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MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 2 — Motive

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Symbol of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade

In the previous installment of this series, I looked at the psychological context for a hypothetical suicide run into the southern ocean. Today, I’d like to consider an equivalent issue with regard to a hijacking scenario. Presuming one occurred, what could be the motive for such an act?

As has often been observed, nobody claimed credit for the disappearance of MH370, and nobody visibly benefited from it. No benefit would seem to imply no motive.

Motive, however, can be a tricky thing to impute to another person’s actions. How can we be confident that we understand enough about a person’s position in the world—or more importantly, how they perceive their position in the world—to judge whether a given act would or would not be rational from their perspective?

A question more likely to yield results, I would argue, is: are there any potential perpetrators who might feel motivated to take such an action, however opaque their motive might be to us?

Here the answer is a resounding “yes.”

As it happens, the UK-based group Bellingcat today released the latest in a series of reports about the shootdown of MH17. For anyone who is not familiar with its work, Bellingcat is a very highly regarded group of amateur analysts who have pioneered the crowd-sourced investigation of open-source data. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins first attracted attention after using social media to locate evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons; later the group used similar techniques to identify the specific Buk missile launcher used to shoot down MH17 and has grappled with many other pressing topics of the day. If you haven’t visited their website, I heartily recommend it, as their coverage is fascinating and offers an excellent model for transparency and balance. Not for nothing the Columbia Journalism Review described Bellingcat’s work as “rigorous, evidence-based examinations of extremely specific questions… extremely valuable in helping us understand complex subjects.”

What has emerged from these reports is a strikingly concrete and layered depiction of events surrounding the destruction of MH17. And it is radically different from the picture that most journalists and analysts hold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 1 — Psychology

Zaharie

MH370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shaw: the face of a mass murderer?

It’s an exciting time for those of us who are trying to crack the riddle of MH370. By establishing that the plane did not wind up where an autopilot-only flight would have taken it, the Australian-led search effort has dramatically reduced the number of possible scenarios. In effect, only two remain: first, that one of the pilots (most likely Zaharie) took control of the plane and steered into the southern ocean on a suicide mission; and second, that sophisticated hijackers commandeered the plane from the E/E bay and tampered with the Satellite Data Unit so the plane only appeared to be flying south, when in fact it was flying in some other direction.

Given the scarcity of data in the case, how can we discriminate between the two possibilities? In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look at the case from a number of different angles. Today, I’d like to start by looking at the psychological aspects of the case. What do the actions of the perpetrators reveal about their psychology? Does Zaharie fit the profile of a mass murderer?

As has been noted here many times before, during the initial phase of the disappearance, whoever took MH370 seems to have been motivated primarily by the desire to evade and deceive. Electronics were turned off six seconds after the plane passed the last waypoint in Malaysian airspace, during the narrow window between saying goodbye to Malaysian air traffic controllers and saying hello to Vietnamese controllers. Its disappearance from secondary radar led searchers initially to look for the plane in the South China Sea. Only later did the Malaysian military find a radar track showing that the plane had turned 180 degrees and headed west, hugging the Thai/Malaysian airspace boundary before dashing across the Malay Peninsula and disappearing again over the Andaman Sea. The search was therefore moved there. Only later still did Inmarsat reveal that signals its satellite received suggested that the plane had flown south for six hours. These signals were received only because the satellite data unit had been turned back on again—a procedure that most airline pilots don’t know how to do. Thus, the plane didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

Wondering whether this kind of elaborate planning was common among people bent on suicide, I reached out to Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University who has written 54 books, including Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. Below is an edited condensation of our conversation.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Life after the “Ghost Ship”

Well, we’ve been saying it here for a long time, but at last the ATSB has ackowledged the inevitable truth: the failure to locate any wreckage on the seabed in the southern Indian Ocean will mean that MH370 must have been piloted until the very end.

To quote today’s story in the Independent:

“the possibility that someone was at the controls of that aircraft on the flight and gliding it becomes a more significant possibility, if we eliminate all of the current search area.” [Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the ATSB, told The Times.] “In a few months time, if we haven’t found it, then we’ll have to be contemplating that one of the much less likely scenarios ends up being more prominent. Which is that there were control inputs into that aircraft at the end of its flight.”

To be clear, Dolan wasn’t saying that they’ve ruled out the ghost ship yet, but seems to be preparing the public for this eventuality when the search runs out of money and time this June. But the fact that he said it all suggests that he views it as quite a likely outcome.

The only “much less likely” scenario that Dolan pointed to was the idea that a suicidal pilot might have flown to seventh arc within the current search area, then held the plane in a glide after it ran out of fuel so that it wound up some distance beyond. If such was indeed the case, then the area to be searched would be too large to be economically viable. This led to some catastrophic headlines, such as Bloomberg‘s “Missing Malaysia Jet MH370 Weeks Away From Keeping Secrets Forever.” But this is a tad presumptious, in my opinion.

Though Dolan didn’t ennumerate them, there now three scenarios that could match the data we have in hand.

1) The one Dolan described, which we might call “straight and fast.”

2) Another controlled-flight-into-the-southern-ocean scenario, which I’ll call “slow and curvy.” This would result in the plane ending up further to the northeast, and would necessitate an even larger search area.

3) A “spoof” scenario, in which sophisticated hijackers tampered with the satellite communications system and hijacked the plane to the north.

While some at the ATSB (and maybe within the IG, too) might be wearing long faces over Dolan’s admission, in my estimation it marks the most hopeful turn in the case in a very long time. As David Gallo recently pointed out on Twitter, the ATSB search hasn’t failed to locate the plane; it’s succeeded in proving where the plane isn’t. The most likely scenario — the scenario that we’ve been told is the only reasonable one — the scenario that we’ve been told will imminently be proven correct — has been falsified. And that brings us one very big step closer to finding the truth.

The illusory “sure thing” is over. (The wonderful film The Big Short, which I saw over the weekend and which I think any MH370 obsessive will find very entertaining, at one point quotes Mark Twain: ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’) It may make some people uncomfortable, but we now know that whatever happened to MH370, it was weird and unprecedented.

Now we can get down to work. I hope that now that the broad community of MH370 researchers, and especially the hardworking and intelligent folks at the ATSB, can embrace a new spirit of enthusiastic skepticism and turn their attention to fully evaluating all of the possibilities.

There is some important information coming down the pike that will be very illuminating, and I am very excited about pressing this story forward in the weeks and months ahead.

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Minor MH370 Mysteries, #1: The Case of the Wayward Etihad A330 — UPDATED

UPDATED 1/29/16: Here’s an image from Victor Iannello showing how EY440 diverted from its normal flight path about two minutes after takeoff on January 7, when it was still climbing and at an altitude of 5000 feet:

EY440 Departure

Just to clear up any potential confusion, it seems most likely that this incident does not have anything to do with MH370, but it’s very interesting in its own right. What is the dynamic at work here? Is it part of a trend? If so, does it potentially represent a system-wide vulnerability?

Here’s another image from Victor showing the plane’s continued path over Malay Peninsula. He writes: “I re-examined the FlightAware ADS-B data and noticed that there is a gap starting at BIBAN and ending at Kota Bharu. The FlightRadar24 coverage looks more comprehensive than the FlightAware data, especially in the South China Sea (SCS). I have re-plotted the flight path such that each underlying FlightAware data point is shown, and estimated the path in the SCS from the FlightRadar24 video. The path does indeed seem to follow airways across the SCS. (It would be helpful to have the underlying FR24 data.) The route seems to be ANHOA-L637-BIBAN-L637-BITOD-M765-IGARI-M765-Kota Bharu-B219-Penang-G468-GUNIP-HOLD-Langkawi-B579-Phuket.”

EY440 Flight Path w data

ORIGINAL POST:

The case of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is an incredible strange one, as we all know. But what only the true obsessives know is that orbiting around the giant mystery is an Oort Cloud of lesser enigmas. I’d like to briefly diverge from this blog’s main line of inquiry to cast a glance at some of these issues.

My first installment concerns Etihad Airways Flight 440, which took off on January 7 for Ho Chi Minh City bound for Abu Dhabi. Scheduled to depart at 20:10 UTC, it actually left 13 minutes early. Then, instead of flying along its normal route, to the northwest, it flew almost due south, crossed waypoint IGARI, then flew along the Thai/Malaysia border to the Malacca Straits, where it flew in circles for an hour before finally heading off in the direction of Abu Dhabi. By this point, however, the plane no longer had the fuel to reach Abu Dhabi, so it stopped to refuel in Bombay and reached its destination many hours late, leaving some passengers irate. (Special thanks to reader @Sajid UK for bringing this to our collective attention via the comment section.)

This is all very strange, but what makes it interesting to the MH370 crowd is the fact that a portion of its bizarre route was an exact match with that taken by the Malaysian 777 when it initially took a runner. Had EY440 been taking part in some kind of experiment to recreate MH370’s route, perhaps to get a better understanding of the Inmarsat data or the radar data?

We may never know. Katie Connell, who heads up Etihad’s media relations for North America, was very friendly when I called her and asked her what had happened. She said she’d check with her colleagues at the head office in Abu Dhabi. “It was simply a scheduling decision by ops that was later adjusted,” she wrote me in a text earlier today. I wrote back, asking if her contacts had been able to explain why the plane had flown south instead of northwest, and why it had flown a holding pattern over the Malacca Strait. She answered: “No; I did not get into that level of detail. I go with what my folks said.”

So there you have it. Make of it what you will. Read the rest of this entry »

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Could Gulf of Thailand Debris Come From MH370? — UPDATED

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According to FelineNut, who I generally regard as extremely unreliable, Thai media are reporting that a piece of debris has been found off the coast of southern Thailand, not from from the Malaysian border, the Gulf of Thailand. I have no idea how debris from a single crash could wind up in both Réunion Island and the Gulf of Thailand; I certainly have not seen any drift models with endpoints in both places. (Apparently the current through the Malacca Strait runs from southeast to northwest, so it couldn’t have come via that route from the Indian Ocean; maybe through the Sunda Strait?) On the other hand, the piece does look aircraft-like (though perhaps a bit more like a section of rocket casing, as was recently recovered off the UK coast), and the marine life on it is strikingly reminiscent of that on the Réunion flaperon, with scattered clumps of goose barnacles and patchy brown algal film. I’ve spent a short while doing Bing and Google image searches but haven’t found any shots of a Rolls-Royce Trent engine that match what we’re seeing here. Any thoughts?

UPDATE: Reader Gysbreght has just pointed out that AirAsia 8501, and A320, crashed about 800 nautical miles on December 28, 2014. If this is indeed a piece of jet-engine cowling, that would seem a more likely source. Debris from that crash had previously been discovered at a distance of several hundred miles. (Gerry Soejatman points out that the currents in the vicinity of the QZ8501 crash site flow to the southeast, meaning that if this piece did come from that plane it must have taken a rather circuitous journey–not impossible, given that more than a year has passed.)

UPDATE #2: Thanks to some excellent detective work by the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Ostrower, it now appears clear that the debris is from a Japanese rocket. Gerry Soejatman has a nice blog post about it here.

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A Couple of MH370 Things

There have been a number of interesting developments in MH370 land:

NEW MH370 PATH ANALYSIS by frequent commenter sk999 has impressed a lot of the old hands. Using somewhat different statistical techniques than the ATSB and IG before him, sk999 analyzes the Inmarsat data to assess where the plane would wind up under various autopilot modes. His results generally jibe with his predecessors’ work and add more weight to the idea that if the ATSB really believes that the plane was flying on autopilot-only, they would be better served by searching further to the north along the arc, beyond the limits of the current search box (though not north of Broken Ridge), rather than further away from the 7th arc as currently planned. What’s also notable, in my opinion, is sk999’s very clear elucidation of the problems with the routes that he assesses; for instance, he points out that all of the routes have problems accounting for speed inconsistencies in the 90 minutes between the fifth and sixth ping. These discrepencies are too large to be easily explained away as being due to inaccuracies in the winds-aloft data. Sk999’s frankness about these issues is refreshing; in the past, there has often been a tendency by those describing possible routes to adopt a position of, “Hey, here’s a route I came up with, it works really well, take my word for it.” (I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone.)

NAJIB IS IN TROUBLE and at last it looks like he may have to go. Is it possible that his ouster will lead to disclosures about what really happened in the aftermath of MH370’s disappearance? In a report last year, ICAO offered an uncharasterically harsh assessment of Malaysian government interference in the search process. Among their most glaring sins: allowing the search to proceed in the South China Sea for a week even though the military had spotted the plane turning toward the Andaman Sea the night of the disappearance; refusing to pass along crucial Inmarsat data to Australian officials who were tasked with searching the ocean for the plane; and lying about the determination that the flaperon had come from MH370 (it did, but that hadn’t yet been determined at that point). What the heck??

THE ATSB zinged airline pilot Byron Bailey, who wrote an error-filled article in the newspaper The Australian arguing that the only possible explanation for the disappearance of MH370 was pilot suicide. The ATSB had never before gone after an article in such detail before; they didn’t even touch Clive Irving’s piece in the Daily Beast, which was much worse (but which, on the other hand, was friendlier to the ghost-ship scenario that the ATSB still favors.) Personally I think it’s great to see the ATSB engage with the media coverage in this way; there’s too much nonsense about MH370 being peddled in the general media. Bailey responded to the ATSB critique with a second piece in The Australian.

THE ATSB ALSO perked up my ears with their response to an inquiry from reader Susie Crowe, who asked ATSB spokesman Dan O’Malley whether the Australians had received information from the French regarding their investigation into the Réunion Island flaperon. O’Malley replied, “The ATSB looks forward to receiving the report on the flaperon from the French judicial authorities, once it is completed.” In other words, Australia is spending over $100 million in taxpayer money to dispatch search crews to one of the most difficult and dangerous stretches of ocean in the world, and the French have not even shared with them information about the flaperon that might indicate whether or not they are looking in the right place! To which I might add: !!!!!!

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Unscientific MH370 Reader Poll

It’s been almost two years since MH370, and the worldwide search into the greatest mystery in the history of aviation is looking a little ragged. Nothing has been found on the seabed where satellite analytics said the plane must have gone. Only a single piece of debris has turned up, and it’s under lock and key in France. Some are starting to grumble that we’re reaching the end of profitable inquiry. Others say, maybe it’s time to consider a broader range of possible fates for the missing plane. To get a sense of the mood of the room (as it were) I’d like to pose a question to readers:

If the search of the seabed comes up empty, no further debris is found, and investigators find significant problems with the flaperon (such as proof that the barnacles are less than a year old, or that the the barnacle species mix indicates it didn’t originate on the 7th arc), would you be willing to seriously consider the possibility that the satellite signal was deliberately tampered with and that the plane went somewhere else other than the southern Indian Ocean?
  1. No, this is an unreasonable idea. Tampering with the satellite signal would be so complicated that no one could have attempted it, and in fact it might even just be totally impossible. The plane must have been on the seventh arc somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere at 0:19. Occam’s razor.
  2. Yes, and in fact we should disregard satcom data entirely. Maybe it was corrupted deliberately by Inmarsat or a Western intelligence agency, and maybe the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. The plane could be anywhere.
  3. Yes, but we can’t disregard the satellite data entirely. The data is not illusory, it had to be generated by some physical process that originated on the airplane, and analyzing it might help us understand where the plane went.
  4. None of the above. (Explain).

Please answer in comments, and feel free to be as verbose as you wish.

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Can We Rule Out a Ghost-Ship Endgame for MH370?

Since October, 2014, the search for MH370 has been guided by the assumption that sometime after it disappeared from Malaysian radar screens over the Malacca Strait it turned south and flew straight and fast into the Southern Indian Ocean on autopilot. The ATSB, which is conducting the search, has always been agnostic as to why exactly the plane would have done such a thing—maybe the pilots succumbed to hypoxia, or fire, or committed suicide—but the underlying assumption is that the plane would have flown its last few hours without control from a human being: that is to say, it flew as a “ghost ship” until it ran out of fuel shortly before 0:19 on the morning of March 8 and spiralled into the sea.

Analysis of the satcom signals received up to that point, combined with understanding of how 777s fly, indicate that a “ghost ship” plane should have wound up somewhere in a box 40 nautical miles wide and 400 miles long. As I’ve described earlier, the highest-probability areas of this box have already been searched and no aircraft wreckage has been found.

Previously, I’ve suggested this means that the plane did not fly to the current search area. On January 5, several members of the Independent group published an article on Duncan Steel’s website that agreed with this premise:

we now have a new piece of information. Simply: the aircraft has not been found within the priority search zone. If that continues to be the case then we must consider other possibilities which might conform to the known data (Inmarsat BTO and BFO values, and the fuel limits which can work either way, either setting a range limit or else requiring fuel to be burnt more quickly per unit distance) and lead to a revised end-point for MH370 that is outside of the search zone, and north of it (given that the fuel limitation prohibits end points further south).

The question I’d like to address today is whether the absence of MH370 from the current search area means that the plane COULDN’T have flown to its endpoint on autopilot alone. The reason such a suspicion might arise is that to reach an endpoint north of the current search box the plane would have to have flown a course that was either curving steadily to the left, or slowly decreasing in spead, or a little of both. But the 777 autopilot cannot be programmed to fly in a curve or to steadily decrease the thrust of the engines.

At first blush, then, the answer would be: no. MH370 couldn’t have flown to its endpoint without a human at the controls. That means that one of three things might have happened: 1) The perpetrator took the plane on a slow, curving course to the northeast; 2) The plane hit the 7th arc over the current search area but held it in a glide so that it wound up beyond the current search; or 3) The plane was commandeered by someone who managed to spoof the signal so that it wound up going north instead of south. The first two scenarios presupposes a suicidal pilot, most likely Zaharie; the third requires demonically clever perpetrators. Which of these scenarios is more likely should become more apparent if and when we get to see the results of the examination of the flaperon held by French criminal investigators since its discovery on the island of Réunion last July.

Coincidentally, this would also rule out “hero pilot” scenarios that have remained proven remarkably popular despite the vast weight of evidence against them.

However, the case is not closed.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Free the Flaperon!

SchifferWith every passing day, the odds go down that searchers will find the wreckage of MH370 on the Indian Ocean seabed. (Indeed, many independent researchers suspect that the game is essentially over.) If nothing comes up before the search’s scheduled wrap date this June, then the entire case will hang on a single piece of physical evidence: the flaperon that washed up in Reunion Island last July and is now being held by French judicial authorities at a facility near Toulouse, France.

The good news is that the flaperon could provide a wealth of information. I’ve seen photographs of the serial numbers located inside the plane, and I’m convinced that, despite my previously expressed reservations, they do indeed prove that the piece came from MH370. And experts have told me that the sea life found growing on it offers a number of different clues about the airplane’s fate.

The bad news is that the French authorities have apparently made little effort to follow up.

As I’ve described earlier, the predominant form of life growing on the flaperon is an accumulation of goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. In all the world, the number of marine biologists who study these animals is tiny; those who have carried out peer-reviewed research specifically on animals of the genus Lepas could fit in an elevator. Each has contributed something unique to the field; each has a unique body of experience with which to inform the investigation of this important Lepas population. Yet the French authorities have reached out to none of them. (I have been informed that they have contacted two French marine biologists, one of whom is unknown to me and the other of which is an expert in crustaceans of the southern ocean; Lepas belong within this much broader category of animal.)

That’s a shame, because only by tapping the world’s leading experts in this little-understood species can we hope to wrest the most information from this solitary piece of evicence. Here’s what we could learn:

  • Hans-Georg Herbig and Philipp Schiffer in Germany of the University of Cologne have carried out genetic analysis of the world’s Lepas species to understand their geographic distribution. By examining the animals on the flaperon up close they could determine the mix of species growing on it, they could derive a sense of were the flaperon has drifted. The image above shows Dr. Schiffer’s best guess of the identities of some barnacles in one small section, based on photographic imagery alone.
  • Knowing the species of the barnacles, and measuring their exact size, would allow scientists to gauge their age, and hence the amount of time that the flaperon has been in the water. Such an analysis has been performed forensically before: Cynthia Venn, a professor of environmental science at Bloomsburg University, helped Italian researchers identify the how long a corpse had been floating in the Adriatic Sea, as described in their paper “Evaluation of the floating time of a corpse found in a marine environment using the barnacle Lepas anatifera.”
  • By measuring the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the animals’ shells, scientists could determine the temperature of the water through which they traveled as they grew. “All one needs in an appropriate shell, a fine dental bit in a handheld Dermel drill, a calculator and  access to a mass spectrometer,” says legendary marine biologist Bill Newman, who helped pioneer the technique at the Scripps Instition of Oceanography in La Jolla. In the past, this technique has been used to track the passage of barnacle-encrusted sea turtles and whales. But again, it would require access to the flaperon barnacles.

Why haven’t the authorities been more proactive in seeking help from the world’s small band of Lepas experts? One possible answer is that they’re befuddled. As I’ve described earlier, photographic analysis of the barnacles’ size seems to suggest that they are only about four to six months old. This is hard to reconcile with a presumed crash date 16 months before the flaperon’s discovery. Something weird might be going on—which would not be that surprising, given that the case of MH370 has been tinged with weirdness from day one.

After nearly two years of frustration, the key to the entire mystery may well lie in this single two-meter long wing fragment. But if the authorities don’t examine it—and publish their findings—we’ll never know.

PS: In my aforementioned piece about the barnacle distribution on the Reunion flaperon, I argued that the piece must have been completely submerged for months—an impossibility without human intervention. However, it’s been pointed out to me that barnacles sometimes grow on surfaces that are only intermittently awash. A very vivid example of this is a section of SpaceX rocket that was found floating off the coast of Great Britain last November. The piece (pictured below) had spent 14 months floating across the Atlantic with its top surface apparently above the waterline, yet sufficiently awash to support a healthy population of Lepas.

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A section of rocket casing found floating in the Atlantic after 14 months.

While this suggests that the Reunion flaperon could have accumulated its load of Lepas while floating free, it also provides another example of how thickly covered by large barnacles a piece can be after more than a year in the ocean.

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MH370 Seabed Search Concentrates on Low-Probability Area — UPDATED

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As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, by its own calculations the ATSB has already searched most of the high-probability areas of the Indian Ocean seabed in its quest to find the wreckage of MH370. The only remaining area of relatively high probability that has not been searched is a stretch along the inside the 7th arc.

(In the image above, the area that had been searched prior to the release of the ATSB’s December 3 report is outlined in black.)

Yet this is not where the search is currently underway. According to ship-tracking conducted by Mike Chillit, Fugro Discovery has spent the weeks since the ATSB issued its report searching an area 40 nautical miles beyond the 7th arc, in the pale blue “low probability” area of the ATSB’s heat map.

It’s hard to understand why.

UPDATE 12-22-2015: I was delighted to learn that Richard Cole is back on the case, paralleling Mike Chillit’s work by collecting and collating ship-movement data in order to understand what areas have already been searched. Richard has given me permission to reproduce one of his charts, which shows the situation much more clearly than my amateur effort above. I’ve outlined the area already searched in light blue. One thing I notice looking at this is that the unsearched high-probability area near 87.5 N 37.5 S hasn’t even been bathymetrically scanned yet! Click to enlarge:

Richard Cole 2015-12-22