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Seismology report from Chinese officials proves to be a dead end

In recent days, China has expressed frustration about Malaysian authorities' inability to locate a flight that mysteriously vanished in route from Kuala Lumpure to Beijing. 
I. Did Seismology Data Show Crash?
The University of Science and Technology of China yesterday deepened the mystery when it claimed to have detected sea floor seismic activity near the point in its route where the jet vanished.
The seismologists comment:

[The activity] was [from] a non-seismic zone, therefore judging from the time and location of the event, it might be related to the missing MH370 flight.  If it was indeed an airplane crashing into the sea, the seismic wave strength indicated that the crash process was catastrophic.

Seismic event
Chinese seismologists noticed a suspicious event they speculated could be a plane crashing hard into the Ocean. [Image Source: Univ. of Science and Technology, China]

But the Boeing Comp. (BA) Boeing 777 had a backup communications system at a low level, as many had speculated.  That system -- the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) -- was active during Flight 370's mysterious journey.
The ACARS system on the plane is manufactured and served by Inmarsat plc (LON:ISAT), a UK satellite company.  Inmarsat systems are in roughly 90 percent of long haul passenger planes worldwide.
The version of ACARS on the plane is basic, but more sophisticated versions include satellite messaging systems.  However, Malaysia Airlines System Bhd (MK:MAS) -- the firm that owns and operates Malaysian Airlines -- opted not to pay for that feature.

Malaysian Airlines Boeing 577
A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 jet [Image Source: The Washington Post]

The ACARS appeared a dead end on Thursday when The Wall Street Journal reported:

Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said that based on the airline's records, the last transmission was at 1:07 a.m. Saturday, slightly earlier than the time that officials have said the airliner disappeared from radar as it was flying northward over the South China Sea.

According to other reports, the plane's transponder fell silent at 1:21 a.m.
Combined with the Chinese seismology report, it would be easy to come to the premature conclusion that something horrible had happened in flight, and that systems quickly failed.
II. Transponder was Powered; But Someone or Something Silenced it
The mystery continued to mount today when sources began to indicate that The Wall Street Journal report was misleading or inaccurate.  It turns out the ACARS system was actually switched off.  However, you can't fully disable the system.  So when the satellite it was communicating with sent it pings, the plane answered back for the next several hours.
David Coiley, vice president of aviation products at Inmarsat, is quoted by The Guardian as saying:

When the system is not transmitting or receiving data on the aircraft, it will send network signalling info to establish that the aircraft satellite communication is switched on, to say that the system could communicate. If we haven’t seen any activity from an aircraft or ship it’s a check. It’s a simple acknowledgement.

The ping doesn’t say anything other than that the satellite communications is functioning.

Plane range -- flight 370
The plane had seven hours worth of fuel. [Image Source: The Washington Post]

In other words, the plane clearly had power for hours after it fell silent.  The plane was traveling with seven hours worth of fuel, which would allow it to reach many destinations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
More evidence came via Wednesday's reports that military radar posts in Thailand picked up an unknown aircraft was traveling at 30,000 feet at 2:15 a.m., headed due west towards the Bay of Bengal.

Flight 370
The estimated flight path [Image Source: NY Daily News]

On Friday CNN reported that a classified analysis by the U.S. military intelligence, Malaysian government, and other cooperating nations indicated that the plane's ACAR system stopped responding to pings around five hours after taking it off.  That means it likely could not reach the Middle East (which is further evidenced by the fact that such a path would be picked up by radar in India).

Very recent reports state that the plane climbed to 40,000+ feet -- an unauthorized altitude -- before plunging "unevenly" to an altitude of 23,000 feet and passing over Thailand.  The airplane then climbed up to the aforementioned altitude of 30,000 feet.
Some have speculated the altitude changes could be signs of a struggle in the pilot's cabin.

Some have speculated that pirates could have landed the airplane on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are owned by India and have a runway long enough to support the landing.  But Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle, blasted that suggestion, stating:

There is no chance, no such chance, that any aircraft of this size can come towards Andaman and Nicobar Islands and land.
Andaman Islands
Aviation experts say there's a small chance the plane crash landed on an abandoned island in the Nicobar or Andaman Islands. [Image Source: The Guardian]

But aviation experts say otherwise.  They claim there's a slim chance also that the plane may have performed an emergency landing in the Adaman and Nicobar Islands.  While such a landing would be daunting, only 37 of the 572 islands are inhabited, according to The Guardian.  Indian authorities are now scouring the island's jungles.
III. Hijacking… or Something Else?
The incident has raised suspicions that the airline was hijacked.  Initial scrutiny turned to two Iranians traveling with stolen passports.  But the plane's western diversion closely followed local waypoints by pilots when traveling on routes to Europe.
That suggests whoever was flying on the plane was a professional pilot, and likely one who had flown in the region.
Now scrutiny is focusing on the pilots.

Flight 370
A banner was signed by many well wishers and friends of the crew and passengers.
[Image Source: Reuters]

Two Australian women -- Jonti Roos and Jaan Maren -- both claim that the younger 27-year-old pilot -- Fariq Abdul Hamid -- had invited them into the cockpit for the course of their 2011 flight and was behaving boisterously.  Comments Ms. Roos:

Throughout the whole flight they were talking to us, they were actually smoking throughout the flight, which I don’t think they’re allowed to be doing and they were taking photos with us in the cockpit while they were flying the plane.

Ms. Roos said the pilots invited her and her friend to stay with him at his place in Malaysia.  She said she felt the invitation seemed "possibly a little bit sleazy" and she and her friend declined.
But Mr. Fariq's friends attacked that report saying that the young pilot was a devout, religious Muslim (as was the older pilot).  AP interviewed his neighbor, Ayop Jantan, who said he was engaged and scheduled to be married soon.
But clearly the incident in question did happen as Ms. Roos released a photograph that showed herself in the cockpit with Mr. Hamid.  The pilot also shows her friend, Ms. Maree wearing the pilot's hat.

Fariq with Australians
Jaan Maree, Jonti Roos, and Malaysian airlines Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, pose for a picture in 2011. [Image Source: NineMSN]

Whether it was a hijacking or something even more bizarre, U.S. and Malaysian authorities believe the most likely possibility is that the plane crashed into the ocean.  Based on the signals they estimated that it either traveled south or headed northwest across the Bay of Bengal, which would place it crashing near India.
Oh and that earthquake?  According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) the Chinese seismologists goofed up.  Their analysis of the data showed it really was a small earthquake, which they said measured magnitude 2.7 on the Richter scale.

Sources: CNN, Telegraph

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By superPC on 3/14/2014 11:28:27 PM , Rating: 2
First of all, I have to confess that I study aeronautics engineering as an undergrad and work as building mechanical engineer designer. So I'm not proud to admit that I'm baffled by this. it seems to defy all logic. How can a plane just change direction and disappear?

But then I realize that radar coverage over the ocean is limited and there are evidence of an unidentified airplane flying west at the time of MAS jet disappearance ( ).

I think it's time to upgrade all flight with GPS. All this confusion about where the plane went wouldn't happen if the satellite ping also included GPS positioning data from an onboard unit.

As sad as this incident may be, it could be a wakeup call that can help shape future regulation.

By superPC on 3/15/2014 12:00:30 AM , Rating: 3 Huh, never mind than... So satellite ping response data does includes position of airplane.

Something is off here. Why doesn't that location disclosed to the public?

By Solandri on 3/15/2014 1:59:49 AM , Rating: 2
Assuming the pings do include location data, how useful they are would depend on how frequently the pings happen. If it's every minute, then yes they'd be useful.

If it's every half hour, you're still looking for a needle in a cornfield. Which I suppose is better than looking for a needle in a city, but it's still an almost impossibly daunting task.

By Dorkyman on 3/15/2014 2:16:24 AM , Rating: 3
Just as an aside, the second photo is NOT a 777. It's a photo of a 737. Look at the fan diameter. The 777's fans are nearly twice the height of a man.

By Schrag4 on 3/15/2014 12:43:19 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, I'm not a plane geek and I realized in an instant that the picture was not of a 777.

By MZperX on 3/17/2014 1:37:11 PM , Rating: 3
Logged in to post this. Definitely a 737... caption needs to be fixed or replace the photo.

By superPC on 3/15/2014 5:28:04 AM , Rating: 2
Actually it says right there in the article that it pings every hour. So it's still very difficult to find.

By mike8675309 on 3/15/2014 3:21:29 PM , Rating: 2
Difficult but much easier without that data. two pings and you now have direction and can calculate distance and average speed. three pings and you know even more. That eliminates a large amount of area you would otherwise have to search. Still a lot of area left, but much less than not having the information.

By Fritzr on 3/16/2014 10:31:23 AM , Rating: 2
Further reading says that the ACARS system was shut down around the time the other transponders were turned off. The satellite ping was not positional, it was only "this receiver heard you" telling the satellite that there is a working transponder and nothing else.

The minimal ACARS the plane has gives positional info when it is turned on and when off simply says that it is still alive when pinged. They can narrow down position a little as the plane was somewhere in the satellite's service area when it pinged, but that is a very large area.

By homebredcorgi on 3/16/2014 4:31:09 PM , Rating: 2
It isn't actual GPS data. It's essentially a ping from the plane to the satellite sent every hour. Based on the time delay between the ping and when the satellite received it, they are estimating possible positions as a function of distance from the satellite. Inmarsat said something to the effect of "We never though we'd have to use this type of data for estimating a planes location."

Basically, they end up with two very large arcs (thousands of miles long) based on a known distance from the satellite. Those arcs are then expanded based on knowledge that there was probably another hour of fuel (max) left after the last ping to the satellite. It narrows it down, but they are talking about a massive part of Asia or an equally massive part of the Indian Ocean off the cost of Australia.

See the 2nd photo in this article:

By Cluebat on 3/18/2014 12:09:03 PM , Rating: 2
US intelligence does not want the world to know just how much data we are receiving from these commercial planes. I am convinced that the administration knows a lot more than it is letting on.

By drycrust3 on 3/15/2014 12:24:45 AM , Rating: 2
I think a lot of people think along the same lines. My bus company has GPS tracking on most of the buses, so one wonders why it is that a plane worth hundreds of millions of dollars doesn't have it fitted as well.
To be fair, if there was some sort of skulduggery, then the GPS system would be turned off as well.
When you look at the Air France plane that went missing in 2009, it was a backup maintenance system that told us where the plane was, otherwise we'd have as much clue as to where it went as we do this plane.

By RapidDissent on 3/15/2014 10:33:49 AM , Rating: 3
GPS, transponder, and ACARS should all be on a redundant, battery backed up, closed circuit. It should be deep in the tail of the aircraft and only accessible through an external panel.

I fail to see why you would ever want to turn these things off in a civilian, commercial aircraft. If the plane is at an altitude of ground+10m, it should be broadcasting, period. If the engine is running on the ground, broadcasting. If the engine is not running on the ground, not broadcasting. If you open the external access panel, then there should be a physical key to deactivate the system.

Like most things, we won't learn until it happens a few more times.

By Keeir on 3/15/2014 12:02:45 PM , Rating: 3
Well friend, this is how your not thinking through the problem completely.

#1. Systems that are not accessible to the pilots in any way can not be diagnosed during flight. Why does this matter? "Oops, the transponders not working, guess we have to do an ATB and land, no option" (Check out the a Delta 767 that recently had to land because 1 out 3 altimeters was reading more than 200m different than the other 2.)

#2. The "Tail" of the aircraft has more than 1 time left the aircraft. Check out JAL 123.

#3. The Aft section of the aircraft is already home to the black-boxes and the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT, its what caught on fire in the 787 in the UK).

#4. If someone wants to disable a system, and has the type of knowledge on potentially on display here, it will be done. Keep in mind, someone had to have both pilot knowledge AND mechanical knowledge of this plane.

#5. Sometimes equipment gives faulty readings. The ability to turn off some forms of redundant/unneeded for safe flight systems is considered to be helpful for overall aircraft safety. Some of these systems have repetitive audible warnings... some flash messages... others will block/obscure potentially vital data.

1-5 add up to not a great deal to change. A person with sufficient knowledge will always be able to disable systems. The issue here is find the wreckage only... having that system be active would enable faster response to an actual plane theft... but really not that much. The 777 flys pretty fast and would take hours for even the fastest fights/teams to scramble from the home countries of this flight...

By Solandri on 3/15/2014 5:15:43 PM , Rating: 1
GPS, transponder, and ACARS should all be on a redundant, battery backed up, closed circuit. It should be deep in the tail of the aircraft and only accessible through an external panel.

And what if the GPS malfunctions and starts reporting (say) erroneous altitude? Or the transponder goes on the fritz and starts blasting out nonsense data filling controllers' screens so they can't see the other planes? Anyway, I'm pretty sure these are redundant. I know there are two transponders, and I believe there are two or three GPS units.

The pilots need to be able to control which ones are on or off. There's a fundamental assumption that the pilots and passengers have the best interests of the aircraft at heart. Usually it's a good assumption since their very lives depend on it, but in some rare cases it can turn out to be a bad assumption.

As I understand it, ACARS does pretty much operate on its own without pilot control. The problem here was that Malaysia Airlines opted not to pay for the service, so no data was transmitted. The pings they got were like the standby mode of the equipment when it's not enabled. "I'm here, can you hear me? You know, so we can start talking if my airline decides to pay to turn me on."

By sorry dog on 3/16/2014 10:14:41 PM , Rating: 2
ACARS does have an independent power source. I read that it can still be disabled by changing it's SAT frequencies for ocean ops, and switching its VHF antenna to another source for land ops.

Unfortunately, all people, regulators, and lawmakers that don't know jack crap about transport airplanes are going to be screaming how is it possible for pilots to be able to do this? It must be fixed." Ya know, because we lose large airplanes all the time. In fact, in the last 40 years of aviation, we've lost a whole nother 1 large passenger jet (and it was empty in Africa).... but heaven forbid, it happens again....

By bug77 on 3/15/2014 12:49:34 PM , Rating: 2
...I realize that radar coverage over the ocean is limited...

The suggested flight path says the plane flew right over Thailand. If that's the case, it's really, really strange it wasn't picked up by any radar.

By Solandri on 3/15/2014 5:25:31 PM , Rating: 2
Not really surprising. Primary radar (the old style where you shoot radio waves out, listen for its echo, and draw a blip on the screen corresponding to the echo) is almost never used by air traffic control anymore. It was plagued with ghosts, echos, interference from weather, missing blips, etc and in most cases didn't show you the altitude (kinda important info). Almost all ATC now uses transponders, with primary radar as a backup if that system should go down.

So even if the airport had a primary radar running, they probably weren't watching it. It's mostly military bases which actively monitor primary radar 24/7. And they're probably so used to seeing numerous blips from commercial aircraft, they wouldn't think anything of a blip passing by unless it was headed straight for their base.

These radar sweeps are usually recorded though. So right now they're probably looking at the revised estimated flight path, and asking any airports and military bases along that route to dig up the recordings.

By bug77 on 3/16/2014 4:58:59 AM , Rating: 2
It was military installations I was primarily thinking about. If they can pick up a small fighter-jet, it would be rather difficult for them to mistake a 777 for interference/whatever, especially if it wasn't following one of the established routes.
Just thinking out loud...

By ShaolinSoccer on 3/16/2014 5:28:23 PM , Rating: 2
Didn't they say the plane flew under radar? I'm starting to think it was kidnapped and all of those people are hostages right now.

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