FBI Investigation of MH370 Still Open

I recently submitted a FOIA request to the FBI for all documents related to MH370, which disappeared more than seven years ago. Yesterday, the FBI responded that the request was denied due to “a pending or prospective law enforcement proceeding”. This is identical to the response I received two years ago after I submitted a similar request. It implies the US intelligence community has relevant material that it will not release due to an open criminal investigation.

The FOIA request was one last attempt to obtain more information about MH370.

Independent investigators continue to use the data already in the public domain to guide future search efforts to find the debris field in the Southern Indian Ocean (SIO). Notably, Bobby Ulich continues to lead an effort that uses the timing and location of recovered debris, combined with CSIRO’s drift model results, to assess the most likely point of impact (POI), including uncertainty estimates of that position.

However, there exists other evidence not yet released that could aid researchers in localizing the POI:

  • All of the Malaysian military radar data.
  • Radar data from other sources, including the Singapore radar source operating in the vicinity of the Andaman Sea.
  • Existing subsea sonar data from Ocean Infinity to determine precisely what areas were searched and which areas have low quality or missing data due to steep terrain, sonar shadows, or equipment anomalies.
  • Any probative evidence discovered by the French judicial investigation.
  • Unpublished debris analysis, e.g., spoiler and vortex generator baseplate. (HT Mike Exner)
  • Boeing’s participation in detailed fuel calculations to confirm that our fuel models, which were used to help determine the southern-most limit of the POI, are accurate. Those models must include the effects of non-standard atmospheric temperatures and turning off the extraction of bleed air used to pressurize the cabin.
  • NTSB flight data and Inmarsat satellite data that were used by Australia’s DSTG to investigate the measurement error in recorded BTO and BFO values. (HT Don Thompson)

We are nearing the end of what is left to analyze that can realistically help us find the debris field in the SIO. Unless new data or insights are publicly released, there is not much more that the analysts can add to our understanding of the disappearance.

59 Responses to “FBI Investigation of MH370 Still Open”

  1. David says:

    @Victor. It is a balance isn’t it? Could you appeal on the grounds that it might assist recovery of the sunken wreckage, with the possibility that that would improve aircraft safety; and also throw more light on the events that led to the ‘accident’?

  2. TBill says:

    Thank you for trying to get more data via FOIA.
    I would add incomplete release of home simulator data, and probably more items.

    How can we search without the full dataset? Possibly it would have to be disclosed by secrecy agreement to limited research group. My opinion that’s why ATSB was giving out some home simulator data guidance, in case it implied some search location(s). But sure why USA is being so tight lipped, but of course there is Boeing to consider.

    We really need to know whatever NTSB/JIT/FBI knew, re: Singapore radar, simulator data, etc.

  3. Victor Iannello says:

    @David: Unfortunately, once the FBI claims that a public release would interfere with an open case, it is nearly impossible to pierce that veil.

  4. David says:

    @Victor. Thanks.

    “….release of the information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings”.

    Reading the tea leaves if I may, it sounds as though the investigation is concluded. Hence wreckage recovery is inessential to the case.

    Charges could be laid only against a living person? If so, solitary murder/suicide is not what the FBI has in mind.

  5. Victor Iannello says:

    @David: It’s certainly possible one or more targets of the investigation were not on the plane.

  6. Victor Iannello says:

    @TBill: My experience is that among the government agencies and private companies that have participated in the investigation and search, the ATSB was by far the most willing to work with independent investigators and researchers. Often times the ATSB’s ability to share data was limited by constraints imposed by other agencies. The ATSB also seemed to be the most committed to actually finding the plane for the longest period of time.

    Many of us admire the leadership, honesty, and perseverance demonstrated by Peter Foley, who directed the search for the ATSB.

  7. TBill says:

    It’s good to try to parse what they are trying to say.
    But to me it certainly does seem murder/suicide is suspected, because former PM Tony Abbott advised us that in 2020. Which is another example of Australia being the most open. Abbott advised that’s what Malaysia officials seemed to think was the most likely explanation.

    Perhaps an outside expert like, for example, former NTSB Greg Feith or William Langewiesche could tell us what type of law enforcement proceedings might be referred to here.

    Victor may have the right idea though. There could have been evidence tampering in Malaysia, or assistance to the pilot. If the hard crash theory is wrong, we have to explain why the ELT did not work, for example.

  8. Victor Iannello says:

    @TBill: I agree that it would be helpful to have the entire report that the FBI compiled on the captain’s simulator. We believe that report was shared with the Australian Federal Police (AFP), who shared it with the ATSB. There seems to be some additional data in that report that was not included in the leaked RMP report. There might also be additional insights and/or precautions that were not publicly released.

  9. Don Thompson says:

    Firstly, I wish to second Victor’s commendation of Peter Foley and his team at ATSB.

    Secondly, matters requiring investigation across international borders require that mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) be established to facilitate cooperation between law enforcement agencies. In 2014, MLATs had been in place between US and Malaysia, and US and Australia, and US and France. But not between France and Malaysia.

    The matters involving the judicial investigation in France and Malaysia required the diplomatic exercise of Letters Rogatory to faciliate the exchange of information between the two investigations. A time consuming process and, as I understand, something that would be quite specific in scope.

    It may be that an active, or at least open, investigation in one country (e.g. MY) that involved the services of another country’s LE agency (e.g. USA) would be regarded as open in both jurisdictions.

  10. David says:

    @TBill. You wrote, “But to me it certainly does seem murder/suicide is suspected, because former PM Tony Abbott advised us…”

    What Mr Abbott said may not be what the FBI now believes?

    @Victor. “There seems to be some additional data in that report that was not included in the leaked RMP report. There might also be additional insights and/or precautions that were not publicly released.”

    Had additional FBI data on the simulator been shared with the ATSB, I think it likely that would have reinforced Abbott’s view, if anything.

    Additional information to that, assuming he would know of it (while replaced on 15th September, 2015), would either have reinforced his view; or if it didn’t he would not now be recounting confidently and publicly what he had been told by the then Malaysian PM.

    It looks possible that the FBI now has information beyond what then it had.

  11. Don Thompson says:

    @David, @TBill

    What Tony Abbott may or not believe, or was told by Najib Razak, is of little consequence to any investigation that is preparing a case for prosecution.

    The parties in Malaysia reached a conclusion early in the saga that the most likely cause of the loss was an intentional diversion by the pilot-in-command. Najib Razak, in his 2014-03-15 press conference, stated “Up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, these movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.

    It was quite correct that Najib Razak did not specify on who suspicion fell for that “deliberate action” (surprising for a politician who did so many incorrect things). But the connection between “someone on the plane” and the pilot-in-command was an assumption reached by the parties in Malaysia. Those parties being MY.gov, DCA, and MAS.

    The process of elimination to form that conclusion of “deliberate action” is certainly insufficient to move forward from an investigation to a prosecution. Neither was it adequate to permit the assumption to be stated publicly.

    My point is that if Malaysia holds an investigation open, it locks in the foreign LE agencies that have provided assistance and with whom evidence was shared. So, at the very least this FOIA should indicate that Malaysia has yet to deliver many answers and actions.

  12. Victor Iannello says:

    @Don Thompson: My guess is the Malaysian criminal case against the captain was closed after the RMP report was prepared. The DCA and other Malaysian agencies then had to dance around this conclusion, including the introduction of an “unknown third party” that was possibly responsible for the diversion. If there is an open criminal case in Malaysia, perhaps it is the investigation of the “unknown third party”.

  13. TBill says:

    I appreciate you are suggesting international agreements may be in force, which has merit as a theory. Also SilkAir185, in all likelihood a pilot suicide, was determined by a USA court jury to be possibly caused by mechanical (jack-screw) issue, even though the jack-screw was found and was in perfect condition. The judge had ruled the NTSB (Greg Feith I believe) probable cause (pilot suicide) was not allowed to be disclosed to the jury. So there is huge difference between scientific reality and lawyer/legal liability.

    I have to infer USA fully agrees with Najib Razak’s 15-March-2014 disclosure of deliberate diversion, and the pilot would be the prime suspect. Whether or not pilot acted alone or had some assistance, is less certain. I also feel the FBI must have thought the simulator data was obviously nefarious, and probably told Hish that.

    To me we have cultural issues. If a USA radar operator sees a plane doing a U-turn, we connect the dots and say the plane turned around. Malaysia public will not accept any connecting of dots. If the callsign (MH370) is missing because the pilot turned off the transponder, then they cannot accept the plane on the radar was MH370. Razak dealt well with that, knowing he could never connect the dots in public. Never had the 100.0000% proof his public demands.

  14. Don Thompson says:

    @Victor, perhaps we can establish if the RMP has a case open on the matter?

    @TBill wrote “suggesting international agreements may be in force, which has merit as a theory

    It is not a theory, it is fact that the MLATs I mentioned were in force in 2014 and that France resorted to Letters Rogatory to have their requests for information fulfilled. I have discussed how MLATs are exercised with someone practiced in conducting investigations and maintaining relationships under those agreements.

    The action brought by families of some SilkAir 185 pasengers brought a civil suit against Parker-Hannifin, that did not involve criminal prosecution. A civil action for damages is an entirely different ball game. The SilkAir families’ civil action exploited the premise that the rudder PCU (not stab jackscrew) may have been contributory to the accident.

    Further, we don’t actually know if any radar operator watched the “the plane doing a U-turn“. The only radars that had the capability for persistent coverage of the IGARI area in both primary and secondary surveillance were the RMAF long range air defence radars at Western Hill and Bukit Puteri. The claim from the Malaysian authorities was that the turn back was seen only when a replay was viewed. The operation of the air defence radar network, its method to correlate aircraft identity & status via SSR, and how it might reconcile an aircraft that drops SSR response yet remains under PSR surveillance are all details that are implicit in the long standing request for the RMAF/TUDM military radar data.

  15. David says:

    @Don Thompson. Whether or not Malaysia has “an investigation open” or “has yet to deliver many answers and actions”, grounds the FBI must satisfy for rejecting the FOIA include, “…there is a pending or prospective law enforcement proceeding relevant to these responsive records”.

    “…pending or prospective” to me indicates they have reasonable grounds for believing that law enforcement will proceed, ie that is it is not dependent on information that may be out there and, if it is, it might get.

    A second requirement for FOIA denial is, “release of the information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings”. That deserves some scrutiny also.

  16. David says:

    @Victor. Enlightening was that the FBI did not claim that the information disclosure would not be in the US interest or might injure foreign relationships but the very specific grounds it must meet for this FOIA rejection.
    Rule of law.

  17. TBill says:

    Implication is FBI has a lot of options to block the data release, including “injure foreign relationships” which might be closer to the truth.

    Another implication is FBI does not feel the need to defend USA against FdC’s wild claims of USA shoot down. Nobody taking that seriously, except I suspect populist opinion in the Malaysia region.

  18. Victor Iannello says:

    @David: With such a short explanation of the rejection of the FOIA request, it is easy to read too much into the words. I think it is safe to assume that there really is an open investigation, but we can only speculate about the targets and whether there is a reasonable chance of ever delivering indictments. If there are other reasons that the FBI does not want to publicly disclose the contents of the file, the veil of an open case is hard to pierce.

    I submitted the FOIA request on the small chance that there was a change in the status of the case since I lasted submitted one two years ago. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), there was no change in status.

  19. TBill says:

    At sea ditch offshore Honolulu shortly after take off, hopefully the cargo aircraft pilots recover fully from their injuries.


  20. George G says:

    “sea ditch offshore Honolulu shortly after take off”
    Birds ?

  21. TBill says:

    @George G
    I saw no reference to birds (late night hours crash). NTSB is rushing to scene to determine what mechanical issue could force both engines to fail. All speculation at this point. It was on national TV news tonite. Very fortunate late night rescue – the rescue teams followed oil slick to find aircraft – and all hopes especially with the pilot in critical condition. One pilot was found holding onto tail, one was holding onto floating cargo.

  22. David says:

    @Victor, TBill. I was assuming that in rejecting the application on the legal grounds that there is (not might be) a pending or prospective law enforcement (not an investigation) proceeding, the FBI would be conscious that it could be exposed to challenge as to whether that was so.

    However, whether naive or not I stray into US business so leave it there. Time might tell.

  23. Mick Gilbert says:

    @George G

    It appears that the accident aircraft was a going-on 46 year old Transair/Rhoades Aviation B737-200 Advanced freighter, rego N810TA. The aircraft was meant to be doing a milk-run from Honolulu to Kahului. Lost one engine shortly after take-off, had to reduce power on the second due to overheating. Couldn’t maintain altitude on the reduced thrust from one engine and ditched shortly after diverting towards Kalaeloa Airport (west of Honolulu and then closer).

    The -200 Advanced was fitted with P&W JT8D-17 engines and what was, for the mid-70s,considered to be some ‘advanced’ features such as autobraking, improved anti-skid, nose-wheel braking, an increase in droop on the outboard slats and an extension of the inboard Krueger flap. Between the engines and some wing improvements the Advanced got an extra 2,000 feet of ceiling up to 37,000 feet.

    The accident aircraft routinely flew 6-8 short flights a day between mainly Honolulu to Kahului almost all during early am hours local (typically between around 1am – 8am local).

  24. Victor Iannello says:

    @TBill, @Mick Gilbert: Thanks for the information about the ditched 737. With the limited information we have, it’s hard to understand what occurred. With dual engine failures, surely they will be investigating common mode factors such as fuel, weather (I don’t see any evidence of volcanic ash), engine derate settings, etc. If the turnback was performed earlier, I wonder if the plane could have glided back to the runway.

    I wish the very best for both pilots.

  25. Mick Gilbert says:

    @Victor Iannello

    Based on the ATC recording and the ADS-B data the aircraft never got much above 2,000 feet and flew an extended downwind leg while the crew ran a checklist. They were beyond gliding distance in pretty quick time. In fact, by the time they commenced their turn back that had lost visual contact with the airport.

    They’ve apparently managed a pretty good dead stick ditching but they were very fortunate that the Coast Guard was promptly on the scene.

  26. TBill says:

    I always thought fuel check was one of the first checklist items for air accidents. But for MH370 I’ve heard nothing about a fuel check.

  27. Mick Gilbert says:

    A correction to my earlier description of the accident aircraft, according to the FAA registration data it was fitted with the older JT8D-9A engines not the JT8D-17.


    Regarding fuel checks, on the basis that MH370 flew to what was almost certainly fuel exhaustion authorities would have been on fairly solid ground in eliminating fuel as a contributing factor.

  28. Don Thompson says:

    Mick Gilbert wrote “they were very fortunate that the Coast Guard was promptly on the scene.

    The USCG co-pilot described to a local TV interviewer that it was his first rescue flight.

  29. Mick Gilbert says:

    Best wishes to everyone celebrating the Fourth of July.

  30. Mick Gilbert says:

    @Don Thompson

    I don’t know how much the USCG spends on media training for their crews but all four crew members put in exemplary performances in front of the media.

  31. Victor Iannello says:

    @Mick Gilbert: Thanks, Mick. The weather was beautiful for most of the country.

  32. David says:

    @Ocean Infinity exploits. Some here might recall following the attempt to find Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, on the Antarctic sea floor.

    That failed when the AUV searching was lost.

    There may well be a new campaign, in February next year, OI using a different AUV type and techniques:



  33. Victor Iannello says:

    Re the ditching of Transair 810 near Honolulu, VASAviation did a nice job of combining representative radar data with ATC communications.


    Although the level of stress was high in the air, ground, and sea, I think everybody performed well.

  34. Paul Smithson says:

    I always marvel at the calmness of pilots and air control in the face of imminent calamity.

  35. Victor Iannello says:

    @Paul Smithson: The number of simultaneous transmissions is indicative of the stress level.

  36. Mick Gilbert says:

    Some NTSB imagery of the Transair 810 wreckage on the seabed –


    You’ve got to think that both pilots were lucky to be able to get out of that alive.

  37. Stuart says:

    @Mick Gilbert
    The pilots were skilled and very fortunate to have survived having accomplished a nighttime ditching at sea. The sea-state has hardly been “glassy” due to stronger than normal NE trade winds for the past several weeks (I live 15 miles from the southwest side, where the crash occurred).

    The photos of submerged wreckage show one of the engines mainly intact on the ocean floor, at a depth of approx 400’, providing evidence that denser objects are able to withstand crashes at sea.

  38. Don Thompson says:

    @Stuart wrote “one of the engines mainly intact on the ocean floor

    That image shows about one third of of the engine, it looks to have separated after the forward most low pressure compressor stage and, possibly, exposing the (very narrow) bypass duct.

  39. Don Thompson says:

    @Stuart wrote “one of the engines mainly intact on the ocean floor

    That image shows about one third of of the engine, it looks to have separated after the forward most low pressure compressor stage and, possibly, exposing the (very narrow) bypass duct.

  40. TBill says:

    That news clip also mentions both pilots have been released from the hospital. That is great news.

    OK some MH370-related questions- why no ELT signal? The interview with the Coast Guard pilots mentions no ELT signal to help locate.

  41. Brian Anderson says:


    ELts do not work under water. Also the transmission protocol includes a delay before the first burst of data is transmitted. I would have to check, but I think it is 30 seconds. In that time the aeroplane would have broken up a deal and maybe even damaged the cable to the antenna, if not already under water.

  42. Andrew says:

    RE: Transair ELT

    Under US rules, the aircraft might not have been fitted with an automatic ELT. 14 CFR § 91.207 – Emergency locator transmitters, states:
    (a) Except as provided in paragraphs (e) and (f) of this section, no person may operate a U.S.-registered civil airplane unless –
    (1) There is attached to the airplane an approved automatic type emergency locator transmitter that is in operable condition…

    Paragraph (f) states:
    (f) Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply to –
    …(11) On and after January 1, 2004, aircraft with a maximum payload capacity of more than 18,000 pounds when used in air transportation.

    Some background to that rule:

    A summary of the relevant bits from that document:
    1. In 1971, responding to a Congressional mandate for rulemaking…the FAA adopted amendments to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) to require the installation and use of Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs).
    2. The amendments required that certain U.S.-registered civil airplanes be equipped with automatic ELTs.
    3. Certain aircraft, such as turbojet-powered aircraft and aircraft engaged in scheduled air carrier operations, were excepted from this requirement because they were considered to be more readily located after an accident and because they operate within the air traffic control system and their operators have filed instrument flight plans. The rule was applicable to those airplanes that were considered to be most difficult to locate after an accident, such as general aviation type airplanes.
    4. However, Congress took action to remove this exception and require ELT equipment on turbojet-powered aircraft as a result of a missing “business jet” type of turbojet-powered aircraft that crashed on approach to Lebanon Municipal Airport in New Hampshire in 1996.
    5. Congress limited the scope of its action by adding an exception for aircraft with a maximum payload capacity of more than 18,000 pounds when used in air transportation. “Air transportation” is the carriage of persons or property as a common carrier for compensation or hire, i.e., operations conducted by air carriers.
    6. Such operations conducted in large turbojet powered aircraft in air transportation are normally flown under IFR and are in radio contact with a flight-following or dispatch system or with ATC throughout the flight.

  43. Victor Iannello says:

    @Andrew: Thanks for that info. For 5 years (1987-1992), I lived in New Hampshire near to the Lebanon Airport, and many times flew into that airport in small commuter planes in challenging weather conditions. I was not aware that it took 3 years to find the plane, which is surprising because although the crash site area is sparsely populated, it is not remote.

  44. Andrew says:


    Here’s an article from The Baltimore Sun that helps explain why the wreckage was so difficult to locate:
    Mystery of Learjet finally reveals itself; Crash: After three years, the most extensive search in New Hampshire history ends with an accidental discovery

  45. Victor Iannello says:

    @Andrew: No doubt the woods are thick in New Hampshire.

  46. Don Thompson says:

    ELT on N810TA.

    The aircraft operated on the Malaysian registry from 1999 to 2014. It underwent modification during the period Mar 2004Feb 2015. Subsequent to this modification work an ELT antenna was apparent on the aft, upper, fuselage.

    The USCG helicopter pilot stated that no 121.5MHz, or 243MHz, homing signal was received when enroute to the scene. He described the aft section remaining just afloat, tail up. I assume that the fuselage was rapidly inundated, including the ELT & antenna, after the forward section detached and remained afloat only as bouyancy was maintained while trapped air gradually escaped.

    COSPAS-SARSAT is now predominantly reliant on MEO payloads carried on GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS GNSS satellites to relay beacon signals to the ground (and provide a return-link service).

  47. Don Thompson says:

    @Victor & @Andrew

    I travelled by air into/out of Binghamton, NY, many times to PIT, BOS, LGA and JFK. I really did marvel at extent of tree coverage under the flight paths. Quite unsurprising how aircraft and people can be lost.

    Reading the Baltimore Sun article, I did often think: replace forest with ocean.

    First of all, no one knew exactly where to look, because the plane was last reported flying at 258 miles per hour, and its heading at the end was unknown.“. Yup, that’s a familiar problem.

  48. Paul Smithson says:

    Verstappen’s body was subjected to 51G in today’s crash. I can’t understand how that is survivable, or doesn’t cause massive organ injury. Baffled, but thankful.

  49. Victor Iannello says:

    @Paul Smithson: I don’t know how they measured the deceleration his body experienced, but he was miraculously able to walk away from the crash.

  50. Mick Gilbert says:

    @Paul Smithson

    Based on the reporting I have to say that I was expecting to see something more akin to Ralf Schumacher’s airborne antics in Melbourne in 2002 or Firman’s 2003 Hungarian practice round prang.

    A testament to the way they’ve engineered the driver’s compartment whichever way you look at it.

  51. DrB says:

    @Paul Smithson,

    The physical damage in a crash is mostly due to the “jerk”, which is the time derivative of acceleration, rather than the acceleration itself. So, the key parameter is really the time scale over which the acceleration went from 0 G to 51 G. Imagine the ramp up from zero G to a peak G. If that change in acceleration magnitude occurs in a short time, the jerk is very high and the damage is great. If the change in acceleration occurs over a long time period, the jerk and damage are low, even when the peak acceleration is high.

    When an elevator starts up, the “jerk” you feel is not the acceleration, but rather the time derivative of acceleration. With a slow ramp up in acceleration, an express elevator rising with low jerk can get to significant acceleration without jostling its inhabitants. All you feel is initially being heavier and then lighter than normal.

  52. Don Thompson says:

    The FIA, motorsport’s governing body, mandates Accident Data Recorders in race cars across many of the race categories. The FIA also maintains an accident database to assist in research.

    Formula One monocoque designs are impact tested at Cranfield Impact Centre, a Cranfield University innovation company. While impact testing is testing is not carried out at full track speeds, I understand that the intent is to ensure the progressive deformation of the nose box and strength of the monocoque tub.

    ‘Human Tolerance and Crash Survivability’ (Shanahan, 2004) presents relevant information for the tolerance of the human body to high accelerations. As DrB notes, the period over which the acceleration occurs is critical in predicting the outcome.

  53. TBill says:

    Re: MH370 history question-
    Correct me if wrong, but I want to say there was point, about a month or two after the accident, that the United States offered continued assistance of the FBI to investigate the crash, but Malaysia refused the assistance and dismissed the FBI.

  54. Paul Smithson says:

    @DrB and Don. Thanks – yes, I gather that it is abruptness rather than magnitude that is the critical parameter. “These data were compiled primarily from the pioneering work of Colonel John Stapp who performed human tolerance experiments on live volunteers, himself and coworkers” Crazy stuff. And apparently he went on to live to a ripe old age 🙂

  55. vodkaferret says:

    @Paul Smithson

    Of course the other comments are correct, but instinctually I side with your original comment – the concept of q survivable 51G impact boggles the mind.

    as has been mentioned, it’s the abruptneas that counts. I think personally I would survive easily if it was spread out over a week or so 😉

  56. vodkaferret says:

    My apologies for the typos in the above. My eyesight is not what it used to be, especially on a phone screen 🙁

  57. Victor Iannello says:

    As Corey Giles said: “More weight, but please add it slowly.”

  58. Victor Iannello says:

    [Comments here are closed. Please continue the discussion under the new article.]