Security, spycraft, beating the system: what fascinates us about the Malaysia Airlines disappearance

In a world where the doors to schools and government buildings and even baseball parks are guarded with metal detectors, where security cameras are recording in routine places, where massive government agencies are storing call metadata and tapping the backbone of the internet, where wireless carriers can pinpoint a cellphone location to within a few feet, and where the CIA can read a license plate from outer space, how in the hell can you lose a 300,000 lb plane with a 200-foot wingspan?

The world is riveted by the unfolding story of the Malaysia Airlines disappearance. Over a week ago, on March 8th, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – a large Boeing 777-200ER – disappeared from radar and air traffic control screens just as it was about to pass from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It sounded no distress call; it left no physical evidence. It seemed to have literally vanished into thin air.

The flight’s disappearance flies in the face of our post-9/11 experiences with TSA x-rays, 3-1-1 liquids bags, and remove-your-shoes rules that slow down the process of flying in the name of security. How, with all of that terror prevention policy and procedure, could something like this have happened? Clearly it must be a tragic accident. But an accident should have left evidence, Continue reading

Going out on a limb: theorizing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 did not crash & is currently hidden somewhere in western China

I am going to go out on what I think is a safe limb and theorize that the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 did not crash and is currently hidden somewhere in western China.
Today Reuters published the article “From his Pakistan hideout, Uighur leader vows revenge on China”:

Entrenched in secret mountain bases on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Uighur fighters are gearing up for retribution against China to avenge the deaths of comrades in Beijing’s crackdown on a separatist movement, their leader told Reuters.

China, Pakistan’s only major ally in the region, has long urged Islamabad to weed out what it says are militants from its western region of Xinjiang, who are holed up in a lawless tribal belt, home to a lethal mix of militant groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda. …

There has been almost constant tension between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs since the 1750s. This NPR interview provides a very brief summary of the region’s geopolitical and economic importance and its cultural/religious differences. A chronology of key events related to the region covering from the 2009 riots to the March 2014 terrorist knife attack in Kunming shows a sharp increase in serious incidents since the beginning of 2013.

Could Uighur rebels be behind this? But why hijack a Malaysian plane? Were the large number of Chinese citizens on the plane a terrorist target? And just how did the hijackers – whoever they are – do it and get away with it?

AP reported that a Malaysian official, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to brief the media, said only a skilled aviator could navigate the plane the way it was flown after its last confirmed location over the South China Sea. Reuters reported that whoever was piloting the plane seemed to be familiar with navigational routes. A map showing points where the plane was detected is here.

The now-high likelihood that the plane was being piloted by someone with enough skill to both avoid radar detection and maneuver through steep rises, dives, and turns, taken together with what appears to have been a sophisticated, systematic dismantling of transponders and tracking systems, and the new knowledge that the plane was flown for at least several hours after its radar disappearance, is strong evidence that the plane was under control and did not crash, and that points to a deliberate action Continue reading

Do the presence of oil slicks mean the Malaysia Airlines flight crashed in the South China Sea?? Not necessarily….

updated 3/9 re: pilot experience and water landings

updated 3/10 re: cellphone calls connecting but not answered

clarifications 3/10: changed first paragraph from ‘”consistent”‘ to ‘reportedly “consistent”‘; clarified description of fuel dump: added “although jet fuel is highly volatile and dissipates fairly rapidly in open water.”

Two oil slicks that are reportedly “consistent” with the kind of slicks that would be left by a crashed jetliner have been sighted off the coast of southern Vietnam. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8th. The last contact the flight had with air traffic controllers was reported to be around 2:40 a.m. local time, two hours after takeoff, but there is some discrepancy between flight tracking systems. The New York Times reported:

[T]he timeline seemed to suggest that the plane stayed in the air for two hours — long enough to fly not only across the Gulf of Thailand but also far north across Vietnam. But Mr. Lindahl of Flightradar 24, a flight tracking service, said that the last radar contact had been at 1:19 a.m., less than 40 minutes after the flight began. A Malaysia Airlines spokesman said on Saturday evening that the last conversation between the flight crew and air traffic control in Malaysia had been around 1:30 a.m., but he reiterated that the plane had not disappeared from air traffic control systems in Subang until 2:40 a.m.

There are two unusual aspects to the flight’s disappearance:

  • Two of the 227 passengers listed on the flight manifest were in fact not on the plane. An Italian and and Austrian each reported that their passports had been stolen while they were traveling in Thailand.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported that the airline’s CEO, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that there was no distress call or bad weather report from the pilots before the plane lost contact with air control 120 nautical miles (140 miles) off the east coast of Kota Bharu, Malaysia.

Several analysts and experts have said that it was highly unusual that all communication would have been cut off without any indication from the crew that there was a problem, although an Air France flight that crashed in 2009 had also never issued a distress call. Mary Schiavo, the former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN, “That plane has many different ways to locate it: Automatic beacons that tell you where it is; there are several ways to contact it both with radios and GPS, as well as computer communications within the cockpit.” A senior administration officer from the industry, speaking to Chinese media on condition of anonymity, explained that a plane is equipped with several sets of communication devices, which function simultaneously. Even if all of them fail to work, the plane can be located through radar code.

What could explain the sudden and complete communication silence? The obvious explanation is that Continue reading