TWO YEARS AGO, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. What then grew into humanity’s largest, most expensive search operation has also been among its most frustrating and beguiling. Investigators have found only one real bit of evidence, a wing flap that washed up on the shores of Réunion, near Madagascar. It was pretty useless. Because it spent nearly 500 days bobbing around on the ocean’s surface, all it indicates is that the plane crashed into the water. Likely to the east.
The search for MH370 has centered on a 46,000 square mile patch of the Indian Ocean, about 1,200 miles due west from Perth, Australia. Investigators, led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, chose that area based on intricate and innovative calculations, turning the last contact with the Boeing 777 into a rough guess as to where it hit the water. So far, search parties have covered more than 70 percent of the region and found zero sign of the missing plane. (They did discover a 19th-century shipwreck, though, which is pretty cool.) Once the 46,000 miles are covered—likely this summer—they’re going to call it.
The whole situation has pissed off more than a few people. Serious mistakes early on (like poking around the South China Sea instead of the Indian Ocean) and misinformation (like the false report that the jet climbed to 45,000 feet, impossible for a fully loaded 777) encouraged distrust and diverging theories from the start. So, no surprise, not everyone believes the officially sanctioned team is looking in the right spot.
Now a group of private citizens calling themselves “VeritasMH370” believes the plane is somewhere else entirely. And they want to go get it.
Smoke in the Cockpit
The ringleader of the effort is Chris Goodfellow, a name you might remember if you’ve been following this story. Ten days after MH370 lost contact with air traffic control while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Goodfellow, a Canadian Class-1 instrumented-rated pilot for multi-engine planes, publisheda remarkably simple and compelling theory about what happened. He argued the crew “was confronted by some major event onboard,” like smoke in the cockpit from a landing gear fire, and turned the plane south to head for an airport on a nearby island. (That turn south was picked up by radar, after the plane’s communication system had been shut down.) “The flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading,” Goodfellow theorized, “until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route—looking elsewhere is pointless.”
The theory became enormously popular, largely because it was the rare explanation that really seemed possible. It didn’t rely on elaborate criminal schemes. It seemed to fit the basic facts of the flight. As James Fallows (himself a pilot) said at The Atlantic, “His explanation makes better sense than anything else I’ve heard so far… It’s one of the few that make me think, ‘Yes, I could see things happening that way.’”
Goodfellow’s math, based on that heading and the plane’s fuel reserves, puts the wreckage roughly 500 miles south of the official search area. He and Simon Gunson, a private pilot who co-founded the VeritasMH370 Facebook group, want to find a way to shift the focus to where they believe it belongs. And if no one believes them, they say they’ll go do it themselves. “We need to get a group together to do some crowdfunding to search further south,” Gunson says.
Goodfellow and Gunson are not aircraft accident investigators. They haven’t flown 777 jets. They don’t have any money to go search for themselves, and no clear plan for getting any. But there’s also reason to believe they’re right. Or, at least, to believe they’re right to think the official search is focused on the wrong place.
The current area of focus is so big, “it’s just as good as throwing a dart at a map and saying, ‘That’s where we should look,’” says Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator. To be clear, Feith doesn’t believe Goodfellow’s theory—he says a fire would have brought the plane down right away—but he isn’t surprised the search hasn’t turned up anything so far. The investigators “tried to zero in on at least a high probability area, or at least an area of probability,” since it was the best they could do given so little information.
That information is based on a few data points collected from space. If a tracking station on the ground doesn’t hear from a plane for an hour, it sends a message, via a satellite, to see if the plane’s still in reach. The plane automatically sends a reply to indicate it’s still logged on. MH370 replied to that message (bouncing it off the satellite) seven times—that’s called a “handshake.”
That tells you the plane was still in the air—but if you want to know where it was, get your slide rule. All investigators could determine was how far the plane was from the satellite, based on how long each reply took to come back. Even figuring that out was a major pain. British communications firm Inmarsat, whose satellite was chatting with the 777, created a formula to account for the differences in signal frequency (thanks, Doppler effect) that the ground station expected to receive and the one it actually measured. It also accounted for the (estimated) velocity of the plane relative to the satellite, aircraft dynamics, meteorological info, and fuel burn to identify the plane’s most likely final destination.
“Hogwash,” says Goodfellow. He argues that the math relies on too many tricky variables to be useful, and that all it can prove is that the plane flew for at least six hours after losing contact with air traffic control. In a report explaining the process, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it validated the data by using the same process to predict where other, tracked planes were, with an 85 percent success rate. Still, Feith calls it “very coarse” data that wasn’t as helpful as the team had expected it to be.
Goodfellow and Gunson put their faith in other potential evidence: satellite images taken between one and two weeks after the plane’s disappearance. They seemed to show hundreds of pieces of debris about 500 miles south of the sanctioned search area. Records from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which coordinated the surface search in the weeks after the crash, show ships and aircraft searching those areas without finding solid evidence of the plane. Goodfellow and Gunson believe that response was inadequate, and those images of debris represent one of just two “concrete observable data points.” The second is that the co-pilot’s cell phone tried to connect to a cell phone tower in Penang, confirming the plane had turned around after leaving Kuala Lumpur and was headed south.
Gunson admits the task is “daunting.” The reason the search for MH370 has cost so much money and taken so much time is that it’s focused on a patch of ocean that’s very deep and very remote, with about six months of bad winter weather every year. It’s like looking for a 200-foot long plane in Pennsylvania—if Pennsylvania were totally dark, had never been mapped, and stretched 13,000 feet down.
So, now what? Goodfellow and Gunson don’t have a detailed plan. They talk about crowdfunding the necessary money, or finding a wealthy patron to fund the project—James Cameron, maybe, or Robert Ballard. Or China. Right now, they’re focusing on raising the profile of their Facebook group and finding likeminded folks. And if they want to mount their own search, eventually they’ll need a whole bunch of cash. The official operation to date has cost somewhere north of $100 million, but Gunson says the VeritasMH370 crew could get by with about $5 million, since the area they’re focused on is much smaller than the current region of interest. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine an unvarnished success.
In situations like this, it’s easy to think you’re right and everyone else is wrong, says Richard Gillespie, director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. He’s spent most of his career independently hunting for lost aircraft—Amelia Earhart’s plane is his ultimate goal—and knows how Goodfellow and Gunson feel. “People become invested in their theory, and they will resist to an incredible degree anything that says they’re wrong.” Goodfellow and Gunson insist they’re not in this for glory, and that they’re not tied to a single theory. They just want the world to know what happened. And if they do find wreckage, they don’t need to be the ones to haul anything to the surface. They’ll just make it public with a helping of told you so.
Australia hired Dutch oil and gas company Fugro to run the search. Their first step was using sonar to map the seafloor in enough detail to keep their underwater equipment from plowing into underwater volcanoes that satellite maps didn’t include, because satellite maps of the ocean floor are garbage. The point is, you can’t just drop a camera-packing robot into the water and hope for the best. It’s even possible Fugro’s equipment passed right over the wreckage, Feith says. That part of the ocean’s full of crevasses, and it’s conceivable the 777 just can’t be spotted.
With MH370, the proliferation of possibly helpful clues—blurry satellite photos, hard-to-parse satellite data, reported sightings of a flaming jet—is just as unhelpful as the dearth of concrete evidence. Goodfellow is cherry-picking facts to support his case, but so is the official search party. To make a hunt for this plane in any way pragmatic, you have to build the best case you can and stick with it. Not every bit of a story this convoluted will fit.
Feith doesn’t buy Goodfellow’s theory, and wonders if the Boeing jet could have reached the proposed search area given its fuel reserves. But there’s good reason to think the official search is way off, too. The focus on the 46,000 square mile patch is based on the most logical series of events the data can support, but this has been a case that defies straightforward thinking. “In this case, I think there’s more illogic than logic,” Feith says. If the search concludes this summer with no trace of the jet, it will sound a lot like an invitation for others to give it a go.
Goodfellow and Gunson don’t have the cash to scour the ocean bottom, but standing apart from the government effort has certain advantages. “You can change your mind. You can modify your methodology,” says aircraft hunter Gillespie. Government agencies are likely to be stuck with a decision once it’s made, since they’re the basis for allocated funds.
Gillespie’s advice for the VeritasMH370 crew is to be open to whatever they do or don’t find. “Try your best to prove that you’re wrong,” rather than hone in on the select evidence that could show you’re right. Not that it’s easy. “You wouldn’t get involved,” Gillespie says, “if in the back of your head, you didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m smarter than these guys, I know what happened.’”
Maybe Goodfellow and Gunson are right, or maybe some crazier theory will prove true. Or possibly none of us will live to see the plane found. The ocean’s a big place.
source: wired.com by