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The Searchers

March 9th, 2014 - 9:10 am

The normal international soap opera has been interrupted by the unexpected drama of MH370 — the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner traveling from Malaysia to Beijing. It has all the elements of a blockbuster movie. Take an aircraft type that’s never had a major loss of life due to equipment failure — the Boeing 777 — add its disappearance from the secondary search radar system (used by air traffic controllers), stir in reports that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was broadcasting nothing odd and then stopped, mix in two mysterious passengers using stolen passports, lace with a great deal of human interest and wild speculation and you have a cliffhanger.

There’s no ending to the story yet so one of the best places to go for informed speculation on MH370 is PPRUNE, the Professional Pilots Rumor Network, where imagination is tempered with knowledge. For facts without speculation the site most likely to break actual news is the 7th Fleet Twitter account which lists out the activities of the Burke-class destroyer USS Pinckney, it’s two search helicopters and a supporting P3 from US airbases in Japan in 140 characters or less.

The Pinckney arrived at the last reported position of MH370 about 9 hours ago. Generally speaking the aviation assets — the Orion and the shipboard helos — will use their radars and/or sonobuoys and to localize the contact. If they find anything interesting the destroyer will come up and examine the debris and put the big sonar and probably the mine hunting equipment into action.

The problem for the Pinckney is the uncertainty over where MH370 went down. The sea is a big place. The good news is that the Gulf of Thailand is shallow so any wreckage will lie within probable reach of the ships sensors. One other factor working in the searcher’s favor is that the narrow seas are thick with fishing boats. One pilot who flies the route said that at night the sea below seems carpeted with floating cities.

The abundance of possible observers deepens the mystery of why nobody saw anything unusual.  The most probable causes of MH370′s loss are catastrophic airframe failure, a bomb or crew incapacitation.  The bomb theory, which is the most dramatic of all, might at least have been observed from below.  If the the 777 blew apart in the air, then why did none of the fishermen report it?

One reason it turns out is that many of the boats have no comms. It will be necessary to wait until the fishermen make port to piece together any observations they may have. In other words the observation data is there, it just hasn’t been collected yet.  The same may be true of the primary search radars in the area, mostly military (which work on actively receiving echoes from their transmitters as opposed to transponders).  These may contain vital data left out of operator displays by software in order to cut down clutter on the scope. Thus, like the fishermen, the data may be hiding in the weeds waiting for an analyst to tease it out.

Why the fuss? One of the unstated concerns, exacerbated by the circumstance there were two passengers traveling with stolen passports with onward tickets from Beijing (to avoid the visa requirements) is that some terrorist group has found a way to bring down an airliner that the security people don’t know about. Feeding this speculation is a tantalizing report that another commercial pilot contacted the missing plane after Malaysian Airlines had failed to raise it, responding to a request to any aircraft in the area to try and contact it by HF radio.

The captain, who asked to not be named, said his plane, which was bound for Narita, Japan, was far into Vietnamese airspace when he was asked to relay, using his plane’s emergency frequency, to MH370 for the latter to establish its position, as the authorities could not contact the aircraft.

“We managed to establish contact with MH370 just after 1.30am and asked them if they have transferred into Vietnamese airspace.

“The voice on the other side could have been either Captain Zaharie (Ahmad Shah, 53,) or Fariq (Abdul Hamid, 27), but I was sure it was the co-pilot.

“There were a lot of interference… static… but I heard mumbling from the other end.

“That was the last time we heard from them, as we lost the connection,” he told the New Sunday Times.

The report suggests that something was wrong at that point, perhaps the crew or its flight systems were impaired. But nobody knows for sure. One of the problems with the MH370 is that the exotic elements of the narrative — the sudden disappearance, the stolen passports — may be irrelevant to the issue — a distraction from the actual cause driven by suggestive mysteriousness. Perhaps it was simply equipment failure. The cabin may have blown apart at cruising altitude, where the pressure differential between the cabin and the outside area is greatest. Or maybe there was some complete failure in the electrical systems. Or maybe the two or more mysterious passengers released some substance to gas everyone on board.

For that reason the labors of the USS Pinckney are probably our best bet.  They are starting at the last known position of the airplane and may do an expanding search from there.  Just the facts ma’am. Block by block. Sergeant Joe Friday on the job. Sooner or later — with any luck sooner — the physical data will lead to the truth.


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Top Rated Comments   
Do Not Feed The Troll.

It will be necessary for the PJM Admins to respond quickly to both clear false abuse reports and to remove moby troll abuse attacks. We cannot expect wretchard to monitor this site 24 hours a day.

My point before was that due to the reduced capacity and presence of the US there is a greater risk of both under and over reaction. As the enemy desires, controls will be tightened. Commerce and communication will decline. The world will be a poorer, less safe and a less free place.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"US weakened? The US defense budget is more than the next 10 nations combined. We spend six times more than China, 11 times more than Russia, 27 times more than Iran and 33 times more than Israel. Think there's any fat to be trimmed?" Patrick778

Nuts. What's your agenda??

The USA pays contractors and employees 10x more than the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians pay theirs, and the USA's progressive environmental rules, safety laws, and union work rules cost the government 100x more.

Count outputs, not inputs. Static analysis NEVER models reality accurately.

Also, factor in the age of our technology and cost of ramping up a new weapons system, typically a minimum of 15 years. That means that technology WHEN DELIVERED is already out of sync with current technology. Our "design margin" is having multiple weapons systems in the pipeline simultaneously, pushing new technology out the pipeline continuously. Instead, we have 10-15 year GAPs with NO weapon system replacements in the pipeline, while China turns out new ship classes, aircraft, and weapon systems in tight 5 year cycles.

Yes, the USA won WWII by ramping up to wartime manufacturing and pushing out an unbelievable amount of hardware, but look at how much it cost America in lives and treasury. Plus, if America had lost, and with the technology Germany was nearly bringing online, it was a close thing - the USA could have lost at war, and what would the cost have been then?

As discussed in Plato's Republic, the primary responsibility of government is internal and external security. How much sense does it make for the US government to spend $Trillions on domestic largess, while starving defense and eliminating the US defense design margin, at a time when potential aggressors have multiplied many fold, and can bring disaster to the US in very small, inexpensive packages.

Is there "fat" in the US Defense budget. Certainly so. However, 9 of every 10 employees involved in defense are public employees or government controlled contractors. The reason Navy and Marine deployments have kids like some I know doing 5 combat tours in 6 years, is that there are no state side billets left for them. They've all been replaced by government union jobs. As a former Navy/government contracting officer, I can assure you, the progressive government regulation CRIPPLES the defense budget. Read CFR 49. A huge number the budget defense line items have nothing to do with defense.

How about we cut even 15% of the fat in the non-defense spending before trying to hack 50% out of the defense budget? Just what are the priorities of government?
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Assume this is a simple catastrophic failure. Blast From the Past

Occam's razor. Fair enough.

However, the safety record of air travel over the past 10-20 years has been nothing short of phenomenal. If I recall correctly, the last couple of major crashes (e..g. Asiana Airlines at SFO, Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic in the Southern hemisphere) were due to human error.

Even though Malaysia Airlines is not Asiana Airlines, based on the Boeing 777's safety record and the recent crash history, I'd lean towards likely pilot error over mechanical failure. However, your guess is as good as mine.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (51)
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I am late to this thread, but has anyone considered that a laptop computer brought onboard the plane might have hacked into the navigation controls of the 777 to misdirect it? Do any of our Belmont folks know if this is being considered or if it is even possible?
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
You all might be interested in this: "Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11," by Lynn Spencer.

"Now in paperback, the riveting story of the response of the heroic pilots and air traffic controllers who found themselves on the front lines of an undeclared war on September 11, 2001.

In this gripping minute-to-minute narrative, based on an astonishing feat of reporting, Lynn Spencer (herself a pilot) re-creates the never-before told story of the unprecedented battle in the skies on 9/11, making vital corrections to the findings of the 9/11 Commission and revealing many startling, unknown elements of the day’s events.

The reader is taken right to the front lines of the heroic response that fateful morning as thousands of air traffic controllers, military commanders, jet fighter pilots, and commercial pilots with flights in the air snapped into stirring action.

She brings readers to the hot spot of each split-second decision, taking them inside the cockpits, the control towers, the fighter jets, and the military battle cabs to bring to life the intensity of the firsthand struggles to grasp what was happening and how to respond.

From the shocking moment that American Flight 11 fails to respond to a controller’s call, to the announcement that the last commercial flight has safely landed and military jets rule the skies, "Touching History" is a powerful and deeply moving nonfiction thriller that is a vital addition to the country’s understanding of a day that changed our nation."

I warn you, you might stay up all night reading it. It's a riveting minute-by-minute account, and you find out a Lot about the nation's air defenses and our civilian airline system, as well as what happens when planes go "dark," what happens out over the Atlantic -- it's fascinating.

And there's the captain who tells the story of the FIFTH crew of hijackers -- who were on his plane in La Guardia Airport.

(show less)
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Also, a comment on the radars.

Unless it has changed recently, air traffic control radars do receive the skin paint - the radio reflection. The operators may or may not choose to display it, but it's there. In fact, if there's only the transponder response is, the term "radar" is misleading. I flown on lost aircraft searches where we used radar primary return data (US ATC) recovered from the recorded data.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a former P-3 crewman, I'm a bid skeptical of Wretchard's assertions on the search capabilities.

The P-3 radar would not likely do any good. Debris would be hard to see with it, unless the seas are dead calm. Even then, separating the return from the many other contacts would not be possible. The P-3 crew would likely face a very large number of contacts to investigate - the numerous fishing boats , few to none of the contacts likely the debris.

The P-3 sonar assets are also a bit problematic. Sonobuoys are expensive and the P-3 only carries a few dozen. A sonobuoy might or might not hear a "black" box pinger at enough distance to be worth it - it depends on sound propagation conditions. The DIFAR apparatus, which can detect weak signals and get directional data, is designed for continuous signals, so it might not be of use - but I'm not an expert on it. Also, the technical details of the sonar system capabilities are secret, and the Navy wouldn't want to provide data that gave any hints about them. Certainly the knowledge that a pinger is going off is important, but I doubt that's the P-3's mission in this case.

The P-3 was probably sent because it has FLIR (infrared) and very good capabilities for night flight at very low altitudes (~100' AGL), allowing it to search for debris at night when other assets, such as the VN Otters, are probably useless.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for setting me straight.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
An additional tidbit. Until reading the airline pilot rumors link (from your article) I was not aware that the "pinger" operates at 37.5kHz - way above human hearing range.

I suspect that the Sonobuoys, unless purpose built, do not receive audio at that high a frequency. I don't know this for a fact - just suspect it.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Patrick778:

Since World War II, the United States has relied upon something called a “mutual defense treaty”. In other words, the United States agrees to defend another country in exchange for (1) the other country coming to our aid when we're attacked, (2) the other country allowing the United States to use bases on their territory, and (3) the other country allowing the United States military to assume jurisdiction over the behavior of American soldiers, sailors, and marines.

The United States military budget is actually too small given the obligations that the United States has taken accumulated over the past seventy years. Do you want the United States to exit from its myriad defense pacts? If so, which ones? NATO? Rio? The Japan-US defense pact? Your talking point is popular at the Nation magazine and some factions of the American Conservative, but one needs to weigh the costs of withdrawing from a mutual defense treaty against its potential benefits. Have you really thought through the implications of withdrawing from the USA's commitments overseas?

Far be it for me to suggest that American defense policy ought to continue on autopilot. Far be it for me to suggest that one shouldn't crack down on wasteful spending in national defense – after all, Senator Truman became famous during World War II for his investigations of war profiteering. The United States should be putting the interests of America first. That said, the United States should avoid making hasty withdrawals from mutual defense treaties unless and until one has considered the costs and benefits involved.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
The United States of Mexico is not an ally of the United States of America. After the September 11 attacks, President Bush invoked the Rio treaty. In response, the United States of Mexico formally denounced the Rio treaty. This should be remembered.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Do Not Feed The Troll.

It will be necessary for the PJM Admins to respond quickly to both clear false abuse reports and to remove moby troll abuse attacks. We cannot expect wretchard to monitor this site 24 hours a day.

My point before was that due to the reduced capacity and presence of the US there is a greater risk of both under and over reaction. As the enemy desires, controls will be tightened. Commerce and communication will decline. The world will be a poorer, less safe and a less free place.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Russia's agit-prop site "ZeroHedge" indicates that the Ukraine is mobilizing, refer to:

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-03-08/ukraines-military-mobilizes-prepares-combat-trucks-apcs-tanks-rolling-out

My snappy come back: "It's about time"

Also, supposedly the Ukraine's leaders vow not to cede any land to Russia, refer to:

http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-crimea-ukraine-russia-20140309,0,3176896.story#axzz2vWLBoDCf

The MSM will attempt to ignore this for as long as possible. The tragic Malaysian 777 crash was a convenient distraction.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Any contracts in the US market come with a "tort lawyers" liability tax attached on top of everything else. The corporate tax is the highest in the industrialized world and now you have the Obamacare tax in the mix. Crony contractors on no-bid contracts for military contracts seem to be proliferating also.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Many people are assuming that flight MH370 was lost due to terrorism but there is the possibility of mechanical failure. Many aeronautical engineers are familiar with the "whirl mode flutter" that afflicted the Lockheed L-188 Electra, refer to:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_L-188_Electra

Key quote:

"After an extensive investigation, two of the crashes (in September 1959 and March 1960) were found to be caused by an engine mount problem. The mounts were not strong enough to damp a phenomenon called "whirl mode flutter" (analogous to the precession of a child's top as it slows down) that affected the outboard engine nacelles. When the oscillation was transmitted to the wings and the flutter frequency decreased to a point where it was harmonic with the outer wing panels, violent up-and-down oscillation increased until the wings would tear themselves off.

Solving that puzzle was extremely difficult because the planes were completely destroyed. The "whirl mode flutter" did not begin until after the engine mounts had become worn. Brand new engine mounts did not exhibit the fault which is why the Lockheed L-188 Electra got through Lockheed's aircraft development process.

Wing flutter is one of the worries that keeps aircraft designers awake at night. Extensive wind tunnel and prototype flight tests are always performed to specifically look for flutter.

It's possible that a very deep time dependent fault in the Boeing 777 caused the failure. Solving this will be possible only after the wreck has been discovered.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
A take away lesson from the Lockheed L-188 is to frequently check the engine mounts on your car. Sometimes my car's engine would get into a funny resonance. I'd check the engine mounts and sure enough they would be cracked or damaged. Should I remove an engine mount in the process of doing another repair and find it cracked or chunks falling out, I'll always replace it. Never reinstall a damaged engine mount.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
A tragic situation to be sure, Wretchard. Prayers for the families of the lost.

As for the causes, well, an accident, some type of catastrophic mechanical or equipment failure is always inherently possible with complex machinery - but very unlikely. The presence of false passports strongly suggests crminal activity - most likely terrorism. Which brings us to the question who, why and why has no group stepped forward to boast of this attack? The purpose of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize - and publicity is part and parcel of that. Given that most of the victims appear to be chinese, we may see how the Chinese government deals with Al-Qaida like groups or internal Muslim terror groups - their response is unlikely to be....gentle, to put it politely.

To go off topic for a sec, the person arguing about fat in the defense budget is severly misplaced. Much of what the federal government does could be privatized without difficulty. Cutting the defense budget is both unneeded and dangerous in the world we live in. Look at what our defense spending actually buys - around 50% goes to recruitment, pay, pensions, medical care, and the like. Volunteer armies are expensive. In terms of weapons, well, last time I checked the Air Force could barely muster 100 heavy bombers of all types; there are fewer than 200 first-line F-22's in existence and no more will be built. The F-35 is an unknown quantity and most of the existing F-15 and F-16 air frames date back to the 1980's or earlier. The Army can barely muster two combat ready brigades, and the number of availble troops are expected to shrink. There has not been a single new tank in over 20 years. The Navy is trying to cover the oceans of the world with fewer than 300 warships of all types - about what they had in 1915.

If you want to save money in government spending, the place to go is not the Pentagon.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Add in personnel retention is now becoming problematic. It's your veterans who make the machine go. I know current Army and Marine personnel who are going on their 7th(!) and 8th(!) combat deployments. They are no longer getting tired. They are exhausted. And now you want to cut pay and benefits?
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
True. Also, ops temp over the last 10 years has led to a more rapid accumulation of flight hours on USMC airframes than was factored into those 15-yr procurement cycles.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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