MH370: perhaps the investigation should be broadened

While reading the Weekend Oz this Sunday past – dead tree version, my internet email address ruled me out of getting an electronic subscription when I applied – I initially passed over the front-page story about the villagers in the Maldives who had reported seeing a large jet, with Malaysian Airlines colours, flying low over the country around the time that MH-370 went missing last year. Old story, heard this report before, small chance of finding the plane – not much of interest here.

But on an impulse, I thought better of my decision, turned back a few pages and began reading the story. Am glad I did, for the article contains some interesting information about how the search for the missing plane has been conducted:

The tiny Indian Ocean island of Kuda Huvadhoo is the sleep fishing community that the world forgot. Some of its villagers believe an aircraft they saw on the morning of March 8 last year could hold the key to modern aviation’s most confounding mystery – the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Some of the locals on the 60ha of sand and coral in the Maldives chain do not understand why, after more than a year, investigators involved in the search for the Boeing 777 have not come to hear first-hand about the large, low-flying passenger jet they insist they saw that fateful morning.

They wonder why the year-long search has not ventured here to listen to accounts from witnesses who were surprised by the unidentified aircraft. Two told The Weekend Australian they could see distinctive red and blue markings – similar to the striping on the missing plane which was heading west towards the Maldives when last spotted on radar after departing Kuala Lumpur.

Their suspicions are no match for the highly sophisticated calculations based on satellite connections with MH370, which have put its likely crash zone along an arc about 1800km southwest of Perth.

Intriguingly, however, acoustics scientists are not ruling out the possibility that a distinctive high-energy noise they measured about the time of the presumed crash might have come from the aircraft hitting the ocean or imploding at depth in an area near the Maldives.

So there appear to be two bodies of evidence, quite independent of one another, indicating that the aircraft might have been in the vicinity of the Maldives shortly before, and at the time that, it crashed. Evidence that contradicts other, more sophisticated but I would suggest weaker, evidence that the plane crashed in the southern Indian ocean.

The added fact that having a large commercial aircraft come over the islands – and especially one that is flying quite low – is a unique event, indicates that this is a special event which ought not be ignored:

An interesting event on Kuda Huvadhoo is a small twin-prop sea plane swooping nearby. An unusual event is seeing the contrails of a large jet at high altitude – they seldom cross the southern atoll. A remarkable event, something the locals relate to us with the intensity of people who fear they are doubted, is watching a large passenger jet, like a Boeing 777, flying low about the time MH370 would have been close to running out of fuel.

“I watched this very large plane bank slightly and I saw its colours – the red and blue lines – below the windows, then I heard the loud noise,” says Abdu Rasheed Ibrahim, 47, a court official and the island’s keenest hobby fisherman, as he speaks of what he saw from the beach that morning. “It was unusual, very unusual. IT was big and it was flying low …

“When he went home with his catch … Abdu spoke to other villagers about the strange large aircraft. Some saw it. Others only heard it. They say they were talking about it hours before they knew MH370 had gone missing. Later that morning, at an extra-curricular class at school, Humaam Dhonmamk, 16, talked excitedly to Abdu’s daughter, Aisath Zeeniya, about seeing it – he also described the distinctive blue and red striping. It flew over as he took his clothes from the outside line.

“I saw the blue and red on a bit of the side,” Humaam says. “I heard the loud noise of it after it went over. I told the police this too.”

Another witness, Ahmed Shiyamm, says:

“I’m very sure of what I saw on a very clear and bright day, and what I saw was not normal – the plane was very big, and low. I did not know until later that other people saw it too. I don’t know if it’s the Malaysia plane.”

There are other eyewitness reports in the article.

OK, got that? Unless these people had a mass hallucination, or have decided to engage in a conspiracy to fool the world public in order to bring attention to themselves, these people saw something like MH370 pass low over their atoll before a ‘loud noise’ was heard after it had disappeared from view. I think the chance of a ‘mass hallucination’ and ‘conspiracy’ are low, and so I think there’s something worth following up here.

Six of the key witnesses we spoke to were interviewed last year by police at the direction of authorities in Male, and each signed statements of their versions. A senior source familiar with the police probe confirmed the witness accounts were regarded as truthful and consistent …

“These people were not seeking attention and they did not go to the police about it, the police went to them after hearing about this,” the source says. “They are not dishonest and they have no motive to lie. They all told the police it was big, low and noisy. If it was not the missing plane, then which plane was it? We do not see planes close and low to Kuda Huvadhoo. Nobody knows what has really happened.

But, much to the frustration of the Maldivians, their evidence has been discarded in the search for MH370. Instead, the search effort has been focussed on the southern Indian Ocean, as a result of electronic evidence indicating that the plane fell into the water down there:

The Australia-led search has been focused for the past year on a lengthy arc in the southern Indian Ocean, more than 5000km away, as a result of complex calculations of probable weather conditions, fuel exhaustion, distances, time of impact and other variables.

All of this has been primarily driven by a handful of “electronic handshakes”, or pings, that were transmitted between a satellite and MH370 as it flew for hours, undetected by radar and in radio silence after departing Kuala Lumpur and deviating from its intended Beijing-bound flight path with a series of unexplained turns.

In addition to the eyewitness accounts, we have hydrophonc evidence from Curtin University’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology:

Another wildcard is the little-known work of Alec Duncan and fellow scientists from Curtin University’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology, whose monitoring of sensitive underwater acoustics equipment, known as hydrophones, identified “a clear acoustic signal at a time that was reasonably consistent with other information relating to the disappearance of MH370”.

The scientists knew the crash of a large aircraft in the ocean would be a “high energy event and expected to generate intense underwater sounds” – either from the impact with the ocean or a subsequent implosion of sinking wreckage. In their initial location estimates, Dr Duncan placed the noise’s source in the ocean relatively close to the Maldives and Kuda Huvadhoo. However, he cautions it could have been a geological event. The official ATSB search team for MH370 carefully considered the acoustics data.

So on one side, we have eye-witness and hydrophonic evidence of a crash somewhere near the Maldives, which has been ignored. On the other hand, we have electronic ‘ping’ evidence of a crash somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, with the subsequent search area determined by calculations based on those ‘pings’.

In keeping with the purpose of the blog, and my own professional concerns, what interests me – in addition to wanting to know what happened to MH370 – is, why has one set of evidence been seen as worthy of being followed up, and the other body dismissed? Who made the decision about where to organise the search for the plane, and what influenced their decision? Why might they have ignored the evidence suggesting a crash somewhere near the Maldives?

These questions become more important when we consider that the search in the southern Indian Ocean has been fruitless, and the sensitivity of the calculations to errors in the data or the workings:

Amid mounting concern over the costs of the search and the lack of a single fragment of wreckage, there is still a “high degree of confidence” that the official investigation is looking in the right part of the planet. Sophisticated modelling supports the proposition which hinges on the satellite’s data – but if this data is wrong or defective, the search zone co-ordinates will be too.

Neither of which, on the face of it, anyway – apply to the eyewitness reports from the Maldives.

Nevertheless, the decision was made, on the basis of the ‘pings’ and regardless of the evidence from the Maldives, to send resources into the southern Indian Ocean:

Prior to the extensive modelling that produced the search zone, the last “sighting” of MH370, according to military radar, had it on a westerly heading – a flight path towards the Maldives. Its seemingly purposeful turn west was a radical deviation from the heading north it should have taken to its scheduled destination, Beijing. Although no radar shows it altering course radically again to the south, where the search is now concentrated in the bleakness of the southern Indian Ocean, analysis of the “pings” suggests this is where MH370 had headed.

It is why the Australian Transport Safety Bureau oversees a massive operation in a vast area some 1800km southwest of Perth, with about half of the priority area being combed so far.

And, in addition to being rival to the evidence from the “pings”, the evidence of the Maldivians has been questioned by their own military – much to the scorn and disappointment of the eyewitnesses:

There were other reasons the people of Kuda Huvadhoo were not taken seriously. The Maldives National Defence Force, responsible for guarding the security and sovereignty of the low-lying country, issued a statement in March last year ruling out any such aircraft movement over its air space. The locals were surprised and felt humiliated. Several of those we spoke to in Kuda Huvadhoo were scornful, accusing their defence chiefs of seeking to save face and not wanting to admit to their people or the world that the limitations of Maldives radar and other equipment could not detect such flights.

This question is an empirical one which can easily be solved by assessing evidence from Maldivian military radar collected on the night in question. Why hasn’t this been done?

And the hydrophonic evidence is, sadly, not conclusive:

After months of further analysis, Dr Duncan told The Weekend Australian this week: “Unfortunately the reality is that there are so many ifs, buts and maybes in volved in all this that it would be more correct to say that our team has identified an approximate possible location for the origin of a noise that is probably of geological origin, but cannot be completely ruled out as being connected with the loss of MH370.”

Dr Duncan explained that two key factors :”make us reluctant to completely rule out the possibility that these signals are related to MH370.

One is “the calculated time of the acoustic event, shortly after the final “partial handshake” between the satellite and the aircraft”, the other is that if the sound was generated by the implosion of some part of the aircraft as it sank … (and) at a depth of about 1000m then the resulting sound would propagate effectively in the deep sound channel and could conceivably be detected at ranges of thousands of kilometres”.


“ … the calculated position is completely inconsistent with the satellite handshake data that is the basis of the current search area.”

Another consideration, from nowhere but the top of my head – and derived from my consciously thinking of those pieces of evidence which we haven’t seen – is, if the crash took place near the Maldives, why hasn’t any wreckage washed up on the gorgeous beaches of the island chain? Surely that is something that we might expect if there were a crash, either controlled or uncontrolled, in the area.

So – we have a mystery. And our best tool for investigating a mystery is Heuer’s framework for the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses. Setting one up for this mystery, and the evidence presented in the Oz article, we get this framework, where a ‘tick’ indicates evidence consistent with a hypothesis, and a ‘cross’ indicates evidence which contradicts a hypothesis (I’m sorry, the table doesn’t ‘work’ very well in the web format).

Evidence Hypothesis ‘SIO’: the plane crashed in the southern Indian Ocean Hypothesis ‘KH’: the plane crashed near the Maldives
The electronic ‘pings’ from the plane place it on an arc far from the Maldives – subsequent calculations derived from the pings and ancillary evidence place the plane’s crash in the southern Indian Ocean
Eyewitness reports indicate that a large plane with Malaysian Airlines colours passed ‘low and noisy’ over the atoll of Kuda Huvadhoo on the morning that the plane went missing, followed by a loud sound after the plane had disappeared from view
The Maldivian military rule out the possibility that the plane passed over Maldivian airspace
Hydrophonic evidence from Curtin University’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology indicates that a sonic event happened near the Maldives, consistent with other evidence concerning the disappearance of MH370

Happily for us, each piece of evidence is diagnostic – it points clearly to or against one or other of the hypotheses, rather than being consistent with both. Unfortunately for us, there is no preponderance of evidence pointing to one or another hypothesis as being most likely – although please note that the eyewitness accounts receive some support from the hydrophonic evidence, while the ‘pings’ evidence receives no corroboration from any other evidence.

In this situation, the perceived credibility of the evidence is what causes investigators to push for settling on one or another hypothesis. Clearly, in this case, the authorities have decided to go with trusting modern airline and satellite technology over traditional eyewitness and modern hydrophonic technology.

Nevertheless, I think the eyewitness evidence, corroborated by so many independent eyewitnesses, is so compelling that it ought to be investigated. The hydrophonic evidence consistent with the eyewitness reports, although weaker, strengthens my confidence in my conclusion. For mine, I simply can’t understand why both leads weren’t followed up – why some resources weren’t devoted to the Maldives, if only to remove it as a possibility. But this behaviour – privileging one hypothesis over another, rather than assessing two or more hypotheses simultaneously – is common – so common, that it is one of the reasons why Heuer developed ACH in the first place.

As the search in the southern Indian Ocean continues without producing results, I expect the requests for the search to be expanded to include the waters around the Maldives. I hope that the authorities take these requests seriously.


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in ACH, Hypotheses, Problem Solving and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to MH370: perhaps the investigation should be broadened

  1. Pingback: MH370: alternative theory dismissed by Maldives Civil Aviation Authority | The Stebbing-Heuer Project

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