The Mysterious Fate Of Flight 370, Ctd

by Jonah Shepp

The story keeps getting weirder, but there are no answers yet:

Over the weekend, the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 became a criminal investigation as Malaysian officials said they had “conclusive” evidence that the flight had been hijacked. They also said that a final message had been received from the pilot after the plane’s signaling apparatus had been disabled, raising suspicion that the flight was intentionally diverted by crew. There have also been numerous reports this morning that plane may have flown as low as 5,000 feet, in order to avoid all radar detection, a maneuver that would require considerable skill from the pilots, while also putting the plane itself in considerable danger, as it is not designed for long travel at that altitude.

Passing along the map seen below, Derek Thompson notes that the clues about where the plane might be are still very broad:

map-malaysia

The precise location of the flight at 8:11 AM is still a mystery. But officials provided a map (above) that shows the plane’s possible location along one of two red semi-circles, based on a “ping” from a satellite orbiting 35,800 kilometers above the Indian Ocean. As you can see, this final data point indicates two possible flight paths: one northwest stretching toward Kazakhstan and another southwest into the Indian Ocean.

The northern flight path is above land, which would raise the odds that officials find the plane or its remnants. But The New York Times points out that it’s unlikely that air-defense networks in India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan failed to pick up on a rogue 777. This makes the southern path more likely. Bloomberg‘s analysis of the last satellite “ping” tracked the plane’s last known location to about 1,000 miles west of Perth, Australia.

Patrick Smith addresses some misconceptions regarding the plane’s transponder:

The media is throwing this term around without a full understanding of how the equipment works. For position reporting and traffic sequencing purposes, transponders only work in areas of typical ATC radar coverage. Most of the world, including the oceans, does not have ATC radar coverage. Transponders are relevant to this story only when the missing plane was close to land. Once over the ocean, it didn’t matter anyway. Over oceans and non-radar areas, other means are used for position reports and tracking/communicating (satcomm, datalink, etc.), not transponders.

Many readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder, as apparently happened aboard Malaysia flight 370. In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit “off” might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.

Previous Dish on the missing plane here, here, and here. Update from a reader, who ramps up the wild speculation:

Check this out.  It’s the most convincing thing I’ve read in the last ten days about the flight’s disappearance. He’s an aviation hobbyist who plotted times and air routes and came up with a theory that Flight 370 shadowed a scheduled flight (appearing with it as a single signal) over all the countries that should have picked it up on radar.