Archive for March, 2020

New Report Released for MH370 Search

A Boeing 777 in Malaysia Airlines livery just after lifting off the runway

Introduction

Independent researchers investigating the disappearance of MH370 today released a new technical report to guide the next search for the debris field on the floor of the Southern Indian Ocean (SIO). The report provides the scientific and mathematical foundation that was used to define the recommended search area that was disclosed last month. The authors of the report are Bobby Ulich, Richard Godfrey, Victor Iannello, and Andrew Banks.

The full report, including all appendices, is available for download. What follows is a brief summary of the important results.

The flight of MH370 was analyzed from takeoff to impact in the SIO using a comprehensive, fully integrated model. The model was developed using exhaustive data sets and technical documentation available from both public and confidential sources, and includes:

  • radar data collected by military and civilian installations in Malaysia
  • timing and frequency measurements collected by the Inmarsat satellite network
  • aircraft performance data for Boeing 777-200ERs
  • historical performance data for airframe 9M-MRO
  • navigation and speed modes for automated flight
  • drift analysis of debris that floated and was recovered in East Africa
  • aerial search results from March and April 2014
  • weather data along the flight path

A total of 2,300 possible flight paths were evaluated, and an overall probability metric was defined that incorporates the information from all the data sets. The highest probability flight path was identified as due south from waypoint BEDAX, which is about 185 km (100 NM) to the west of Banda Aceh, Sumatra, and an impact in the SIO near S34.2342° E93.7875°, which is 4380 km (2365 NM) from BEDAX.

The work included the development of an accurate fuel consumption model, and well as a statistical metric for the expected random noise inherent in the recorded satellite data. These improvements allowed the rejection of hypothetical flight paths that were previously believed to be possible.

Turnback Across Malaysia

After takeoff, the climb was normal, and the aircraft leveled at a cruise altitude of FL350 (35,000 ft standard altitude), tracking towards waypoint IGARI in the South China Sea. After flying by waypoint IGARI, the transponder was disabled as the aircraft turned towards waypoint BITOD. On passing the FIR boundary between Malaysia and Vietnam, the aircraft began turning back towards the Malay peninsula, and flew towards Kota Bharu airport, as shown in the figure below.

Flight path over Malaysia after turnback at IGARI

The civilian radar installation at Kota Bharu captured MH370 as it flew towards and then away from Kota Bharu. An analysis of this radar data shows that the aircraft climbed from FL350 to about FL385 (true altitude of 40,706 ft) and accelerated to near its maximum operating speed of Mach 0.87 as it passed to the north of Kota Bharu. It then flew across the Malay peninsula and towards Penang Island, where a civilian radar installation at Butterworth Airport captured the radar targets. As it passed to the south of Penang Island near Penang Airport, it slowed down to a speed closer to Mach 0.84, and turned to the northwest over the Malacca Strait.

Flight over the Malacca Strait and Around Sumatra

The flight over the Malacca Strait was captured by Malaysian military radar, as disclosed in a briefing to family members in Beijing in March 2014. After passing Penang Island, the aircraft proceeded on an exact course to waypoint VAMPI, and intercepted airway N571. The last radar target was captured at 18:22:12 about 10 NM after passing waypoint MEKAR on N571. The flight over the Malacca Strait, around Sumatra, and towards the South is shown in the figure below.

Flight path over the Malacca Strait and around Sumatra

In the report, it’s deduced that soon after the aircraft was beyond Malaysia radar coverage, MH370 began a “lateral offset” that would position the aircraft about 15 NM to the right of N571, possibly to ensure separation from other traffic. Once this offset was completed at around 18:29, a descent began, and when the altitude reached FL250 (well below the minimum altitude of FL275 for traffic on N571), the aircraft turned directly towards waypoint IGOGU on a westerly course.

On reaching IGOGU, it’s deduced that the aircraft continued its descent and turned due south, flying along the FIR boundary between Malaysia and India. It leveled at around FL100 (10,000 ft standard altitude), and continued south until reaching the FIR boundary of Indonesia. It then turned to the west, away from Indonesia, and flew along the FIR boundary.

It’s further deduced that the final course change was due south towards waypoint BEDAX. After passing BEDAX, a climb to FL390 began at around 19:24, ending at around 19:41. The aircraft continued on a due south course at LRC speed towards the South Pole until fuel exhaustion occurred in the SIO at around 00:17.

The authors observe that the trajectory last covered by Malaysian radar was to the northwest along N571. Only when beyond Malaysian radar coverage was a descent to a lower altitude initiated, which was followed by turns to the west and south. It’s hypothesized that the intention was to lead the searchers into believing the trajectory continued along N571 to the northwest, as the transit at low altitude would have been below the radar horizon of Indonesian and Thai radar installations. It is only because of the analysis of the satellite data first performed by Inmarsat that we know the flight path continued into the SIO. Very likely, the party responsible for the diversion was not aware that this data set was recorded and could be later used to deduce a path.

The entire flight path is summarized in the figure below.

The flight path from takeoff to impact in the SIO

Possible MH370 Sighting by Kate Tee

Kate Tee was on a sailboat on 7th March 2014 southeast of Great Nicobar Island and northwest of Sumatra. She reported seeing a large aircraft coming towards her from the north, flying at an unusually low altitude. At around the same time, she reported that the sailboat gybed accidentally. This gybe event and the track of the sailboat were recorded on the GPS system on board, and serves to define a position and an approximate timestamp for her sighting. In this time interval, the sailboat was close to waypoint NOPEK along the FIR boundary between Malaysia and India, which may help to explain her sighting.

The figure below depicts the path of MH370 at 18:55:57 and the GPS track from the sailing boat every five minutes from 18:25 to 19:25. The GPS track from the sailing boat and the deduced flight path of MH370 appear to align.

Possible MH370 sighting by sailor Kate Tee

Probability of Various Paths to the SIO

In order to rank the likelihood of various reconstructed paths to the SIO, the available data sets were compared to predictions from the mechanistic models, and the match between the measured data and the models were used to develop probabilities for each path. For each path, probabilities were calculated for four classes of measured data:

  • Measured satellite data compared with model predictions for navigation, weather, and data statistics
  • Observed fuel endurance with model predictions from fuel consumption models
  • Observed location and timing of recovered debris with predictions from drift models
  • Failure to find floating debris compared with the areas targeted by the aerial search

The overall (composite) probability for a path was calculated as the product of the of the probabilities of the four classes of data and then normalized to produce a probability density function (PDF) in which the cumulative probability across all latitudes is unity.

Each panel in the figure below shows the probabilities for each class of data, followed by the overall probability. If only considering the match to the measured satellite data presented in the first panel, the probability is highest for the path ending near 34.3°S latitude. However there are many other prominent peaks for paths ending along the 7th arc to the north and south of 34.3°S, so further discrimination is required using the other three data sets.

Probability of routes based on data sets

Peaks corresponding to end points to the south of 34.3°S are rejected because of low probabilities of matching the observed fuel endurance and the reports of the recovered debris in East Africa. On the other hand, end points to the north of 34.3°S are rejected because the impact would have produced a floating debris field that would have been detected by the aerial search with a high probability. What remains is a single prominent peak at 34.3°S, which represents a due south path from a position near waypoint BEDAX towards the South Pole.

Search Area Recommendation

The analysis presented above suggests that MH370’s flight path in its final hours followed E93.7875° longitude, corresponding to a great circle path between waypoint BEDAX and the South Pole. Using this result, the last estimated position (LEP) is S34.2342° E93.7875°. Although some of the subsea was previously searched in this vicinity, the terrain is challenging, and the debris field might have been not detected, or detected and misinterpreted. There is also the possibility that there was a controlled glide after fuel exhaustion, and an impact well beyond what was previously searched.

To define the search area near the LEP, three cases were considered, each with an associated search area. The highest priority search area, A1, of 6,719 NM2 (23,050 km2), assumes there were no pilot inputs after fuel exhaustion. The search area of next highest priority, A2, encompasses 6,300 NM2 (22,000 km2), and assumes there was a glide towards the south after fuel exhaustion. The lowest priority, A3, is the controlled glide in an arbitrary direction with an area of around 48,400 NM2 (166,000 km2). The three search areas are shown in the figure below.

Search area recommendation

Discussion

A new report is now available that suggests that MH370’s flight path in its final hours followed E93.7875° longitude, corresponding to a great circle path between waypoint BEDAX and the South Pole. The report concludes that an impact near S34.2342° E93.7875° is most likely.

The technical details are included in the report so the analytical results can be evaluated, reviewed, and replicated by other investigators.

Three end-of-flight scenarios were considered, and a recommended search area for each scenario was defined and prioritized. As parts of the recommended search areas were already searched by GO Phoenix and Ocean Infinity, we recommend a thorough review of the existing sonar data, recognizing that the quality of the data in that vicinity varied due to challenging terrain.

As there are no ongoing MH370 search activities, the authors of the report believe the new technical results provide credible evidence that justifies a new search.

Update on March 9, 2020 – Civilian Radar Data

A newer version of the civilian radar data is now available as an Excel file. This data set represents the raw data from the Kota Bharu and Butterworth radar heads before the data was processed and stored by the radar network. This data set was used for the calculations in the report. Also included in the Excel file is the methodology for converting the raw data to latitude and longitude.

Update on March 12, 2020

The best estimate of the point of impact (BE POI) has been renamed the last estimated position (LEP), which is a more accurate description. The location is unchanged.

Posted in Aviation | 1,221 Comments »