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The Netflix MH370 Conspiracy Theorists Don't Understand How Radio Signal Jamming Works
That is not how any of this works
When MH370 went missing in 2014, a million conspiracy theories took wing. Netflix has chosen the four most interesting ones for a new three-part series that could benefit from some fact-checking.
Cyndi Hendry remains convinced that she saw ‘wreckage’ all over the South China Sea, identifying specific parts of the Boeing 777 from low-resolution satellite images, and that she was not just experiencing pareidolia from sunlight reflecting on waves.
Aviation journalist Jeff Wise kept finding new reasons to hold out hope that the plane had somethow landed in Central Asia, presumably somewhere near Shangri-La, until he was dismissed from the investigative team for being a kook in public.
Intan Othman, wife of lost co-pilot Mohd Hazrin Mohamed Hasnan, cannot believe that pieces of the plane have been found on the African coast. “Who put them there?” She asks, imitating her reaction at the time.
Perhaps the most tragic figure is Ghyslain Wattrelos, the French citizen who lost a wife and daughter on MH370. His lawyer Marie Dosé has published a book charging that the United States is responsible for the disappearance of the plane. Their litigation is touted as “the only ongoing investigation” into what happened to the missing flight.
It is a grift, and a lucrative one in the age of hybrid warfare. We know it is a grift because the key claim they make about American AWACS aircraft making MH370 disappear has no relationship whatsoever to the reality of radar or signal jamming.
Wattrelos and Dosé know absolutely nothing about electronic warfare. They will never find an actual expert willing to back up their ludicrous story on a witness stand.
I sympathize with Mr. Wattrelos and his tragic loss. However, his claim that someone associated with the intelligence world has ‘informed’ him that American AWACS aircraft were responsible for the disappearance strongly suggests that someone with an agenda is cranking him up. If he is telling the truth about this encounter, then he is being used.
In the final episode, Wattrelos uses the supposed presence of AWACS aircraft to explain why the flight transponder signal of MH370 disappeared when it crossed into Vietnamese airspace. That is, Wattrelos thinks that American radio signal jamming can make a transponder signal simply disappear. This is a common misconception.
Radio signal jamming only works on the receiver. Imagine that someone is across the room right now, whispering a message to you, while I scream in your ear: this is how jamming works.
In 2014, the radar antenna at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was the receiver (the ‘ear’). The whisperer was the MH370 transponder signal. The American AWACS would have been screaming into the virtual ear of the radar operators.
Moreover, because all commercial aviation transponders work on the same frequency, Kuala Lumpur would not have been able to track any airplanes at all while the channel was being jammed. Somebody would have noticed this.
Electronic countermeasures (ECM) are useful in combat, but they do not make aircraft invisible. On the contrary, for the very reasons just outlined, ECM interference alerts military radar operators that the enemy is attacking.
A carefully-prepared electronic warfare (EW) mission could perhaps spoof the MH370 transponder signal and thus attempt to mislead or confuse radar trackers, but this would not turn off the aircraft transponder. The 777 would not ‘disappear.’ It would appear to be in more than one place at a time.
EW figures throughout this conspiracy theory. Inmarsat is accused of nefarious cover-ups that make little sense. To admit that the plane ran out of fuel at sea is too much for some: the CEO must be lying! The satellite tracking data was faked!
Wattrelos and Dosé tell the documentary makers that some handheld radios were in the cargo hold of the plane. They suspect that the United States government wanted to prevent these electronic devices from reaching China. Both may be surprised to learn that China already has access to such equipment, indeed the closure of Radio Shack alone probably gave them plenty to work with.
But even assuming that the Pentagon was to act on such a pretext, why would they use this overly-complex Rube Goldberg scheme instead of just shooting the plane out of the sky?
Like most ambitious woo projects, MH370: The Plane That Disappeared tries to compress all the available conspiracy theories into one narrative. The result is a self-contradictory mess.
By the end, Russians, Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysians are all conspiring to cover up a crime that no one can explain without sounding ridiculous to any person with a minimal technical understanding of EW.
Aviation experts who worked with Jeff Wise shake their heads and dismiss Wattrelos’s ignorance without being unkind. Director Louise Malkinson goes no further, however. She does not question anything anyone says nor does she present a skeptical view.
Not one expert in the topic of EW technologies and their limitations has been consulted. Tracking data for the alleged AWACS aircraft should exist alongside the tracking data for MH370. Malkinson apparently did not even think to have a researcher look for open source information that might confirm the story.
Neither has Dosé, who might simply know she is full of merd and not care. Perhaps there is something like this in her book but it was not presented in the series, and I cannot imagine why Malkinson would pass on using such material.
All of these conspiracy theories are trying to point away from the most obvious, logical, and likely explanation. They do not like the result of Occam’s razor. It cuts too deep.
It is a sad fact that sometimes, sad pilots kill themselves with a plane full of passengers. One year and sixteen days after MH370 disappeared, one such co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, flew an Airbus A320-211 into a French mountainside, taking the lives of 150 people, including his own. Lubitz had been treated for suicidal depression and hid it from his employer Lufthansa, yet his father held a press conference to reject the official finding that his son was at fault.
In 1999, Gameel Al-Batouti took control of EgyptAir Flight 990 and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 217 people altogether. His actions inspired Osama bin Laden to plan the 9/11 attacks. Following a contentious review process, the government of Egypt did not want to accept that Al-Batouti was a mass murderer. Meanwhile, in Cairo some wanted to blame the United States, while others called Al-Batouti a martyr.
Lubitz and Al-Batouti both created an opportunity to be alone in the cockpit so they could carry out their death ride fantasy. Zaharie Ahmad Shah likely did the same thing, telling Hasnan, the co-pilot of MH370, to take a break, then locking him out of the cockpit.
Malkinson’s best moments tell this part of the story. Once he had sole control of the plane, Shah could depressurize the cabin and make himself the only person on the 777 with enough oxygen to stay conscious, or even alive. Then he could point the airplane south, along a route like the one that the FBI found on his home flight simulator, and fly until the fuel ran out. Malkinson tells this part but leaves out too much of the rest.
She leaves out the part where Shah’s wife left him, and the depths of his depression as he clumsily texted younger women. Instead, Wattrelos pooh-poohs the flight simulator evidence. Why, the FBI had that evidence for such a long time without telling everyone! Surely it is just part of the cover-up.
Belief in the conspiracy is unfalsifiable. Episode 1 is the best, for it covers the real story of Shah’s suicidal actions, but it suffers for not exploring his narcissim in the second hour. Instead, Episode 2 has Jeff Wise inventing a hijack scenario that is somehow linked to the shootdown of MH17 over Ukraine four months later.
Malaysia Airlines had never lost a plane before, Wise argues. And then they lost two in four months! Surely this was not a coincidence? And surely the link has something to do with Russia!
For viewers with sense, this is where the show overshoots the runway and crashes. Episode 3 is there to capture whatever gullible slice of viewership is left after the disaster. If you fell for that one, surely you will fall for this one, too, and it is even better because it hates America.
Which is a shame, because this was a missed opportunity. A serious documentarian would have built on the strong first episode by interviewing experts who could unravel the various conspiracy theories around MH370.
Of course, this is Netflix, which has an eight-part series of Graham Hancock travelling the world to be wrong about geology and archaeology and the time-space continuum.
A serious treatment of Zaharie Ahmad Shah could win awards. It would surely disturb the hell out of viewers. Instead, Louise Malkinson has created a silly entertainment that misleads viewers from the most likely culprit and feeds the paranoid fever-swamp with all its favorite impossibilities.
Blaine Gibson, the globetrotting adventurer who found pieces of MH370 on the shores of Madagascar, right where tide and current charts had predicted he might find them, is the best part of the show. Flicking aside the conspiracy theories, Gibson comes across as the real hero of the piece. Here too, Malkinson has missed the chance to tell a very interesting story, about the search for MH370 in greater depth, so that the ‘hijacker theory’ and the ‘intercept theory’ get equal time with truth. That is what passes for documentary ethics at Netflix.
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