28 March 2014

Methodology applied to strange case

Malaysian Flight 370 has given rise to a lot of speculation and, with the sighting of debris off the cost of Perth Australia,  hopefully the final hours of the flight will become known.  Sadly, yes, but known.  The recovery of the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder will bring the case to rest.

Over the days since its disappearance the speculation of what happened to it has had to cope will large amounts of new material, like Boeing revealing that the flight last hours longer after the disappearance of the aircraft from radar.  That was not directional data, however, and left a wide radius from the last known position of the aircraft to the point its fuel runs out (Source: WSJ).  That last point, over the South China Sea, was after one course change that was not scheduled that happened during the hand-off of Air Traffic Control zones, and Flight 370 did not properly communicate with the new ATC zone.  At that point all verbal communication was lost with the flight, as well as its transponder information, but information from the engines continued to be sent.

That was the jumping off point for speculation which immediately went to terrorism.  If it was terrorism, no group is claiming it, so that leaves an empty hole in the situation.  That was filled by the report of Lithium Ion batteries being transported on the flight, and even when stowed properly, they can cause problems in very rare instances, which includes bringing flights down with on-board fires in the cargo hold.  That defaults to the situation for Flight 370 by Occam's razor which is that the simplest explanation with the fewest assumptions is the best.

Pilots get trained in a set of skills that start from the beginning, and they are summed up by the process of actually flying an aircraft: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Thus flying the aircraft and keeping it aloft takes precedence, not just during normal flight but during emergency situations.  The terse 'All right, good night' response from the pilot at the last communication point for the ATC zone he was leaving may be an indicator of something going wrong on-board that had not been properly identified.  Just after that the first course change to the South China Sea took place, deviating from the prior flight path heading into China.  The protocol of Aviate, which is fly the aircraft, comes first.  And the loss of verbal and transponder information may be an indication of either a system manual reset or the power supply to those systems going out for other causes.  The engine transmission system has its own power supply separate from those systems, and could remain intact and functional.  It would keep on doing so until the aircraft shut down or the engines ran out of fuel.

If a pilot has a bad situation and is keeping the plane flying as a priority, then that pilot is determining if the plane can continue flying.  With an in-flight emergency being handled a pilot can then change the course, again.  That follows Occam's razor.  What does not follow is the pilot then succumbing to the situation right after that.  The question of it being reasonable that a pilot could misjudge his own capability to the point of not realizing how bad the situation had become after, perhaps, 5 to 10 minutes of dealing with it, is startling.  Human error does occur, yes, and cannot be discounted and may even be the case for Flight 370.  If so that is unfortunate.  That last flight change, to wind up in the Indian Ocean means that there was some capacity to not only Aviate but Navigate.

The South China Sea is a region of shipping that is heavily trafficked, what with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia nearby, and destinations of Japan and China to the east and India and the Middle East to the west.  A pilot having any doubt about his viability as a pilot has a perfectly satisfactory option of ditching in the South China Sea.  It may seem heroic to try and not to succumb to fumes from a smoldering fire, but to Navigate and think you can do that and not know for a certainty means you have had time to address the situation.  While ditching may be a bad option, it is less worse than calculating your ability to Navigate while having a heavily trafficked area to ditch in.  It is not just the pilot's life, but that of everyone on board that is at stake.

There are circumstance where, perhaps, the ability to control engine speed has been taken out by a fire, leaving the jets to continue on without changes.  A crash into the sea is not a good way to ditch an aircraft, true, and if you cannot have that under your control then you have few options left as a pilot as you no longer control the airspeed of the plane.  That is a serious problem when it comes to Aviate.  There are options of what to do next, but they start to fall in the realm of changing angle of attack, changing elevation and trying to stall the engines out.  A bad situation but better than crashing into terrain or water at speed.

Thus, by Occam's razor, we get in-flight emergency and then gross misjudgment of the situation.

Is there another way to explain this scenario?

Of course: The Joker scenario.

Someone on-board planned to use the aircraft to give a wild suicide ride, and then crash the aircraft.  Some people do just want to see the world burn.  This is a viable option and requires little else beyond madness, which is just as likely as an emergency, a veteran pilot making gross misjudgments  and then succumbing to a situation he thought he could handle.  Even though a viable option, it is one that requires the intent of a man or woman gone mad to do it.  Thus it is less likely than the one by Occam's razor.

At this point it is possible to say that Occam's razor has resulted in a non-simple explanation that requires some types of problems coming together in a single instance that is unlikely.  If this razor is not cutting to a solution, is there another?

Yes, there is, and anyone examining military history will know it pretty well.  A main attribute for this goes to Napoleon, but it has shown up in various forms from various individuals over time. It is Hanlon's razor:  Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

For this instance is stupidity indicated?

Piloting an aircraft and making navigational changes indicates some level of gross competence and skill in these tasks.  These are not stupid acts, but ones with intent behind them.  Their results may be stupid and dumbfounding, yes, but they are done with competence, reason and foresight: they are not acts of a stupid individual.  Deranged, maybe, but not stupid.

When you cross of stupidity with Hanlon's razor you are left with: malice.

With malice you now have a crime of intent.  There is a methodology to examining criminal cases, and while the well known Method, Motive and Opportunity tend to come to mind first, they assume you know who is doing it.  Without who you do not get to MMO.  From that you step back to the 5 W's and 1 H:







For Flight 370 we can definitively say What, Where and When up to the point of the second course change.  In fact that goes all the way back to the first course change, as they are the same thing: the aircraft losing contact and changing course between ATCs.

That leaves us with Who, Why and How.

A smoldering fire from cargo may not be by malice, but fills in each of those: the shipper, the cargo and a rare instance of fire.  Mind you the shipping container was rated for fire containment, but that could have failed.  The flight crew is just trying to deal with the situation in this instance, and are not active participants in the problem save for being unable to deal with it.

Going Joker answers these, also: an experienced or even novice pilot with some ability to fly the aircraft, they were deranged and took it over by some means.  Not pleasant to think about, but can't be discounted.

Terrorism?  This is two pronged as it may or may not involve active flight crew participation.  This broadly includes large scale criminal organizations, terror organizations or hostile governments doing something covertly.

Without participation you get a hostile take-over of the aircraft.  This would mean the debris in the Indian Ocean is from something else if the take-over was successful and the plane went on to a destination unknown.  Now isn't that a frightening prospect?  A large cargo vessel goes down and no one notices it.

Still remaining on the hostile takeover fork, it is possible that the take-over went seriously awry.  That can get the flight to the Indian Ocean.  It can also get it crashing into a mountainside or under triple canopy jungle or in some other waterway.  That could leave the debris from Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean or, again with the horror of finding a ship went down without notice.

On this fork the How is a terror take-over.  The Who would be unknown as would the Why.

With the crew or even just a single member of it, taking the aircraft over, you get the same bifurcation as with the hostile take-over and with the same results, save that How is the member of the crew, Who is the organization behind him/her, and Why is unknown.

There are, perhaps, only a couple of organizations and maybe one government that might try this.  None of them are China since they are the destination of the flight and it would be most easy to redirect a flight to a secure airfield and seize it, and it might be days or even weeks until someone noticed as this is China, after all, a big place with a tight lipped government.  With that said, with so many passengers being Chinese Nationals, any organization attempting to seize the flight would also know that they would get the wrath of China.  Possibly a nuclear tipped wrath, at that.

Who would tempt that?

Criminal organizations can get what they need much more cheaply, and there is little indication of individuals worth kidnapping for any reason.  It is cheaper and easier to kidnap the poor, those remotely located or the unwary for nefarious reasons than it is to take a plane full of people and do... well... what, anyway?  No good reason comes to mind, so while Method and Opportunity can be filled in, Motive or Why gets these types of organizations scratched off the list.

Of the Nations that might try this, possibly only the Magic Kingdom of Mr. Kim might be insane enough to do something like this.  However power hungry and egotistical the ruler is, however, he isn't crazy and not a Joker type.  At least so far as we can puzzle out.  Besides the Motive or Why leaves a gaping hole in the idea of NoKo being behind this.

Terrorists usually don't take an aircraft and do nothing with it, claim no responsibility and generally remain silent about it.  They might buy an aircraft, as bin Laden did in the early '90s in Africa, but hijack one and claim nothing and do nothing with it?  Unless there was something like new bioweapons in with the people or cargo, the rationale even behind the most fantasy based of organizations remains out of the realm of possibility.  The Why part remains unanswered.

Anything left?

A death cult.  AUM once operated in the USSR/Russia and was able to brainwash some KGB/FSB agents before the group dispersed.  Note most went back to Japan, but not all of them did.  AUM had this wonderful idea of liberating people's souls to a better life by killing them now.  In fact that was such a good act in their line of reasoning at the time, that mass-murder was a really great idea.  After being brainwashed with drug, sex and rock'n'roll, the followers had to be convinced that as enlightened individuals they had to save themselves to continue on with the good work.  They might not leave any notes, any causation and generally not want to attract attention to themselves carrying on the good works.  Tends to get people put in jail and deprogrammed, and then put on trial.  So a death cult could fill in Who, Why and How is via the terrorism paths.  Do note that AUM had many competent individuals within its organization and the entire operation ran a chain of computer repair stores in Japan which was their main money-maker for the founder of the cult.  The founder has reformed, of course, but the individuals who were once with it and disappeared when it dispersed, are probably not reformed.

In general the simplest explanation remains the best, and I'm expecting that the debris is from Flight 370.

If it isn't, and its not just something dropped off by a dead circulation spot in the Indian Ocean like the large debris field in the northern Pacific, then things turn nasty.  Perhaps incompetent and nasty.  Or competent and nasty.  And do note that debris is yielded from multiple possible paths, as well.  Only the in-flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder can finally dispel the speculative paths and leave us with what is left.

Evidence is needed to sort this out and remove the suppositional and to fill in the blanks.