The unprecedented scale of the search for MH370 was highlighted by an announcement that the UAE was joining the search. “A search unprecedented in its scale is now under way for the plane, covering an area stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the north to deep in the southern Indian Ocean and involving more than 25 countries including the Emirates and Oman.” A graphic showing the furthest possible MH370 could go is illustrated in blue.

Even when you rule out three quarters of that circle, it’s a big search area.  What makes it even bigger is the possibility that the plane — assuming it landed — has refueled. In which case a second circle in blue can be drawn tangent at some point to the first.

The maximum and minimum extents

The maximum and minimum extents

 

How do we narrow it down?

The altitude profile of the flight, plotted against hours and significant events is here.  You can infer terrain, somewhat, from the profile. But that still leaves a huge set of possibilities.

Maybe we can try to get inside the pilot’s mind — whoever he might be. The closest approach we can have both psychologically from the point of view of the pilot and objectively with respect to flight dynamics is the simulator.

The simulator is in the news again. The Malay Mail says “investigators have discovered the runways of five airports near the Indian Ocean loaded into Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s home-made flight simulator”.

“The simulation programmes are based on runways at the Male International Airport in Maldives, an airport owned by the United States (Diego Garcia), and three other runways in India and Sri Lanka, all have runway lengths of 1,000 metres.

This information is obviously wrong. Male International has a runway length of 3,500 meters.  Assuming the simulator belonged to the perp, he would hardly have left his destination so conveniently on the computer.

The Male idea got confirmation today after islanders in the Maldives reported seeing a low flying wide body. The Telegraph reports:

The global hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has shifted to a tiny island in the Maldives, where residents spotted a “low flying jumbo jet” hours after the aircraft disappeared.

Several witnesses in Dhaalu Atoll saw a plane heading south that bore the red stripe and white background of Malaysia Airlines planes.

The sightings, reported by a local news outlet, would have occurred more than seven hours after the plane, carrying 12 crew and 227 mainly Chinese passengers, lost contact with air traffic control and took its sudden westward turn during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early hours of Saturday March 8.

“I’ve never seen a jet flying so low over our island before. We’ve seen seaplanes, but I’m sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly,” said an witness.

The press has not described Captain Zaharie’s famous simulator very well. The Daily Mail, for example, simply pictures the video cards and hardware he used and calls it “software”.

In actuality, the Captain apparently built his own simulator, using X-Sim 2.1 which allows the user to construct gauges, controls, etc, to go beyond a keyboard and joystick input.  X-Sim appears to be a kind of software bridging the simulator engine with physical control and output devices, though I am only making an guess as I don’t own it. You can see the install video tutorial at the link above.

With it you can probably build your own simulator of anything. The underlying flight simulation software Zaharie used is nowhere described that I can find. I should be glad of a link. But if we assume it to be of a high quality, it might be represented by something like X-Plane, which comes in three flavors: desktop, mobile and professional. X-Plane was actually used to determine the much quoted fact that “there are at least 634 runways spread across 26 countries, ranging from Australia to the Maldives and Mongolia, that would fit the criteria, according to US public radio station WNYC,” so it can’t be too bad.

The organization’s data team used information from X-Plane, a flight simulator website that provides runway coordinates from around the world, to compile the list of airports.

The criteria for inclusion on the list was that a Boeing 777 would need a runway of at least 5000 feet (1524 metres) to land. The location was also required to be within 2200 nautical miles from the plane’s last known position, based on a recent Wall Street Journal article that quoted sources stating the flight could have continued on for that long.

The X-Plane desktop blurb goes: “For real-world pilots. Practice in the world’s most realistic flight simulator.”

  • Shoot VFR and IFR approaches.
  • Prepare for emergencies.
  • Improve your navigation skills.
  • Fly your airplane from your home airport.

Which would be just the thing. A promotional video is below.

X-Plane has a multiplayer mode, so perhaps the “US investigators” have looked up what scenarios were flown from that connection.

There is nothing except conflicting circumstantial evidence to suggest the captain was the perp. It has been widely reported that the voice heard after the ACARs was switched off was the co-pilot’s. Indeed co-pilot’s last message, which was nonstandard, has been interpreted as a coded call for help. We don’t know what happened on the 777 that fateful flight.  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that both officers were under the control of a very knowledgeable hijacker, who was a pilot himself.

What we do know, however is as  Bruce Schneier notes,  the NSA has been spying on the online gaming world for some time. The New York Times has an article saying that the counterterror folks have been watching the gaming channels for messages.

None of this of course, brings us a step closer to anything. But it does show how high quality commercial software has created planning tools to a degree heretofore unavailable to the general public. Those tools were not necessarily used by the captain to plan this hijack, if that is what it is. However, it reasonable to conjecture that the perpetrators – whoever they may be – planned this operation with the help of similar tools.

Planned, just planned. Because homemade simulators are not nearly like the real thing.

Homemade

Homemade

The real McCoy looks like a million dollars. Here’s the Boeing Flight Management Computer just by itself. You can survey a 777-200LR cockpit at Jon Ostrower’s site.

Flight Management Computer

Flight Management Computer

By looking at the situation through a potential hijacker’s tools we are following as close as we dare to the indistinct figures running before us.


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