I know where that Malaysia Airlines plane is
February 23, 2015 9:17 PM   Subscribe

How crazy am I to think I actually know where that Malaysia Airlines plane is? *Kinda crazy. (But also maybe right?)
In the year since the vanishing of MH370, I appeared on CNN more than 50 times, watched my spouse’s eyes glaze over at dinner, and fell in with a group of borderline-obsessive amateur aviation sleuths. A million theories bloomed, including my own.
In late March, New Zealand–based space scientist Duncan Steel began posting a series of essays on Inmarsat orbital mechanics on his website.Fig. 10 The comments section quickly grew into a busy forum in which technically sophisticated MH370 obsessives answered one another’s questions and pitched ideas. The open platform attracted a varied crew, from the mostly intelligent and often helpful to the deranged and abusive. Eventually, Steel declared that he was sick of all the insults and shut down his comments section. The party migrated over to my blog, jeffwise.net.
[...]
One of the diagnostic questions used to determine whether you’re an alcoholic is whether your drinking has interfered with your work. By that measure, I definitely had a problem. Once the CNN checks stopped coming, I entered a long period of intense activity that earned me not a cent. Instead, I was forking out my own money for translators and researchers and satellite photos. And yet I was happy.
[...]
The search failed to deliver the airplane, but it has accomplished some other things: It occupied several thousand hours of worldwide airtime; it filled my wallet and then drained it; it torpedoed the idea that the application of rationality to plane disasters would inevitably yield ever-safer air travel. And it left behind a faint, lingering itch in the back of my mind, which I believe will quite likely never go away.
posted by Golden Eternity (92 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting post on the mindset of 'conspiracy theorists,' and how one can inadvertently become one. I'm convinced this gent doesn't understand autopilot systems, though, based on his discussion of Baikonur as "the only runway designed for planes to laund autonomously in the world," etc. Don't know if that hurts the credibility of the rest of the article, though, considering the author seems to be pretty aware of how out-there his theory seems to be.
posted by Alterscape at 9:36 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Baikonur part was the (most obviously) weak part of the article. While the complex may be "leased by Russia" as the author states, it's still in Kazakhstan.
posted by Nevin at 9:39 PM on February 23, 2015


This is a great read. But seriously, he thinks "they" (Putin?) buried a 777 in Kazakhstan? I feel like he might need a little break.
posted by Literaryhero at 9:42 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is interesting even if just for the little window into what it's like to be a low-level talking head on cable news.
posted by brennen at 9:49 PM on February 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


I feel a little bad for his wife.
posted by Auden at 9:49 PM on February 23, 2015 [10 favorites]


I literally just finished reading his eBook, which I read straight through immediately after reading this article. As a person who knows nothing about airplanes, I thought it got a bit handwavey in a few places, but mostly was an extremely methodical examination of pretty technical sattelite and air traffic information, well-explained. The New York article is more interesting than the book, unless you want to read 30 pages on sattelite airplanes Doppler effect correction (I did!) because it goes into the social a emotional experience of how he got to this theory and its a fascinating human story as well as aviation mystery. The longer book is also really interesting as to how many moving parts and different countries and corporations go into an airplane crash investigation. (And how badly Malaysia bungled the early handling of the search.)

I came away thinking his theory was extremely unlikely - pilot suicide or pilot diversion followed by a hypoxia event seems much more likely - but that he had shown the "northern route" was at least a plausible scenario for the available data, given highly trained hijackers tampering with E/E.

The problem with the mainstream southern route theory is that nobody's found any physical evidence of the plane in the ocean or washed up on shore, which is weirder the longer it goes on. But the evidence for the northern route is equally nil. Its a hell of a story and it sounds like it'd be possible to slip an airline through the boundaries of the system and land it in Kazakhstan ... But why?

And he's right, Putin is crazy like a fox, and it's foolish to expect him to NOT be hatching insane schemes that don't make sense to the West but have an internal logic for him. So maybe there's a reason and we just don't get it yet and Wise has uncovered an audacious Grand Theft Airplane by an increasingly hostile Russian regime. OTOH, maybe Wise has just stirred up a bunch of anti-russian sentiment to no real purpose and with no real evidence.

In either case I look forward to the Liam Neeson movie that will obviously be made based on the Russian hijack scenario.

(And also, transit nerds, you keep doing you! This kind of dispersed expertise focused on intractable mysteries is awe-inspiring to behold.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:51 PM on February 23, 2015 [32 favorites]


Seems hard to believe a 777 could have flown that far over land on the borders of China, India, Pakistan and Russia and not have been detected at all. Borders or not. It is impossible for me to believe that Russia would steal a passenger plane like this. There is no conceivable reason to do it and the risk would be too great.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:57 PM on February 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is interesting even if just for the little window into what it's like to be a low-level talking head on cable news.

And, perhaps inadvertently, pretty revealing about the way that can lead to delusional thinking, too — call it the pundit complex. If you're treated like an expert on TV for long enough, it becomes easy to believe that you really must know things.
posted by RogerB at 10:01 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is an excellent conspiracy theory. A+. Would read again.

However, I find it hard to believe you could fly a paper airplane along the "disputed India- Pakistan border" without it not only being noticed but shot down by one or the other.
posted by fshgrl at 10:03 PM on February 23, 2015 [10 favorites]


omfg someone go to Russia and start digging right now because I have to know if that plane is there.
posted by kerning at 10:12 PM on February 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


When something gets super complex, I've been lately quoting the Joker from The Dark Knight.

The Joker: You see, I'm a guy of simple taste. I enjoy dynamite and gunpowder and gasoline. And you know the thing they have in common? They're cheap.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to something akin to Occam's Razor.

Putin using Russian secret agents to pull off the heist of the millennium? To start WWIII?

Nyet. Look what he did in Ukraine. All it took there was a few truckloads of guns and a bunch of whackos.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:17 PM on February 23, 2015 [14 favorites]


You all don't understand! The Roswell aliens were on there with Elvis, Tupac, Harold Holt and the woman who really assassinated JFK. Putin's just holding onto them until the time is right to bring down the West with the greatest conspiracy revelation in history.
posted by shimmerbug at 10:26 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem with the mainstream southern route theory is that nobody's found any physical evidence of the plane in the ocean or washed up on shore, which is weirder the longer it goes on. But the evidence for the northern route is equally nil. Its a hell of a story and it sounds like it'd be possible to slip an airline through the boundaries of the system and land it in Kazakhstan ... But why?

I still think "it's a really big ocean" wins over a massive conspiracy requiring the cooperation of hundreds of not thousands of people and numerous nations, several of which are unfriendly to each other, all engineered for no particularly good reason.

Emotionally though, you can see what makes the northern route theory so compelling.
posted by zachlipton at 10:29 PM on February 23, 2015 [9 favorites]


There's a bit more in the ebook that addresses the border question:
Steve Pearson, the former RAF navigator, told me that traveling along the boundaries between two Flight Information Regions can be a way to avoid drawing attention. Back when he was an RAF navigator, he would take advantage of this dynamic to slip through airspace where he wasn’t supposed to be: “When we used to go to other parts of the world, you could fly down FIR boundaries, and each side thought you were in the other one’s control. You could fly right down the boundary and no one would talk to you. It’s something we didn’t do very often, I must admit, but it’s something you can do.” Interestingly, a Russian intelligence plane nearly caused a mid-air collision with a Swedish passenger jet in December while flying along a FIR boundary with its transponder turned off. The Russian air force has been testing the air defences of Western Europe intensively in recent months, but this was the first time that a probing sortie almost led to disaster.
Risky, for sure, but not completely implausible.

Also, my takeaway wasn't that the theory required them to bury it there (though that is/was a possibility). They might simply have needed to give it enough coverage with a camouflage/netting/type "roof" to keep it out of satellite eyes until they could refuel and get somewhere under even LESS possible scrutiny (presumably in Russia proper).

I still have a lot of questions, but I'm honestly amazed at the depth of research he's gone into for this. I hope he continues, and keeps fine tuning the scenario as he gets both more expert insight and more pushback on the weaker elements.
posted by argonauta at 10:31 PM on February 23, 2015


Are the passengers buried along with the plane or are they being held somewhere? If so, for what purpose and how do you keep that quiet.
posted by 724A at 10:31 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is no conceivable reason to do it...

Plausible deniability for non-state nuclear bomb delivery?
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:43 PM on February 23, 2015


In his novelistic take on what might have happened in the plane during a Russian hijacking, the plane is depressurized so they're all dead. (Except the hijackers who had masks.) But I think it would actually be fairly trivial to hold them in a detention camp of some sort for quite a while, if they survived.

He said he didn't take his own theory too seriously, since it required Russia killing 250 civilians just to make a point ... But then Russian-backes forces shot down MH17 so then he felt like that was a line they were willing to cross.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:44 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Plausible deniability for non-state nuclear bomb delivery?

If you're a terrorist, you want everyone to know you did it. If you're a state actor, you know nuclear weapons have radiation "fingerprints" that can be traced back to you.

If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:57 PM on February 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


There is no conceivable reason to do it...

From the ebook:
If I had to guess, however, I would say that perhaps MH370 was a demonstration of prowess, a way to say to the West, “you can hurt us with sanctions, but don’t sleep too soundly at night, because we can hurt you in ways that you can’t even imagine.” MH370 was targeted only because the Russians had figured out a hack that only would work only under very particular circumstances, and MH370 happened to fit them.

MH17, then, might have been a reprise, in far blunter fashion— a way of saying, in effect, “The remember the last time we zapped you? You hurt us again, we’re hurting you again.” This time, victim’s aircraft type and livery were chosen as a kind of calling card, like a unit insignia left behind on the victim of a massacre.

“For Russia, this may have been a way of saying, the day after sanctions, ‘You want to see what sanctions are going to get you? We can prove it’s going to suck,’” former CIA operative Robert Baer told me.

Of course, for this line of reasoning to make sense, the American government would have to have already understood what happened to MH370, at a time when no one else did. That’s a big if. But I do see some evidence that this could be the case....
Also:
I’d been exploring the possibility that MH370 had been hijacked north for months already, and one of my biggest stumbling blocks was that it required the Russian political leadership to be willing to kidnap or kill 239 innocent civilians. MH17 showed that they had no such qualms.
posted by argonauta at 11:07 PM on February 23, 2015


In either case I look forward to the Liam Neeson movie that will obviously be made based on the Russian hijack scenario.

Yes! Sony Pictures hijacked the the plane as a lead-in promotion for Taken 4. Just like they paid North Korea for that data breach promotion for The Interview. Those sly devils, sure they murdered 250 people but think of the profits! (How is that for a conspiracy theory?)
posted by Literaryhero at 11:21 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Steve Pearson, the former RAF navigator, told me that traveling along the boundaries between two Flight Information Regions can be a way to avoid drawing attention.

That makes sense along a normal border with civilian air traffic control rules. India and Pakistan, otoh, have been actively fighting skirmishes and semi-seriously threatening each other with nukes for years, including a blatant threat in late 2014. The border is heavily militarized. I'm pretty sure they would notice a largeish airplane like this one.

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone but that's a pretty obvious hole. More theorizing required.
posted by fshgrl at 11:23 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


But was Russian political leadership involved in the downing of MH-17? I was under the impression that it was basically a mistake, overarmed and undertrained militants just blasting the wrong plane out of the sky. Or are we still talking conspiracy theories here? Or am I wrong?
posted by Literaryhero at 11:24 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem with the mainstream southern route theory is that nobody's found any physical evidence of the plane in the ocean or washed up on shore, which is weirder the longer it goes on.

There isn't really any shore I'm the southern oceans. For the most part the surface currents just go round and round. And it's massively big and the weather is horrible.
posted by fshgrl at 11:28 PM on February 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


He says:

In particular, the flight path skirts the border of China and just misses the disputed and much-watched India-Pakistan border

So I think he is pointing out that they didn't actually approach the border. Plus the map in the article makes it look like the flight path isn't really all that close to the border.
posted by Literaryhero at 11:28 PM on February 23, 2015


I don't think there's much mystery about MH17. I strongly suspect that the western security services know exactly what happened and why - it was a cock-up, as these things always are, and the immediate explosion of frantic comms traffic as knowledge of the cock-up spread up the command would have been thoroughly noted. We saw some of that on the immediate social media postings and their hurried removal.

The 'edge of the FIR' stuff only works if nothing much happens at the time or thereafter. You've still been spotted (by two sets of controllers) and will be in the records, and your cunning deceit will be spotted extremely quickly if there's any reason to go back and check afterwards.
posted by Devonian at 11:34 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


As an aside, isn't the "mystery sphere" shown in the article and reportedly found in the Maldives an anti ship mine?
posted by fshgrl at 11:41 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


That's the first thing I thought, too. If I saw that on the beach I'd get away from it.
posted by thelonius at 1:05 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


I doubt Mr. Putin would want to anger China by highjacking an airliner. It's fun to think of secret governments and perfectly planned capers, but the world is a messy place. The fate of the two Malaysian jetliners last summer illustrates this.
posted by Nevin at 1:13 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


MH370: Oceans are big. You won't believe how vastly mind bogglingly big they are.

MH317: 'Let's give some barely trained semi-deniable "Rebels" advanced military hardware, what could go wrong?'

done.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:23 AM on February 24, 2015 [23 favorites]


I can't recall where I heard it, but someone pointed out that according to his wikipedia entry, Duncan Steel has worked with NASA to assess the threat of comet and asteroid collisions and investigate technologies to avert such impacts. So...
a) he has a totally awesome name, and
b) he is basically Bruce Willis in Armageddon.
posted by sour cream at 5:28 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


zachlipton: "I still think "it's a really big ocean" wins over a massive conspiracy "

I agree; he goes a little bit into expected debris patterns with oceanographers, but I wish he'd discussed that a little more. It sounds like Australian authorities initially expected debris to start washing up near Perth after a few weeks; when it didn't, they suggested perhaps Indonesia. I imagine there are plenty of oceanographers who work on currents, debris, pollution, etc., who have some models they've run for this and Have Thoughts.

zachlipton: "requiring the cooperation of hundreds of not thousands of people and numerous nations"

He posits is basically requires a handful of sophisticated special forces agents (working with, he claims, Russian intelligence) -- and nobody else. And a massive, relatively appalling security problem on the Boeing 777, which is that you can access the airplane's electronics through an unsecured, unmonitored hatch in the passenger cabin, which includes the ability to control the door lock to the cockpit, the oxygen tanks for the pilots' masks, and -- because the plane is fly-by-wire -- total control of plane flight control systems, as well as all its navigational stuff. Hopefully this crazy theory will at least shame airlines into locking the hatch!

The rest of it is simply flying at night and taking advantage of routine gaps in flight control coverage, while staying close to borders so military radar assumes you're someone else's problem. The part that sees most unbelievable to me (other than the total lack of motive, but I'm willing to pretend, arguendo, we just don't know what the motive was) is that they'd go to all the trouble to leave this trail of ambiguous data for Inmarsat to find.

I mean, whatever, I think the pilot probably committed suicide-by-plane-full-of-people, but this guy has managed to point out a minimally plausible, political-thriller version of events where there's a 777 buried in Kazakhstan for very sinister unknown reasons, which highlights some flaws and failings in the aircraft design, in Malaysia's "no-fly" list (two guys flying on interpol-flagged stolen passports were allowed to board), in investigation procedures, in the vulnerabilities of satellite communications (and the mathematical corrections needed to correct for wobble when satellites get old). Which is all pretty interesting and if I worked in aviation, I'd definitely be taking some lessons from the work of the Transit Nerd Detectives. And, I don't know, can you do like ground sonar from CIA satellites to find buried planes? Because I'd just be damn curious, if nothing else.

(Actually my biggest practical problem with the Kazakhstan burial theory is that there's NASA personnel there all the time since it's where astronauts launch for ISS. So you've got some American scientists, and their equipment, near your airfield with the buried 777? Seems risky.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:47 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


All this "super villains with super powers for complex reasons" just to fend off "big world with big ocean and depressurization does not care about puny plane, puny humans"?

Oy.
posted by dglynn at 6:01 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Since I was the proprietor of the major web forum, it fell on me to protect the fragile cocoon of civility that nurtured the conversation. A single troll could easily derail everything. The worst offenders were the ones who seemed intelligent but soon revealed themselves as Believers. They’d seized on a few pieces of faulty data and convinced themselves that they’d discovered the truth. One was sure the plane had been hit by lightning and then floated in the South China Sea, transmitting to the satellite on battery power. When I kicked him out, he came back under aliases. I wound up banning anyone who used the word “lightning.”

Because any theory involving lightning is crazy, but a James Bond Supervillain stealing the plane and flying it through the airspaces of a half dozen countries without anyone noticing is the simplest explanation?
posted by justkevin at 6:03 AM on February 24, 2015 [21 favorites]


Yeah...didn't take too long to be reminded of the *vast* number of meticulously researched, entirely plausible if you ignore the hand-waving "proofs" that the Twin Towers was a vast and baroque conspiracy of any subset of a dozen evil actors. Typical "wake up, sheeple!" stuff, dressed up in a suit and tie and able to sound not unhinged on CNN.
posted by kjs3 at 6:27 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Plausible deniability for non-state nuclear bomb delivery?

The world is filled with private jets and airliners that could be stolen relatively easily on the ground and used for this purpose.
posted by cardboard at 7:00 AM on February 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't read a lot of New York Magazine but my general impression is that they don't typically publish this sort of highly speculative writing. I wonder what it was about this article they thought made it worth publishing.
posted by TedW at 7:05 AM on February 24, 2015


The pilot might of been able to follow the known navagation paths and stay on the edges between to control centers. However the radars would still have a record of the plane. The US and others have all kinds of radar and satellite observations of central asia. More than can be looked at on any given day. But they would have gone back and looked at it to rule out the possible northern route. Also why would the Russians tamper with the engine ping when they could just turn it off.
posted by humanfont at 7:08 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


This article is nonsense. It's embarrassing that New York Magazine published it and it's embarrassing to see it discussed seriously on Metafilter.
posted by Nelson at 7:11 AM on February 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'm convinced this gent doesn't understand autopilot systems, though, based on his discussion of Baikonur as "the only runway designed for planes to laund autonomously in the world," etc.

When you get something that big that wrong, you're credibility is shot. It's called a Category II or III ILS approach combined with a plane that has auto land, which was first done in 1968! There are *nine* auto land capable runways in Chicago, for fuck's sake (9L, 10C, 10L, 14L, 14R, 27L, 27R, 28C, and 28L at ORD.) Hell, runway 1L at Milwaukee has it. Cat II/III ILS is common, and pretty much every commercial aircraft made since 1980 has auto land.

That statement is *just plain not true, period.*

In particular, the flight path skirts the border of China and just misses the disputed and much-watched India-Pakistan border

Yeah, but radars don't magically stop at national boundaries. And if you're flying just off the India-Pakistan border or the Chinese border, you *will* be a target on a radar and questions *will* be asked.

The world is filled with private jets and airliners that could be stolen relatively easily on the ground and used for this purpose.

Exactly. Or, if it must be commercial, don't grab a passenger plane that might have 350 people on board, grab a cargo plane with 2-3 people, a big empty space for the bomb, and as a bonus, it even has a big door!

The pilot might of been able to follow the known navagation paths and stay on the edges between to control centers. However the radars would still have a record of the plane.

When you're far over the ocean, you're not under radar coverage. Oceanic ATC is done by time and waypoint. You're route is a series of waypoints, usually just Lat-Long, and an altitude. When you reach a waypoint, you radio in that you've done so and your estimate to the next ones. ATC moves the markers on a map.

Yes, this is much less control than radar controlled, so spacing is much larger between planes.
posted by eriko at 7:12 AM on February 24, 2015 [16 favorites]


I was googling for some more information on the author and his background, when I stumbled across this image. I'm going to call that victory and move on to the next thing.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:27 AM on February 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yes! Sony Pictures hijacked the the plane as a lead-in promotion for Taken 4. Just like they paid North Korea for that data breach promotion for The Interview. Those sly devils, sure they murdered 250 people but think of the profits! (How is that for a conspiracy theory?)

Plausible, for sure.
posted by slogger at 7:29 AM on February 24, 2015


eriko, I've been hoping you'd weigh in, thank you!

Re: the author's credibility, for what it's worth, he clarified the runway statement in response to that question on his blog: "Yes, many airstrips are equipped for Cat III Approaches, but they were built long before the technology was available. Those that were built more recently were intended for a wide variety of aircraft, some of which could autoland and some of which could not. Yubileyniy was built for one specific vehicle — the Buran — which could autoland, and indeed did."

It seems like he meant it more as an interesting factoid, not at all a claim that this is the only runway where a 777 could autoland, just a specifically good one. Earlier, he'd described it: "Nearly 15,000 feet long, it was built in the 70s as the landing site for the Buran space plane, the Soviet Union’s answer to the Space Shuttle. Constructed of special reinforced concrete twice as strong as that used in normal runways, and ground to exceptional flatness using special milling machines, Yubileyniy remains to my knowledge the only airstrip in the world that was built specifically for the use of self-landing aircraft."
posted by argonauta at 7:58 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


New York Magazine/The New Yorker =New York Post/New York Times (only worse.) At least from my snobby POV. The bit about the only autoland runway was a bit much. It all reminds me of when I was a kid and read a few UFO books, I would stare out the window at the planes doing the approach or departure from NYC area airports at night and think "is that one.....is that one"
posted by Pembquist at 8:06 AM on February 24, 2015


As an aside, isn't the "mystery sphere" shown in the article and reportedly found in the Maldives an anti ship mine?

It looks like one, but it appears to be much smaller than typical. Moreover, that "spiky ball" shape is no longer common; post-WWII modern naval mines look like torpedoes, as they use internal sensors, rather than external detonators.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:09 AM on February 24, 2015


aronauta I appreciate the expansion, it is an interesting factoid. However it insinuates something that is just not true, so I would say it is deliberately manipulative. I still can't tell if the whole thing is sarcastic.
posted by Pembquist at 8:18 AM on February 24, 2015


Okay I wrote the movie while I was in the shower. So, Liam Neeson, who just wants a damn vacation, is on his way back from Malaysia to Ireland (where he is in the Irish special forces because ... probably Ireland has them?). The plane is hijacked as described here, only without cabin pressurization loss. The hijackers take control of the E/E room, release control of the cockpit and kill the pilots. They terrorize but do not injure the passengers. They start flying the northern route, skirting the boundaries of international radar, on their way to Kazakhstan, with five hours to landing. Liam Neeson is herded back to sit in coach as the hijackers clear out first class, and sit down next to ... Benedict Cumberbatch, a businessman with interests in southeast Asia who's been on a business trip. They talk in an undertone about whether they can take the plane back over. "I don't suppose you're MI-6," Neeson jokes, seeing Cumberbatch's impeccable grooming and suaveness. "No, just a toothbrush salesman," Cumberbatch replies. "But I heard those two ladies discussing their judo competition earlier." Because Cumberbatch is fluent in Mandarin!

Neeson somehow patches together a way to communicate with the ground, ripping electronics out of the backs of kids' handheld video game systems to hack together a sattelite phone and is able to raise a friend at MI-6 or something. "Oh, sure, we see you flying over the Indian ocean." "Um, not so much, we're over ... the Himilayas?" SCRAMBLE THE GROUND-LEVEL NERD SQUAD, in London, who start doing all of this math that the nerds did over several months, and figure out, working with their CIA counterparts, that they're dealing with a rogue Russian general, ex-KGB, who thinks Putin doesn't go far ENOUGH in taking back over the -stans, resents China's growing influence at the expense of Russia's waning influence, and is going to steal an airliner and take lots of hostages to prove it. Lots of exciting scenes of the nerds doing hero-math (a la Apollo 13) while everyone on our airliner tensely flies through the night, covering for Liam Neeson on his radio phone in the bathroom, while Benedict Cumberbatch holds whispered Mandarin conversations with the judo blackbelts and others.

"The only place they can possibly land it is the Cosmodrome," the nerds work out. "But Russia insists there's nothing happening and they won't send out their guys. Satellite coverage suggests Rogue General has a convoy on the way there that will arrive thirty minutes after the plane does. That gives them an hour to get it under a tarp before the sun rises."

"The Cosmodrome? Don't we have astronauts there?"

"We do, but their living quarters are 20 miles from the landing strip and it's restricted access."

"Call them up anyway. I don't want our guys at risk just because they're waiting to get on a rocketship. We don't need astronaut hostages."

Two American astronauts and one Canadian -- played by Chris Hadfield -- are tensely discussing what to do. They convince NASA to put them through to Neeson. Neeson thinks he can take over the plane in the half-hour between landing and militia arrival, but he needs fuel, and someone to fly it right back out of there before the militia arrives. Hadfield can fly it, but needs a copilot because he isn't familiar with the 777. A cosmonaut (Yuri) overhears their arguing and breaks in. After some tense back and forth, they agree to tell him.

"My friends, I will be your co-pilot. This is my Russia, and I will not allow it to be hijacked by men of war," Yuri tells them.

Yuri steals them a tanker of jet fuel and they drive out the 20 miles under cover of night, where Yuri talks his way past the bureaucrats. As the plane is landing on autoland, Neeson and the judo ladies make their move. Punching! Fighting! Wrestling! Cumberbatch hits a hijacker in the head with a tray! They open the doors, throw the hijackers out, and frantically refuel the jet as the militia ominously approaches over the open desert. Is it enough fuel? WE DON'T KNOW. WE HAVE TO GO. The renegade general arrives and starts shooting. They close the door and frantically take off, Hadfield at the controls. They're an hour from the closest friendly airport that can land a 777, in Urumqi, and they have got to get the navigation controls back online. Down in the E/E the female American electrical engineer is surveying the damage, and being walked through a repair checklist hastily prepared by none other than ... Sully Sullenberger. She reconnects it all but nobody's sure if the Chinese Air Force will believe they're a RESCUED hijacked plane rather than just a hijacked one. The sun is coming up. They reach the border and get intercepted by Chinese fighter jets right as dawn strikes. Benedict Cumberbatch frantically speaks Mandarin to the jets. "Hey, you sound British," the Chinese guys are like, "That's really suspicious." One of the judo ladies takes over the headset and is like, "I'm from Beijing, there are 200 Chinese citizens on board, we must get to Urumqi!"

The Chinese Air Force is like, "Whoa! You unhijacked yourselves! That's so great, but your landing gear looks damaged by machine gun fire." So Liam Neeson climbs down and hangs upsidedown over the landing gear to try to fix it. The only thing left to do is have Hadfield and Yuri land the disabled plane. They clear the airport and bring out the firetrucks. The plane comes down -- it's windy -- it sways -- it bounces -- and it skids to a safe halt to the jubilation of the Chinese airport staff. Inside the plane, there's lots of hugs and kisses and multicultural, multi-language "yay we saved world peace!" celebrations.

And Liam Neeson ... he really just needs a vacation.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:30 AM on February 24, 2015 [173 favorites]


My point is that had the plane followed the northern route it would be on radar tapes and other observation records. The southern route has nothing like that. So it is very likely it went south and sunk under the waves. We will probably find it eventually, but it could he several years.
posted by humanfont at 8:56 AM on February 24, 2015


It seems like he meant it more as an interesting factoid, not at all a claim that this is the only runway where a 777 could autoland, just a specifically good one.

DEN has a 16,000x200 foot runway. ORD and JFK have 13,000 feet. These aren't uncommon at all, esp. in the Pacific Rim where you have transpacs taking off and needing long runways because they're taking off near MTOW.
posted by eriko at 9:01 AM on February 24, 2015


Yeah, I think it was the special concrete, not the length, that he saw as unusually desirable in this scenario. Doesn't prove or disprove anything, obviously. But I agree that he never should have presented that detail as such an "a-HA!!"
posted by argonauta at 9:12 AM on February 24, 2015


Eyebrows McGee, shut up and take my money!
posted by wintermind at 9:13 AM on February 24, 2015 [22 favorites]


I forgot to throw in a couple of med students from Singapore who are treating the stewardess who has been shot, who we periodically see in background shots flipping frantically through their textbooks and bickering (in subtitles) about how to treat her, in between saving lives. Maybe a tall, blond Australian model with a great right hook. Definitely a pissed-off Chinese grandmother who stabs hijackers with her airline cutlery when the passengers take the plane back over.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:20 AM on February 24, 2015 [13 favorites]


Benedict Cumberbatch should play it like he played his Nathan Barley character.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:26 AM on February 24, 2015


I think the craziest part of the theory is that the hijackers have to spoof the signal in such a way to confuse the doppler shift analysis. But such an analysis was pretty much unprecedented- they would have to know that such an analysis was possible and perform it in reverse, ahead of time.

Much simpler to turn off the transponder and just disappear.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:37 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


So it wasn't a blackhole or Obama?
posted by juiceCake at 9:41 AM on February 24, 2015


Eyebrows McGee, THAT WAS INSPIRED. When do you start filming? Get this on kickstarter.
posted by trif at 9:43 AM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


And Liam Neeson ... he really just needs a vacation

OMG that would be awesome. Someone needs to make this movie. Although can we swap out Benedict Cumberbatch for a female British actor? Say, Helen Mirren? Or Gillian Anderson (who while technically not British can play British pretty convincingly). Or wassname, the woman who's the lead in Happy Valley.
posted by suelac at 9:44 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't read a lot of New York Magazine but my general impression is that they don't typically publish this sort of highly speculative writing. I wonder what it was about this article they thought made it worth publishing.

This article is nonsense. It's embarrassing that New York Magazine published it and it's embarrassing to see it discussed seriously on Metafilter.


Allow me to offer an alternative analysis of the article. Hear me out before you call me crazy.

I don't think this article is an argument in support of a conspiracy theory. I think it's an account of how an otherwise intelligent informed person can become seduced by a conspiracy theory.

Unlike the FPP, the article's title is not "I Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is". Wise asks, "How Crazy Am I to Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is?"

He then explains how and why he got involved, and how he persuaded himself to continue to pursue a particular take on the story. He points out that there's a lot that we don't know and that there were many times we were told lies by sources and authorities. He also says:
For a long time, I resisted even considering the possibility that someone might have tampered with the data. That would require an almost inconceivably sophisticated hijack operation, one so complicated and technically demanding that it would almost certainly need state-level backing. This was true conspiracy-theory material. And yet, once I started looking for evidence, I found it.

I imagine everyone who comes up with a new theory, even a complicated one, must experience one particularly delicious moment, like a perfect chord change, when disorder gives way to order. This was that moment for me. Once I threw out the troublesome BFO data, all the inexplicable coincidences and mismatched data went away.

The more I discovered, the more coherent the story seemed to me. I found a peculiar euphoria in thinking about my theory, which I thought about all the time.

One of the diagnostic questions used to determine whether you’re an alcoholic is whether your drinking has interfered with your work. By that measure, I definitely had a problem. . . . I was forking out my own money for translators and researchers and satellite photos. And yet I was happy.

Still, it occurred to me that, for all the passion I had for my theory, I might be the only person in the world who felt this way.

Neurobiologist Robert A. Burton points out in his book On Being Certain that the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs. It’s something that the brain does subconsciously to protect itself from wasting unnecessary processing power on problems for which you’ve already found a solution that’s good enough. “ ‘That’s right’ is a feeling you get so that you can move on,” Burton told me. It’s a kind of subconscious laziness. Just as it’s harder to go for a run than to plop onto the sofa, it’s harder to reexamine one’s assumptions than it is to embrace certainty. At one end of the spectrum of skeptics are scientists, who by disposition or training resist the easy path; at the other end are conspiracy theorists, who’ll leap effortlessly into the sweet bosom of certainty. So where did that put me?

By December, when the ships had still not found a thing, I felt it was finally time to go public. In six sequentially linked pages that readers could only get to by clicking through—to avoid anyone reading the part where I suggest Putin masterminded the hijack without first hearing how I got there—I laid out my argument. . . . I got a respectful hearing but no converts. . . A few sites wrote summaries of my post.

Somehow, the airing of my theory helped quell my obsession. My gut still tells me I’m right, but my brain knows better than to trust my gut.

The search failed to deliver the airplane . . . And it left behind a faint, lingering itch in the back of my mind, which I believe will quite likely never go away.
Conspiracy nuts don't write articles explaining how they came to suspect that they were pursuing a nutty conspiracy, nor interview neurologists and report about they'd been told that "the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs". Conspiracy nuts don't compare their obsessions with alcoholism in published articles.

I think there's something to be learned from the lines: "My gut still tells me I’m right, but my brain knows better than to trust my gut. . . it left behind a faint, lingering itch in the back of my mind, which I believe will quite likely never go away.

An interesting, honest, story.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:45 AM on February 24, 2015 [42 favorites]


The Southern Ocean is really rough, even in the summer. If it went nose in, I'm not convinced there'd be much recognizable debris that would stay afloat long enough to wash up. Did a lot of Air France 447 debris end up on shore? I know there was a debris field at sea, but that was because they got to the site within hours, instead of weeks later (and we still aren't really sure if we are looking at the right place even now.)
posted by tavella at 9:46 AM on February 24, 2015


Also --

Metafilter: "A bunch of randos from the internet."
 
posted by Herodios at 9:46 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: Neeson and the judo ladies
posted by vibrotronica at 10:03 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Herodios has it. The author knows his idea is harebrained, but he can't help himself.
posted by exogenous at 10:25 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Surely publishing personal photos of the dead with accompanying accusations is in extremely poor taste.
posted by Don Don at 10:27 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: "the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs"
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:28 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Duncan Steel's theory is pretty easy to refute: the people who were working on the demolished building at Baikonur could explain what they are doing and why they had to work through the winter. And they could let people do some scans of the pit.

And the colleagues and family of the Ukrainian passport holders who were sitting near the E/E cabinet could do a little more to vouch for their background and character.
posted by rongorongo at 10:52 AM on February 24, 2015


suelac: " Although can we swap out Benedict Cumberbatch for a female British actor?"

No because now it ends with the happy ending hugging on the tarmac everyone being helped to ambulances and buses by emergency services, and the Australian Model (who was flirting with Cumberbatch on the plane) is walking away with some children she helped protect during the re-take-over with her awesome right hook that laid a hijacker out flat, and exhausted, blanket-wrapped Liam Neeson says to slightly rumpled Benedict Cumberbatch, "You should go after her, I think she liked you."

"To be quite honest," Cumberbatch says, with a raise of the eyebrow, "you're more my type."

Neeson and Cumberbatch start tastefully making out on the tarmac as the camera pulls back and the triumphant pop song starts playing. AT LAST LIAM NEESON HAS FOUND LOVE.

(This scene is kept carefully under wraps during filming, of course, so it is met with shrieks and squeals at every screening.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:10 AM on February 24, 2015 [15 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee, if that is your plot then you owe a certain Candian flight crew part of your fee. I give you…the Gimli Glider!

Keep your eyes open for my favorite, Michael Bay-esque detail: "Part of the decommissioned runway was being used to stage the race." Oh, noes -- THE PERIL!!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:14 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Okay I wrote the movie while I was in the shower.

Still a better love story than Twilight.

(And a better Liam Neeson love story than Love Actually...)
posted by Naberius at 11:35 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


SCRAMBLE THE GROUND-LEVEL NERD SQUAD,*

*Led by Eddie Redmayne in a dopily-grinning, scene-eating cameo.
posted by Rumple at 11:52 AM on February 24, 2015


I spent a month on the Colorado River and in the Grand Canyon in June and July completely cut off from all outside communication. When I went in, they were still searching for MH370 in the Indian Ocean. The first headline I saw on a newspaper rack when I got out was about the Malaysian Airline wreckage in Ukraine. I thought "What the hell! How did it end up way up there?"

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be out of touch for a while in the 1970s and come back and find out both the Vice-President and the President had resigned.
posted by JackFlash at 11:56 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I think it was the special concrete, not the length, that he saw as unusually desirable in this scenario.

It's still nonsense, because the 777, like all commercial aircraft, is *explicitly built to auto land on commercial airport runways.* It would be literally useless if the only place they could land was at the SLF and Baikonur runways. They auto land on regular runways *all the time* -- London Heathrow would be royally screwed if they didn't.

Indeed, extra-smooth concrete is a *bad* idea on a runway where it might rain. Runways are explicitly grooved to limit the water on them, because the two big factors in hydroplaning are the contact patch of the tires and the speed of the vehicle, and these jets are touching down at over 100 knots.

Also, we've built new runways, many now to 200 ft. wide specs, mainly for the A380 and other future "super" aircraft.

It's a 777. It can land on any runway about 7000'x150' or bigger. It was carefully designed to make sure that it could do so, because it would be unsellable if it couldn't! As long as that runway has a Cat II or III ILS system installed, planes can auto land on that runway.

Even considering this nonsense shows me there's an extreme lack of critical thinking. Planes auto land on runways all the time. They are built to do just that. Why *in this one case* is it important that the plane have a specific runway that happens to be at Baikonur, when it very probably auto landed at Kuala Lumpur before it took off from there and disappeared?

Why is that MH370, alone of the nearly 1300 777 sold, and millions of flights taken by 777s, needed that special runway?

Answer: In no way did it need that runway.

Oh, and one other thing. There are two runways at Baikonur. One is in use for flights to Moscow. It's called Krayniy (UAOL) and it has a 3203x60m (10507x197') runway. It's in good shape.

The other one? The one Buran used? That's Yubileyniy Airport (UAON). Take a look at that "carefully smoothed and well constructed surface."

The *single* mark of a conspiracy theorist is that they refuse to rejects "facts" even when those facts are quite simply wrong.
posted by eriko at 11:59 AM on February 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


AT LAST LIAM NEESON HAS FOUND LOVE

OK, that would be awesome, especially since Cumberbatch gets cast as the Bond Girl/designated love reward, with the roughly-30-year-difference in their ages.
posted by suelac at 12:04 PM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


What I enjoyed about this article was that – in the end – it's not about the plane. It's about the obsession with mystery:
Once the CNN checks stopped coming, I entered a long period of intense activity that earned me not a cent. Instead, I was forking out my own money for translators and researchers and satellite photos. And yet I was happy.
...the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs. It’s something that the brain does subconsciously to protect itself from wasting unnecessary processing power on problems for which you’ve already found a solution that’s good enough.
The plane disappearance is a stage by which one man's obsession with facts unfolds, until he arrives at the logical explanation: it's buried in an airfield that Kazakstan leases to Russia, because there were 20 semiconductor engineers aboard.

An amazing example of seeking causality between two (most likely) unrelated events – all made possible because of a tremendous amount of satellite data that's been made public.

It's a beautiful tale of obsession – one that exists in a world of infinite information and a 24 hour news cycle. One where we are addicted to knowledge, access to information, and answers.

One where the hardest thing to accept is that we cannot know an answer.

Amazing story.
posted by nickrussell at 12:55 PM on February 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Okay I wrote the movie while I was in the shower.

Sold! Draw up the contract, we need to get making this movie now.

Now if only I were actually a movie mogul in real life . . .
posted by flug at 1:24 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


E.McG., that's a spousin'
posted by tigrrrlily at 1:40 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was under the impression that full autoland was almost never used. I believe typical procedure is for the pilot flying to take the controls at the minimum decision altitude. However, it is the case that a properly equipped plane on approach to a properly equipped runway can land itself, it's just that policy dictates that they do not.

Also, I'm fairly positive that the flight director can't switch modes on its own from navigation to ILS landing. Someone has to tune the radio to the correct ILS frequency and activate the landing mode whose name I forget. Not to mention setting flaps and dropping the landing gear. That might be doable from the EE bay, but I doubt it almost as much as I doubt that nobody would notice a would-be hijacker opening the hatch.
posted by wierdo at 2:40 PM on February 24, 2015


Man though this is literally the least I could say re: that tour de force movie idea, but: given how badly Cumberbatch can butcher perfectly ordinary-to-him English words like penglings pingwings penguins, I would love to hear him trying to speak Mandarin...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:18 PM on February 24, 2015


Those commenters criticizing the author's inability to sensibly connect the dots are totally missing the point. He freely admits that his theory is outlandish and unbelievable. The article's purpose its to describe a sensation that was novel to him--a strong temptation to weave and embrace a conspiracy theory. It's an interesting peek into how conspiracy theory psychology works, not a plea for others to give credence to his alternate narrative.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 3:19 PM on February 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


I'm also sceptical that you can really gain access to "total control of plane flight control systems" through this magic hatch.

Yes, perhaps you can get to the wires, but it takes an entire cockpit full of controls and switches and instruments and levers and assorted doohickeys to actually fly the plane. Does our hijacker have all that stuff in his briefcase or something? It's not like you can plug a laptop into the ethernet port and run a command window. I could see, I dunno, shutting an engine off or fiddling with an aileron or something, but fly to Russia?
posted by Fnarf at 7:29 PM on February 24, 2015


I think it is under a photoshopped tarp somewhere, and will be disguised as an airliner in flight, until it is too late. Why are the Russian bombers flying the channel these days? For some reason, I have always thought that plane went to K-land. I thought I read about about that plane going up to 45,000 feet before the disappearance, I always think of that as the nighty-night maneuver. The Pennsylvania flight did that on 9/11. You know, or else CERN acccidentally did project some baby black hole through the Earth.

What I really think is, some not so garden variety criminals did this, and when that plane ultimately lands, they will have already spent the money, but not on fleek condominiums.
posted by Oyéah at 7:58 PM on February 24, 2015


Fnarf, I doubted that too; this video tour of the E/E bay has some compelling bits (start at 1:05): http://www.runwaygirlnetwork.com/2014/07/22/will-industry-address-vulnerability-beneath-the-carpet-of-the-777/. I'm assuming the theory has the hijackers out of the bay and into the cockpit as soon as the plane is "theirs," too (which would happen pretty quickly).
posted by argonauta at 8:03 PM on February 24, 2015


When we used to go to other parts of the world, you could fly down FIR boundaries, and each side thought you were in the other one’s control. You could fly right down the boundary and no one would talk to you.

But they would still see it, and they'd be able to go back to the data later. No dice.

I would say that perhaps MH370 was a demonstration of prowess, a way to say to the West, “you can hurt us with sanctions...

To quote Dr. Strangelove: "Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn't you tell the world, EH? "
posted by furtive at 10:20 PM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yes, perhaps you can get to the wires, but it takes an entire cockpit full of controls and switches and instruments and levers and assorted doohickeys to actually fly the plane.

Not that I find this theory very credible, but isn't everything in commercial aviation built to a ridiculous level of redundancy to ensure their extremely high safety record given the thousands of flights taking place every day? Taking over a plane in flight is already pretty risky business, the extra risk of not having access to _all_ of the controls for one specific flight might be trivial in comparison.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:10 PM on February 24, 2015


The article's purpose its to describe a sensation that was novel to him--a strong temptation to weave and embrace a conspiracy theory. It's an interesting peek into how conspiracy theory psychology works, not a plea for others to give credence to his alternate narrative.

My response, at one stage when reading the article, was "fucking hell - this has got to be right!" - then I remembered that this has also been my first reaction to half a dozen MH370 theories which have appeared right here in the blue. So the article - to me at least - is also about how readers react to the ideas. The thing about flight MH370 is that its disappearance does not conform to an "Occam's Razor prosaic explanation of crazy unbelievable explanation" break down; even those theories which seem most plausible: a problem with the flight system or pilot suicide - seem somewhat outlandish when compared with the little information we know about the flight path, the crew, the plane and the contact pattern. The tragic disappearance of a large aircraft with hundreds of passengers on board leaves an enormous unanswered question "why?" and it is tempting to latch on to any explanation that fills to void.

Before dismissing all conspiracy theories, and their backers, as whacko-by-their-nature it is also worth considering the list of those which have been proven true.. In this particular case, the idea of a destruction/hijack operation by state intelligence - particularly one which they fucked up - does not seem a whole lot less credible than any other explanation.
posted by rongorongo at 11:33 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


This article is interesting for two reasons. One is the technical revelations regarding security vulnerabilities in the 777's electronics and the satellite mathematics that few if any others have talked about. The other is the very self-aware psychological observation of the lengths we will go to scratch that itch at the back of our brain. Too bad though about those who completely failed to understand this and reacted in rabid knee jerk reaction at the mention of the word conspiracy. Some of those comments are not worthy of the Blue.
posted by blue shadows at 11:52 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: a faint, lingering itch at the back of my mind, that I believe will quite likely never go away.
posted by blue shadows at 11:57 PM on February 24, 2015


Eyebrows McGee's movie synopsis is now my all-time favorite comment on this site.
It had been scarabic's infamous dead-body post, but I somehow never found myself in need of this particular advice.
posted by bibliowench at 7:38 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


If reddit can get a film made out of Marines vs Centurions, why can't we get The McGee Scenario off the ground? I bet we have better film industry connections anyway.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:19 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Reddits got more people and is frequently trawled by Cracked and Buzzfeed and such
posted by Jacen at 12:30 PM on February 25, 2015


"To be quite honest," Cumberbatch says, with a raise of the eyebrow, "you're more my type."

Oh, then you need to cast Cillian Murphy. Cumberbatch is great and all that, but Murphy has the perfect dreamy eyes for that scene...
posted by kjs3 at 12:31 PM on February 28, 2015


My response, at one stage when reading the article, was "fucking hell - this has got to be right!"

Did you know there's no entry for gullible in the dictonary?
posted by MartinWisse at 12:57 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Vanishing
posted by andoatnp at 10:21 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Follow up from the author of the New York mag piece. His crazy theory was much better received this time.
posted by 724A at 5:32 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


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