International Policy Digest

Tech /27 Apr 2014

Plausible Alternative Explanations for the Disappearance of MH370

What Occam’s razor tells me is quite the opposite of what Malaysian authorities recently said, “…the possibility of a specific country hiding the plane when more than 20 nations are searching for it, seems absurd.” As you read this, keep in mind that Malaysian pirates are active in the hijacking of ships passing through the Malacca strait. Many officials in Malaysia are believed to benefit financially from it, and this has contributed to the perception that Malaysia faces endemic corruption. The point of this is that it means that there are clandestine networks established in Malaysia that are robust. It means people grow up in that milieu and adopting such methods is second nature.

Here’s what I think happened. A small group of Islamists came up with the idea of hijacking an airplane full of Chinese in order to use them as leverage to get concessions from China in Xinjiang. These men were independent volunteers; intelligent amateurs who hooked up with similar men in Pakistan and possibly Bangladesh. The two pilots were part of the mission, just doing their bit for their Muslim brothers. They flew the plane on a course rather like either of those shown. The first part of the flight we know until almost the divergence point.

The southern ocean location makes little sense. Postulating that the plane was disabled is not credible. Not with all the maneuvers MH370 made. Nothing makes sense except deliberate evasive action. Furthermore, there is a problem if you examine the time of flight. Flying directly, the plane should have gone farther than the ping shows. That indicates that they didn’t fly straight to the southern ocean spot either. One would have to assume that the two pilots hated the Chinese so much that they were willing to die in order to cause a plane full of them to disappear.

I suppose it’s barely plausible, but quite unlikely. Yes, it’s a scenario to consider, but no matter how dedicated anyone is to that idea, why is it the only scenario? The only one? Come now.

For the Bangla Desh – Himalayas flight path, they would want confederates in Bangla Desh who would ignore the ghost bogey. Over the Himalayas, they could have used two strategies: either thread through the mountains above Nepal, or go to the highest flight level the plane can manage, 43,100 feet. A plane flying around 15-20,000 feet above Mt. Everest without a transponder? Who would notice it? That’s over 8 miles high, and if the pilots pushed it, they could probably take the plane higher than its rated service ceiling.

Even over Kashmir, with hostilities in progress, that war is a ground war, and what military commander on either side would shoot at a probable passenger airliner not engaged in hostilities – even if they had the capability. As far as I know, nobody along that border area except China has the capability of shooting down a plane, and why would China do that, or even make a note of a high flying ghost bogey flying along just at the border of Tibet. I think if it was noticed, they would yawn and have a cup of tea. They could also have flown low, between the Himalayas. Pilots in the Andes fly between mountain peaks all the time, and a plane doing that is gone from radar. Either way, if they took the Himalayan route, it is possible that climbers on Everest, or people in base camp saw the plane. It could be an angle to pursue. The time window the plane would have been there would be in the wee hours of night, although if it flew without running lights, it would be darned hard to notice at night. It’s a long shot, but somebody might have been up, going for an early ascent.

If they took the ocean route, then they would have come overland along the axis of Pakistan. There wouldn’t have been any reason to notice that ghost bogey either. It’s not like the Taliban have fighter jets attacking American positions. What the Taliban use is spotters who ride commercial airline flights carrying cell phones. They watch out the windows for American helicopters and drones, then call in the positions. They also have people watching with binoculars in the mountains. In years past, that’s how every army did it.

It is plausible, though not likely, that the aircraft crashed in the mountains of northern Pakistan. Maybe the pilots turned off their downward looking radar to make themselves less visible – that could make sense. Flying that far, if they didn’t adjust their altimeter to the new air pressure, they could have been off by a thousand feet perhaps. This is a mistake amateur pilots make once in a while. If you fly far enough, you can find yourself in an area of quite different barometric pressure due to weather systems. It is possible that these pilots had missed that detail.

In addition, if these pilots were navigating at night through the Himalayas, they could also have been caught in the backside of a mountain wave. When wind passes over a mountain, on the windward side, it lifts up and over. But on the lee side, the wind comes downward. Many a pilot of small aircraft who thinks he is high enough to get over has crashed into the east side of the Sierra Nevada range. It’s possible that the combination of night conditions, maladjusted altimeter and fatigue after hours of difficult flying through the mountains, they screwed up and had what is called, “controlled flight into mountain.”

At least as likely, though, the flight would have landed in an airport in Northern Pakistan, cleared by their confederates, and likely taxied directly to a hangar. I think some time later is when things got difficult for them. The last thing Pakistan’s elites want is a problem with the superpower neighbor on their northern border. They already have their hands full fighting the Taliban to the west and in Kashmir to the east. I think that when these conspirators were found out by the powers that be in Pakistan, instead of the warm reception they expected, they got a lot of screaming along the lines of, “What were you thinking?!” Probably some alert army officer saw the plane and informed his superiors, it went up the chain of command, and the grand mission was over.

In a more open, less paranoid nation, it would have made sense to just inform China and fly the passengers to their proper destination. But everywhere in the world, bureaucrats like to cover things up. That’s the first instinct of bureaucrats. And I learned never to underestimate the instinct of those in the developing world to try to rectify mistakes by making them disappear. And the longer a cover-up goes on, the more complicated it would have become to explain why the Chinese weren’t informed immediately about what happened to the passengers on their aircraft.

My guess is that all the conspirators were rounded up (possibly in Malaysia also), executed, cremated, and their ashes disposed of. At this point, I lean toward the passengers being equally dead, and their luggage burned. But, it is possible, that if someone looks for it in bazaars around northern Pakistan, the effects of the passengers might be found. Pakistan is not a place where underlings obey like robots. All that valuable stuff? What the bosses don’t know doesn’t hurt them. Has anyone looked?

I suspect that the aircraft has been disassembled and destroyed by now. If they were smart, they’d have melted it down – every last bit. However, someone might have had the bright idea to tear out the transponder, repaint it, and sell it to a nation that wouldn’t ask questions. If the plane still exists and hasn’t been sold, it is sitting in a hangar at an airport in Pakistan while the upper-echelon wrangle over what to do. And of course, there is the long term possibility that the plane is intended to become a bomb someday.

I think that this whole business of searching the southern ocean is ridiculous. To the extent it is promoted by Malaysian authorities, I think that it could well be intended to buy time, so that the evidence can be disposed of. I suspect the Malaysian government found out within hours – a few days at the outside – what happened. The flip side of corruption is that people are far better at ferreting out what the truth is when they want to, because they have a lot of experience with liars and they know how to approach the problem. I doubt Malaysia’s government would want to get caught in the spotlight as the source of anti-Chinese jihadists – particularly if the plot involved someone fairly high up. I lean toward Malaysia collaborating with Pakistan to shut this thing down. Lives, careers, riches, and even the stability of the nation of Pakistan lies in the balance.

So there you have it. Motives, opportunity, and ability to execute it all. The simplest explanations that fit all the facts. I’ve studied and published on terrorism. The common idea that terrorists are frustrated crazies lashing out thoughtlessly couldn’t be farther from the truth. What we call terrorist acts are very rational acts of war – virtually every one of them. There is always a goal. For instance, beheading of journalists served a rational purpose – to drive a wedge between the Western world and the ordinary Iraqis so that Al Qaeda could better control the story. For them, no story is better than a positive one that showed Iraqis friendly to US aims. Such goals may be hateful and hard to comprehend for many, but the purpose is always there, and the justification is built carefully on scripture.

We may never find out what happened with MH370. Some situations, that’s just how it is. Everything I’ve said here could be wrong, and we have to go with what the evidence indicates. However, pursuing the southern ocean theory to the exclusion of every other idea doesn’t make sense. Just as one shouldn’t twist facts to fit some conspiracy theory with little or no merit, one shouldn’t ignore and filter out facts in order to interpret things in ways that have little or no merit. Ask yourself this. If you deliberately stole a plane, would you head into the southern ocean towards Antarctica where there is no place to land, or would you go to Afghanistan? Pilots are careful people. The first thing a pilot learns is, “plan your flight and fly your plan.”