An aviation expert and pilot fears the authorities investigating the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have overlooked a crucial piece of evidence.
Sunday will mark the first anniversary since the disappearance of the plane, with thus far fruitless search efforts taking place in the Indian Ocean.
The search area is focused on the signals collected from an Inmarsat satellite, amid the widely circulated theory that pilot Zaharie Shah ditched the plane in the ocean as part of a suicide plot.
But science writer Jeff Wise believes the very basis of this theory could be false, suggesting that investigators are looking in the wrong place entirely.
Wise’s main hypothesis is that hijackers turned off the aircraft’s Satellite Data Unit in order to create the false impression that the plane was heading to the southern Indian Ocean, when it fact it was being taken north.
Blogging for the Huffington Post UK he points out that the plane “went electronically dark” 40 minutes after departing Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing at 12.41am local time, with its transponder and ADS-B systems both shut off and the radios silent.
Wise writes that though the plane was no longer emitting electronic signals, it was still visible on military radar and was tracked performing a 180-degree turn and heading back over the Malay Peninsula, before turning again and travelling northwest up the Malacca Strait.
It then slipped off radar entirely over the Andaman Sea at 2.25am.
Three minutes later, the plane began to send a series of electronic signals to an Inmarsat communications satellite, totaling seven over the course of seven hours.
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Wise says: “These would constitute the only evidence of what happened to the plane, and though slim, would allow scientists using novel mathematical techniques to roughly determine where the plane must have gone.”
But Wise describes the reason as to why the plane sent the signals as “the core enigma”.
He points out that a feature of the Inmarsat satellite communications system is that if a customer does not use it for a certain amount of time then the satellite will transmit a signal asking the user if they are still logged on.
The request is known as a “handshake” in the aviation industry.
Analysts who subscribe to the theory Captain Shah was carrying out a suicide plot have suggested he turned off the communication systems in an attempt to evade detection, but did not realise the hourly satellite “handshakes” were still occurring.
Wise writes: “That’s incorrect… Whoever was in charge of the plane didn’t leave the satellite system on. It was turned off or in some other way compromised.
“What happened at 2.25am was that MH370 logged back on to the Inmarsat system. I count this as the central, crucial clue for the simple reason that turning the satellite communication system off and on is something that few airline pilots know how to do.
“And it’s not easy to accomplish. For the log-on to have occurred, someone had to either turn off half the electrical system of the plane or else climbed into the electronics bay and tampered with the power data line feeding the satellite communication system.
“This small, easy-to-overlook piece of data, then, has some fairly jaw-dropping implications. It suggests that whoever took MH370 was technically very savvy. And it suggests that the Inmarsat data, the only clue that we have about the plane’s final six hours, was not immune from tampering.”
Wise expanded on this theory in a piece for New York Magazine entitled How Crazy Am I To Think I Actually Know Where That Malaysia Airlines Plane Is, published last month.
“They turned on the satcom in order to provide a false trail of breadcrumbs leading away from the plane’s true route,” he writes.
He continues: “I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how a person could physically turn the satcom off and on.
“The only way, apart from turning off half the entire electrical system, would be to go into the E/E bay and pull three particular circuit breakers. It is a maneuver that only a sophisticated operator would know how to execute, and the only reason I could think for wanting to do this was so that Inmarsat would find the records and misinterpret them.”
The “they” in Wise’s theory is an intriguing prospect. He has posited the suggestion Russian President Vladimir Putin may have commissioned the hijacking and ordered the plane to be landed in Kazakhstan.
Musing on the reasons as to why, he said: “Maybe he wanted to demonstrate to the United States, which had imposed the first punitive sanctions on Russia the day before, that he could hurt the West and its allies anywhere in the world. Maybe what he was really after were the secrets of one of the plane’s passengers. Maybe there was something strategically crucial in the hold. Or maybe he wanted the plane to show up unexpectedly somewhere someday, packed with explosives.”
He has expanded on this theory in a personal blog, illustrated with a series of images of the Yubileyniy Aerodrome within the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a structure built for the Russian version of the Space Shuttle.
The images apparently show a flurry of activity both before and after the disappearance of MH370.
Wise acknowledges: “Indeed, the entire scenario I describe might well be totally wrong. But regardless, in the future any serious attempt to explain MH370 should attempt to account for this crucial fact.
“Someone tampered with the satellite communication system and the data derived from it is not impeachable.”
Jeff Wise has a Kindle Single The Plane That Wasn't There: Why We Haven't Found MH370 available on Amazon.