Remains of the Day

MH Logo and Ocean

August 1, 2015

I WAS IN AMSTERDAM yesterday, and the headlines of the Dutch paper de Volkskrant were screaming about last year’s Malaysia Airlines disaster. This was no big surprise, given that the first pieces from the vanished MH370 have been discovered washed ashore on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. Except, the headlines weren’t about MH370. They were about MH17, the Boeing 777 shot down over Ukraine last summer.

Obviously the discovery of debris from MH370 is a major story. What’s a little distressing, however, is that while the flight 370 mystery has never really disappeared from the headlines, the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 has all but vanished from the news. No, not in Holland, where the flight originated and where most of the 298 victims were from, nearly a hundred of them children. But the rest of the world, it seems, long ago stopped paying attention.

In some ways this makes sense. What happened to flight 370 was and remains a confounding mystery, while the details of MH17 are at least generally known. But in most respects the downing of flight 17 is the more significant tragedy. This was the seventh deadliest air disaster in history, and one that occurred in circumstances of abhorrent malice and negligence. We all want to know what happened to MH370, and perhaps it too was the result of intentional human actions. But what about MH17? Where is the outrage? Where are the cameras? Will anybody — any individual, government or entity — be formally held accountable?

My money says no. It’s doubtful that either disaster will ever be satisfactorily solved. The investigation into MH17 is permanently stonewalled by geopolitics. As for MH370, a limited number of clues can be gleaned from random wreckage. Investigators might be able to tell, for instance, if there had a been a cabin fire or explosion before the plane crashed. Nothing can be known for sure, however, without recovery of the black boxes, out there somewhere under millions of tons of seawater. I’ve predicted all along that some of the wreckage would eventually, probably, be found. The recorders, though? I reckon they’re lost for good.

Why, some are asking, did it take so long for this debris to turn up? Why didn’t we discover these pieces sooner, considering how extensive the search efforts were? We simply missed them, is why, and this shouldn’t be shocking. In which part of the Indian Ocean MH370 crashed has always been subject to estimation. The ocean is massive, and the area most intensively searched was only one possible region. If the calculations were off, the impact point could have been hundreds or even thousands of miles from where the spotters were concentrating.

Standing on the ground, you sometimes see planes high overhead, white contrails trailing behind. Notice, from your perspective, how tiny the actual airplane is. Without the contrails, you’d barely see it. Now imagine that airplane fragmented into pieces, most of them tiny. Could you pick out even one of them? Now, reverse the image. You’re looking down instead of from above. And instead of empty blue sky as a backdrop, you’ve got the ocean, a disorienting surface that is constantly in motion, deeply textured, undulating and spattered with waves and sunlight.

Meanwhile, by the time searchers had an idea of where to look, wreckage would have dispersed and larger pieces of may have quickly sunk to the bottom, leaving only smaller, scattered pieces. To have any hope of picking these out, search planes needed to be very near the surface, which in turn limited how far they could hunt horizontally. The closer you have to be, the more range-restricted the search becomes.

It’s possible too that wreckage has been floating right past us and washing up on beaches all along, ignored. Bits of insulation, shredded fabric, chunks of composite material, small cabin furnishings and so on, would appear entirely anonymous, just more of the trash and pollution that swirls throughout the sea every day, washing up on beaches everywhere. Those tell-tale wing parts from Reunion are perhaps the biggest surviving pieces, and the only ones that say “airplane” to the casual observer. I’m not surprised that we missed them, and to finally have found them is perhaps a stroke of luck.

What an odd thing, too, for an airline to have suffered not one but two appalling tragedies, less than a year apart, about neither of which are we likely to learn the whole story.


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49 Responses to “Remains of the Day”
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  1. Martin says:

    Patrick, on the four flights I’ve taken between Europe and southeast Asia since MH17, the moving maps had us swinging north or south of Ukraine, never directly above. Vagueries of weather and flight planning, or has that airspace become essentially a no-fly zone?

    • Randy says:

      Martin, yes, eastern Ukraine has become a no-fly zone. Many airlines, by policy, avoided it even before MH17 was shot down, but since then no one will fly over it.

  2. Keith Exelby says:

    I would not be surprised in the least, to find out that satellite pictures of the shooting down of MH17 actually exist; or at least the position of the site from which the missile was launched – which is of the greatest importance, but these will no doubt be ‘classified’ and not see the light of day for 50 years, as this would give valuable information to the Russians as to the extent of ‘Observations’ that are in place. Nobody is going to tell me, that with what was going on in the Balkans that spy satellites had not been positioned to monitor troop and weapon movements etc. A lot more, about this dreadful shooting down of a commercial plane is known, than is being revealed by the various authorities around the world. I at least expect the Dutch investigators to have the balls to say what they have found and not be hamstrung by geopolitical correctness.

  3. Bintex says:

    Banyan Tree resort discovered what is believed to be part of a plane.

    Part of that plane?

  4. Bob Palmer says:

    Does anyone know how the search for MH370 is being financed? I know Australians are running it, but they can’t be bearing the whole cost? Billions? This is the biggest search I can remember. And in deep Southern Ocean waters, one of the most forbidding maritime environments on the planet. Really, it seems obsessive, especially when so little has been done to fix accountability for MH17.

  5. Simon IOM says:

    Can i ask regarding MH370 that if they were lucky enough in time to find the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, I think i’m correct in assuming that the data recorder would keep a vast amount of data about flight parameters etc, but would the CVR provide anything at all as the plane flew for several hours with, speculation here, maybe no power to certain instruments or no cockpit conversations? but I’m curious whether any conversations at the time of the ” loss of communication and disappearance from radar” would be wiped over like older versions after so many hours or would the 777’s CVR keep all cockpit information? or could they be disabled also?

  6. Dimitri says:

    Are black boxes designed to float or to remain/sink in one place as they give off their pings?

    I was wondering given enough underwater current if s black box could ever wash up ashore?

  7. Mo says:

    One does have to wonder if we’d be in a different place with MH17 if it had been a KLM flight or, for that matter, a flight operated by any of the U.S. carriers.

    • Patrick says:

      That’s a very good question. I have wondered the same thing. I suspect that yes, we would.

      • Rod says:

        And that “different place” could, conceivably, be a nuclear war.
        Don’t forget that the US is heavily involved in the Ukraine situation (I didn’t say in fighting) and was heavily involved before hostilities commenced. And the Netherlands is a member of NATO — an organization that constitutes a key ingredient of the whole mess in eastern Ukraine.

        If it had been a US plane — just as if Korean 007 had been a US plane — there would have been irresistible pressure on the US government to embark on a very risky path.

        But it was ‘just’ Malaysia Airlines, so it hasn’t been allowed to inflame the conflict, which is just as well.

        No, this isn’t satisfactory. We may never know what happened.

    • Daniel Ullman says:

      Had it been an aircraft from an aircraft carrier (or land based) all sorts of fans would be hit (regardless of who owned the aircraft). You don’t shoot down military aircraft without its sovereign getting mightily pissed off.

      As for KLM, I doubt if it would be much different. There were a hell of Dutch on the plane. Whoever did it might have ‘fessed up and apologized but I doubt it.

      I am not certain what folks expect. The plane was shot down, definitely by a Russian missile and likely, but not certainly, by those happy-go-lucky Russian military forces who just happen to be vacationing in the Ukraine as mercenaries. Tragedy yes, something the west can do about other than to make sure that the missiles are removed, no.

  8. MS72 says:

    It will be years before we learn what govts already know. Two from the ’60s:

    The US secretly installed nuclear missiles in Europe before the Soviets did the same in Cuba. They were removed after the agreement between the 2 countries ended the Cuban missile crisis.

    LIFE magazine deleted the most descriptive frames from the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assasination.

    Neither of these were made public until years after the fact.

  9. Maggie Pappas says:

    Patrick, what a simple, brilliant post.  I love the comparison of the two MH flights, one forgotten, the other unforgettable. I love that you stated without a trace of conspiracy what so many have thought: what are the odds of the proverbial lightning so horribly striking one airline twice in a single year?  

    But I jealously adore your elegant visual of needing a contrail to notice a tiny plane in the sky as ‎an analogy of spotting its fragmented, lost and  largely sunken remains in an undulating ocean, camouflaged by shadows and reflections. Compared to the tortured demonstrations from flight simulators and endless blah-blah in international media, that paragraph is conceptual genius and should be forever quoted when an airplane goes missing.  

    Your analogy is so simple, so obvious that it could almost slip by unnoticed. But because you wrote it as a father might spontaneously package a response to his young child asking a deeply profound question, you don’t douse the wonder behind the unimaginable odds of solving such a mystery, you inspire even more. In an age where a complex technological answer is expected for every question, simplicity is a gift.

  10. Saskia says:

    @Nancy B, Amsterdam is in The Netherlands (not Denmark!)

  11. Msconduct says:

    It’s hard for me to tell how much MH17 is still in the public discourse, as my colleague’s son was the only New Zealand resident on board, so it’s still very much present for me. It doesn’t seem all that surprising, however, that MH370 is the bigger story. The greater mystery makes that inevitable.

  12. Brian Richard Allen says:

    Surely, though, the searchers — and particularly as an adult and responsible Australian Government is the primary one of those, will now bw kicking themselves that at the time the Malaysia 777 disappeared, they didn’t seed the calculated flight path with the buoys that might now be expected to have begun washing ashore with the aircraft wreckage. And could, thus, with it, be back-tracked to their point(s) of departure.

    • Rod says:

      Except that the little they ‘knew’ about the flight path was pretty vague guesswork by Inmarsat — the best they could do. And from that gargantuan area of ocean, they do have fairly reasonable drift predictions (as they did following the 2011 Japanese tsunami).
      But you can search the beaches of Réunion, Madagascar and eastern Africa till the cows come home — the likelihood of what you find there bringing you any nearer an explanation is Very Poor Indeed.

  13. Nancy B says:

    Very good article – thanks for your perspective. Good to know that the Denmark headlines still contain outrage about M17, which I share. While the Russian backed rebels and Putin never have admitted responsibility, they were the only ones that had access to the mobile launchers that fired the missile. There was significant news footage of the them moving all of that arsenal into the area days prior to the incident. I find it infuriating that geopolitics has allowed the willful shooting down of that civilian aircraft to be basically buried and allowed for no accountability. Very dangerous precedent.

    • Rod says:

      OK, since we’re Going There now, what would you suggest in the way of “accountability”? Please be specific.

      Another question: What possible motive would the Russians have in shooting down a civilian airliner? Rack my brain as I might, I come up with Zero. So can you explain what they could possibly have had in mind to intentionally do that?

      I ask myself the ol’ “cui bono?” question. The answer to that question (supposing it was a missile fired by the Russians) is (drumroll…) Ukraine.

      Naturally, this is totally idle speculation (as is your post).
      I don’t have the facts. In particular, I don’t have enough grasp of the system concerned to know whether Belligerent A could have tricked Belligerent B into shooting down an airliner, thus causing B to shoot itself in the foot bigtime propaganda-wise.

      As for a “dangerous precedent”, have you forgotten Korean 007?

      If one wishes to prevent oneself being shot down, one shouldn’t venture into airspace where missiles are likely to be fired.

      • ldnbg says:

        It appears that pro-russian rebels shot the plane by mistake thinking it was ukrainian military cargo plane carrying troops. There was a news article or two in russian media covering the successful downing of Ukrainian cargo plane, there was a video of the plane falling from the sky, filmed by cheerful rebels on a field in eastern Ukraine, there was a recorded conversation of the rebel commanders on the filed, etc.

        Above all, there was a number of wild theories in russian media at the time. Remember “Spanish flight traffic controller Carlos who saw Ukrainian Su-25 shoot down the plane, who have since disappeared”, then “Ukrainians shooting down the plane using old BUK missile launcher, not in use by russian military anymore”, also “Americans have flown and shot a plane full of dead bodies in order to frame russians”, etc, etc…

        It is so called “maskirovka” (“masking the truth”), KGB’s favourite deception where a number of (crazy) theories is served to public in quick succession in order to cause confusion and cover the (obvious) truth.

        • Mark R says:

          Putting out a lot of nonsense “theories” to cover up a real scandal is done by lots of “intelligence” agencies, not just the KGB and its successor. CIA does this too.

        • Randy says:

          I’ve read reports that indicate that the Russians supplied very sophisticated ground-to-air missile launchers to the anti-Ukrain fighters, so sophisticated they are not designed to be operated independently, but rather connected to a centralized system that determines friend-or-foe. Since they were operated independently, that easily explains the accidental shooting of a commercial plane.

  14. I had heard an “expert” on ABC say that it appears from the flaperon found that it was extended at the time of impact – That would be very significant, no?

    Or, as I suspect, is the “expert” maybe not such an expert?

  15. Carol says:

    I thought the Ukrainians admitted to shooting it down.

    • Rod says:

      Ummm… I don’t think so. Nobody is going to squander 24-karat propaganda potential without being painted into a corner by rock-solid evidence (and even then).
      It’s possible the Ukranians intentionally lured the rebels (I mean their Russian helpers — that missile took great expertise to fire) into firing the thing at a civilian airliners, hoping for a ‘game-changing’ propaganda victory.

      We may never know.

    • Fry says:

      Which ones? Ukrainian nationalists or the Russian-backed Ukrainians?

    • Brian Richard Allen says:

      No. That’s the KGB-trained puke, Putin-Khuilo’s, Pravda-like pig poop!

      Which evil barsteward, by exercising Russia’s veto of an un-gang inquiry – admitted his/Russia’s guilt as efficaciously as if he/it had permitted the inquiry to have (inevitably) reached the same conclusion as the one he/it telegraphed.

  16. yestoeverything says:

    And now this gentleman is claiming to have found a seat and luggage, though I admit to some skepticism.

    The source is a well regarded British paper.

    However it seems to me that any human that found a suitcase washed up on shore would either turn it over to authorities or open it up, but this man claims to have burned it.

    Surely suitcases washing up on Reunion Island is not a common event.

    • Actually, it appears that flotsam and jetsam washing up on the beach is pretty common at Reunion, and this fellow’s job (or volunteer work) was to clean the beach and burn the trash. In the TV interview I saw he seemed legitimately concerned that he had disposed of something important because nobody had told him to be on the lookout for airplane-related stuff.

      The really interesting thing will be what, if anything, the marine biologists can deduce from the various beasties that made that flaperon their home during its journey to Reunion.

  17. yestoeverything says:

    While there are a myriad of possibilities regarding what happened to MH370, in my opinion, a scenario similar to the Germanwings tragedy is most likely.

    As for MH17, my guess is the rebels took the bait as a Ukranian fighter jet shadowed a commercial airliner.

    I offer none of this as fact, but merely my perception of likely possibilities.

  18. Rod says:

    As Daniel says, recovering productive recorders from MH370 would virtually be a miracle. And possibly of no great use in solving the case.

    Though I disagree with him that “everyone ‘knows’ what happened” exactly to MH17 (MH370, by contrast, probably yes one does). Maybe we do and maybe we don’t know what happened over eastern Ukraine. Yes, the plane was hit by a large missile of manufacture X. But fired by whom and in exactly what circs? Well, we all have our suspicions, but that’s it.
    And investigators had to enter a probably-already-picked-over war zone to get at the “remains”.

    And as Christine implies, it’s impossible to be too cynical about the actions of entities with so much riding on the success of this or that airplane, or people fighting a propaganda battle in a war.

    We may ride around in airliners, but we’re basically just cavemen wearing suits and ties.

  19. Tod Davis says:

    Hopefully this will shut up some of the conspiracy theories about it landing etc.

    • Daniel Ullman says:

      I would doubt it. “THE PARTS FOUND ARE OBVIOUSLY PLACED BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TO…” will be a likely truth for those folks 🙂

      • yomero says:

        Or they gonna say it’s a move to cover up MH17. It’s a red herring to draw away the attention of the world from MH17, first with media black out and now the MH370 remains. That’s because the Ukranian rebels were able to find the Chemtrail machines from its remains, something not usually possible since the authorities (NTSB and whatever) are the firsts at the scene usually, unlike MH17 where access to was delayed for a long period of time. Or something like that is what some conspiracy nuts would come up with.

        Maybe I should post this on some conspiracy site or group, see if they bait the trolling.

  20. Patrick,

    You are right to share this impression with us.

    At the risk of self-promotion, if you think that’s notable just wait until you read my book, Lost & Confounded Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Air Crashes from the Hawaii Clipper to Malaysia 370. Here’s why.

    I thought I was pretty savvy about how the world works or at minimum how air crash investigations work. However, after looking into an assortment of mysterious air accidents over the past century, I can report that many are under investigated and worse some actively manipulated to protect governments and airlines and other principals.

    This could not happen if the flying public held officials accountable, but yes, the world moves on and a new scandal or disaster eclipses the old. We can hope this does not happen in Malaysia 370 or 17, but now older and wiser and with 70,000 words now outside my brain and en route to the printed page, I wouldn’t bank on it.

  21. Daniel Ullman says:

    While I think we will learn all about MH17 sooner or later, I don’t think that it falling out of the media is all that unusual. It has been solved and everyone “knows” what happened. Outside of Holland and Malaysia, there isn’t anything new to report.

    • Siegfried says:

      I doubt we will ever know for sure who is finally responsible for the downing of MH17. We will find out the type of missile (I guess this will be in the final report) but whoever fired it will be subject to speculation, conspiracy theories and accusations A to B and B to A. Sad as it is.

      • Daniel Ullman says:

        Maybe, but I think some smoking gun will appear within a decade.

        That said, the two are really not comparable. We do know why Malaysia 17 went down. Malaysia 370 remains a mystery and will likely continue to be so.

        Recovering the black boxes in working condition would be a miracle. Unless there is something obvious in the wreckage when they find it, it isn’t likely to be explained.

        • Nicholas Robinson says:

          “Recovering the black boxes in working condition”

          That will be some task! Considering they’re sitting in some strongroom in the Kremlin, probably having already been worked over by a few Party stiffs.

          You have more chance of meeting Amelia Earheart’s kids than finding anything that points to the truth about MH-17.

          • Daniel Ullman says:

            err, since the black boxes from Malaysia 17 were quickly in the hands of the British I think it is fairly obvious that I am talking about MH370 here….

      • Brian Richard Allen says:

        …. I doubt we will ever know for sure who is finally responsible for the downing of the Boeing that was operating July 17 2014’s MH17 ….

        Please exclude me from your “we.”

        I know who what and why the pathetic puke-like Putin-Khuilo’s Russia shot down that Triple Seven and, I will venture, so does every other civilized Human who’s been blessed with even a room-temperature IQ and with a minimum modicum of morality.

        Brian Richard Allen

        • Anonymous says:

          As usual, a most cogent comment, Patrick. In spite of my fervent hypothesizing I never considered things such as the angle of the search pattern . . . its a “d’oh” moment and one that should have been obvious, but as usual, I was looking in the obvious place and you were looking in the right place, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

        • Nicholas Robinson says:

          My sentiments exactly, Brian

      • Nicholas Robinson says:

        Oh, shut up.

        Everyone except possibly you knows who shot down MH17. Please don’t come wandering around here with your pathetic meanderings.

        Anyone who beats around the bush about the real killers—and I reference, yes, OJ Simpson—has got to have several screws loose.

        A Russian-made Buk missile downed MH17; there is no debate about that, except perhaps in the milquetoast minds of the pathetic “investigative” committee who were too afraid of offending our Stalin-for-the-day homicidal maniac, Vlad the Terrible—you know, the same guy who put away Litvinenkov and Nemstov (in case you need names).

        Please don’t bring your Uncle-Joe Goebbels-era propaganda-as-masquerading-as First World freedom talk in this venue: we (I, at least) see you as the hooded cobra of bullshit that you are.

        Go back to hypothesizing about the midair collision above Charkhi Dadri and leave the truth alone.