NO PEK for you

Malaysian Airlines flight 370’s disappearance 12 days ago has captured public attention like few other aircraft accidents for several reasons; one is that, in an era where the NSA knows what, where and with who you’ve had lunch every day of last month, we just don’t expect a large commercial airliner to vanish without a trace. Another is that, in a uncharacteristic reversal of roles, the authorities are coming up with conspiracy-fueled murder-suicide theories devoid of motive while members of the public are coming up with simpler, more reasonable and at least equally plausible scenarios (e.g. a cockpit electrical fire) that would have made William of Ockham proud.

Like many, I have been quite perplexed by this mystery. Being an aviation professional, I learned by rote that airplanes don’t just fall out of the sky (except, of course, when they do), especially B777s with an impeccable safety track record and flown by an experienced captain. My first hunch was therefore of a security breach (third-party hijacking). Little did I know how much of a puzzle this investigation would become. Every new piece of data would contradict the previous; and they would each make the emerging scenario increasingly outlandish.

As the days passed and the Malaysian CAA and government showed the world just how ill-prepared to handle an investigation and poorly media-trained they were, my perplexity turned into frustration and impatience. I eventually decided to reconstruct the flight’s planned, tracked and speculative flight paths using however little data the authorities were willing to share. The result is a possible route followed by MH370, as well as a possible crash location represented by an orange line and marker on this map (click here to view it in full Google Maps glory):

Map legend

  • Lozenges indicate IFR navigational waypoints, stars airports, yellow squares events, and orange markers speculative crash sites.
  • The red line is the planned route to Beijing, interrupted at waypoint IGARI just prior to entering the Vietnamese Flight Information Region (FIR).
  • The green line is the tracked route as evidenced by secondary radars up to waypoint IKUKO and then by primary radars up to (almost) IGREX.
  • The orange line is the speculative route (from the last known waypoint, IGREX) that I came up with in my analysis.
  • The yellow arc marks all possible locations of the aircraft when it last responded to a satellite ping (indicating that it crashed within one hour of flying distance from the arc).
  • The blue circle is the maximum flight radius based on assumed fuel endurance (5 hours) at waypoint IGREX and a ground speed of 483kts (Mach 0.89 indicated).

Assumptions

Here are the assumptions that I made in drawing the speculative orange route and possible crash sites (note that I refer to “the pilot” as whoever was in control of the aircraft, regardless of whether he or she was a member of the flight crew or a third-party hijacker).

  1. The pilot flew a specific IFR route after he diverted the aircraft. This is evidenced by the fact that primary radars picked up the aircraft making a sharp left turn just short of reaching the planned IGARI waypoint, and then proceeding to fly a new IFR route comprised of at least VAMPI, GIVAL and IGREX (the last waypoint before the aircraft dropped from primary radar coverage). Using this information, I have assumed that is was more likely than not that the pilot continued to fly an IFR route after IGREX. I referred to the excellent SkyVector IFR chart to narrow down the list of waypoints after IGREX. For example, I ruled out PPB (Port Blair) which would have led to a northerly route to Central Asia or Europe, where the aircraft would have been detected by primary radar.

 

  1. The pilot avoided leaving the Malaysian FIR for a long time, and in fact seemed to fly as much as possible along the FIR boundaries, which is a sensible course of action if the intent is to remain stealthy (the Malaysian controller would assume handover to another FIR and divert his attention away from the flight). This is evidenced by the fact that MH370 turned left just prior to entering the Vietnamese airspace (somewhere between IKUKO and IGARI) – in fact, I suspect this was meant to happen a bit sooner (IGARI itself could be a handoff point to Singapore FIR) but the last radio contact happened just past IGARI. Further evidence includes: flying over the Malaysian-Thai FIR boundary to VAMPI, then avoiding entering the Indonesian FIR by turning right from VAMPI to GIVAL, then avoiding entering the Thai FIR by turning left from GIVAL to IGREX. Using this information, I have assumed that the pilot was keen to stay in the Malaysian FIR and fly over FIR boundaries for stealth. IGREX being in the northwest corner of the Malaysian FIR, this constrains the options: west would take MH370 into the Indian FIR, north would take it into the Burmese FIR, east would be backtracking towards the Thai FIR. This leaves only south as an option, given that the Malaysian-Indian FIR boundary starts at IGREX and extends south for about 25 minutes at cruise speed, all the way to waypoint NOPEK. This assumption would take MH370 through waypoints IGREX, EMRAN, SAMAK, IGOGU, ANOKO and finally NOPEK (all aligned on a southernly heading and lying exactly on the Malaysian-Indian FIR boundary).

 

  1. Arriving (speculatively) over NOPEK, the pilot would have no other choice than to leave the Malaysian FIR, but only after he would have successfully navigated to an Indian Ocean entry point (which NOPEK is) without raising awareness. I assumed that this signaled the pilot’s intent to fly deep into oceanic airspace and away from land, and he had no reason to change the southernly heading for the remainder of the flight. I further assumed that the autopilot would also have maintained the southernly heading after overshooting NOPEK and that the aircraft would have flown straight south until it ran out of fuel (which is where the shaded blue circle, representing a 5-hour fuel endurance radius from point of origin IGREX, intersects the orange line). This speculative crash location is indicated by an orange marker on the map (towards the southern end of the orange line).

Interestingly, this speculative crash site is within a few nautical miles of the yellow arc, which represents the possible locations of the aircraft when it last sent a Satcom handshake to the Inmarsat 3-F1 geostationary satellite. This appears to be a conclusive correspondence of the crash location 2,050km west of Perth from a combination of: a speculative route (orange line), a likely fuel endurance radius (blue circle), and a confirmed last satellite communication (yellow arc).

As explained above, this navigational scenario would make NOPEK the last planned waypoint of the complete IFR route comprised of WMKL-PIBOS-IKUKO-IGARI (as originally planned), IGARI-VAMPI-GIVAL-IGREX (confirmed diversion) and IGREX-EMRAN-SAMAK-IGOGU-ANOKO-NOPEK (speculative on my part). It is an eerie coincidence (though nothing more) that “NOPEK” can be read as “the negation of PEK”, which is, of course, the airport code for Beijing and the original destination of MH370 – as if the pilot was leaving a final message to the rest of us, inscribed in his very route. If my navigational theory is proven correct, I fully expect some pareidoliacs to make it yet another entertaining conspiracy theory.

A few more thoughts before I close this post.

First, I do not want the theory I’ve just laid out to imply continued human supervision in the cockpit. Once the complete route has been entered into the FMS, the autopilot will do its job (even overshooting NOPEK and maintaining a southernly heading until fuel exhaustion) and the pilot might decide to commit suicide at this point, rather than wait for the crash six hours later.

Second, I’d like to address the suspicions on the captain of flight MH370. I still resist the notion that a seasoned captain with a long successful career and close to 20,000 flight hours would turn into a cold-blooded killer. There have been precedents of pilot murder-suicides (EgyptAir 990, SilkAir 185) but in both cases the pilot put the plane into a nosedive, making the final moments quite unpleasant to everyone on board but the death itself instantaneous. In the case of MH370, the captain would have had to dispatch his copilot (possibly using the crash axe located in the cockpit, which would make for a gruesome murder), and then climb up to FL450 to asphyxiate all occupants of the cabin (which would take at least the 15 minutes required to exhaust the passenger emergency oxygen canisters), before flying an evasive route, and finally crashing into the ocean. It doesn’t make much sense, even if the purpose was really to mess up with everyone’s heads for weeks after the crash, and until I see a clear motive for the captain’s actions, I will remain cautious of hasty conclusions. There have been many past instances of “blaming the deceased pilot” being the default tactic to protect the interests of an airline or an OEM.

Third, I expect this accident to have long-lasting consequences for the aviation industry. It will likely hasten the deployment of realtime streaming of telemetry data to ground stations via VHF or (more likely) Satcom, including aircraft position, to put an end to these epic and costly search and rescue operations (SAR) – AF447 (a two-year search) is still a fresh wound. Furthermore, if crew involvement in the accident is confirmed (the “murder-suicide” theory), it will force the industry to view the crew as an untrusted link in the security chain, and might force higher scrutiny of the pilots in particular – not just twice-yearly medical checks but also regular psychological evaluations, review of bank statements and net worth, random background checks on acquaintances and political leanings, etc. (in the longer term, it might even strengthen the case for passenger drones, i.e. planes without pilots). Finally, the staggering incompetence and secretiveness of Malaysian authorities (both CAA and government) in handling what is by nature an international and public matter may pave the way for more cross-border cooperation. We will perhaps see an international body, such as ICAO, take on a new mandate to coordinate investigations of cross-border flights. Such a body could temporarily requisition staff and equipment from leading transport and investigative authorities such as the NTSB to support a difficult investigation, and coerce member states to release all available data including primary radar recordings.

Fourth, this author believes that the time has come for authorities to embrace the power of crowdsourcing. The online community is not just comprised of armchair pilots and insane conspirationists; there also competent and knowledgeable professionals, as well as people with good common sense and, all else failing, good eyes (as in the Tomnod system for crowdsourced review of satellite pictures). Authorities should become more forthcoming with data and realize that it is in everyone’s interest, including their own. The satellite pings are a good example – only the final ping was published (leading to the “two corridor” picture that was all over the news). Had interim pings been published as well, the public would have quickly realized that the aircraft was flying a straight path (as determined by the maximum distance from one ping to the next, which could only have been covered if the aircraft had been flying straight at cruise speed). If anything, the authorities will satisfy the public’s legitimate need for more exhaustive (and less contradicting) information. At best, someone somewhere will come up with a brilliant analysis and contribute meaningfully to solving the puzzle (no, not me). This is the XXIst century – it’s time to modernize the way we conduct air accident investigations, and leverage (within reason) the power of the crowd.

Fifth and last – Google Maps Engine sucks. It took me much longer than it should have to create this map and basic tools that existed in the classic Google Maps are sorely missing. Google, I know you are reading this (and everything else ever published), so please fix it. Thanks!

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