involved. Separate branches of the military—air force, navy, and army—have high degrees of autonomy and are not used to sharing information with politicians.
So it’s really not so shocking that when the need arises for states to share information, some of which may be classified, in a transparent and timely manner they simply don’t have the means, experience, or inclination to do so.
In this case the behavior is made even more complex by the shadowy role of Western intelligence agencies. We’ll probably never know if they swept up clues to the divergent behavior of Flight MH370, correctly identified and analyzed them and then passed them to investigators with admirable celerity—or deftly filtered the data before passing it on. They, too, would be acutely nervous about revealing the capabilities of their assets.
In contrast to this pattern of accidental or deliberate concealment there were some well-advertised flourishes of national pride. Satellite images from China, Thailand and France were used to arouse hopes that wreckage had been spotted—at first in the far southern Indian Ocean and, later, in the re-directed search zone closer to southwestern Australia. These sightings fed the news cycle frenzy for days, with even normally cautious experts allowing themselves to believe there was a high probability of locating wreckage. As it turned out, each sighting was not of a debris field but of the vast junk field the oceans have become. With this painful sense of anticlimax came, inevitably a feeling that the efficacy of satellite surveillance had, perhaps, been overblown.
Always at the center of frustration with the investigation were the Malaysians. They were serial bunglers, making unsupported statements, frequently contradictory and just as frequently reversed. What to make, for example, of how they reported something as simple and yet critical as the last words from the cockpit? Initially officials said they were “All right, goodnight.” Three weeks later, with the release of a transcript said to cover all conversations between the airplane and controllers, those words became “Goodnight Malaysia Three Seven Zero”—a more formal and familiar style.
We continue to accept that these were the last words. There is no record of a distress call, a Mayday. But in view of how flawed the record has proved to be, how do we know that a call was not made but went unheard or unrecorded?
From the beginning, it was obvious that at least some Malaysian officials wanted to steer suspicion toward the pilots and they have frequently been aided by journalists not too fussy about sources. Originally, the Malaysian timeline placed the last words from the cockpit after the 777’s transponder stopped working, suggesting that the crew were concealing a criminal act then underway. Two weeks later that was reversed—the call was made well before contact was lost.
Things got more personal. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was an open supporter of the Malaysian political opposition. He wore a T-shirt deploring a rigged vote, reading “Democracy is Dead.” On the Mail Online website this came out as “fanatical missing airline pilot pictured wearing political slogan…” rather than realizing that he was standing up for democracy, not decrying it.
With reporting like that the Malaysians didn’t need to work too hard to smear the crew but they continued. A great show was made of raids on Captain Shah’s home and the seizure of his home-built flight simulator. Among pilots this raised no red flag: it indicated an enthusiastic professional proud of his skills. It was darkly announced that material had been deleted from the simulator’s hard drive. The hard drive was sent to the U.S. for the FBI lab to expose its secrets. There were none.
As the search area became better focused, the flow of information, such as it was, shifted from Malaysia to Australia. With this, the Malaysians’ attempts to spin the story had diminishing effect. The accident remains technically within Malaysian jurisdiction. But the practical reality of location, where the city of Perth became the best place from which to gather and direct the massive search, has meant that the daily briefings from Australians are becoming more coherent.
None of this formidable commitment of resources would have been possible but for the existence of one extremely fragile link between Flight MH370 and the outside world that appeared from an unexpected place.
Just as the searchers stared into an endless void, wondering where to look next, the Malaysians announced that they had received information from Inmarsat, an operator of a fleet of satellites, based in London.
Between 2:30 a.m. and 8:11 a.m. on March 8, an Inmarsat satellite orbiting over the Equator at a height of 22,245 miles had picked up automatic signals from the 777. Through a novel set of calculations Inmarsat was able to narrow the airplane’s flightpath to an arc divided by the equator, one stretching north deep into Asia, the other south to the far stretches of the Indian Ocean.
Inmarsat’s calculations are arcane, and although the signals became universally described as pings, the technology involved is a lot more elaborate than pinging makes it sound. What matters, though, is the result. Investigators were now able to make better bets on the 777’s direction and speed. On March 24, with the help of the British Accidents Investigation Branch, Inmarsat was able to rule out the northern half of the arc. Finally, all the assets available for the search were directed south.
To refine the search area, investigators needed two key indications of the airplane’s performance in the last hours of its life: Its speed and its altitude. Given those, it would be a virtually routine calculation to determine how far it had flown before crashing.
But here there was—and remains—a problem. The Inmarsat data could not determine how high the airplane was flying. And altitude had a direct effect on its fuel consumption, and therefore on how far it could have flown. The higher it flew, the thinner the air, the more efficiently its engines worked and the faster it flew. (A precise computation of its range would also include its weight. This, at least was already known because an airplane’s weight and its distribution—the weight of the machine itself, of crew and passengers, of cargo and of its fuel—have to be confirmed before it leaves the gate.)
The search area was suddenly moved some 700 miles further north toward western Australia when the Australians announced that the 777 had been flying faster than originally thought and had therefore burned more fuel, decreasing its range.
At first sight, this was confusing. It could only fly faster if it flew higher. Generally, if it flew higher, it used less fuel, not more. But, like all jets, the 777 is aerodynamically tuned to cruise not at its fastest possible speed but at a lower speed where its fuel consumption is most efficient. It’s always possible to push it faster, from, say, 550mph to 600mph, to catch up time on a delayed flight. Then, being flown like a hot rod, it burns more gas.
Every calculation about this flight has a gaping lacuna. Between 1:07 a.m. and 1:37 a.m., when contact with the crew was lost, and 2:30am when the Inmarsat contacts began, the fate of the flight was settled. It changed course toward the Indian Ocean. Apart from that one fact, everything remains questionable. Did it climb to 45,000 feet? Did it drop to 12,000 feet? Did it make precisely the maneuvers you would expect in a sudden emergency, with the pilots desperate to save the airplane, attempting to get down to the nearest airport—or did it cavort through the sky during a dispute on the flight deck over control until it stabilized again?
Knowing and understanding how Flight MH370 came out of this phase is crucial to being absolutely sure of how far it was capable of flying. Were its speed and altitude settled by then, or still uncertain? The confidence shown by the Australians when they moved the target zone suggests they knew more about the 777’s early passage toward the Indian Ocean than we have been told. Indeed, it would be sensible and encouraging to assume that they have other knowledge that cannot be shared.
To be sure, a lot must be happening under wraps. And much of it concerns the riddle at the core of many riddles: Something happened to the 777 that seems to have taken out all the people on board but left the machine flying perfectly.
Boeing, together with National Transportation Safety Board engineers and probably analysts from NASA, must be running computer models that interrogate all the existing data to see if there is a credible explanation for how the Rolls Royce engines could perform as though in a normal flight for up to seven hours, receiving their fuel supply from the three tanks as they were programmed to do, supplying power to operate all the control surfaces which, in turn, were under the command of the autopilot, or more accurately the flight management computers—and how all this could happen without a word from the airplane either from the crew or the perpetrators of a criminal intervention.
In other words, just where in this nexus of systems is an event that left the crew silent, the destination transformed and yet did not fatally disable the airplane?
The most urgent task of any investigation is to establish whether an accident has revealed a flaw that requires immediate inspections of all similar aircraft. That is always what most agitates all travelers after a crash. The only previous alert of this kind covering the 777 came following a non-fatal crash landing at Heathrow in 2008. However in that case the fault was in the Rolls Royce engines, not the airplane, and was promptly fixed. Accidents are not, of course, always traced solely to mechanical sources. Sometimes they are a combination of the mechanical and the human, sometimes they are caused by external failings by, for example, traffic controllers, other aircraft or something that occurred during the loading of cargo and baggage. This investigation is wide open to any line of inquiry, mechanical or criminal and without a scrap of tangible evidence only one thing can be said with any certainty: The Malaysian 777 had no defenses against whatever occurred.