Why We Need Data Withheld by Malaysia

Radar data shown to MH370 families but never released.

It’s now almost three years since the disappearance of MH370. After an exhaustive underwater search in the Southern Indian Ocean (SIO) of around 120,000 square kilometers, we are still unable to locate the fuselage of the aircraft. The main evidence we have to locate the wreckage are the communication signals between the aircraft and a ground station in Perth, relayed by an Inmarsat satellite in a geosynchronous orbit above the Earth. From these signals, assuming they have not been manipulated, we do know that MH370 turned south and ended its flight along an arc in the SIO we now call the “7th arc”. We have also recovered debris from the crash that has washed up on the shores of several countries in Eastern Africa. Although the satellite data and the timing and location of the recovered debris support the theory that aircraft terminated in the SIO, they do not provide enough precision to locate the aircraft.

In order to estimate where MH370 lies in the SIO, a number of us, including the official investigative team and we in the MH370 Independent Group (IG), have used mathematical models to reconstruct paths that replicate how MH370 might have been flown. These models incorporate a number of assumptions, some of which we can be fairly certain are correct, and others that we are less certain about. For instance, assumptions about the performance of the aircraft, including minimum and maximum speeds, fuel consumption, and autopilot behavior, are all fairly well known. Other assumptions about the “complexity” of the path are less known. There are some that maintain that the simplest of reconstructed paths, i.e., paths with the fewest numbers of changes in speed, direction, and altitude, are the most likely. In fact, the current underwater search area is derived from this assumption. But with the failure to find the wreckage, it is time to re-evaluate this assumption. After all, the aircraft did not follow a random path. Rather, the aircraft likely was actively flown by the pilot (or pilots) at least until it made the final turn towards to the SIO. If the diversion was intentional, then there was a reason for the pilot choosing to fly along the particular path. As a result, models that reconstruct the path using a series of random events are likely to fail because they do not account for the motivation and intentions of the pilot.

If we are going to consider complicated paths that might include turns, holding patterns, changes in speed, and descents, the search area grows to an unmanageable size. We therefore have to introduce other assumptions and/or constraints to limit the size to something searchable.

Fellow IG member Richard Godfrey and I recently wrote a paper in which we predict a crash site for MH370 using certain data found on Captain Zaharie Shah’s home simulator. The simulator data include six position coordinates from a flight the Captain created using Microsoft Flight Simulator. The positions first show the aircraft on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and then progressively airborne in the Malacca Strait, the Andaman Sea, and the SIO. The simulation ends with the aircraft running out of fuel in the SIO. Recognizing that the positions in the Andaman Sea and the SIO align with an ice runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Richard and I hypothesize that the Captain used this same final waypoint when he programmed the flight computers of MH370. By combining this final waypoint with the available satellite data, we predict a terminus on the 7th arc well north of the current search. This theory also predicts that the aircraft entered a holding pattern near Car Nicobar Airport in the Andaman Sea before turning towards the SIO.

The failure of the underwater search and the modeling work of Richard and me shows the importance of using all the available evidence in defining possible crash sites. However, much of the evidence has never been made public. For instance, the data obtained from the Captain’s computer was from a secret Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) report that was never officially released. We are only aware of it because the report was leaked to French media organizations.

Australian reporter Marnie O’Neill recently asked fellow IG member Don Thompson and me to make a list of what important evidence was being withheld, and she used this as the basis of a story for news.com.au. Here are some examples of how Malaysia is showing that it is not fully committed to the finding MH370:

Inadequate Response to Disappearance

  • After the disappearance, there were only two attempts to reach MH370 using SATCOM voice (18:40 and 23:14 UTC).
  • There was no attempted military air intercepts as MH370 turned back and flew across the Malaysian peninsula despite plane detection by military radar in real time.
  • There was a delay of four hours after the disappearance before search and rescue (SAR) efforts began.
  • There was a delay of four days (March 12, 2014) before search shifted from South China Sea to Indian Ocean, despite having radar data.

Denied, Omitted, or Ignored Data

  1. Radar captures of MH370 in the Malacca Strait were shown to the victims’ families in Beijing on March 21, 2014, but radar captures between 18:02 and 18:22 UTC were never shared with the ATSB. (See figure above.)
  2. The partial data set of raw radar data made available to the ATSB was never shared publicly.
  3. The ATSB report released in June 2014 includes statements about a radar capture of MH370 at 19:12 UTC in the Andaman Sea. Later, the ATSB acknowledged the data to be from Singapore radar, and considering the distance from Singapore, likely was from an aircraft with radar capability operating in the Malacca Strait or Andaman Sea. No mention of this data is included in the Factual Information released in March 2015, yet if this data exists, it would place the terminus in the SIO much further north than where MH370 was searched.
  4. The existence of telephone records indicating a connection of the First Officer’s cell phone to a tower on Penang Island was first denied by Malaysia and not included in the Factual Information report released on March 2015. The secret RMP report has detailed information about this connection.
  5. The simulator data recovered from the Captain’s computer suggest a simulated flight with points in the Andaman Sea and the SIO. Malaysia first denied the existence of this data and did not include the data in the Factual Information report released in March 2015. The secret RMP report included some information about the simulator data, but the details about how the data was extracted and analyzed are unknown.
  6. The secret RMP report documents WeChat activity on the Captain’s cell phone while MH370 was lined up on the runway, only one minute before takeoff. The details of this activity are not presented in the RMP report. No mention of this data was included in the Factual Information report released on March 2015 despite its extreme relevance.
  7. Malaysian authorities have shown no timeliness in retrieving possible MH370 debris recovered from the shores of Eastern Africa.

As Don said in the article, “My own ‘hot button’ is that military long-range air defence surveillance data from assets operated at seven, possibly even eight, sites across four nations is absent from the data set available to ATSB.”  Don explains that “[t]hose [sites], all within range of the flight path MH370 is believed to have taken, are located at Lhokseumawe, Sabang/Pulau We and Sibolga in Indonesia; Car Nicobar and Port Blair in the Indian Andaman Islands; Khok Muang and Phuket in Thailand; and Western Hill, Penang, Malaysia. Any one of them, or all collectively, could provide the vital clues to the plane’s whereabouts.”

If we have any hope of re-starting the search for MH370, we need all the available data so that we can properly constrain the models we use to predict the terminus. The time for Malaysia to release all it has is long overdue.

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