‘Six months after MH370, Boeing & Inmarsat need to explain themselves’

Nile Bowie
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. Originally from New York City, he has lived in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly a decade and was previously a columnist with the Malaysian Reserve newspaper, in addition to working actively in non-governmental organisations and creative industries. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.
‘Six months after MH370, Boeing & Inmarsat need to explain themselves’
Six months have passed since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March, which took off from Kuala Lumpur carrying 239 people en route to Beijing.

The aircraft veered wildly off course while flying over the South China Sea before turning back over the Malaysian peninsula toward the Indian Ocean, where it is presumed to have crashed.

Despite the largest multinational search and rescue effort ever conducted, not a trace of debris from the aircraft has been found, nor has the cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance been established. The case of MH370 has proven to be the most baffling incident in commercial aviation history and one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries.

Malaysia Airlines has suffered the two worst disasters in modern aviation less than five months apart, following the tragic demise of flight MH17 in July, forcing the company to slash its staff numbers by a third as part of a major restructuring effort. The state has announced plans to take full ownership of the national carrier following the collapse of its share price and its subsequent removal from the stock market.

After a fruitless search in the southern Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have ditched, investigators established a new search area that has been mapped by Chinese and Australian ships since June. The next stage of the investigation has been given a provisional 12 months, and a Dutch contractor, Fugro Survey, will conduct an underwater search beginning this month.

It is hoped that once the wreckage is discovered, the aircraft’s black boxes, cockpit voice recordings and flight data will help investigators explain the incident, as well as give closure to the families of the victims. There is still little consensus among investigators and experts as to what actually happened on board the doomed flight.

Contradicting versions

MH370’s transponders were shut off without a mayday call between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace, followed by significant changes in altitude after ground control lost contact with the cockpit less than an hour into the flight. The aircraft flew erratically before fixing onto a consistent flight path, presumably on autopilot, prior to terminating once the plane ran out of fuel.

The Malaysian government and aviation experts claim that the aircraft’s movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane. The Australian-led search team believes that depressurization and hypoxia rendered the crew unconscious because of the orderly path the aircraft took prior to ending its flight.

Investigators have cleared all passengers of any suspicious motives, while the flight’s pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a reputable pilot with over 30 years’ experience with Malaysia Airlines, has been the main suspect of the investigation by Malaysian authorities. Media reports speculated that Shah was undergoing difficult domestic circumstances, but his family members deny that he had exhibited strange behavior.

Malaysia's chief of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, said he believed that hijackers, saboteurs or someone with a personal vendetta or psychological problem had succeeded in diverting the plane. In the face of this exceedingly bizarre and unexplained incident, the aircraft’s manufacturer, the Boeing Company, has exhibited deafening silence.

What has been established thus far indicates that human intervention contributed to the aircraft’s radical change in trajectory. If MH370’s pilots were ultimately not responsible for this, then other possible scenarios need to be explored to explain the flight’s demise.

A woman writes a message on a dedication board for the victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 airliner and the missing Flight MH370, in Subang Jaya outside Kuala Lumpur July 23, 2014. (Reuters)

Elusive security

Boeing, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, was awarded a patent in 2006 for an ‘uninterruptible autopilot control system’ that could enable aircraft to be remotely piloted from the ground using radio waves and global satellite positioning systems to counter hijacking attempts. The technology, developed following the 9/11 attacks, removes all control from pilots and redirects the airliner to a predetermined landing location.

“After it has been activated, the aircraft will be capable of remote digital control from the ground, enabling operators to fly it like a sophisticated model plane, maneuvering it vertically and laterally… Once triggered, no one on board will be able to deactivate the system,” claims a report from 2007 published in the London Evening Standard.

The automatic control system technology, filed under patent number US7142971B2, is independently powered by an alternative power source that is inaccessible to anyone on board the aircraft. Boeing officials, quoted in the report, give the clear impression that this system was developed for the purpose of being installed on Boeing airliners, stating that the uninterruptible autopilot system could be fitted on its planes by 2009.

Honeywell, one of Boeing’s avionics suppliers, filed patent number US7475851B2 in 2003 for a similar uninterrupted autopilot control device.

Boeing and Honeywell have both developed technology for use in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, with civilian and military applications for decades.

In 2012, Boeing declared its intention to install new security mechanisms on several of its 777 series aircraft, including the models used by Malaysia Airlines, over concerns the aircrafts’ inflight entertainment system, which includes USB connections, could allow hackers to access a plane’s computer.

A report, issued by the US Federal Register in 2013, raised concerns that Model 777-200, among others, was exposed to security vulnerabilities. “This potential exploitation of security vulnerabilities may result in intentional or unintentional destruction, disruption, degradation, or exploitation of data and systems critical to the safety and maintenance of the airplane,”the document stated.

Although the Federal Register’s statement explicitly mentions Model 777-200, it is also valid for Model 777-200ER – the aircraft used for MH370 – because the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) places both models 777-200 and 777-200ER in the same category and does not make a distinction between the two variants.

International and Australian aircrews involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines plane MH370 prepare for an official photograph as they stand on the tarmac at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Pierce Base in Bullsbrook, near Perth, April 29, 2014. (Reuters)

More questions

This information confirms the existence of technology that would allow for an aircraft like MH370 to be externally controlled, and that Boeing and the FAA were aware of a potential vulnerability loophole that could have conceivably been exploited. Boeing declined to comment on this incident and has made no attempt to explain this technology, even after former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publically raised concerns over the possibility of such a scenario.

Inmarsat, the British satellite telecommunications company responsible for analyzing satellite data showing that MH370 flew south toward the Indian Ocean from its last known position, has also come under scrutiny from independent satellite experts and engineers that found glaring inconsistencies in their analysis. The Atlantic magazine published a report in May based on the analysis of Michael Exner, founder of the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, Duncan Steel, a physicist and visiting scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar.

The team of analysts used flight and navigation software to deconstruct Inmarsat’s analysis, and determined that other known evidence contradicted their mathematical conclusions, such as in the instance where the graph data provided by the British company actually shows the plane and satellite moving away from each other at 50 miles per hour while the plane was stationary and had not even taxied to take off.

The analysts concluded that Inmarsat’s data contained irregular frequency shifts, and even when the values were corrected, Inmarsat’s example flight paths failed to match and proved to be erroneous. In another instance, the graph data marking the position of the satellite receiving the signal is shown to be traveling faster in a northbound direction, when the satellite itself was moving south. Inmarsat’s graph shows the satellite moving at 33 miles per hour when its overall speed was just 0.07 miles per hour at that time.

The authors of the report have attempted to reach Inmarsat and other relevant bodies, but they claim that the company did not reply to requests for comments on basic technical questions about their analysis, leading them to determine that “Inmarsat officials and search authorities seem to want it both ways: They release charts, graphics, and statements that give the appearance of being backed by math and science, while refusing to fully explain their methodologies.”

The investigation into the disappearance of MH370 has not yet produced any physical evidence of the wreckage. It needs to be determined if this can be attributed to a false mathematical analysis by Inmarsat. Boeing must also address concerns over the uninterruptible autopilot system and produce the relevant technical specifics needed to determine the extent of flight MH370’s vulnerability to being externally overridden and controlled.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.