Possible Flight Path of MH370 towards McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Possible Flight Path of MH370 towards McMurdo Station, Antarctica 


Victor Iannello and Richard Godfrey
August 25, 2016

Preface
In this paper we examine the simulator data found on Captain Zaharie Shah’s home computer, as reported by the Royal Malaysia Police, because it might relate to the flight of MH370. As far as we know, there is no evidence that directly links the captain to the intentional disappearance of the aircraft. However, in this paper we hypothesize that the flight data found on the captain’s computer is related to the actual flight of MH370, and therefore we reconstruct a hypothetical flight path based on the simulator data as well as well as satellite, meteorological, and aircraft performance data.

The views expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not represent the views of the MH370 Independent Group (IG) or any other group or individual. 

 

Introduction
The underwater search for debris from MH370 has been unsuccessful so far. The current search zone in the Southern Indian Ocean (SIO) consists of a total of 120,000 square kilometers of seabed, of which 110,000 square kilometers (92%) have been searched to date.  Malaysian, Australian, and Chinese officials have announced that unless new credible information becomes available, the search will be suspended after completion of coverage of the current search zone.

 

Recently, the MH370 Independent Group (IG) released a preliminary assessment of data found on Captain Zaharie Shah’s home computer that were related to the Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) game [1]. The data include flight and navigation parameters that are “snapshots in time” which are associated with six geographical coordinates. If these coordinates were all from a single simulation, it suggests the simulated flight of a B777-200LR aircraft with a departure from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), a northwest flight up the Malacca Strait, a turn to the south, and a termination in the SIO near 45S 104E. This path is shown as a black line in Figure 1. Also shown, in yellow, is a path reconstructed by the Australia Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) that leads to the current search area (green box).

VIandRG_Fig1

Figure 1. A flight path predicted by the ATSB (yellow), and the flight path found on Captain Shah’s computer simulator (black) extended to McMurdo Station (grey) [1].

 

The IG further determined that if a great circle path is drawn that connects the northernmost coordinates with the final coordinates, and if this path is extrapolated further as a great circle, the path passes near airfields servicing the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, which may have been chosen as the destination in the simulation. This extrapolation is also indicated in Figure 1 (grey line).

 

Although we cannot determine with certainty that the six points are all from a single flight simulation run, the alignments of the points, the banked turn towards the south at the northernmost point, and the progressive depletion in fuel level, suggest the coordinates are related to the same flight simulation. On the other hand, the fuel consumption for the flight segment to the SIO exceeds what would be expected for normal cruise conditions, which suggests that if the six coordinates are related to a single simulation, the fuel level might have been manually altered during the simulation run. The steep descent from an altitude of 37,600 ft down to 4,000 ft over a short (3.6 NM) distance also suggests that the altitude might have been manually altered during the simulation run.

 

In this work, we investigate a possible flight path of MH370 under the assumption that the same destination of McMurdo Station, Antarctica, was chosen for the actual flight as was possibly selected for the simulation. The purpose of this work is not to determine whether or not Captain Zaharie Shah committed a crime. However, we do feel it is our obligation to consider the possibility that the captain might have chosen McMurdo Station as the destination for MH370 because it defines a relatively small area for the crash site, and it may prove useful if the search is extended to the northeast of the current search area.

 

Flight Segment from KLIA to 18:22 UTC
The flight path of MH370 from the departure from KLIA at 16:42 UTC until the last radar capture at 18:22 UTC is shown in Figure 2 as the yellow line. The path has been shown graphically in several official reports, including the Factual Information from March 2015 [2]. After passing waypoint IGARI and before reaching waypoint BITOD, the path shows a sharp turn to the left that continues southwest on a track towards Kota Bharu Airport (WMKC). After passing north of WMKC, the path follows the Thai-Malaysian border, continuing towards Penang Airport (WMKP). After passing south of WMKP, the path curves to the northwest towards waypoint VAMPI in the Malacca Strait. The last radar capture at 18:22 UTC occurs after passing waypoint MEKAR.

VIandRG_Fig2

Figure 2. Reconstructed path segments over Malaysia and near Sumatra. Yellow line: 16:42 to 18:22 UTC; White line: 18:22 to 19:41 UTC; Black line: 19:41 to 00:19 UTC (partially shown). 

 

Flight Segment from 19:41 UTC to Fuel Exhaustion
Rather than make assumptions about the flight path between the last radar capture at 18:22 UTC and the satellite handshake at 19:41 UTC, we instead reconstruct the path from 19:41 UTC until the log-on to the Inmarsat network at 00:19 UTC. A portion of the path is shown as the black line in Figure 2, and is reconstructed based on the following assumptions:

  1. During the time interval of 19:41 UTC to 00:19 UTC, the aircraft followed a great circle path towards the Pegasus Airfield (NZPG), which services McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
  2. During the time interval of 19:41 UTC to 00:11 UTC, the aircraft flew at constant Mach number and constant flight level.
  3. At some point in the time interval of 00:11 to 00:19, the aircraft exhausted its fuel, and the aircraft slowed.
  4. Meteorological conditions at all times are consistent with the GDAS database for March 8, 2014, at 00:00 UTC.

 

The position at 19:41 UTC is determined by varying the Mach number and by minimizing the RMS BTO error subject to the following constraints:

  1. At 19:41, 20:41, 21:41, 22:41, and 00:11 UTC, the predicted value of BTO should be within 50 microseconds of the values measured at these times.
  2. The track at 19:41 UTC should be on a great circle path towards NZPG.
  3. The pressure altitude is held constant at 35,000 ft. (The solution is relatively independent of selected altitude between about 34,000 and 40,000 ft.)

 

With these assumptions, constraints, and solution procedure, the position at 19:41 UTC is estimated to be 8.5219°N 92.9501°E. The details of this path are included in Table 1. The path crosses the 7th arc near 26.9032°S 100.5675°E. This is about 850 NM away from the center of the current search area.

 

Remarkably, if we start at the estimated position at 19:41 UTC and extend the path backwards in time by just five minutes of flight time along the great circle path, it passes very near Car Nicobar Airport (VOCX), a military airport in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is a territory of India. This suggest that the final entered waypoints for MH370 might have been VOCX followed by NZPG.

 

Table 1. Flight Path from 19:41 to 00:19 UTC. 

VIandRG_Table1

 

Flight Segment from 18:22 to 19:41 UTC
The modeled flight segment in the interval from 18:22 to 19:41 UTC is shown as a white line in Figure 2. After the last radar capture at 18:22 UTC, we have the BTO and BFO values of the satellite communication from the log-on sequence in the time interval of 18:25 to 18:28 UTC. The data suggest that after passing waypoint NILAM, the aircraft flew north before it continued on its track towards the northwest. (We won’t discuss the details here of this “lateral offset maneuver” because it has little effect on the predicted crash site in the SIO.) After the log-on sequence was completed at 18:28 UTC, we assume the aircraft continued on a northwest track towards Car Nicobar Airport.

 

There was an unanswered satellite phone call to MH370 at 18:40 UTC which produced BFO values, and these can be used to infer the track of the aircraft at this time. If the flight was level at 18:40 UTC, the track would be towards to the south. For this reason, the BFO values at 18:40 UTC have been used in the past as justification for a turn to the south preceding the call at 18:40 UTC. However, recognizing that vertical speed has a strong effect on the BFO of the received signal, it is possible that the plane was still traveling to the northwest at 18:40 UTC and descending at about 2900 ft/min as it approached Car Nicobar Airport. Understanding that fuel flow would have been minimized if MH370 flew at a holding speed of around 293 KTAS and at a pressure altitude of around 20,000 ft, it is possible that MH370 reached Car Nicobar around 18:53 UTC and entered a holding pattern, as shown by the racetrack pattern near Car Nicobar in Figure 2. Similarly, around 19:36 UTC, the holding pattern might have been terminated, initiating the flight leg towards McMurdo Station.

 

The calculated and measured BFO values are listed in Table 1 and shown in Figure 3. With the assumption of level flight from 19:41 to 00:11 UTC, the maximum BFO error is 12 Hz, which is within the 20-Hz drift window that has been observed on other flights [3].

 

VIandRG_Fig4

Figure 3. BFO values for the modelled path towards McMurdo Station. 

 

Discussion
As can be seen in Figure 4 below, the reconstructed path based on a destination of McMurdo Station, Antarctica, crosses the 7th arc a large distance (850 NM) from the center of the current search area.

VIandRG_Fig3

Figure 4. Comparison of flight path on simulator (black) and reconstructed flight path (yellow), both leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. 

 

The methodology used for determining the current search area is discussed in detail in a report authored by staff at Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and made available in November 2015 [3] entitled “Bayesian Methods in the Search for MH370”. Specific reasons why the reconstructed path from this work does not cross the 7th arc in the search area defined by the DSTG report include the following:

  • In the DSTG study, paths were reconstructed assuming prior distributions for the number of turns after 18:02 UTC. The peak of this distribution was one turn based on a study of prior flights. Therefore, a path that requires a large number of maneuvers such as a holding pattern would have a low probability using that methodology.
  • The BFO model in the DSTG study did not consider the effect of vertical speed on the measured values. Therefore, the possibility was not considered that the aircraft was still traveling towards the northwest, but descending, at the time of the unanswered phone call at 18:40 UTC. These assumptions implicit in the DSTG study effectively forced a turn to the south prior to 18:40 UTC.

 

The current work indicates that a final flight segment towards McMurdo Station could originate close to Car Nicobar Airport, and be preceded by a holding pattern, turnback, or some other maneuver that would effectively minimize the distance traveled in the interval between about 18:53 and 19:36 UTC. We can only speculate as to why such a maneuver close to Car Nicobar Airport and a subsequent flight towards Antarctica, leading to fuel exhaustion near the 7th arc, might have occurred.

 

The Flight Management System (FMS) of 9M-MRO had limited capacity, and likely did not have sufficient memory for an entire navigation database (NDB) [4]. Depending on how Malaysia Airline System (MAS) chose to manage the size of the NDB that was stored in the FMS of 9M-MRO, the aerodromes at McMurdo Station may or may not have been available to choose as a destination. We have asked the ATSB to determine what was available in the 9M-MRO FMS as stored aerodromes and waypoints near McMurdo Station. Alternatively, a pilot-defined waypoint could have been entered as the final fix for the last leg of the route.

 

It is important to emphasize that the reconstructed path presented here is predicated on a route with a hypothetical destination of McMurdo Station for the final leg. Although there is evidence suggesting that a route with this destination was found on Captain Zaharie Shah’s computer, the determination that this destination was chosen for MH370 would require access to the flight data recorder; and that, of course, requires identification of the crash location followed by recovery of that recorder.

 

Acknowledgements
The authors are grateful for comments and corrections provided by fellow IG members Don Thompson, Tom Kenyon, Geoff Hyman, and Mike Exner.

 

References

[1] Iannello, V., et al., “Captain Zaharie Shah’s Recovered Flight Simulator Information: Preliminary Assessment from the MH370 Independent Group”, Aug 15, 2016,

[2] “Factual Information Safety Investigation for MH370”, Ministry of Transport, Malaysia, Mar 8, 2015,

[3] Davey, S., et al., “Bayesian Methods in the Search for MH370”, Defence Science and Technology Group, Australia, Nov 30, 2015,

[4] Herndon, A.A., “Flight Management Computer (FMC) Navigation Database Capacity”, Integrated Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Conference, April 2012,

 

 

 

Captain Zaharie Shah’s Recovered Flight Simulator Information: Preliminary Assessment from the MH370 Independent Group

Captain Zaharie Shah’s Recovered Flight Simulator Information: Preliminary Assessment from the MH370 Independent Group 

Victor Iannello, Don Thompson, Michael Exner,
Richard Godfrey, Brian Anderson, Yap Fooh Fah,
Barry Carlson, Thomas Kenyon, Henrik Rydberg,
Sid Bennett, Geoff Hyman and Duncan Steel
15th August 2016 

 

Information related to the disappearance of MH370 was recently shared with the Independent Group (IG) by an individual who is not affiliated with any government entity in any country. The information appears to be part of a report compiled for and by the Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) and includes contributions from other Malaysian agencies. In this report, it is stated that data related to a flight simulator game were found on Captain Zaharie Shah’s home computer. The IG makes the following preliminary assessment, which is based on the content of the RMP report:

  1. Simulator data from the Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) game were found on a solid state drive that was not electrically connected to the computer motherboard at the time it was recovered. The FSX game was uninstalled from that drive on 20th February 2014. The report did not provide any information on why the computer was in this state.
  2. The data of interest are fragments of *.FLT files, this being the format used by FSX to store parameters, including position coordinates at arbitrary points during a run of the simulator. The data were saved in a Shadow Copy Set, and were last modified on 3rd February 2014.
  3. The coordinates, if all from one simulation run, suggest the departure of a B777-200LR aircraft from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), a flight up the Malacca Strait, a turn to the south, and a termination in the Southern Indian Ocean near 45S 104E. This path is shown as a black line in Figure 1.
  4. A path connecting the turn and the final coordinates, when extrapolated further as a great circle, aligns with airfields servicing the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, which may have been chosen as the destination in the simulation. This extrapolation is also indicated in Figure 1.
  5. Within the Shadow Copy Set, there were two additional coordinates that were recovered for an aircraft parked at KLIA. No other coordinates recovered from the Shadow Copy Set, if there were any, were included in the RMP report.
  6. Although we cannot determine that the six points (see Table 1) are all from a single flight simulation run, the alignments of the points and the progressive depletion in fuel level, leading to an unpowered descent from an altitude of 37,600 feet down to 4,000 feet over a short distance, suggest the coordinates may well be related to the same flight simulation.
  7. A preliminary analysis of the flight data, derived by the IG from the data found on the solid state drive, is summarized in Table 1.
  8. We have no comment on whether these data link Captain Zaharie Shah to a crime.
  9. Work continues within the IG to better understand and validate the data, and to determine whether the data can be used to refine the search area for the aircraft.

 

Table 1. Parameters Derived from the Raw Simulator Data

Flight_path_table

 

Flight_paths

Figure 1: Flight paths into the southern Indian Ocean. In black: the simulated flight path obtained by connecting the coordinates found on Captain Zaharie Shah’s home computer. The grey line is an extrapolation of that path; point 5 in Table 1 is within a few kilometres of the great circle connecting point 4 and the airfield NZPG at McMurdo. In yellow, a representative flight path ending near the 7th arc and 37S from among those modelled by the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) in Australia, and used by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) in defining the priority underwater search area (as shown by the green box).

 

Why the 60 Minutes TV programme was wrong

Why the 60 Minutes TV programme was wrong

Michael Exner
August 11, 2016

 

The 60 Minutes episode concerning the loss of MH370 as broadcast recently on Channel 9 in Australia contained numerous errors. In particular the logic behind Larry Vance’s theory (that the damage to the flaperon and flap from the aircraft demonstrates that a controlled ditch must have occurred) is fatally flawed.

Vance looked at the flaperon photographs and within seconds, according to his own words, concluded that the leading and trailing edge damage patterns could only be explained by a water landing with the flaps deployed. Vance makes no attempt to consider all the other evidence that has been assembled. He then reasons that at least one engine must have been running at touchdown in order to provide the electrical and hydraulic power which he admits would be required for the flaps to have been be deployed for that touchdown.

This leads him to the further conclusion that all the well-documented evidence showing that fuel exhaustion occurred at high altitude circa 00:17:30 (UTC) must be wrong. In essence, Vance argues that his visual inspection of a few flaperon photos is all he needs to impeach the extensive body of evidence and analysis supporting the belief that fuel exhaustion occurred at about 00:17:30, followed by an APU power-up at about 00:18:30, this being followed by the AES/SDU logon at 00:19:29 and subsequent high speed crash circa 00:21 UTC.

Vance obviously has no understanding of satellite communications systems and the burst frequency offset (BFO) data analysis. He has not even tried to learn what those data can tell us from the SATCOM experts who have studied the information in considerable detail. He simply dismisses everything he does not have the background and experience to understand, and jumps to an alternative conclusion. This is very unprofessional.

The ATSB, Inmarsat, and Boeing have acknowledged from the beginning that the 00:19:29 BFO value indicates a descent rate of about 5,000 ft/min, and in recent interviews and statements, the ATSB has finally gone further and definitively stated that the 00:19:37 BFO value indicates the plane was descending at that time at a speed of 12,000 to 20,000 ft/min, exactly what the Independent Group has consistently argued for the last two years and more.

If one puts all the available evidence on the table, instead of only a few flaperon photos, a very different interpretation of the flaperon damage pattern comes to light. We know with high confidence from the Inmarsat data and fuel consumption analysis that MH370 was at high altitude and flying at over 400 knots when fuel exhaustion occurred circa 00:17:30. The flaps could not have been extended at 400 knots before fuel exhaustion, and following fuel exhaustion, they could not have been extended at any altitude or airspeed. These are facts that Vance ignores. Thus, the trailing edge damage to the flaperon could not possibly have been caused by a flaps-down water landing.

After the final ping at 00:19:37, the fact that there was no signal indicating an IFE logon at  about 00:21:07 is consistent with impact at very high speed sometime between those two times. The debris found recently by Blaine Gibson and several other private citizens is clearly consistent with the above information that indicates a high speed impact.

Given the information cited above, it is much more likely that the flaperon separated in-flight circa 00:20 due to aeroelastic flutter as the aircraft was rapidly descending. The part-flap discovered in Tanzania may also have separated prior to impact due to such flutter. These large pieces of debris were apparently not attached to the plane at the time of the main impact because in that circumstance they would have suffered far more extensive damage. Indeed, from the evidence of the much smaller pieces of debris so far recovered from both the interior and exterior of the plane, it is difficult to imagine how the flaperon and flap segment could have survived the main impact without completely disintegrating (i.e. being shattered into rather smaller pieces).

The evidence that Vance ignores, when combined with the flaperon photos, demonstrate that his statement that the aircraft undoubtedly came down in a controlled ditch is simply wrong. Vance’s statements on 60 Minutes have caused great harm to the search for the truth about what happened to MH370. His continued attempts to justify his definitive statements only exacerbate the situation.

 

Space Scientist, Author & Broadcaster