The Waypoint Hypothesis

A simple hypothesis on the disappearance of MH370, developed March, 2014

Why?

Why would someone want to disappear a plane?

I don’t really speculate on a specific reason, I just focus on the evidence that it is consistent that they did.   “They” could be anyone, from the Captain to passengers, or if you want to go to extremes, hackers (I’ve seen it mentioned).  If pilot suicide is your theory, this hypothesis is compatible with it, even if the destination is a little different.  I don’t accuse Capt. Zaharie.  In fact, I have developed thought exercises to make people reconsider when everyone wanted to accuse him of being the culprit.  This hypothesis does not depend on who or why, but does assume a specific, deliberate intent that I believe the evidence supports.

Why Punta Arenas?

If someone is trying to disappear a plane, they probably want to fly straight and fast to one of the remotest locations on Earth.  It just so happens that the RUNUT to Punta Arenas path is just about as far to the southwest as MH370 could fly while still having enough fuel to make it to the 7th arc.  It is virtually straight or as direct as you can fly a plane.   It is essentially the furthest west path that matches the typical 777 cruise speed at high altitude on long range cruise while still being generally  compatible with satellite data and fuel range. If MH370 took it, it flew fast and relatively economical at high altitude.  Punta Arenas is one of three or four likely paths very close together that have these characteristics and seemed to achieve the assumed objective the best.  Perhaps the actual point is connected to a message we may one day decode, or perhaps it is meaningless, but simply fit the objective.

 

When the original hypothesis was developed, the figure above had not been released.  It was released about two days later by the Malaysian Government (the black annotations are my own).  The two hypothetical routes were early hypothetical routes developed by Inmarsat based on the satellite data.   Analyses have been refined considerably, both by Inmarsat and experts around the world since then, but it’s still amazing to me to look at this figure and realize how little has changed.  The blue circle is not quite big enough, and paths have refined and multiplied from the yellow and red lines, but that’s about all that’s discernable at this scale.  Punta Arenas is essentially a natural extension of the yellow line on a great circle, which is pretty close to the waypoint hypothesis path.   It gets you to the middle of nowhere.

If you were trying to disappear a plane, which path would you take?  Would you fly closer to Australia?  The red path implies slower speeds – would you fly slower, on a curving path, toward Australia?  If you chose yellow, you basically just went through the same thought process I did.

If you believe the plane disappeared for some other reason, then think in your mind and decide which of the two is more likely, whatever the reason.  The red path essentially splits the middle of various areas covered by underwater search over the past year.  Only recently has searching moved to the south towards the yellow path, but it isn’t there yet, and will not reach it this season, if at all.

Personally, I have only come up with relatively complicated reasons why MH370 would have taken the red path, or something like it.  These involve navigating by magnetic heading, but the question always remains: why would someone deliberately do that?  If it wasn’t deliberate, how could the red path possibly occur? I cannot come up with a satisfying answer to that, regardless of reason whether mechanical failure or deliberate action.  The yellow path, essentially the Waypoint Hypothesis, relies on simple assumptions, and is the only one that so far makes sense to me.

 

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9 thoughts on “Why?

  1. “If you were trying to disappear a plane, which path would you take?”

    That’s a very sensible way of looking at this situation – the intention to make the aircraft disappear, rather than an aircraft simply going ‘missing’.

    I would make sure I set the route parameters to confuse those that I knew would be trying to model/find it later. Whatever I guessed they might reasonably expect, I would do something different.

    Messing with their assumptions would be easy, since not knowing where to start (and being effectively similar to a committee in thinking and decision-making) they would play safe (ie cover their backsides) and assume the ‘obvious’.

    They would expect a shortest-line straight route at high cruise altitude, either on a true heading or using waypoints – because, in their limited view, ‘that’s what pilots like to use’ … and also, any other approach (without taking intention into account, as they haven’t) could result in a search area so large they wouldn’t have the money to search it. And they have to show willing and meet the public’s expectation of a search, even if nothing is found.

    I would plan a route that started much lower ( and thus started at a lower cruise speed) and then descended steadily until fuel exhaustion, and at 180M under AP.

    That would give a nicely curving route to the SE, and would also mess up their fuel consumption and endurance models.

    That 180M route from BEDAX (at -100ft/sec RoD) matches the sat data quite well apparently, although I don’t know if the changes in speed (and so drag / fuel consumption) that would be made by the AP as the aircraft descended were modelled in.

    The aircraft would fly itself relatively gently into the ocean (after fuel exhaustion) just before dawn while it was still on the dark side of the solar terminator (so it wasn’t visible to any passing ships who might record the position), producing debris that would also mess with their assumptions – reasonably whole pieces indicative of a possible ditching and thus active human control to the end.

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    1. Thanks for the comment.

      If whoever controlled the plane thought a curvy path would throw off the trail, they overthought it, because for the last nearly four years now, the search effort has been focused there. So far authorities have not effectively searched the straightest, fastest path within fuel range (Waypoint Hypothesis).

      As far as making a plane disappear, maybe the Waypoint Hypothesis is too obvious, but it is also the most remote, being so far from land, which makes early aerial search and even underwater search and recovery more difficult as all search vessels have to return to port at some point and the travel distance is long. It is well out of the way of typical sea traffic, and it is the only path that touches what is known as the “roaring 40s,” an area known for extreme swells which makes sea operations an extreme test of the crew’s courage at times.

      We are venturing into the territory of whether the perpetrator(s) knew they could be tracked or not, however, and I have no opinion either way. If they thought they could not, then the Waypoint Hypothesis is the simplest to explain. If satellite data didn’t exist, we would have no 7th arc and simply no idea where the plane was, except for the debris that eventually arrived. I’m not sure a search would have even been attempted. Conversely, if the perpetrator(s) knew they could be tracked, that raises a whole new set of possibilities, but it should be noted that whichever path they flew, they have succeeded in baffling the world’s foremost experts and four years of analysis so far.

      I hope that is fixed soon by finding the plane quickly with the new search. You could well be right on your path; what matters is where it crosses the 7th arc, and whether that area has received search.

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  2. “If whoever controlled the plane thought a curvy path would throw off the trail, they overthought it, because for the last nearly four years now, the search effort has been focused there.”

    No, it would seem they haven’t (yet) searched there.

    See VI’s paper on DS’s blog dated 25th June 2016: VI’s calculated impact zone for 180M and -100ft.min RoD is way north east of the (then) search area, at 31.5S, 96.7E – maybe since you’ve had a break from MH370-land you haven’t seen this paper yet:

    http://www.duncansteel.com/archives/2676

    I would guess the cruise altitude at BEDAX might be around 25k rather than the 38,800 VI has used. The aircraft would have also used more fuel than is calculated in VI’s paper before arriving at BEDAX (due to loiter/landing). Together this could mean it would descend into the ocean earlier than VI’s figures suggest.

    “As far as making a plane disappear, maybe the Waypoint Hypothesis is too obvious, but it is also the most remote, being so far from land which makes early aerial search and even underwater search and recovery more difficult …”

    Yes, you could gamble the main deterrence to discovery would be remoteness (difficulty in mounting a search/recovery operation) but that wouldn’t stop the search/recovery, just delay it (during bad weather) and make it more difficult. Or you could rely on the searchers not having the slightest idea where it might be – then anywhere in the SIO within calculated fuel range on/near the 7th arc becomes a possible impact area unless you make some assumptions on how the aircraft would have been flown. And that’s where you’d go wrong if the perp(s) had set out to do something other than what would be expected of a ‘normal’ pilot.

    “We are venturing into the territory of whether the perpetrator(s) knew they could be tracked or not…”

    In either case, a curved (magnetic) route would be unexpected and would confuse.

    “Conversely, if the perpetrator(s) knew they could be tracked, that raises a whole new set of possibilities, but it should be noted that whichever path they flew, they have succeeded in baffling the world’s foremost experts and four years of analysis so far.”

    And for the last 4 years the searchers have used the same assumptions (more or less) on straight flight (True/waypoints), because that’s how they assume a pilot would fly. But someone intending to evade discovery of the aircraft would likely do something different.

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    1. “No, it would seem they haven’t (yet) searched there.”
      A lot more of the arc has been searched than people realize – see CSIRO’s work and below.

      “See VI’s paper on DS’s blog dated 25th June 2016: VI’s calculated impact zone for 180M and -100ft.min RoD is way north east of the (then) search area, at 31.5S, 96.7E”

      It’s interesting – I’ll take a closer look at some point. However, my new probability analysis (see Bayesian Search Theory posts or site menu) shows 31S already covered by aerial search with 98 % detection rate per CSIRO’s work. Now if your path could be at 30S, you have a 35% chance MH370 is located there, the highest chance of any latitude on the 7th arc, because there was debris spotted near there in the early aerial search.

      “In either case, a curved (magnetic) route would be unexpected and would confuse.”

      Maybe, but I was hearing of magnetic paths back in 2015. As I understand it, the current search area is a possible magnetic navigation path. Anywhere in the middle of the arc, to fit the satellite data, you have to have “loiter” between MEKAR and the 2nd arc and “curvy” paths or less optimal BTO fit straight paths to the 7th arc. There are a few high probability spots in this region indicated by my analysis that are basically the Ocean Infinity search area and 30S – hopefully they will find the plane there, but if they don’t, that closes all the high probability spots in the middle section.

      “And for the last 4 years the searchers have used the same assumptions (more or less) on straight flight (True/waypoints), because that’s how they assume a pilot would fly. But someone intending to evade discovery of the aircraft would likely do something different.”

      No, routes published by the ATSB were always curved according to best fit with satellite data. Curvy paths date back to 25 March 2014 (the graphic in this post) with the first reveal of Inmarsat data, two weeks after disappearance. In fact, ATSB has very rarely ever considered waypoints in the SIO to my knowledge.

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  3. “Now if your path could be at 30S, you have a 35% chance MH370 is located there, the highest chance of any latitude on the 7th arc, because there was debris spotted near there in the early aerial search.”

    The endpoint in this scenario would likely be much further north than VI’s 31.5S because VI’s modelled route started at 38,800ft at BEDAX and flew on for around 2 hours *after* the last ping attempt – see his paper.

    If the starting altitude was around 25k feet at BEDAX (maybe a bit less… 23k?) that removes about 2 hours from the flight time VI’s model calculated, and so comes back to the time period of the last ping.

    Someone who likes data and numbers would need to do the spreadsheet sums to discover the actual figures and where that latitude would be, but it may be (?) perhaps more like 20S, where the original first aerial search areas (announced by JACC 9th – 11th April 2014) were planned.

    http://jacc.gov.au/media/releases/2014/april/mr017.aspx

    ========

    (On a different point, the reason for using waypoints up to MEKAR might have been the intention to blend in with other traffic. Once outside of radar range it wouldn’t matter and a heading could be used for the final leg.)

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  4. There are a few slots further north, such as 24S-25S, but that whole north area (north of 26S is relatively ignored, except for the pinger search you mentioned, which I need to include in my analyses. ATSB already did the “curvy” path work for you at the pinger search location and even beyond that as I recall. There are graphs with knots etc.

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