Saturday, December 26, 2015

My hunch about MH370's path—and it affects everything.

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday.

If MH370 is actually found anywhere near the current search area, then there never was a pilot suicide scenario, and my theory was wrong. I, like seemingly most people, presumed a straight-ish path to fuel exhaustion. The number of possible paths is staggering but some pretty smart folks have come up with a probability map based on some form of straight-ish path solutions. IF MH370 is found in this area, I will owe his family very public apology for putting the suicide theory on the table.

In my earlier post, I laid out a case that Captain Zaharie Shah was solely responsible for the deaths of all those people in an as-yet-explained suicide flight in which innocents were taken. My case fell squarely on the presumption that if he did this, it was to hide the crime. He would not want his family name to be forever sullied with such a heinous act that would forever be associated with wanton evil.

In the back of my mind was the choice of flight path. Why that direction? Why not more to the south-west and in an even more remote area? It came down realizing that Zaharie wanted to have his final morning prayer before his own imminent death. It all made sense to me, and nicely explained why the path was were it was—it placed Captain Shah where he could see his first light, and have his required morning prayer. The timing of it all was just perfect.

Based on some really rough estimates of the general area, first light at 32,500 feet (or thereabouts) civil twilight would be around 23:30 UTC. There are so many variables with that, it's difficult to work with it. Firstly, the altitude generally causes solar events to happen about 10-12 minutes earlier than on the earth's surface. Secondly, well, it requires knowing where MH370 was. But since it was within a few weeks of the vernal equinox the Earth's terminator was somewhat north-south (not exactly, but close).

My epiphany occurred last night.


Or more precisely, the Ka'aba. Observant Muslims seek to face the Ka'aba when praying. I've flown on Kuwaiti Airways which displays, on a more or less continuous basis, the direction to the Ka'aba. This direction is always in relationship to the front of the airplane.

For his last and most important prayer of his life, Zaharie would have to face in the direction of the Ka'aba. There is software available to pilots who can plug in their altitude and route of flight, and it will provide the correct heading for Mecca, and the listing of prayer times. I presume that Zaharie would have had a similar tool available to him.

Zaharie would have been in a very nasty and unhappy place with all the dead people in the cabin. Under any normal circumstance, one could easily face the Ka'aba in an open area in the passenger cabin. But this was no normal circumstance. There would be, if the pilot-caused decompression theory is right, a lot of dead people in the cabin, likely many near the cockpit door. These would have been the last desperate people trying to enter the cockpit to save themselves—likely led by the young First Officer Fariq Hamid attempting to return after being locked out by Zaharie.

Death most likely occurred 5-6 hours earlier, and these bodies all would have been in nearing full rigor mortis in the chilly cabin. Moving them would be difficult and onerous. I doubt that is what happened, simply because facing the horror of his act would have been psychologically paralyzing.

No, what Zaharie would have likely done was to turn the plane towards the Ka'aba in Mecca. The cockpit of a Boeing 777 is large enough to offer a place on the floor to prostrate one's self if need be. The autopilot would be a snap to simply turn the heading to the desired direction, and the plane Mr. Boeing built would dutifully maintain that course.

My rough guess would be a true heading of about 304°. That's basically heading to the northwest. Of course, that is probably not precise enough, but the greater point is that at some point during his journey, Zaharie would have flown towards the northwest for nearly 30 minutes during that first light.

I will probably regret pointing this out, but that particular course does coincide with pointing towards Diego Garcia. Lest the stalwart fans of MH370-Diego-Garcia rejoice, there was not enough fuel at that point to even get close. That was not a destination. That's simply a geographical alignment, that's all.

So what happened after his final prayers?

I don't know. I presume that he would have turned the airplane around, and continued in broad daylight to the south until fuel exhaustion. At least that's what makes sense to me. A southerly route pointed away from civilization and ships. The final plunge he would take would be in full daylight, and he would want full control to the very end.

Some of you reading this may have noticed the timing of the turn towards the Ka'aba. Around 23:30 UTC. Yes, a guess, but it's close. Here's the key point: the "handshakes" occurred at regular intervals. 19:41, 20:41, 21:41, 22:41...but the 23:41 handshake is missing. IF my timing of the turn is in the ballpark, it's possible that the aircraft antenna had lost contact with the satellite, and was still trying to find it during that time. The airplane would have turned around and was flying towards Mecca with an antenna that was mis-oriented.

So here's my new take on the disappearance of MH370.

I still believe it was pilot suicide. I now believe that Zaharie actually turned the B777 towards Mecca so he could have a proper final prayer facing the correct direction. I think he then turned the airplane back towards the south, and crossed that Inmarsat 7th arc before he flew a high-speed dive into the water after fuel exhaustion.

The act of turning the plane to the NW for 25-30 minutes before resuming a southernly route would inherently cause the crossing of the arc to be much further north than is currently assumed.

If the MH370 is found anywhere in the southern arc, then the pilot suicide theory no longer makes any sense to me. With such meticulous planning, Zaharie would have certainly wanted to face Mecca, and he could not in the cabin of the B777. He would have had to point the nose in that direction.

***LET ME BE PERFECTLY CLEAR***: I do NOT presume that Captain Shah caused this because of his Muslim faith. I don't believe that for a moment. This heinous act could have been caused by a Catholic. A Mormon. Pick a faith. I don't have any reason to believe that religion had anything to do with MH370. If he did indeed cause the death of his passengers and crew, the motive and reasons went to his grave.

Here's a prediction I'll make: IF somehow a more precise path can be built on these assumptions I am now putting out there, then MH370 will be found significantly more to the north of the current search area. The aircraft will be shattered and the only identifiable parts will be the big things: gear, engine cores, perhaps the tail. A debris trail will be spread out with the current, with the heaviest parts near the entry point.

There will be no information on any recording device. Those would have been deactivated before the flight deviated from plan.

Find the plane, find the cockpit door. The truth of what happened that night will be etched in the desperate attempts to enter the locked cockpit by whatever means possible. That may be the only silent witness to that night that can be deciphered.

Find the wreckage. Find the cockpit door.


  1. Re "....but the 23:41 handshake is missing. ...", It was not missing. The 23:14 phone call reset the 1 hr timer, so no handshake was expected at 23:41. The plane could not have turned NW because the 7th arc is further south than the 6th arc, and the 6th is further south than the 5th.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out about the phone call, here as well as on Twitter. As far as the arcs go, your statement is true IF we presume that the flight flew generally in one direction until fuel exhaustion. I feel that if Z were indeed alive and caused all this mayhem, that he flew much of flight on HDG mode, keeping track of his position on the FMS (or he could have used the IRS if the FMS was turned off, but I understand that can't happen since the antenna knew where the aircraft was).

  2. The distance / time relationship between the 5th, 6th and 7th arcs (assuming they are correct-ish) makes a north west heading for twenty plus minutes simply impossible. I think it is more likely, if your "prayer" theory is correct, that he would, around 23:30 - 23:40, turn from his approximate 190 true heading slightly south east, directly "away" from the Ka'aba, to say 125 true, so that the tail would then be directly "towards the Ka'aba", and he could pray on the cockpit floor, facing aft.

    1. That's a valid observation.

      It certainly could have happened as you described, but it's all a human-factors sorta thing. There was no destination in the SIO, per se. At some point earlier the flight passed the point of no return. I presume that Z would be keeping tabs on the point at which there was no longer sufficient fuel to return to any airport. At that moment, he knew death was inevitable.

      With no place in particular he was navigating to, other than to see first light, why not turn the plane to face Mecca, rather than face towards a cabin full of dead people? You make an excellent observation about is options in the cockpit. Frankly he might have been able to head SW and then face sideways to accomplish the same thing.

      At this point, it's all purely conjecture of course. I just keep looking at this from a pilot perspective, trying to understand what happened. We won't know until the plane is found, and if the current search area is fruitless, I fear the continued search elsewhere might be abandoned for lack of funds..and we'll never know what happened.

  3. Great writeup! I hope this would give more motivation to people to actually approach the path modeling problem without simplistic "Final Major Turn"-like assumptions. At least, it does so for me. Post flaperon & barnacles & current models, there's just no reason to believe the simplest path possible was in fact flown. Thank you very much for an awesome insight!

  4. Great article. I also believe it was suicide. They didn't want this plane found. I'm wondering if it's because his family wouldn't receive any insurance money.