Finding MH370: 'Head for Home'

Summary

Summary of Paul Smithson's theory of the disappearance and final resting place of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Did MH370 attempt a return to Kuala Lumpur?

Ever since MH370 disappeared from radar on the night of 7th March 2014, investigators and pundits have puzzled over what became of the aircraft and the souls on board. The bizarre sequence of events described under the “official narrative” has fuelled all manner of conspiracy theories.

The riddle

Why did the plane divert from its flight plan? Who was flying it? What was the motive or logic of the zigzag diversion? Why turn south to oblivion? Despite much morbid speculation, no convincing suspect, motive or logic has emerged to explain the riddle. No floating debris was found in the area where the flight was presumed to have ended, nor has anything been found on the seabed despite the largest underwater search for aircraft wreckage in history.

Turn-back to KL

This study puts forward a radically different hypothesis. If the aircraft encountered a serious in-flight emergency, what could be more likely than an attempted return to the airport of origin just 40 minutes earlier? Analysis of alternates available shows that this is highly plausible but only for a four-minute time window. Beyond BITOD, the shortest diversion would have been Ho Chi Minh, further along the flight plan.

Flight path models

Under this theory, the aircraft would have turned right, not left (the official version of events). Routed “DIRECT TO” aerodrome waypoint, it would have overflown KL International Airport at about 18:00UTC and (with pilots incapacitated) continued flying on a constant magnetic heading until fuel exhaustion. Flight path models with turnback initiated 1 - 4 minutes after transponder signal loss produce a series of end points in the vicinity of 44S 89E.

Debris or irrelevance?

These modelled end points produce an extraordinarily close match with an extensive debris field detected by more than four satellites 8-16 days after MH370’s disappearance. That a massive and recent debris event occurred there is not in doubt. Other than the missing aircraft, there is practically no other explanation for the numbers, size, reflectivity and clustering of objects in this remote stretch of ocean. This location is close to the NTSB’s earliest estimate of possible routes followed by the aircraft.

Flight paths under both heading-hold (M) and track-hold (M) scenarios include end points falling 3-35NM from the epicentre of a debris origin zone reverse-drifted from sighting locations. No change of speed was required to achieve this “match” - simply a diversion to KL within 4 minutes of transponder signal loss, at the same Mach number prevailing before disappearance.

It is the greatest irony of the search for MH370 that the search of this vicinity was abandoned after a matter of days and shifted more than 1000 kilometres away to 20S. The evidentiary basis for this extraordinary decision by the Malaysian-led investigation now looks more shaky than ever. During the subsequent 20 months the preferred search zone has moved progressively back south again. The latest “best estimate” of end point by the Australian DSTG/ATSB is close to that of several independent investigators in the vicinity of 38S, 88E. The flight paths modelled here pass nearly directly over this location, ending 350NM further south.

The radar story

Re-examination of official announcements in the first four days reveals multiple accounts of a possible turn-back to Kuala Lumpur detected on radar. It was only on 15th March that the “authorised version” was cemented in a press conference by the Malaysian Prime Minister, asserting that radar traces in the northern Malacca Strait belonged to MH370. Numerous inconsistencies and gaps undermine confidence in this narrative and the only corroboration cited was alignment with the latest satellite “handshake” analysis. The alleged flight path was easily within range of both Thai and Indonesian military radar but both countries explicitly denied detecting it.

Is BTO infallible?

The satellite handshake data is regarded as “ground truth” by the investigators and the vast majority of independent observers. This theory generates a flight path that lies consistently beyond the “ping rings” by 100-350NM. The pattern of errors is a perfect polynomial suggesting either a systematic “shift” that might be due to disruption of the aircraft’s SDU or a fundamental methodological error in the derivation of range from BTO. The possibility that the BTO range might be in error should be considered in light of the circumstantial evidence presented here in support of a highly plausible “head home” hypothesis.

What next?

The study does not propose immediate delineation of a new search area. More important is a comprehensive and definitive analysis of the radar records (including Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian and Singapore military surveillance radars) to determine whether a return to KL was attempted. If not, this hypothesis can be categorically refuted.

Should a radar trace consistent with this hypothesis be uncovered, the time, heading and speed would greatly aid modelling of the subsequent flight path. Cross-matched with expert reverse-drift models of the debris, it should be possible to define a precise search zone of 20x20NM - not much larger than 1% of the 120,000 square kilometre search area that the Australian-led search is determined to cover.

Paul Smithson
1 February 2016

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