Wednesday, 19 March 2014

MH370 Intelligence to the rescue?


In the exercise of their intelligence, a large number of citizens have decided to try to find the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight. According to the Wisdom of Crowds, if a sufficiently large number of people guess the longitude and latitude of this vehicle and its unfortunate occupants, then we should be able to refine our search of the vast immensities of the world that conceivably could have been covered by this fully fuelled jet.

The wisdom of crowds, as you may remember, posits the view that because the pooled estimates generated by individuals guessing the number of beans in a glass jar are often close to the real number of beans, that there is a mysterious force guiding us to the correct solution, sadly hidden from individuals. Of course, readers of this journal may suspect that averaging estimates on tasks with low intellectual content can sometimes reduce error terms, particularly if you omit outliers, but this is no time to get nasty with authors of popular books.

Typically, humans being humans, these disparate citizens have eschewed the control condition of just guessing the location, as the jar of beans example requires. They have taken to poring over maps and searching satellite photos and referring to Google Earth. We are all searching, each in our own very special way.

I am in favour of speculation, and would not to interfere with anyone’s hobby, even if it involves flight simulators.  There has been little need of heavy labour since the domestication of wheat, so people have to find things to do, myself included.

Better, this understandable wish to help solve a mystery has brought in some experienced pilots, with much to add in explaining the Pilot Point of View. Naturally pilots tend to stick up for pilots, but plane manufacturers stick up for plane manufacturers, and governments….. you get the drift. Chris Goodfellow, pilot, has put forward an interesting speculation, which is that a fire in the aircraft forced the pilots to change course to a nearby airport. The pilots, unknown to them, had already lost communication links, but set the autopilot toward the nearest and most suitable airport. Overcome with fumes and smoke the crew collapsed, but the plane continued in a straight course on autopilot until it ran out of fuel, somewhere just West of the Maldives, which is the area which should searched, in his opinion.

There is much to like in the account. First, it is written by a pilot. They get to wear impressive uniforms. Second, the hypothesis is testable, in that it gives a location (roughly). Third, it is testable in that it suggests that, should the plane ever be found, fire damage will be found in some of the systems. Fourth, testable in that every body will probably be still in its seat, asphyxiated. There will be no piles of bodies relating to crowds trying to break down the cockpit door. Fifthly, the black box will show one change of course, and nothing else. Sixthly, it teaches us something about pilots, and they are worth learning about.

Let me describe this in a little more detail. As an 11 year old I spent a portion of every airliner flight in the cockpit. I did at least one landing in the company of my younger brother standing next to pilots as they landed at Carrasco airport, Montevideo. I recall that, in a late burst of health and safety awareness, in the final stages of the approach one pilot muttered as he coaxed the bucketing DC3 downward “Grab on to something”. One learnt a lot in those days.

In later years I always talked to the pilot. On Concorde the pilots concluded their 10 minute explanations about the controls, instrumentation, flying characteristics, thermal properties of aluminium alloys, and the intricacies of altering the centre of gravity to vary the angle of attack by ending on a studied, laconic note, describing what was one of the world’s fastest-ever aircraft thus: “Its a good bit of kit”.

More ordinary planes had pilots who sometimes lamented their reduced condition. On a long flight to Tokyo one said to me “I am not a pilot, I am a systems engineer. Systems monitor, in fact”. He showed me how he was pumping fuel into the wingtip tanks to reduce stresses on the wings. He also showed me how he was monitoring “every airport that can take us”. This had not been a Latin American concern decades before. Sure enough, every suitable airport was on the moving map, with coordinates and runway characteristic available should we need to land quickly. A very worthwhile precaution.

By the way, most of these cockpit visits, though they linger in my mind, were very short. Pilots kept working, and some of the time I just stood there in silence, watching. The later flights were all in the hijacking era, but not in the hijack and suicide era. Different times.

However, there is a problem with all these all attempted explanations. We are all relying on the belief that we know the actual sequence of events in the first hour or so of the flight. I suppose it is conceivable that a fire somewhere in the airframe should have eaten its way through one automatic reporting system while leaving the radio intact. The timing of the loss of systems becomes absolutely critical in this analysis, as indeed in all of the analyses. Is there a sequence of events which is agreed, and trustworthy? Not quite.

Last contact was said to be at 1.30 am local time, and a nearby plane, contacting MH370 just after that to remind it to call into Vietnamese air control only heard static and some mumbling. However, as of today, the revised timeline is apparently as follows.

1:07 - ACARS ping (from automated system)
1:19 - “All right” (said by one of the pilots)
1:22 - Transponder quits (quits, which doesn’t mean it was switched off deliberately)
1:37 - no ACARS ping (just that, no ping, make of that what you will).

So, some of the times have changed, and the sequence looks different. However, until the precise sequence is confirmed speculation will only lead to infinite confusion. If a transponder quits, then that is all one can say, unless one has a means of distinguishing between deliberate and accidental causes of a transponder quitting.

It looks as if we have a communications problem somewhere in Malaysia. Fronted by the government minister for Defence and for Transport Hishammuddin Hussein, by background a lawyer from a political family, the authorities seem to be juggling their own national data (from radar); with the data reported or not reported from the radar systems in other countries; with the insights from Boeing; with the insights from American investigators, including the FBI and intelligence agencies; with insights from French investigators (see Air France 447); with data from Inmarsat; with with the understandable wish to look good in the eyes of their electorate and the wider world. This cautious lawyerly approach need not be sinister, and can of itself avoid fanning rumour, but in conjunction with technical matters which need explanation it seems to have lead to some avoidable confusion. Also, all the above groups sometimes give their opinions “off the record” to trusted journalists. Confusion squared.

The arrival of bereaved and angry relatives was to be expected. They are grieving without bodies, always very hard, and coping with a confusing story which keeps their hopes alive and makes their rage at fate turn into rage at these halting communicators of a dreadful mystery, which requires politicians to evaluate and communicate some very technical scientific details, of which probability, inference, and error terms are an important part.

Meanwhile, in the light relief section of the Press,  The Blonde has surfaced in Australia, saying that she had no idea that spending the entire flight with another blonde friend in the cockpit chatting with the male pilots constituted any sort of procedural risk. 

It may be time for everyone to get out of the way and read Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Lost Special” about a train that disappears. Here is the link:

In that little story is the line which has become very well known: “"It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must contain the truth.”

Let’s hope those poring over the raw data will be able to eliminate the impossible, and then explore the residuum.


  1. as Magritte said, "ceci n'est pas un avion." ou "ceci n'est plus un avion."

    j'aime beaucoup votre idea of a democratic search: everyone votes their guess on where it is & then we take the mean of their guesses! (& the std. deviation be damned:)

    peut-etre it went off the grid to search for amelia earhart...

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