My Mea Culpa on Flight 370

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June 17 2014 8:23 AM

My MH370 Mea Culpa

How I went wrong in my analysis of the missing airliner.

Search for MH370.
Military personnel search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 near Vietnam's Tho Chu island on March 10, 2014.

Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing this past March, Slate asked me to cover the peculiar news event. I happily obliged. Two days after my first piece ran, the story took a remarkable turn. The Malaysian government announced that signals received by Inmarsat indicated that the plane had wound up somewhere on a broad arc running from the southern Indian Ocean to Central Asia. The consensus reaction to this stunning news was that it had most likely gone south, into the sea. I weighed the evidence and filed a story arguing that it had more likely gone north. My editor was skeptical. Publishing my claim meant going out on a limb, but I felt that it was a risk worth taking. To ease her concerns, I promised that if I turned out to be wrong, I would write a public apology.

This is that apology.

To be fully honest, I am not super sorry to have blown the call. As Paul Krugman observed last Friday in a mea culpa of his own, there are degrees of wrongness. Krugman differentiates mistakes that arise from a fundamental error in one’s model from those that spring from simple bad luck. In fact, I would put my own mistake about MH370 into a third category: mistakes in which one knows that one has erred but can’t say why.

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As I wrote last week, Inmarsat has by now leaked enough clues about MH370’s electronic Inmarsat “handshakes” that outsiders can now understand why, mathematically, the plane must have gone south. Yet we still have not a single clue as to what sequence of events might have taken it there. MH370 looks to be a unique case not just in aviation history. No machine this big, no group of human beings this large, vanished so completely and so mysteriously since the advent of modern technology. What’s more, MH370 didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

The first disappearance, of course, was when it vanished from air traffic controllers’ screens in the early morning hours of March 8, apparently after someone turned off its transponder and automatic status-reporting equipment, and took a hard left turn. Based on the speed and precision of its navigation, the plane almost certainly was under human control.

The second disappearance occurred about an hour later, as the plane slipped beyond the range of military radar. Minutes later, some kind of unknown event caused the plane to transmit a mysterious triple burst of electronic signals to the Inmarsat satellite. At around the same time, the plane took another radical course change, pivoting from a northwest heading toward mainland Asia to a southwestern course that would take it over western Indonesia and out into the open ocean. Based on the slim evidence of subsequent Inmarsat pings, the plane seems to have flown in a simple straight line, so it may not have been under human control at that point.

Then it disappeared a third and final time, this time leaving not a single clue.

What has made the case so difficult to understand isn’t just the scarcity of information concerning its fate, but the superabundance of false clues. In the months that followed the disappearance, I had a front row seat to the flood of bad data. The day my first piece for Slate came out, I was asked to go on CNN, and more or less every day for the next two months I went on air four to six times a day, helping to cover every twist and turn in the saga. (I’m still under contract to the network.) I’m well aware that CNN’s zealousness in covering the story has received its share of ridicule, but for me it was an exhilarating, wild ride, one I've likened to having a baby: You’re exhausted and overwhelmed, but at the same time possessed with the sense of being enveloped in an extraordinary and life-changing experience.

Day by day, new developments would come in from sources all around the world, and my fellow analysts and I would try to explain them on air, on the fly. Making our job harder was the fact that in breaking news, a certain fraction of the developments are going to turn out to be erroneous. What to make of reports that the plane had climbed to 45,000 feet after its initial turn, then precipitously dived (faster, it turned out, than the laws of physics would allow)? How excited should we be about the debris that satellites had spotted floating in the southern Indian Ocean (yet never was to be seen again)? How soon before searchers tracked down the sounds coming from the black box acoustic pingers (which turned out not to have come from the black boxes at all)?

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