Aviation News

March 20, 2014

Fact vs. Fiction: Malaysia Airlines 370 and Occam’s Razor

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Written by: Eric Auxier
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Editor’s note: the author wishes to express gratitude to Bill Palmer, Airbus 330 captain and author of Understanding Air France 447, in lending his expertise to this piece. On both Captain Palmer and Eric Auxier’s blogs, they provide educated analysis on “what could have happened”, and their pieces are strikingly similar. For this article, however, in keeping with NYCA’s journalistic creed, they adhere solely to the facts.

For 14 days now, the world has followed the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370. While the potential debris field recently discovered in the south Indian Ocean offers hope, the world has had two weeks filled with misdirection, red herrings, wild speculation and myriad theories being bandied about that range from the absurd to the preposterous. The 24-hour news feeds, armed with a scant dearth of facts (and no end to the self-proclaimed “experts”) have nothing to show for it besides microscopic dissections of transponders, sketchy “eyewitness” reports, and — perhaps most absurd of all — the armchair, Dr. Phil-style psych profiling of the pilots themselves.

As NYCA Editor Phil Derner, Jr. says in his excellent article, while all possible angles must be investigated by authorities, I feel the media feeding frenzy is an insult not only to the captain, first officer and their loved ones, but to the pilot profession as a whole. These men are heroes, not villains.

Perhaps it’s time we all step back, take a collective deep breath, come back down to earth and take a look at this mystery from the bottom up. For starters, let’s sort fact from fiction. Then let’s put those facts under the microscope of a scientific investigative theory that’s known as Occam’s Razor.

Since Sir William Hamilton coined the phrase in 1852, Occam’s Razor has become a pillar of scientific theory and logical thought. The principle refers to William of Ockham’s philosophical musings in the 12th Century on the establishment of any theory or hypothesis. In short, the simplest explanation tends to be the most likely. A shining modern example would be Einstein’s E=MC2. Simple, all-encompassing, brilliant. And absolutely, 100% correct.

Put another way, Occam’s Razor could be stated thus: statistically, what are the best odds? Or, if you prefer, that which is most likely, is most likely.

Of course, the challenge for us is to figure out, what is the “most likely?”

Step one: sort fact from fiction. We will also add our take about each bullet point:

  • “All right, good night”: the last radio transmission from MH370, at 01:19 (local departure time; the flight had departed at 12:41 am.) To Bill and me, both veteran airline captains, this sounds like an absolutely standard sign off. No duress, and no sinister under tone suggesting a diabolical plot from the crew.
  • Two minutes later, at 01:21, the transponder is lost (switched off or fails). As Bill mentions on his blog, transponders fail all the time, and the only way pilots know about it is when ATC tells us. However, it is a simple knob that can be turned on or off, or switched to different modes.
  • ACARS fails to check in at 01:37. There’s no telling the exact time of ACARS failure, but it would be somewhere between the 30 minute check-in intervals. Two possibilities: failure, or sabotage. This one would be tougher to manually switch off, however. There may be circuit breakers in the cockpit to pull, but short of that, no simple on/off switch.
  • Recent findings suggest that the flight may have been reprogrammed for the “air turn-back,” possibly 12 minutes before the last radio transmission. Some say this strongly suggests that “nefarious activities were afoot.” However, it smells to both of us like an immediate deviation due to some sort of emergency.
  • Altitude deviations (inconclusive). Some data suggest that, after lost com, MH370 may have climbed from its initial altitude of 30,000’ to 45,000’ (well above its service ceiling) and then descended to as low as 23,000’. A head-scratcher for sure, but it either suggests fugoid oscillations (repeated climbs/descents) from an airplane with no autopilot—and no pilot.
  • A shipment of lithium batteries may have been on board. These would be considered “hazmat” (hazardous materials), but if shipped properly, not a hazard. However, some speculations out there suggest this caused a fire. If true, the batteries would burn extremely hot and emit toxic fumes. (A similar scenario, incorporating these lithium batteries, by pilot Chris Goodfellow has has gone viral, and has been talked about by news media as the “simplest” explanation and an alternative to hijack and sabotage theories. While Bill and I generally agree with much of the scenario put forth, some of the details of his conjectures do not make sense.)
  • Primary radar and satellite engine data “pings” suggest the aircraft may have been airborne for up to seven hours past its last transmission.
  • No signals from ELT or black boxes. In the case of Air France, no signal was ever found, either, probably due to damage on impact. Moreover, in most airliners, there’s no ELT aboard in the conventional sense. There would be a portable one aboard, however, that survivors could manually activate. It could also automatically activate upon contact with salt water. However, the only signals that work underwater would be the pings from the black boxes — and those would be extremely short range, found only after a crash site had been located, as in the case with Air France 447.
  • No cell phone calls from passengers were made. When MH370 passengers’ phones were dialed, the callers sometimes ring rather than go right to voicemail. You can disregard these right now. Cell phones have extremely limited range, typically under a mile or two (range varies). And an airliner at 30,000’ is over five miles above the ground. As experts have stated, ringing before going to voicemail is common even when the phone is off.
  • Barring confirmation of a debris field in the South Indian Ocean, the wreckage has still not been found. One popular theory: that’s because the plane landed on a secret strip somewhere. While this makes for a great James Bond movie, it most likely isn’t the case. As a “heavy,” the 777 requires special reinforced pavement and an extra long runway — one that would easily be spotted. It took five days to confirm the crash site (via wreckage recovery) of Air France 447, and Bill calculates that the MH370 search area is 594 times larger than that — an area larger than the United States! If the recent discovery in the south Indian Ocean is confirmed, that could be strong evidence to back up the “air turn back” theory.

Now, what does all this mean? Where does it lead? That’s the $64 million question, the one that’s got multiple countries chasing shadows all over the globe right now.

And here’s where Occam’s Razor kicks in.

Let’s start by looking at some historical statistics:

  • Airline pilots are highly trained, highly disciplined, and highly unlikely to hijack their own ships. One does not easily throw away years of training, discipline and experience.
  • Modern airliners are ultra-safe—but are machines. And machines break.
  • Post-9/11, cockpit breaches are possible, but not likely. Hijacks are now extremely rare.
  • Passengers onboard MH370 have all been scrutinized, even the two traveling on false passports. Foul play does not appear to be likely.

Taken together:

  • Radio and data loss: failure or sabotage? Statistically, mechanical failure is far more likely. The rapid succession loss of transponder, ACARS and radio suggest these were secondary failures due to a larger, more catastrophic primary failure; say, an avionics bay fire or electrical bus short. It is even conceivable that a more catastrophic event caused the primary failure as well, such as a hull breach, causing depressurization.
  • As for the flight being programmed to turn back prior to the last radio transmission, one possibility is that some airlines have pilots routinely re-program and update a secondary flight plan with escape routes in the event of an engine failure or other emergency. This hasn’t been discussed in mainstream media, but may offer up an explanation as opposed to a less likely nefarious one. Bill and I are in agreement that this was most likely activated by the pilot flying due to an inflight emergency, to return to the nearest suitable airport.
  • Altitude deviation: Either false data, or… what? One suggestion thrown around is that the pilots climbed rapidly to oxygen-starve a fire. Extremely unlikely. Fires spread fast, and diving for the nearest suitable airport is the only hope for survival. Again, statistically, the most likely explanation is that, by this time, the pilots are unconscious or dead. The ship, off autopilot (again possibly part of an avionics failure), begins that fugoid oscillation we mentioned earlier. That is, it may have gradually climbed until it reached “coffin corner,” where stall speed and max speed meet. The plane stalls, and plummets, perhaps as low as the mid-20’s where, due to the inherent positive stability (as all modern aircraft are designed), it recovers from the stall on its own. The cycle could repeat indefinitely, or with smaller and smaller deviations.
  • As for the course of an unmanned, non-autopilot airplane, due to positive roll stability, it should stay somewhat close to its last general heading, at least initially. Its actual track would be subject to upset by turbulence and winds aloft. And in seven hours of flying without an autopilot, it could have deviated significantly from its original course.
  • As for the course of an unmanned airplane on autopilot, it would have held its last assigned altitude and heading (subject to winds aloft), or its pre-programmed course, until its fuel ran out.
  • The recent discovery of a potential debris field in the south Indian Ocean coincides perfectly with the “air turn back” theory, and is indeed in the same probable search area that U.S. authorities predicted.

We will refrain here from speculating on the exact nature of the inflight emergency. But in light of the potential crash site now being searched in the south Indian Ocean, our hopes are high that the loved ones of MH370’s passengers — and all the world — will have their questions answered soon.

Further reading:

Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier is an airline pilot by day, writer by night, and kid by choice. An A320 Captain for a major U.S. airline, he is also a freelance writer, novelist and blogger. His second novel, The Last Bush Pilots, captured the coveted Amazon Top 100 Breakthrough Novels in 2013. Mr. Auxier makes his home in Phoenix, Arizona.

About the Author

Eric Auxier



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  • AndyF

    What about the series of turns after the plane descended, which appear to track through standard way points and eventually put the plane on a completely new standard international cruising flight path?

    • capnaux

      Yes, that is baffling.
      I’m not familiar with the area, but arrival tracks (such as STARs) are built over waypoints. I could see a scenario where something was put in the secondary flight plan as a backup escape route, but being so routine wasn’t really thought about much. Sometimes it’s easier to activate what you’ve already stored then select a new destination and build the arrival manually–especially in a dire emergency.
      This is getting deep into speculation here, which we’re trying to avoid, but I’d like to answer you on some level.

    • Simon Gunson

      What they tracked on a “completely new standard international cruising flight path” (ie Airways) was Emirates UAE343. The radar imagery shown to relatives at the Metropark Lido hotel in March 2014 revealed only one aircraft and only Emirates UAE343 was there

  • skonesam

    I have my opinions on the validity of much of the piece, but I’ll save them.

    As for the Einstein reference… seriously? What were the competing equations for the general theory of relativity? (If you don’t know, how do you know Einstein’s was simplest?) Mine is x = 2. That’s much simpler, so it must be correct, right?

    • 6161

      You’re right that he completely misunderstood Occam’s Razor (probably because of the bad gloss at the head of the Wikipedia article, which he essentially cribbed.) It has nothing to do with the simplest option being “best” or “most likely”: it just says in the absence of other information, the fewer assumptions the better.

      For what it’s worth, the actual equation is E=√(mc²+pc), which the popular press dumbed down because it looks cooler. E=mc² doesn’t work by itself because of the observed energy of presumably massless particles.

      Similarly, this article is fine as a general treatment of generic flight statistics but suffers from most of Goodfellow’s errors and lightly glosses over how ridiculously *un*likely and *non*simple it was for an accident to make the plane disappear this long, having disappeared at the precisely optimal location, and on the day of the unjust jailing of the pilot’s relative. It’s just a stringing together of excuses for the author’s pet theory, when the fewest assumptions involve a rogue pilot.

      • capnaux

        Skonesam and 6161,

        I completely disagree with you that I “completely misunderstood” Occam’s Razor. Sorry to disappoint you two, but I’m familiar with Occam’s, relativity, quantum physics, etc…but I certainly do NOT claim to be an expert on them, either. (Yes, you got me there, I often cite Wiki as a quick reference! Apologies, I always intend to include my reference links in the notes.)

        6161, I am impressed that you can even find a way to type a “square root” on your board! I wouldn’t be able to. No doubt you are an expert in the field–but this is NOT a lecture on Physics, nor Occam’s Razor. My point about E=MC2 is the “simple eloquence” of the equation. Physicists tend to look for the elegant theory that defines a system. The more complex, they surmise, the less likely. Oops, back to Occam’s Razor!

        Again, I disagree with you two on what is “unlikely” and “non-simple” etc. As I said in the piece–which always has limited space to explain and is written for a general, albeit aviation-oriented audience–the challenge for us is to figure out what is “simplest.”

        You picked your side, I picked mine.

        As for a “disappearance” at a “precisely optimal location”…routes in that corner of the world fly over thousands of miles of “precisely optimal” locations! But of course the newscasters never mention that inconvenient truth.

        Please enlighten me if you would, on the “errors I suffer from.” (By the way I do NOT cite Goodfellow as a reference; he had a similar theory that has gone viral, and therefore needed to be addressed.)

        I have not heard that that jailed political figure was a “relative.” Interesting if so…but I still don’t buy the theory. If this weren’t such a serious matter, I’d challenge you two to a wager.

    • capnaux

      Skonesam, thanks for commenting. See my reply below 6161…

  • Beau Cooper

    Every article I read ends up having errors. It seems like no one can get their stories straight. When I read one error, it makes me question everything else put forth.

    Debris from Air France was found within 1 day of the plane going down.

    “On 2 June at 15:20 (UTC), a Brazilian Air Force Embraer R-99A spotted wreckage and signs of oil, possibly jet fuel, strewn along a 5 km (3 mi) band 650 km (400 mi) north-east of Fernando de Noronha Island, near the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago. The sighted wreckage included an aircraft seat, an orange buoy, a barrel, and “white pieces and electrical conductors”.” (From the NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/world/europe/03plane.html?_r=0)

    So it took 1 day to find AF447 wreckage, not 5. This isn’t a hard truth to grasp yet I continuously see it overlooked or wrongly reported.

    • capnaux

      You are correct, the possible crash site (oil slick) was spotted the next day, but not confirmed until actual wreckage was recovered five days later.
      Rereading that section, I have to agree with you, my words were a little misleading. I’ll work with NYCA on that.
      Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater on this. It has truly been a monumental task to sort fact from fiction, and I believe it to be a sound piece—especially compared to the majority of speculative stories out there.

  • AstroDad

    Well done Aux. I’m an ATP, retired military Master Aviator and career intelligence officer who may have a unique perspective. Your assertions, based on the least complex, most likely scenario are certainly quite valid and I appreciate the logic. Usually I tend toward being opinionated, however on this unprecedented aviation mystery I’m not pronouncing any opinion because there is such an incredible dearth of evidence. Based on a nearly universal absence of evidence, I have observed that human commentary and conjecture falls into many camps. The Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) camp finds a way to blame the people because that is what they know. The pilot community tends to blame the machinery because we have all been, usually more than once or twice, flummoxed by our airplanes and know that they can turn into sinister machines in the blackness of night when dark air has no lift. The governments remain bureaucratic, self-protecting, face-saving ridiculous entities because that’s how they behave. The flying public is in a parabolic arc where panic and thankfulness are the next “news story” away. And then there’s the Fifth Estate….whose foolishness, lack of due diligence and “theory of the day” approach to this tragedy is absolutely appalling. How did we arrive at this point in which a medium that was originally mandated to provide valuable news to its viewers at least twice daily is allowed to make daily false pronouncements without any adverse actions? The global “news” has become the feeding ground for opportunistic folk with an opinion for sale. One of my college aviation pals is a serious commentator for the networks and does his homework. The other night after he appeared with a retired Air Force fighter pilot with zero transport experience who was hawking an “intelligence-related opinion” I called him out, excoriating this now hacking retired 3-star without relevant transport airplane experience and without any intelligence training or operational experience. That’s how bad the situation has devolved in the sound bite-driven, interconnected world. Thanks for offering a sane approach.

    • capnaux

      An fine summary of the situation, sir. And very well stated. I find your commentary on how each camp sees it through the light of their expertise–even in this piece, and the commentaries below. We are all humans, and observe the world through the lenses that we have colored via our experience.

      I understand emotions are high on this subject; one of the reasons we stayed away from pure speculation. And, while I do appreciate the many varied views out there, let’s not be quick to discount the facts in order to offer up one’s “enlightened” opinion. Nevermind that the piece was co-authored by two veteran airline captains with combined flight experience of over 40,000 flight hours.

      Thank you for the comment.

    • Simon Gunson

      Australia’s DSTG issued a report in December 2015 citing specific evidence that MH370 suffered a prolonged failure of the Left AC Bus before the SDu came back to life and responded to INMARSAT handshakes. Satellite data also now establishes MH370 went downin a left hand spiral after fuel exhaustion and over an 8 second period accelerated from 12,000fpm to 25,000fpm. Air China 006 in 1985 descended at 18,725fpm and experienced 5g before an amazing recovery with huge structural damage. A likely culprit for causing Hypoxia on MH370 could be the MEC cooling override valve opening and staying open during an electrical failure in which the ELMS intervened to leave the valve unpowered. This vulnerability exists in every Boeing 777 flying today and Boeing in the case of MH370 seems to want to disavow any such possibility. I wonder what any B777 pilots out there might say about the MEC override valve scenario?

  • warren wetherbee

    Guilty until proven innocent is the media motto. When it comes to aircrew, doubly so. Though I don’t thing AE or Occam have much to do with it, I agree with your assessment and share the frustration with the lack of hard data. Until evidence arises that provides a basis to proceed toward a reasonable theory, I’m reserving judgement. My gut feeling leads me to “believe” that a rapidly developing, critical situation arose that night on MH370 to which either the crew responded incorrectly or more likely, was of such a nature that they were unable to respond in a timely appropriate manner.

    • capnaux

      HI Warren,
      I absolutely agree with you.
      Admittedly, I opined up front by declaring, “These pilots were heroes, not villains.” Of course investigative authorities are obligated to pursue all leads and angles. But, as far as the Court of World Opinion goes, in fairness to their loved ones, they should be innocent until proven guilty.
      Thank you for your comment.

      • warren wetherbee

        It serves industry intersts well having the media circus focused on the crew. It saves the operators, manufacturers and regulators from unwelcome scrutiny and potential criticism.

      • Simon Gunson

        I wonder if anybody has given thought to Hypoxia?
        The last radio call which was Zaharie’s voice and he failed to read back instructions to contact Ho Chi Minh Control. When there is electrical smoke in the MEC a B777 will automatically open the equipment override valve, inhibiting cockpit alarms. If then there was electrical failure of a main generator (IDG) presumably the ELMS would shed electrical load and the Air Trim Modulating Valave CTC solenoid controlling cabin pressure would be unpowered, allowing escape of cabin air pressure.


  • Hello all….Thank you …Captain Eric and Captain Palmer..for a very
    well written article…it was an easy article..to read ……and to
    those of us….who do not work in the Aviation field….but are the
    Aviation ‘Enthusiast’ who live and breath Aviation 24/7……. so I am
    speaking strictly as a member of the flying public..please, don’t send
    the ‘You don’t know the hell your talking about ‘police’ after
    me……just yet……
    ..we know so little of what really
    happened….so doesn’t that kinda make us all experts..to the
    degree…that so little to go on……nothing or everything…….can’t
    be taken off the table…..Yes the 24/7 coverage …..is a mind
    numbing…….I look at it this way…it doesn’t take a genius to filter
    out the unbelievable..’bs’….the …new ‘catch phrase’ theories
    …description …the missing plane…….!!
    it at least makes me
    think along……several different…possibilities ..after scrubbing
    away….the before mentioned ‘bs’……leaving everything on the
    table..its the . cleaning of the table………of ‘scraps’.as best we
    …..day 14 looks every bit as day 1 looked…as far as the
    facts….are they facts because someone says they are ……….where
    is the actual proof…hard evidence to …in black and white…..and the
    ‘All right Good Night’…have we actually heard for
    ourselves……..what about the recording….between…ATC and the
    plane……has anyone heard for themselves…??
    you know it’s
    scary……when the finding of a piece wreckage … offers hope….when
    normally it would normally bring sorrow……!!..
    about…….covering the timeline of the plane…was emptied of prior
    pax…go moment to moment………contact was lost……..maybe
    something…can be seen on camera…….all those who signed
    off…..after fueling…food caters, walk around’s..etc…what about the
    flights before…..talk to those crew who flew this same plane..did
    anything..seemed amiss at all.??!!….
    Well the last 20 years of
    horrific…….acts of terrorism…..we do have a bit of a ‘hair
    trigger’..that comes to the surface……..think…..about it…….all
    the plane crashes…..in the last 20-30 yrs…..what were the main
    reason..planes fell from the sky….pilot error….mechanical
    failure…terrorism……ok….that said….and this being……a
    ‘situation’….we’ve never known…..after 14 days..it seems that day
    15 will also look and resemble day 1…….now……My prayers are with
    families….who are the real….victims..as well..they carry on their
    shoulders…..a sorrow…..hopefully we will never know……!!..
    I’ve said…………Fact:..we all know the plane landed….as landing a
    plane…is considered a ‘Controlled crash’….so one way or the other
    the plane is on earth…..where are the 239 people …after 2
    weeks…..with NO contact.with them..at all…..you can’t keep 239
    people quiet…..they need clothes…meds….all the things we do during
    a day…..that alone…….makes me think…they were
    killed…….either by the hands of someone or group…or a horrible
    crash………I tend to think……..they died 2 weeks ago……do to
    mechanical…that is my ‘unknown’ ‘unofficial source’..opinion !!
    line the passengers need to come home one way or the other…..even if
    just knowing …..where they are resting….I think….so the
    families…can have some sort of a proper burial…….and since…most
    do not come home.. but are left to their watery grave…
    Have got to
    find the hard evidence that is where they truly are….at least
    then……the families…can have a proper burial……..where they know
    for a FACT…..their loved ones. are……….other wise…..they will
    be doomed to, not ever be….quite sure…..and live in a perpetual
    purgatory …!!!!……These are just my thoughts.and again.Captain Eric
    and Palmer…Thanks again for a fine article……that at the least
    makes us think……outside the ‘black box’. so to speak,…I know I’ve
    jumped around a bit…writing this…….just consider my opinion one
    you didn’t ask for…….but one you at lease…..don’t mind…….!!
    Godspeed..to the families and passengers….♠

    • capnaux

      You’re welcome, Julie! Thanks for the comments. You make some very good points.

  • Karlene

    Eric, This is a great post! And now all we can really do is wait and hope they find something soon.

  • I thought I posted some thoughts. Where did they go?

    • capnaux

      I don’t know, Marc. I’d like to read them. No erasing or “nefarious activities” are being conducted on this thread (to my knowledge!)

      • We moderate the comments sections when people become offensive or profane, but there have been none as of yet.

  • Bill Palmer

    The hopes and fears of all of us probably taint out individual perceptions of what the likely fate of this flight was. AstroDad said this well, and I won’t bother to repeat his well-stated point.
    My viewpoint on much of this has been to offer logical options based on an insider’s knowledge commercial aviation in general and the B777 in specific.

    We in the public (and probably the investigation at this point) apparently know very little about the actual flight path of the aircraft.
    – We know it’s track up until the transponder stopped working.
    – We have heard reports of a left turn stated, denied, restated – sort of
    – We have reports of a primary target on the west side of the Thai peninsula (assumed to be MH370). I don’t think we know the flight path or the nature of it anywhere in between these points. There are infinite possible paths between two points, and a straight line is only one of them.
    As Eric pointed, out, to be able to claim that the airplane was headed for a particular waypoint with confidence is nonsense unless you know more about the actual flight path on the way there. By the same logic you could point an airplane in any direction and it will be pointed towards a city somewhere. The closer a city is, the larger a percentage of the compass it will take up – so “obviously” it’s heading toward that on purpose. The farther away, the more precise the (randomly chosen) heading has to be, so it MUST be heading that way on purpose.

    When the reports state “it’s consistent with terrorism,” that doesn’t mean it is terrorism. In the same way a flipped coin lands heads-up four times in a row “is consistent” with a two headed coin, it’s also consistent with a normal coin landing heads up four times. But either is possible.
    Does it take a “skilled aviator” to turn left? no. To vary altitude by 17,000 feet? no.
    I have pointed out that these separate actions could also have been the result of various autopilot modes, or the stability of the 777 acting on its own with nobody in charge and the autopilot off. I don’t claim to know what actually happened. While reporters are trying to understand what a transponder is, I was thinking about how the autopilot, autothrottle, flight management system, ACARS, and transponder work and the interrelationship between them. For example, I’ve proposed that the altitude excursions make sense for an autopilot off “ghost” airplane. But the actual ground track (not just two points) is needed show if that remains a plausible explanation or should be rejected. Further ditinguishing between a preprogrammed route and a human operated heading select function doesn’t’ look possible with the type of data available.
    My remark about taking 5 days to find the floating wreckage of AF447 comes from the official accident reports that state: “The searches on the surface made it possible to locate bodies and airplane parts from 6 June onwards.” (the accident happened the early hours of June 1),while a press release from June 2nd says “The Brazilian authorities have confirmed to the BEA that floating debris has been observed in the search zone.”
    But, arguing over dates misses the point. The point being that the search is very difficult. In the Air France 447 case, the aircraft’s position was known within a relatively small radius (40nm radius + plus some additional area). The sea-search area for MH370 (a constantly changing value) at one point was nearly 600 times larger, and the possible locations many times that. It is an extremely difficult and expensive task.

    Locating the wreckage on the bottom (if it is on the bottom) without a good starting point is unlikely. I did a quick calculation considering the size of the search area, the range of the pingers, and the speed of either hydrophone tow or ROV, and estimated that it would take 19 years to cover the sea-search area with one vessel (running 24/7/365). Further research informs me that I over estimated the velocity of the underwater search robot by 50%. To locate the flight recorders within the battery life of the pingers would take 300-450 specialized search vessels – I don’t know how many there are, but I bet its a lot fewer than that.
    Will the search continue for up to 30 years? I doubt it.
    At this point it’s a Schrödinger’s cat scenario. There’s just no way to know unless we open the box. But first searchers have to find the box.The intimidate problem is that the box is probably located in a area the size of the continental USA, nobody knows exactly what the box looks like, and only a limited number of people are allowed to look for it.

    • Alex Harvey

      “I don’t think we know the flight path or the nature of it anywhere in between these points.”

      – Yes we do. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/14/us-malaysia-airlines-radar-exclusive-idUSBREA2D0DG20140314

      • capnaux

        No, we don’t. We knew initially, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. You’re relying on news reports, many of which are conflicting. Again, “sorting the fact from fiction” has been a monumental task. Unless you are referring to the later satellite pings, which locate the plane within two arcs of…say…several thousand miles?

        • Alex Harvey

          There is no conflict in news reports that the plane flew via these waypoints. Reuters is a very credible news source, and there has been no retraction by Malaysia of any of this. This much should be regarded as “fact”.

          • Bill Palmer

            The Reuters reports only says it flew “towards” those waypoints, not necessarily over them with straight flight paths and then constant radius turns to the next.
            The waypoints plotted are a meandering path.
            As CapnAux pointed out, no matter what heading you pick you’re heading toward one waypoint or another.
            The exact flight path is sketchy at best. The Malaysian military is treating their radar like it was the WWII secret weapon of 60 years ago, and we’re not getting enough information to make an informed judgement.

          • Guest

            You need to decide – do you believe the waypoints were programmed into the flight management system or not.

            If not, then you must accept that the pilots were alive for at least another hour or so, and you would then need to explain why they didn’t land the plane. If on the other hand you accept that the plane was on autopilot, you need to explain the pilots programmed a route to Central Asia.

            In either case, you would need to explain why the plane flew west for a long time, then turned north west, and why it then turned back south, and headed for the southern Indian Ocean.

          • capnaux

            OK, folks, we are beating a dead horse.

            1) We are NOT going to be roped into speculating.
            2) We are merely pointing out that these points COULD HAVE BEEN preprogrammed in as an escape route (explained above), and then activated when an emergency arose. That’s a POSSIBILITY, but we are NOT stating, “that’s what happened.”

            This “waypoint scenario” has been batted around as “proof” of bad intentions, and as “proof” of live piloting. By the above explanation, that may NOT necessarily be the case.

          • Alex Harvey

            So a few days passed, we know the plane’s final resting place, and it is still regarded as fact by the authorities that the plane was programmed to fly over these waypoints.

            I admit, I don’t understand what this “escape route” theory means at all. Escape from what? How can you “escape” from a mechanical failure? It’s not a path to a runway – it’s a path to Europe. And because it’s very specifically a path to Europe, it’s a path that can only be followed if the plane firstly reaches the border with Malaysia and Vietnam.

            To me, this all smells of authorities hiding information from us.

          • capnaux

            Sorry we’re I’m not explaining this properly, Alex. We’ll keep trying till we get it right…

            An “escape route” would be a pre-programmed route entered as a backup flight plan in the event of, say, the need to fly low over terrain during a depressurization issue. In that case, a straight-to-runway may not work–there could be a mountain between you and the airport.

            If the backup escape route plan was activated as a quick measure during a crisis, but then the intended destination was not entered later (due to incapacitation), the plane would continue on its last assigned heading once it passes the final pre-programmed fix. Whether that’s to “Europe” or elsewhere would be entirely random.

            Our sole point in bringing it up is to explain that there could be a reasonable, “innocent” explanation—such as this—to explain the pre-programmed course. We’re NOT saying it IS what happened, just that there could be a logical explanation.

            Personally, I don’t believe anyone’s “hiding” anything from us, other than governments being reluctant to show their hand with their radar and satellite capabilities. Agreed, however, that the Malay gov’t could have done a far better job handling this. It’s been a “disaster” in more ways than one.

          • Alex Harvey

            Even if the escape route could explain why the plane took off for Europe, it would then need to be explained what subsequently turned the plane around and brought it south into the Indian Ocean. At least one pilot must have been alive after ~2.20am. That’s 1 hour after the hypothesised catastrophic failure. The plane then flew for another 6 or 7 hours.

          • capnaux

            I’m not fully convinced it was heading for “Europe” to begin with. In fact, it looks like a pretty straight beeline (by curved earth standards) to the point where we’re finding the debris right now. And the altitude data is still in question, too.

          • Alex Harvey

            As I say, it’s all about whether or not people are willing to accept all the “facts” as they stand. It’s true that there’s a lot of confusion over the plane’s actual direction, but there is no reliable source for any information suggesting any path other than the one revealed by the Malaysian military. That is, it is accepted as fact by reliable news outlets that the plane flew west, then northwest, then somehow ended up very south. The Inmarsat data further proves that the plane flew right through Indonesian airspace on its southward journey. A decision to just throw away crucial pieces of data just because they seem to rule out mechanical failure seems like cherry-picking to me. There is a reason why a consensus is growing that this must have been a pilot suicide.

          • Alex Harvey

            Let me put this another way – we have only one reason to believe that the MH370 plane ever veered off course in the first place: This is the Malaysian military radar data. The data itself hasn’t been publicly released as far as I can tell, but details about the data have: it showed the plane flying a commercial route via 3 additional waypoints bound for Europe/Asia. When plotted on a map, these waypoints show a zigzagging path, and experts ruled out early the possibility that the plane could accidentally follow such a path.

          • capnaux

            Not sure what “crucial pieces of data” we are “choosing to throw out.” It appears to me that we are at odds in interpreting the data.

            Maybe it flew over waypoints, maybe it didn’t (and I DO agree with you, I believe it DID fly over preprogrammed waypoints), but, once again, our POINT is that wether it followed a preprogrammed path or not means nothing in itself…

            With the utter lack of true data, there is no ONE scenario that fits perfectly; otherwise, this debate wouldn’t continue to rage on sites the world round.

            In any case, I am hoping we will soon know more. We’re not by any means advocating one pet theory over another here (I do dive a little deeper and commit to a “pet theory” on my blog), but if we’re “wrong,” so be it–I think we’d all like the real answer, whatever it is.

          • capnaux

            Thanks again. I replied, above 🙂

          • capnaux

            We haven’t disputed any of your points about its direction. What we have posited is that this could have been a preprogrammed route.

            It’s true that more facts have come out since our piece was written, perhaps making this somewhat “stale.”

            I’m still standing on mechanical. If it turns out to be “pilot suicide,” I’ll eat my shorts for you. 😉

          • Bill Palmer

            On the contrary, I do not “need to decide.” I don’t claim to know what happened or even have a complete theory for everything. I am offering technically based plausible explanations for the data observed.
            But like any scientific theory, when more data is available, the theory may need to be refined – or out-right rejected in light of the new data.
            The waypoints listed in the Reuters article are not on the same airway, and the flight path among them seems an illogical zig-zag route.
            I think it is entirely possible that the airplane flew this route randomly, without the intent to fly over any specific waypoints that it happened to fly over. The airplane HAS to go somewhere, the chances of it flying over any given point are as good as any other.
            That being said, the Malaysians are saying they had brief contact with the plane as is passed over the west side of the Thai/Malaysian peninsula. There has been no official report of it flying over a series of specific waypoints.
            If it did, the nature of the path between them would reveal whether it was a meandering autopilot-off path random path or an intentional path.
            If the path was a series of straight lines with constant radius turns, that is indicative of human entry. That entry could be on the heading knob as the airplane flies along, or entered hours earlier in the FMS. There is no way to tell.
            The 777’s fly-by-wire control system with its built-in stabilities and flight envelope protections make this a plausible scenario, though not the only possibility.

          • Alex Harvey

            These statements need to be taken in the context of the whole article.

            The article also states, “This indicates that it was either being flown by the pilots or someone with knowledge of those waypoints, the sources said.”

            I have seen those waypoints plotted on a map and the idea that the plane could have accidentally followed this course seems absurd to me.

          • capnaux

            I answered your Q above, Alex. Thanks again for the comment. Again, in short, it sounds like it most likely DID fly over these waypoints, as in having been preprogrammed in as an escape route (described above), and not necessarily for “nefarious purposes.”

          • Simon Gunson

            Bill I think the secret which Malaysia is concealing is that their military radars at Kota Bharu and Kuantan never saw MH370. In fact the secret appears to be that their air defence system at best was dysfunctional and unco-ordinated with ATS, or worse simply not switched on.

            Given that the US Embassy at Kuala Lumpur tweeted on 8th March that USS Pinckney was just 2 hours from the initial search area at Thao Chu island perhaps Malaysia is covering up the fact that a US Navy Aegis class warship sighted the turn-back?

            The NSA refused a FOIA request for information held about MH370 citing Executive Order 13526. Why is MH370 treated as a classified secret?

            It seems to me that an awful lot of so called facts promoted by the Malaysians are actually confabulations and everybody seems to be covering each others backs?

          • Unless actual evidence is shown, Reuters alone cannot be trusted, as there has been so much misinformation all over the place on this incident. You can’t call it fact just because Reuters says so.

          • Alex Harvey

            We can call it fact because Reuters said so, and has been repeated by numerous other reliable news outlets, and has never been denied by either the Malaysian government or military or anyone else involved in the investigation. It’s as much a fact as anything else that gets to us via the news.

          • “as much a fact as anything elese that gets to us via the news”

            That is exactly what I don’t exactly believe it. -Phil

          • Alex Harvey

            That’s fine, I don’t always believe the official accounts of things either. But if we’re to apply Occam’s Razor, the simplest solution is to assume the Malaysians aren’t lying to us. Maybe they are, who knows.

          • capnaux

            I appreciate your persistence on this. I know we’ve been at odds in our interpretation of data–and even what’s “fact”–but I greatly relish and appreciate your dialogue here. Keep up the engagement at NYCA, and let’s all hope for a final conclusion to this mystery, whatever the outcome!

          • Simon Gunson

            It is lazy Alex to place your faith in journalist’s with no expertise, who simply re-write press releases.

            Malaysia claimed Thai radar at Surat Thani saw MH370 turn back from IGARI yet if you calculate the radar horizon from Surat Thani MH370 would have to be flying at an altitude of 55,000ft for that to be possible. Clearly a Boeing 777 can’t reach such altitudes, so one is left to consider that various people are making up false evidence.

            Here is the alleged radar image from military radar at Butterworth shown to relatives at the Lido Hotel, Beijing on 21 March 2014:


            Butterworth has a Thales Raytheon GM400 and here is a screen from its sister unit at Kuantan, notice the difference?


            It appears that the Lido Hotel image is faked and photo-shopped from a civilian SSR screen.

            Here’s another point to ponder. If the Lido hotel image was genuine then where was the track of SIA68 or UAE343?


            So here is the nub Alex, if the alleged radar sightings of MH370 in the Straits of Malacca are fake, then much of the plot is a confabulation.

      • Simon Gunson

        The alleged flight path through the Straits of Malacca is deeply contradictory and conflicted. The flight path of Emirates EK343 appears to have been deliberately erased from the so called Lido radar image shown to Chinese relatives. Before you insist that satellite data corroborates the Lido image consider this,

        Australia’s DSTG identified in December 2015 that there was a substantial and prolonged electrical failure to the Left AC Bus powering the SDU. In the SDU there is an AFC Oscillator crystal used to correct for Doppler drift of the satellite. This crystal is highly temperature sensitive and needs an electrically powered heater to function properly at 35,000ft. If MH370 was hypoxic then this AFC Oscillator crystal was deeply chilled and the metadata from satellite handshakes would have been dramatically distorted.

    • capnaux

      Thanks for chiming in with more facts, Bill. You make some good further points.
      Your analogy of Schrödinger’s cat is spot on—moreover, it’ s going to drive the Occam’s Razor critics bonkers! 😉

      Awoke today to hear that there’s been more debris spotted. Still in Schrödinger’s box, perhaps, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to open it soon to see if “the cat is dead or alive.”

  • Alex Harvey

    Hi there,

    I like the idea of simple theories, but you need include all the facts. The Malaysian military observed the plane fly for over an hour after it turned west, and later turned northwest.


    The flight was pre-programmed to fly via three additional waypoints after IGARI, VAMPI -> GIVAL -> IGREX. It disappeared from Malaysian radar around 2.20am.

    This isn’t consistent at all with pilots responding to an emergency situation.

    • capnaux

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. Read the piece again. We did indeed address this in the piece, that the plane followed a route over known waypoints. It’s very easy to enter a route and hit “enter,” and the autopilot will fly precisely that track. No need for human intervention. I think the most likely scenario is probably that the autopilot–at least initially–flew the track while the pilots were incapacitated. That’s moving off into conjecture, but again my point is that you don’t need a human to fly over waypoints.

      • Alex Harvey

        I’ve read the piece again and I still find no mention of the fact that the plane later made a north west turn for the IGREX waypoint.

        There is no dispute that the plane was on autopilot – as far as I know, all investigators accept that the plane must have been on autopilot to fly via these waypoints.

        What you need to explain is *why* would a pilot program his plane to head west for ~ 1 hour, and then later head north west for Europe?

        I see you have written, “one possibility is that some airlines have pilots routinely re-program and update a secondary flight plan with escape routes in the event of an engine failure or some other emergency”.

        1) Is this just speculation? It’s the first time I’ve heard this.
        2) It makes no sense at all. If there was an engine failure or similar emergency, the pilot would need to land the plane – not head off on a long journey to Europe.

        Finally, there are other facts that are being ignored.

        Having turned north west for the IGREX waypoint, we know that the plane either evaded military radar heading for Central Asia – well, if that happened, that certainly can’t have been accidental – or (more likely) turned AGAIN and headed south.

        None of this is at all consistent with a catastrophic failure at ~1.21am.

  • Coeks

    Nice job Eric! Your ol friend here. The historical facts you’ve started, relate to millions of flights by millions of pilots of the present and past. They’ve (pilots) have flown successful flights getting travelers to their destinations with the occasional incidents/accidents that are now always explained by experts in accident investigations.

    As pilots, we find it inconceivable to blame pilots for nefarious acts. Because we equate our personal experiences and what we would do in those same situations. The equation has changed. There are in recent history flights that fall outside of the historical data. Silk Air Flight 185 and Egypt Air Flight 990 were both flights that were both brought down by suicidal pilots.

    Egypt Air 990 was proven to be a suicidal act by the First Officer by Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorders. The political landscape was tenuous between the USA and Egypt yet they were a major ally in the Middle East and this accident was swept under the rug.

    Silk Air 185 was on the other side of the world and was explained and we forgot about it rather quickly.

    Malaysia 370 is also on the other side of the world but is unexplained. I’ve heard every explanation from experts to idiots and until they find the wreckage or plane intact along with Gilligan and the Skipper, I’m afraid this will be water-cooler and web blog fodder for some time to come!

    • capnaux

      Well said, Coeks!
      We did not mention them in our report, but you are certainly right, that there have been relatively recent incidents of pilot intervention. However, inflight mechanical failures and fires are a daily occurrence–in the entire history of aviation, less than a handful of pilot-sabotage. Purely playing the odds, my money would be on mechanical of some type. With an absolute dearth of facts to go on, that was one of our main points in the piece.
      I greatly appreciate you bringing up your counter arguments in a respectful, constructive way. That is, sadly, a rare occurrence on pieces such as this, where everybody who has a few hundred hours on a home flight sim is suddenly thinks themselves an expert.
      Thanks for the comment!

  • Capt. JC Kidder

    I found the article refreshing in light of the media circus that is relentlessly following this tragedy. I am disgusted by the way they, the mainstream media, has demonized the Captain and First Officer. I actually heard on CNN that the course change had to have been made via the FMS because quote “A pilot would have a hard time maintaining altitude in a turn such as the one made by MH370” what… Also I can’t understand why former airline pilots on these panels CNN put together continue to back this myth that there is a elaborate process for shutting down ACARS. Without giving any operational secrets out I can tell you there is a only one switch to “pull” on the flight deck that will disable the system and my fellow airman know exactly what I’m referring to. I also really love how they’re going after the Captain because of his flight simulator. I actually heard Greg Fife say quote “All the airline pilots I know say they spend enough time flying why would we want to do it at home”. Now keep in mind this is coming from the same person who said pilots may only actually hand fly a plane for 15 minuets per flight. I could go on and on but I’ll leave that to folks like Captain Auxier who articulate much better the frustration felt by airline pilots such as myself.

    • capnaux

      Thanks for your comment, Captain!

      So many frustrating issues all around in this—most especially the “experts” aka media circus clowns. I am hopeful that time will reveal the true story and, ultimately, exonerate the pilots.

    • Simon Gunson

      Capt Kidder I know some of Zaharie’s siblings and they would be heartened by your words. Thank you. Zaharie was not depressed, their housemaid Nur Hyatii witnesssed him hug and kiss his wife in the hallway as he left for work. Nor was he a Jihadist. On facebook he condemned the Boston marathon bombing. One of Zaharie’s sisters is married to an Irishman and one of his nieces is married to an Irish American. I have sat down to dinner with his family and they asked me to say Grace. Hardly the demonized image of Muslims we were all given. Zaharie was a spontaneously compassionate man involved in many charities.

  • daneyd

    The only part of all your theories that bothers me is that the last known transmission happens some time after the turn. If it was an inflight emergency why wasn’t that transmitted. The emergency would of provoked the change of coarse, why then did he not transmit a mayday, instead issues a standard hand off “Good Night?”He obviously had working radios and time to transmit as he did. This to me kills the air emergency theory. I do believe that there was a depressurization, however, why and how that happened is a mystery. Did the co-pilot do it on purpose, maybe to incapacitate intruders then became incapacitated himself? Did he plan the whole thing and himself depressurized the plane sending it on it long journey to the bottom of the ocean long after he and everyone else had parishes from lack of oxygen? Did he depressurize then get to take control then got into a scuffle with the pilot incapacitating both of them thereby sending the plane on it merry way. I do believe there was an emergency but not a mechanical one. I also believe there had to be a depressurization. At the end of the day its anyones guess, and they are all guess’s however some guesses are better than others based on what we now know.

    • capnaux

      To my knowledge, the fabled, “Good night” comes BEFORE everything else. If that is wrong, then we are wrong. Our whole premise is that something happened so rapidly that no transmission—for whatever reason—was able to happen.

      Here’s an updated news snippet from Mar. 23: “Malaysian authorities said the last transmission from the missing aircraft’s reporting system showed it heading to Beijing — a revelation that appears to undercut the theory that someone reprogrammed the plane’s flight path before the co-pilot signed off with air-traffic controllers for the last time.”

      The biggest challenge in all this has been to dig out the known facts from rumor, conflicting data, and flat out errors in reporting.

      • daneyd

        Yes I agree that the information is slow, inconsistent, inaccurate, and plainly suspect. I know that all of this, including the forgoing, is highly speculative but from what I’m seeing its looking more like a 9/11 FL 93 “Lets Role” scenario. Cockpit is breached by intruders, they order electronics turned off, attempts to commandeer the plane lead to pilots depressurizing cabin in an attempt to debilitate intruders but then the pilots themselves become incapacitated and the 777 flies on into the abyss. This scenario fits into all the facts we now know, although limited and speculative.

      • daneyd

        In other words I think MH370 starts out as a FL 93 battle scenario and ends like a Paine Stewart flight depressurization killing all and plane flies on its own till fuel starvation.

  • Meliyu

    I may be off base but, could the crew have been suffering from hypoxia?

    • capnaux

      Absolutely! A very real possibility in a depressurization scenario.

      However, it would appear most likely that something happened rapidly, rather than a slow onset, like Hypoxia often has. If there was a rapid depressurization, the pilots would have most likely donned their Oxygen masks.
      Thank you for the question, Meliyu!

  • Alex Harvey

    This is my theory.

    Let’s assume a suicide mission by a pilot or a hijacker – yes, it did seem insane a fortnight ago – but. There were lots of smart engineers on board. The motive could be anything from being mentally unwell, insurance fraud, or something else.

    Whoever was flying the plane knew how to disappear from civilian radar, yet didn’t know about military radar? The plane did disappear from military radar, as it flew south past Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia – only to be observed for 6 hours by satellite handshakes that no one in the world knew anything about previously.

    Let’s imagine the satellite handshakes had not existed, as we can imagine a hijacker/suiciding pilot would have done. We would now believe either that MH370 crashed around 1.20am (if the military observed nothing at all) or more likely at 2.20am. And we would be searching for MH370 either off the coast of Vietnam or off the coast of India. And of course, the plane would never be found.

    Recently there were scattered reports by Malay fishermen of a plane flying very low in and around the area where MH370 disappeared. At the time, these eyewitness reports were dismissed by journalists. The idea that MH370 could fly under radar across India was dismissed – it would be too hard. But to fly across the ocean for 7 hours, that’s much easier.

    The pre-programmed flight route to Central Asia would have made it look like a middle eastern hijacking to investigators. And by flying along a commercial route, Malaysian military mistook it for a commercial flight, and failed to scramble jets to intercept.

    Once safely past the limits of Malaysian radar, the plane dropped to an altitude that it could no longer be observed by any radar – including Malaysian radar (which we know was there and should have otherwise seen the southward journey), Indonesian radar (The Indonesians announced they had the capability to see the plane but didn’t), and high-tech Australian radar.

    It turned back south and headed for the limits of its fuel for the deepest part of the ocean, never to be seen again.

    • capnaux

      Thank you for presenting what certainly is a plausible theory, for the reasons you have stated. One thing in question as to your scenario is that jets are extremely inefficient at low altitudes, so if it was “flying low to avoid radar” it could not have possibly flown as far as the assumed crash site being searched in the S. Ind. Ocean.

      I am hoping this mystery is wrapped up soon…or at least in our lifetime!

  • aknauer

    Thank you for taking a very level headed approach.

    What would be of interest, are the raw Malaysian Military Radar records.
    Since, based on these, it was claimed that MH370 climbed to FL450. A comparison of the recorded climb rate to well beyond the service ceiling with the relevant parameters of MH370 could shed some light. The T/O weight, fuel on board, estimated fuel burn after one hours flight, density altitude (Met data) must be available. From there you, or anyone with the appropriate knowledge, would be able to calculate the max Rate Of Climb (considering TOGA setting), max altitude, and possibly even a position where FL450 could be reached, if at all possible. Also the speed profile could be compared to a 777. I don’t have the knowledge or data to do these calculations.

    One of the theories is, that the pilots deliberately climbed to FL450 to starve the cabin of oxygen. Why risk this maneuvre, when the cabin pressurisation can be turned of, as happened on Helios 522 by accident?

    There seem to be some inconsistencies in the claims made by Malaysian Military: Unidentified Object – but Commercial and not Hostile, hence not intercepted – how did they now if it was unidentified?

    “Thrown around like a fighter plane”? MH370 was still very heavy at the time.

    I read in various reports, that the target descended down as low as 5000ft and was flying at a very high speed. If the pattern was caused by fugoid oscillation, would there not be a real danger of structural failure after diving down from coffin corner through 20,000 ft or more?

    If it is true that there was a joint US/Thai land/sea/air defence exercise going on in the area, would not every listening post in the area be on high alert and gathering data? If this is a fair assumtion, then there would also be more records of the movements.

    Is it thinkable, that the unidentified target on primary radar was in fact a fighter plane returning from it’s sortie?

  • Simon Gunson

    Great article Eric and Bill. Only discovered this many months after MH370 disappeared, but your points are still valid.

    Were you aware the Flightaware website redacted an ADS-B return from MH370 at 17:50 UTC, but later reinstated the information?


    The 17:50 location was 06.9298N, 103.5901E. This was 27nm NNE of IGARI and to me this suggests it was returning from near Ca Mau peninsula.

    Occams Razor suggests pilots decided to turn back for IGARI heading for Kuala Lumpur before catastrophe struck. It also means that MH370 could well have flown within sight of the oil rig worker Mike McKay.

    Extrapolating from this that MH370 flew back from IGARI directly over Kuala Lumpur with the autopilot following a magnetic heading, then the local Agonic variation over the Indian ocean would have gradually altered the true course to the East as it flew south. When you plot that Rhumb line the amusing irony is that it ends up very much like the official theory via Aceh.