Sunday, March 16, 2014

MH370 - a North Korean scenario

Okay, this post is a little tongue in cheek, and may get out of date very quickly – the story about Malaysian flight 370 going missing is still developing, and new information could appear at any time. And of course, especially since I know various people who work in airlines, I have every sympathy with passengers and crew and their families, and hope the truth comes quickly to light.

But as well as the human story, there's the events themselves, which have captured my attention along with that of many other people. What has taken place looks like quite a feat of planning. So I thought I'd chip in with my thoughts.

When the news about the disappearance of MH370 first broke around the eighth of March, a few people pretty quickly mentioned "North Korea" – after all, it's in Asia, it was about to declare election results, and its policy decisions are pretty unconventional. Maybe it had shot the airliner down, or something.

But if you look at a map, you see that North Korea is a long way from the area where the Boeing 777 went missing. So people set that thought aside fairly quickly, and the focus was on the aeroplane being lost close to where it went missing.

In the last couple of days, though, new information says that the aeroplane continued to remain powered for up to seven hours. That changes a lot – in that time, not counting the effects of any wind, the aircraft could travel another 2500 miles or so. That's a big search area – so big that the only way we might ever know what happened is if we have a story to start with. And if it's the case that the aeroplane was taken off route on purpose, then someone somewhere definitely has a story.

So here's what may have happened.

One hour out of Kuala Lumpur, the transponder is switched off, along with all communication systems. The aeroplane is basically invisible to the civil radar system, and not talking to anyone. The aeroplane continues towards Beijing, but not talking to the outside world. The passengers are unaware that anything untoward is happening. As it gets within an hour or so from the destination, the pilots announce to the passengers and crew that the aeroplane is diverting – perhaps to Jinzhou airport to the east. The cabin crew prepare the aeroplane for landing, but just twenty minutes before landing, off the Chinese coast, the pilots turn further east, and make for an airport in North Korea, landing there around the time they were expecting to land from the diversion. With careful management of the aeroplane, the first the cabin crew or passengers know about where they are is after the aeroplane is shut down. And if there's no mobile phone signal, then nobody can get a message away.

What evidence does this deal with?

No wreckage has been discovered where the aeroplane went out of contact, and it would have taken pretty much five more hours for the aeroplane to fly to North Korea, land and power down. It also explains why THIS flight was taken, as it can continue towards North Korea without the passengers being aware of it until too late. If the passengers were alive and knew that the aeroplane was going in a completely different direction, I think they'd have made attempts to use mobile phones or other communication devices – almost certainly someone would have managed something. The passengers' mobile phones were reported in some cases continued to ring – this might be because the passengers made it alive and well to North Korea, but then had the phones taken away from them or something.

The map below shows great circle tracks from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and Pyongyang.

What are the problems with the theory?

Well, to be honest, this is a pretty unlikely theory.

First, the radar return heading west across the Malay peninsula, which has resulted in the search attention being redirected to that area. There are various possibilities. One is that it was a deliberate decoy – in the same way that the aeroplane went incommunicado at a particular point to focus attention on that, a radar trace in the wrong direction which subsequently came to light would also provide a distraction and keep people looking in the wrong direction.

Second is, although the transponder, radio systems and presumably things like Collision avoidance systems, were switched off, is it really possible for an airliner to fly for thousands of miles without being detected? The transponder provides an active system, which air traffic control systems use – but aeroplanes also produce a passive reflection for radar – the system that was used before transponders were – and a Boeing 777 would produce a pretty big echo. If you look at the route from Kuala Lumpur to North Korea, it would take the aeroplane close to Hong Kong and Shanghai, pretty busy airspace. I showed the position of these airports on the map above. Could it really have avoided being detected all through this airspace?

Third, wouldn't someone have seen it? As far as people on the ground are concerned, how much notice do you take of an airliner at cruising altitude. When was the last one you saw? I suppose if it's somewhere that you never see one, then you might notice – but otherwise, you probably wouldn't consider it to be a significant event. What about other aeroplanes noticing? That's harder. If the aeroplane was invisible and its presence not known, with a lot of the systems switched off, then the pilots would have had to sort out their own means of avoiding other aeroplanes – there's a lot of space, but aeroplanes tend to be funnelled down narrow corridors called airways. Having said that, aeroplanes pass each other like ships in the night, and the pilots will just assume that they are being looked after by air traffic control. The easiest way of not being noticed is probably to look as though you're supposed to be there.

But finally, WHY? There's half an opportunity, but what could be the motive? It's possible to imagine that one or both of the pilots might have been bribed, and the North Korean government is notoriously unpredictable. But what would the government actually do with an airliner full of passengers if it arrived there?

There are all sorts of technical problems with this as a story, and it raises loads of questions. But at the moment, we don't have any stories at all. With this story, at least we have some parts of the "how", even if we don't have a "why".

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