The pilot at the helm of doomed flight MH370 made a series of turns to avoid detection before the plane plunged into the ocean, a new study suggests.
The pilot of doomed Malaysia Airlines plane MH370 made a series of deliberate turns and speed changes to avoid detection before the plane plunged into the Indian Ocean, new research suggests.
Aerospace engineer Richard Godfrey, who has spent years investigating the flight’s 2014 disappearance, said his research suggested pilot in command Zaharie Ahmad Shah took a “carefully planned” flight path to avoid “giving a clear idea where he was heading”.
The Boeing 777 with 239 people on board, including six Australians, mysteriously disappeared from radar after taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, bound from Beijing.
The plane took an unexplained U-turn from its planned flight path and headed back across the Malay Peninsula and the Malacca Strait before vanishing.
Mr Godfrey said the plane’s final movements could be mapped out using data from Weak Signal Propagation (WSPR), a global network of radio signals that can trace the movement of planes as they cross signals and set off invisible “electronic trip-wires”.
RELATED: Calls to restart search for MH370
“WSPR is like a bunch of trip-wires or laser beams, but they work in every direction over the horizon to the other side of the globe,” Mr Godfrey said in his report.
His research found MH370 crossed eight of these “trip-wires” as it flew over the Indian Ocean, which is consistent with previous studies of the plane’s flight path.
While tracking individual aircraft using trip-wires could be difficult because they are so frequently crossed in busy airspace, Mr Godfrey said if authorities combined WSPR data with pings from the cockpit’s satellite phone, it could hone in on the precise location of the missing plane.
“Both systems were designed for another purpose other than the detection, identification and localisation of aircraft,” Mr Godfrey said.
“However … together the two systems can be used to detect, identify and localise MH370 during its flight path into the Southern Indian Ocean.
“Neither system is perfect for this task, but together they can give a good result.”
Pilot may have been trying to avoid leaving clues
Mr Godfrey’s analysis points to a final resting place southwest of Western Australia, near the imaginary line called the “seventh arc”.
His research looked at the plane’s apparent course over the Indian Ocean after turning around Indonesia.
While the cause of the disappearance of the plane has never been found, many believe the pilot was responsible. Mr Godfrey’s research seems to add weight to that theory.
“The pilot of MH370 generally avoided official flight routes from 18.00 UTC (2.00am AWST) onwards but used waypoints to navigate on unofficial flight paths in the Malacca Strait, around Sumatra and across the Southern Indian Ocean,” Mr Godfrey said.
“The flight path follows the coast of Sumatra and flies close to Banda Aceh Airport.
“The pilot appears to have had knowledge of the operating hours of Sabang and Lhokseumawe radar and that on a weekend night, in times of little international tension the radar systems would not be up and running.”
But he said the plane’s change in movements and speed appeared to suggest it was trying to avoid leaving clues about where it was heading.
“The pilot also avoided giving a clear idea where he was heading by using a fight path with a number of changes of direction,” he said.
“These changes of track included toward the Andaman Islands, towards South Africa, towards Java, towards 2°S 92°E (where the Flight Information Regions of Jakarta, Colombo, and Melbourne meet) and towards Cocos Islands,” he said.
“Once out of range of all other aircraft, at 20.30 UTC (4.30am AWST) the pilot changed track and headed due south.
“The flight path appears carefully planned.”
As for the speed changes, Mr Godfrey said they were “beyond the level … expected if the aircraft was following a speed schedule such as the long range cruise (LRC) or maximum range cruise (MRC) mode”.
“The level of detail in the planning implies a mindset that would want to see this complex plan properly executed through to the end,” he said.
Searches come up empty in mystery disappearance
The search for missing MH370 is the most expensive in aviation history, with two large-scale searches having come up empty.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) $200 million search for MH370 scoured more than 120,000sq km of Indian Ocean floor using high-resolution sonar between 2014 to 2017.
A second search sponsored by the Malaysian government was also fruitless.
In its final report, the ATSB identified an area of less than 25,000sq km “which has the highest likelihood of containing MH370”.
No trace of the aircraft itself has been found but 33 pieces of debris – either confirmed or highly likely to be from MH370 – have been discovered in Mauritius, Madagascar, Tanzania and South Africa.
There have been calls for a third search for the plane, including by Peter Foley, the former director of the ATSB’s search, who recently proposed a search area 70 nautical miles either side of the target area, which is notorious for its deep ocean floor canyons and underwater mountains.