New Eastern Outlook
by Nile Bowie
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur carrying 239 people one year ago, continues to defy conventional explanation. Despite the largest multinational search and rescue effort ever conducted, not a trace of debris from the aircraft has been found, nor has the cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance been established. MH370 has proven to be the most baffling incident in commercial aviation history.
The Beijing-bound jetliner’s transponders were shut off without a mayday call less than an hour into the flight before veering wildly off course while flying over the South China Sea. Aviation experts claim that the aircraft’s movements were consistent with deliberate action and that calculated changes in the flight’s trajectory indicate that the plane was continually under the command of a pilot. Investigators used satellite data from the craft to chart two possible corridors along which the missing plane may have sent out its final communications.
The northern corridor extended from northern Thailand and upward toward the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan while the southern corridor stretched from the western Indonesia to the remote southern Indian Ocean. Investigators have focused their search on the southern corridor, a 60,000 square kilometer patch of the Indian Ocean some 1,800 kilometers west of Perth, Australia. Despite the use of the best available underwater detection technology, the multinational search operation has failed to produce any evidence of the aircraft crashing into the sea.
Dozens of theories have proliferated over the last year, drawing on technical analysis and deductive estimations. That the aircraft’s movements were consistent with deliberate action is the official position of the Malaysian government, and this remains the starting point for any explanation of the incident. This means that even if the plane experienced a technical or systems failure resulting in an on-board fire or depressurization that rendered the crew unconscious, the suspension of the aircraft’s communication system and its change of trajectory was the result of an intentional intervention.
This suggests that either the pilots executed the maneuver, whether intentionally or under duress, or the flight controls were compromised in a technical way that resulted in flight control being withdrawn from the cockpit. Investigators have cleared all passengers of any suspicious motives, while the flight’s pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a reputable pilot with over 30 years’ experience with Malaysia Airlines, has been the main suspect of the investigation by Malaysian authorities. No strong evidence has surfaced to implicate Shah or his co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, who unsuccessfully attempted to make a phone call using his mobile phone several minutes after the plane disappeared from radar, according to reports.
Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, declared in a series of articles and interviews his suspicion that the aircraft’s autopilot system had been compromised, calling on manufacturer Boeing to respond to questions regarding the company’s uninterruptible autopilot control system, patented in 2006 (patent number US7142971B2), enabling an aircraft to be remotely piloted from the ground using radio waves and global satellite positioning systems to counter hijacking attempts.
Boeing officials quoted in 2007 report published in the London Evening Standard give the clear impression that this system was developed for the purpose of being installed on Boeing airliners. “After it has been activated, the aircraft will be capable of remote digital control from the ground, enabling operators to fly it like a sophisticated model plane, maneuvering it vertically and laterally… Once triggered, no one on board will be able to deactivate the system,” the British paper reported.
In 2012, Boeing declared its intention to install new security mechanisms on several of its 777 series aircraft, including the models used by Malaysia Airlines, over concerns the aircrafts’ inflight entertainment system, which includes USB connections, could allow hackers to compromise a plane’s onboard computer system. A 2013 US Federal Register report also raised concerns that this security vulnerability could undermine the safety of model 777-200 aircrafts. Boeing has since offered no specific comment on these concerns.
Inmarsat, the British satellite telecommunications company responsible for analyzing satellite data showing that MH370 flew south toward the Indian Ocean from its last known position, has also come under scrutiny from independent satellite experts and engineers that found glaring inconsistencies in their analysis. The Atlantic magazine published a report last May based on the analysis of Michael Exner, founder of the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, Duncan Steel, a physicist and visiting scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar.
The team of analysts used flight and navigation software to deconstruct Inmarsat’s analysis, and determined that other known evidence contradicted their mathematical conclusions, such as in the instance where the graph data provided by the British company actually shows the plane and satellite moving away from each other at 50 miles per hour while the plane was stationary and had not even taxied to take off.
The analysts concluded that Inmarsat’s data contained irregular frequency shifts, and even when the values were corrected, Inmarsat’s example flight paths failed to match and proved to be erroneous. In another instance, the graph data marking the position of the satellite receiving the signal is shown to be traveling faster in a northbound direction, when the satellite itself was moving south. Inmarsat’s graph shows the satellite moving at 33 miles per hour when its overall speed was just 0.07 miles per hour at that time.
The authors of the report have attempted to reach Inmarsat and other relevant bodies, but they claim that the company did not reply to requests for comments on basic technical questions about their analysis, leading them to determine that “Inmarsat officials and search authorities seem to want it both ways: They release charts, graphics, and statements that give the appearance of being backed by math and science, while refusing to fully explain their methodologies.”
Tim Clark, CEO of the Dubai-based airline Emirates, has been critical of the international investigation, casting doubt over the official narrative that the crash was an accident, as well as the methodology of the investigation. “Our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something. We have not seen a single thing that suggests categorically that this aircraft is where they say it is… For me, that raises a degree of suspicion. I’m totally dissatisfied with what has been coming out of all of this,” he said, in an interview with Der Spiegel.
Clark also raised concerns that the public was not being told the whole truth about the cargo manifest. The families of the passengers and crew members onboard the missing aircraft have consistently called for the Malaysian government to release the full cargo manifest, which they say was only partially released some two months after the incident, alleging that there were missing gaps in the document. The manifesto claimed that the cargo contained 2.4 tons of lithium ion batteries and radio accessories and chargers consigned for Motorola, and 4.5 tons of mangosteen, a tropical fruit.
Malaysia’s government was widely criticized following the disappearance of MH370 for appearing uncoordinated, as ministers frequently contradicted each other about basic facts. It took a full seven days for Malaysian authorities to release information confirming that the plane had changed direction over the South China Sea, hampering the search and rescue mission in the critical hours following the disappearance.
Many questioned whether this was the result of administrative incompetence or a sloppy effort to withhold information from the investigation and the public domain. Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar promised the media that authorities would investigate the mangosteen supplier after Malaysia’s own Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority claimed that the fruit was not in season, nor were there any orchards in the southern city of Johor where the mangosteen supplier, Poh Seng Kian, is allegedly based.
The lack of transparency around the release of the full cargo manifest data increases the possibility that the entire contents have not been accurately accounted for. That officials from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency leading the investigation, have admitted to being not entirely sure if the current underwater search is being conducted in the right spot underscores the pressing need for an independent panel to review the mathematical analysis by Inmarsat to crosscheck their conclusions.
It is imperative that Boeing address concerns over the uninterruptible autopilot control system and produce the relevant technical specifics needed to determine the extent of MH370’s vulnerability to being hacked and remotely piloted. Australian officials have recently hinted that the search cannot continue to go on indefinitely without greater international financial assistance.
If the investigation continues to operate without transparency and an open methodology, it will forever be a barrier to understanding the true nature of whatever extraordinary event resulted in the deliberate change to MH370’s flight path and subsequent disappearance. The termination of the search mission in the near term would ensure that the fate of MH370 continues to remain an unsolved mystery.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst based in Malaysia who has written for a number of publications, his expertise lies in a number of areas, with a particular focus on Asian politics and geopolitics, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.