March 21st, 2014

Flight 370 and the limits

The search for Flight 370 “has exposed the technological limits of satellites” which can see the globe but are not designed to hone in on every section of it equally. Understandably, they concentrate their strongest attention on parts of the world other than the vast stretches of uninhabited ocean.

As for those pieces of supposed debris spotted near Australia:

“It looks to me like possibly just an exceptionally large patch of sun glint,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth, which uses satellite imagery to raise awareness of environmental issues. “We’re down in the subtle and ambiguous weeds of human image analysis, where we desperately are trying to find patterns in what we’re seeing.”

Because it takes so long to thoroughly study satellite imagery over a large area, there was a gap between the time the photos were taken and the time it was decided that there might be something special in that area, even though the visual hunt was assisted by many worldwide volunteers scouring the photos.

What’s more, the search for Flight 370 has also has exposed the limits of radar. This may even be more disturbing, because radar is an old technology specifically designed (unlike satellite imaging) to detect planes that are where they shouldn’t be. That Flight 370 didn’t trigger more alarms is not a good sign, especially if it flew over land for some part of its rogue journey. Perhaps that was part of the motivation for the flight—to test the limits of radar, for future reference?

13 Responses to “Flight 370 and the limits”

  1. Eric Says:

    The oft-punctured illusion of social guarantees. Nassim Taleb talks about this stuff.

    It’s like the thrill-seeking, exhibitionist NJ kid who trespassed the Freedom Tower this week, got up to the roof antenna and spent hours there, despite “layers of security” that supposedly represent our post-9/11 zero-tolerance security consciousness.

    We can wrap ourselves with technology, but we’re still human.

  2. blert Says:

    As I posted before: the evidence in hand is strongly suggestive that the plane was flown to avoid radar. And when that was not possible, to fly modestly, to not attract the attentions of ground based radar operators.

    The east to west leg of MH370′s flight was not spotted on radar in real time, for the most part.

    The single best theory to date is that the hijackers slipped into the radar shadow of SIA68, another 777-200ER.

    This plane is normally flown by computer. So once MH370 knew where SIA68 was headed, it merely took a tad of re-programming for MH370 to mimic the other plane — effortlessly — for miles on end.

    It need only pull away in a quiet zone — or over Iran.

    Landing upon an abandoned Soviet air strip in Kyrgyzstan would be no problem. With the search grace provided by the authorities of Kuala Lumpur, it’d be no problem to fly the jumbo on to where ever.

    Unarmed, locked out and knocked-out, the passenger-hostages would’ve been no trouble at all.

    The fire theory does not make sense – - for no-one issued a mayday — and the nearest airport was dead ahead in Vietnam.

  3. vanderleun Says:


    “Perhaps that was part of the motivation for the flight—to test the limits of radar, for future reference?”

    Now now….. you’re letting your self drift to “ the subtle and ambiguous weeds of human image analysis, where we desperately are trying to find patterns in what we’re seeing.”

  4. Oldflyer Says:

    The limitations of radar are very well understood by knowledgeable people. The South China Sea, for instance, is a notorious area for atmospheric distortions. (Remember the phantom N. Vietnamese PT boat attacks that LBJ used as an excuse to bomb N. Vietnam?) I have personally witnessed extreme cases of distortion in another notorious area; the Mediterranean Sea in the summer. I once watched on radar as two USN ships passed east to west through the Strait of Bonafacio (separating Sardinia and Corsica) from over 170 miles away, when the radar horizon should have been less than 20 miles. The extreme atmospheric inversion created ducting effects that carried the signal well past the normal horizon. (We talked to the ships by radio and confirmed what we were seeing on radar.) And yet on one of the USN’s finest ships we could not see aircraft less than 50 miles away because our own radar signals were distorted so badly. (Admittedly our most capable radar was out of service due to design complexity and lack of spare parts.)

    So, only the lay person, often in the form of TV commentator, would be surprised at radar anomalies; or surprised at any other technological shortfalls for that matter.

    I do have difficulty imagining the scenario that Blert sets forth, however. The difficulty of locating another aircraft in the night sky without some sort of coordination, and then positioning an airliner so as to be in its radar shadow, simply boggles my mind. (I have tried to join with other aircraft at night, and it is not easy even with coordination.)

  5. Eric Says:


    What’s your take on the mystery?

  6. Indigo Red Says:

    After days of denial, Malaysian Airlines today admitted carrying dangerous inflammable material in the cargo hold. Lithium-ion batteries have caused 140 inflight fires in the past 20 years with 2 cargo planes being destroyed by L-I fires, the last being a UPS cargo plane that crashed in 2010.

    In the cargo hold, the batteries would be close to wiring of the avionics and communications systems. A fast burning lithium-ion fire with lots of smoke makes fire not such a dumb theory after all.

  7. blert Says:


    1) GPS — accurate to the meter.

    2) Computer driven identical planes with identical software.

    3) Flying to a known way point — a highly utilized one in the captain’s back yard.

    4) Transponder on SIA68 easy to track with an iPad and an App with an off the shelf receiver.

    5) Perfect weather at altitude.

    6) SIA68 has its navigation lights on — due to crowded space and night conditions.

    7) MH370 has all of the exact same way points to log into its computer, too.

    8) KC135 and KC10 aircraft and USAF aircraft have performed much more difficult hook-ups thousands of times over the last fifty-years, sometimes eight-times per flight. Very few planes end up in the drink.

    9) No air turbulence — at night — at altitude — for this flight profile.


    Where is the debris field?

    Sherlock said it best. The improbable is IT when everything else has been eliminated.

    The fire theory can’t account for the satellite pings, nor the Malaysian air force radar returns. It’s also inconsistent with the lack of debris.

    If fire is present, why turn west when Vietnam is dead ahead?

    Why turn EXACTLY at the dead zone — the hand off spot?

    The plane was hijacked. The only real question is where did it land.

    Did it jump onto a commercial airline track while in Iranian air space?

    Did it merely perform a pit stop and fly on to an abandoned military air base in the ‘stans?

    The original super hijacking took exactly that form. The fanatics landed on an abandoned RAF air strip, Dawson’s Field.

    This current scheme may have gone awry when the plane was found to hold a toxic percentage of Beijing residents. I can imagine quite a squabble when the higher-ups discover that they can’t put enough day-light between Tehran and MH370. Beijing is their number one customer — and military supplier. I can easily imagine that the field operatives overlooked that tiny detail.

    MH370 could’ve even been shot down during its terminal break away leg by one of the ‘stans or even Red China. If you recall, the USSR never acknowledged that they’d shot down KAL007. It took the USAF to force the news out into the public. Their first impulse was to stonewall the entire affair.

    That would be exactly what I’d expect out of the PLAAF air defense troops. Silence.

    Life is cheap in China. I can easily imagine Beijing handling the problem by extreme measures — rather than having to game the fanatics in a media circus centered on western China.

    Those who know what’s what aren’t talking. Those at the microphone don’t know a thing.

    It does strike me strange that official Beijing is being so passive — as if they want this fiasco to blow over.

  8. Oldflyer Says:

    Blert, Nothing you said changes anything. GPS is wonderful. I love it. Don’t think I have been lost in the air or on the ground since I started using it. Well, except for the occasional typo. It will not help you to rendezvous on an airplane flying at 35,000 ft/mach 0.77.

    The key to tankers and their customers getting together is coordination. Pre-launch planning, radio communication, on-board radars (and operators) capable of assisting a rendezvous, and constant practice make this maneuver seem routine..

    Eric, I have felt from the first that it was a criminal act. I now believe that one or both of the crew had to be involved. I simply do not know the motivation, the desired outcome, or the actual outcome.

    I guess Blert is making the same argument; and I do not dispute that part. The idea of radar shadows and rendezvous with another “innocent” airliner which was passing by is what I find objectionable.

    As to the timing. That makes sense. The Chinese air traffic controllers expected the handover, but they would not think anything amiss for a period of time if communications were not established. Confusion about frequencies and so forth, especially across international boundaries, are not that uncommon. None of the media blabber that I have heard discusses whether the air to ground communications in that area are in the VHF or the HF frequency range. Too mundane, but a huge factor in a smooth communication hand over.

    Another thing I have never seen clarified was whether they were in positive radar contact by both Malaysian and Chinese Air Traffic Control. If they were not, then it would be even easier to disappear at the time of the handover. Of course, shutting down the transponder prior to the handover would muddy the water; but, it should also trigger some interest by anyone who had been tracking them. Unless they were alerted, the military radar sites would not necessarily alert ATC to a course deviation right away.

    If the information given to us is anywhere near accurate, it simply does not add up to a mechanical failure in my opinion. There is a lot of spurious talk about the adage of “aviate, navigate, communicate” in that order, to suggest that they may have experienced a serious failure, but did not report it immediately. That is not supported by the time lines that are now in the public domain. Besides, they can talk and chew gum at the same time; and an emergency that necessitated an altitude change, or a major course deviation would be reported quickly.

    I think the business about the lithium batteries is a red herring thrown into the mix by the media. These batteries have proven volatile when they are powering circuits, and specifically when they are being charged. (We went through the same problems with NICAD batteries in airplanes fifty years ago.) I do not think that they are necessarily a danger if being shipped in proper containers. Just more media ignorance, and grasping for sensational details, in my opinion.

    Of course, I could be wrong about it all. Like everyone else I am missing great gobs of information and am skeptical of some of the information we have. But, I did fly over a span of 40+ years; 25 military and 17 commercial; and have some sense of what goes on and what is feasible.

  9. J.J. Says:

    Under an unremarkable hillside villa in Peshawar, Pakistan there is a modern electronics facility commanded by Ayman al Zawahari. It is staffed with well trained Muslim engineers and scientists who are loyal to the cause of radical jihad.

    This operation has long been in the planning stages. Two operatives have been trained and provided with fake passports. Additionally, the co-pilot on the flight has been co-opted and groomed by the jihad movement for this operation.

    In the darkened cockpit just before reaching the way point for handover to Vietnamese control, the co-pilot deftly stabs a needle into the neck of the unsuspecting Captain. A needle attached to a vial of a poison that acts immediately to cause unconsciousness and shortly later – death.

    The co-pilot raises the cabin pressure to just below 13,000 feet to induce unconsciousness in the passengers and flight attendants. He unlocks the cockpit door and turns on the seat belt sign, a signal to the operatives to come forward to the cockpit. Once inside the cockpit the door is locked again and they don oxygen masks along with the co-pilot.

    After throwing the proper switches, the airplane is locked onto a pre-planned course across the Indian ocean staying well offshore of India to avoid radar detection. Destination: A secret air field in Waziristan that has been equipped o handle a B-777.

    After 45 minutes, the co-pilot raises the cabin altitude to 28,000 feet and leaves it there for long enough to insure the death of anyone not on oxygen. After about 30 minutes his two operatives go into the cabin with portable oxygen bottles and masks where they insure the death of all passengers and crew members. This done, the co-pilot lowers cabin pressure to the normal 6,000 feet and continues on to destination, where he successfully lands the plane. It is quickly concealed with camouflage and preparations are made for the next stage of the operation, which will be carried out on the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2014.

    With apologies to Ian Fleming.

  10. Beverly Says:

    Looking for debris in the Roaring Forties reminds me of Richard Feynman’s remarks about scale: to the effect that we humans conceive of physical reality in relation to our own size, say 5 or 6 feet off the ground. If it’s something that’s not “scalable” by a comparison to a five-foot human figure, we can’t grok it.

    Meaning, the ocean is far vaster than we can really grasp. Just like that scale map of the solar system drove home to me: Whole lotta nothin’ out there. And when you think of how much area the ocean covers, and add in winds and currents, well….

  11. southpaw Says:

    I’ve been of the opinion it was a hijacking from the start, coming at it from an engineer’s perspective – the scenarios proposed by the media of a small fire taking out every system is as improbable as saying it vanished into a time warp. The redundancy in systems as well as routing of wiring and wire ways in any vehicle like a 777 take into account multiple simultaneous failure scenarios. Engineers of these planes spend years designing out single points of failure that could take down everything. It’s highly improbable, and what little evidence there is points to humans disabling systems.
    The Li Ion battery theory is as one commenter pointed, probably a red herring also. Every cell phone and lap top on the plane has/had one – they are not nearly as volatile as the media is prattling on about. They have had problems, but it’s generally with very high powered units, while charging, or discharging into a low resistance path- like a short circuit. In storage, this would also seem to be a long shot scenario. But even with a fire in a storage compartment, the idea that would knock out transponders and every other system at once is nuts. The designers of these planes just aren’t that incompetent. That’s my 2 cents worth.

  12. southpaw Says:

    Forgot to mention something – a fire or malfunction the selectively destroys ONLY communication and ALL tracking and monitoring electronics (which can be shut off manually), but has no effect on any other the avionics, ought to raise a red flag with any of the analysts who are holding this out as a real possibility. It seems highly improbable that such a selective fire would then allow the plane to continue to fly safely, along a pre-programmed course, until it ran out of fuel. The odds of such a fire destroying only comms. and tracking, but nothing else must be like winning the NY state lottery 5x in a row.

  13. Steve57 Says:

    Yes, it takes a lot of practice to make aerial refueling look easy. There are quite a few air forces worldwide that just don’t have the capability. Like so many evolutions that are routine in the USN, such as flight deck operations and side-by-side underway replenishment, they’re harder than they look.

    Beverly is right to point out the vastness of the ocean. It’s difficult to find even large objects. That is one of reasons Naval warfare is such a hard problem. John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval War College, wrote after Obama snarkily told Romney during one of the debates, “this isn’t Battleship,” that actually it is. Board games like Battleship are training tools that demonstrate the dynamics of the hider/finder problem. Two forces are trying to hide from each other, but find the enemy’s forces before the enemy finds their own. In fact, they use an offshoot of Kriegspiel, a German double-blind board game where each player can only see their own pieces, to train officers at the NWC. And that’s been used to train Germans starting with the Prussians since 1824.

    This is one reason why if you look at naval battles they almost always occur near land. I can’t think of a single major naval battle in the Pacific during WWII that didn’t take place near land. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle in history, and look where it took place. It’s still very difficult to find a ship in the open ocean, even with all our technology.

    So, yes, locating the wreckage of MH370 and finding the specific objects they’re looking for, the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder, among all the debris that now has be scattered over miles of ocean will not be an easy task. Recovering them won’t be child’s play, either.

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