What happened to the Malaysian plane?

I have read many of the accounts and I am following this story with interest.  As to what happened, I don’t care to hazard a very particular guess.  But I wish to make a general point about puzzles.  When an event appears extremely puzzling, there are often a few ways out:

1. One or more of the agents in the story has a capacity to behave more irrationally than you might think.  Even if you believe people are reasonably rational, by examining a puzzle you are to some extent selecting for a situation with irrational behavior from some of the participants.  And sometimes the line between irrational behavior and totally incompetent behavior is a thin one or it is absent altogether.

2. Our own ability to use the argument from exclusion (it cannot be A, B, or C, therefore only D remains) to reach reliable conclusions is extremely dubious and limited.

3. There are more conspiracies than we are usually aware of, and sometimes these conspiracies shape events.

I tend to favor #1 and #2 over #3. The core insight perhaps is that it is easier for coordinated events to fail to happen than to happen.  That does not explain what went on, but it does slant me away from some of the more extreme (and worrying) scenarios.

The fate of the plane and its passengers is of course a matter of intrinsic interest.  But I also find interesting the question of whether a social scientist, or an economist, should have a systematically different interpretation of what might be going on, if only stochastically.  And if we don’t…what good are we?



in all likelihood it probably crashed somewhere in the indian ocean

we'll probably have a better idea of fate of the plane within the next month when wreckage, articles of clothing or boddies wash up

A few nations might end up looking quite stupid. Asian Air Defense radar looks like a bit of a joke. Irrespective of what direction it flew.

If you can't spot a relatively slow & huge passenger aircraft what chance do you have with a modern enemy fighter plane?

This reminds of the period immediately after the Cold War. We got a close look at Soviet defense systems and found that a lot of it was crap. In retrospect, it was a miracle they did not accidentally launch an ICBM.

This reminds of the period immediately after the Cold War. We got a close look at Soviet defense systems and found that a lot of it was crap. In retrospect, it was a miracle they did not accidentally launch an ICBM

That is why, if there was any justice in this world, Stanislav Petrov (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov) would have automatically win the Nobel Peace Prize each year and there would be statues of him in every town square.

Petrov himself explains why he didn't save the world that day. He knew that the computer system had made that type of error earlier in the year and was all but certain there was a computer error again as the US would never launch a strike against the Soviet Union with just 4 missiles. In additions, there were back ups beyond Petrov's post.

We just got a look at our own defense systems recently. It's amazing, apparently, that WE didn't launch an ICBM.


Guys like Phil are fascinating to me. His self-loathing is all-consuming. The sub-topic here is about how the Soviet's technology was shockingly bad, but we only learned it after the Cold War. Phil, always gripped with hatred of himself, his coevals and his culture jumps in with a poor example that is supposed to be an antidote (I suppose) to what looks to him like jingoistic bragging.

There's no analog in history to the suicidal self-hatred we see from the Left. Fanaticism in the Christian era was channeled toward a celebration of humanity. Suicidal sects were suppressed. Islam has a lot of suicide, but it is to please Allah. Pagan cults that practiced human sacrifice were doing so to benefit humanity by pleasing the gods.

What's unique about modern times is not the presence of suicide cults. It's that one of them runs civilization.

There's no self-hatred there. It's self-aggrandizement through the avenue of denigrating people outside you're social circle. (The 'one uppers, Thomas Sowell called them).


Why are you jumping on Phil for pointing out a FASCINATING book on the tremendous number of near-miss, almost catastrophic accidents in the nuclear weapons program?

Read "Command and Control" before you criticize Phil. We've learned a LOT about the Cold War "defense" efforts thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and Schlosser weaves it all together into a readable and thought-provoking tale that leaves one thankful to be alive.

Why? Because Phil's reaction is stereotyped, as is Eric Schlosser.

The point of 'investigative reporting' is to find scandal. If there is no scandal, you've got no book. Everything about Schlosser's associations (contributes to Rolling Stone and The Nation suggests he views the world with a particular template. Read John Leo on journalist's templates. It takes unusual force and abrasion to break them.

And what is the template? Among other things, a disrespect for the military and a desire to tear them down. You did not enter journalism as a career in 1985 and set up shop as a contributor to The Nation if that was not one of your baselines. The Nation is a pure example of a publication produced by and for Sowell's one-uppers. They have no true perspective on public policy. They exemplify the attitude that Scott Nearing was willing to put into stark words: we are excellent people at a post of duty amongst crass and vulgar and brutal people.

If you read The Nation during the years Schlosser was a tyro contributor, you will never believe the thesis and the conclusion of the book antedated any research he did.


Did what @Z wrote about the Soviets count towards your "self-aggrandizement through the avenue of denigrating people outside you’re social circle" metric?

Rahul is right, over the following days people will acknowledge about how poorly executed is air defense in several countries. Lack of equipment or 1 to 7 AM is out of working hours?

Alternatively the air defense system might have been working too well, and someone blasted the plane out of the sky, realized their error, and then covered it up

Couple of problems with this: First plane was pinging around for ~6 hours. So even if shot down it'd have to be after 6 hrs. The previous history is hard to explain away.

Also, when faced with an unidentified radar blip, typical protocol is to scramble jets not just shoot it down. Contacting Malaysian Airlines would seem a natural reaction.

Good points. I think any of the outcomes seem unlikely at this point, so anything is going to sound like a stretch I think.

Back when the Soviets shot down KAL007, they did go up and get a good look at it, they it just took one general just not really giving a shit to shoot it down.

1) Maintaining secrecy after the fact would be impossible. Even in the PLA air force (remember, the Soviets admitted to the KLA one). You'd have to come clean before someone talked, comms got intercepted/decrypted, or the wreckage was found to incriminate you.
2) Doesn't explain why transponder etc switched off..... we can dispense with the explanation at this point.

This is true, but most militaries aren't exactly on a state of high alert and manning every post during peacetime.

Generally speaking, militaries don't maintain a very high state of readiness in areas they think an attack is not going to come from.

This is true, but most militaries aren’t exactly on a state of high alert and manning every post during peacetime

True, but given that the South China Sea is one of the most strategically contentious places in the world right now, one might think there would be a high state of alert. The hypothesis you noted above (over-zealous SAMs) may have something to do with it -- it certainly wouldn't be the first time (e.g. the USS VIncennes incident, KL007 (although that was an air-to-air intercept, but still similar.)) If someone's air defences were to take down a passenger jet, the guilty party wouldn't exactly be in a hurry to take responsibility.

They could never cover it up. You just couldn't. Signals, wreckage, radar, and aircrew....it would leak almost at once.

Folks, if you want an actually intelligent discussion thread on this issue, please go to the lengthy and highly informative threads on AIRLINERS.NET which is populated with industry insiders, plenty of airline personnel, and aerospace folks. The discussion on here is almost comical in comparison as there is virtually no relevant expertise.

The core insight perhaps is that it is easier for coordinated events to fail to happen than to happen.

This is true, if limited as it fails to explain how much less probable it is that such events will go as planned, but even if this mystery turns out not to be among the latter it could be among the former. If it was a conspiracy it need not have been successful.

It certainly seems like something got flubbed. Ditching a plane in the ocean is a lame outcome to any (suicide/ransom/terror/hijacking/defection) plan. What if the plane was hijacked, intercepted and fired at, and then flew on autopilot for 5 hours after cabin depressurization killed all on board. The Malaysians were suspiciously adamant in their denial of the radar data.


Government incompetence and coverup is much more likely than some elaborate conspiracy.

yes, +1

#3 in the OP is trivially true: by definition conspiracies aren't widely known. But there is way more incompetence in the world (public and private) than we like to realize. Conspiracy theories arise from the urge to track events back to a rational and competent planner, good or evil. But it may be screwups all around.

On the last question, one might hope that social scientists would be especially aware of the unreliability of data, and skeptical of inherited stylized facts. One might hope.

I think the argument from the 'core insight' is that true conspiracies are likely to be rather rare. If conspiracies were quite common many of them would fail and we'd then know about them. Yet how often have we heard about elaborate Ocean's 11 type conspiracies coming to light when their long chains of coordinated events go FUBAR?

This is pretty close to Ocean's 11.


I agree with the general sentiment — I do think conspiracies are relatively rare because we're just not that good at keeping stuff secret, but as conspiracies go:
"The US government is selling weapons to it's sworn enemy, Iran, and uses the revenues to go against the explicity will of Congress to finance Nicaraguan terrorists"
sounded pretty ludicrous, too.

History is full of extremely consequential conspiracies that achieved at least some of their goals. Consider assassinations alone: Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

If the conspiracy was to fly the jetliner someplace and land it, it doesn't sound that difficult--beyond what we know they already accomplished.

We know the plane made some turns and flew along normal routes, so it was in the hands of a competent pilot. A competent pilot should be able to easily fly a circuitous route and navigate to wherever he wants to go. The only problems that could happen would be the normal very low chance of mechanical problems. Or the plane could have been shot down. Normally in a shoot-down scenario, there would be warnings on the guard frequency to turn, land, reply or be shot-down etc. Other planes would have heard these demands.

I suspect it made it to wherever the responsible party wanted it to go.

This would require a 'long chain of coordinated events'. The pilot would need to get rid of the the other pilot, or both would have to be in on it together. You'd have to coordinate where you were going to land which means have people on the ground in the foreign country and arrange to have some type of airstrip of some sort. You'd have to have a foreign gov't in in it to ensure that their air defenses don't raise the alarm. Once on the ground you'd need people to handle the rest of the people on the plane. Of course we aren't even getting to what the purpose of this whole elaborate effort to steal the plan is for. That would be pretty 'Oceans Eleven' and offer lots of weak points in the chain where the plan could either fall apart or at least end up surfacing after the fact.

On the other hand consider a suicidal pilot who just decided to take the plane off course and then ditch it into the ocean. The only problem I see would be the rest of the crew and co-pilot.

One problem with the suicidal pilot theory: Why hasn't the ELT triggered after the ditching? I'm not 100% sure on this but lots of EPIRB's and similar devices trigger on salt water contact or the high G-forces of impact.

Admittedly suicidal minds can be quite irrational but still it's quite a stretch to imagine why a suicidal pilot would take such deep and complex evasive measures & a 6 hour detour.

And why fly towards Australia instead of the middle of the Indian Ocean?

I guess it doesn't really matter - in either case everyone's going to die.

It would require that long a chain of events. If terrorist groups could pull 9/11 off, I don't see why they couldn't hijack an airplane and take it somewhere. Basically all it takes is a pilot willing to do so, a place to land, and people on the ground to assist. Of the three, the only one difficult to obtain would be the pilot. You could do it with fewer people than were involved in 9/1, and the co-conspirators aren't even facing death. AQ has operations in Aceh, about 600 miles from where 370 went missing, and local police have been accused of (and prosecuted for) assisting them. I have no idea what happened to 370, but taking it to someplace like that and storing it, for whatever reason, is much easier than people seem to believe.

Wouldn't the plane be found faster is there were some kind of large monetary reward or bounty for finding it?

Screening out false claims is already problematic enough with the sole reward of fame.

Well I enjoyed that, PA.

Our ability to guess what 200+ people in confined space might have done is limited.

Yet we are led to believe that our ability to positively influence productive millions by fiddling with meaninglesss statist policies is not.

Incentives matter. Markets in everything. What was in the cargo?

Four tonnes of mangosteens, apparently. Not really grand theft material.

Ah, a mangosteen addict, like this guy (RIP)


If mangosteens were still illegal to import to the US, then maybe it could have been a mangosteen smuggling operation or a theft. They are delicious, after all. They were legalized in 2007, though.

I don't understand the fascination with this story. A pilot went rogue, and then crashed the plane in a big ocean. Surprising, and the loss of the plane in a big ocean makes it seem mysterious, but ultimately there is not that much going on here. But people love this stuff (It's like Lost in real life!), so the media is flogging it.

I find it fascinating precisely because it is like "Lost" in real life. It is quite understandable, our fascination.

Frankly, I find the fascination with this much more understandable than the endless fascination with talentless, d-list celebrities.

That's just rude.

It will become more fascinating if the plane is never found, which is a distinct possibility. There have been previous ships and planes that disappeared, but this will top them all. 100 years from now, people will still be talking about this plane.

it's interesting because with all this technology we cannot find the plane

it would see inconceivable that a commercial airplane can just vanish without a trace

Looks like the world is bigger than we thought and has more empty places.

Time to revise priors.

Because he had to do a lot of work to crash it into the ocean (if that's what happened). Why would he want to crash it into the Indian Ocean when he could've just crashed it as soon as he deviated from the original course? And he didn't crash it into anything else as near as we can tell, so a 9/11 airplane-as-missile scenario doesn't seem to have been the plan either. It's entirely possible that he didn't crash this plane at all. Which brings up the question, why would someone want to steal an airliner? And be willing to kidnap or kill 200+ people to do so? Since we have not heard from anyone on the plane, it is not unreasonable to think that they are all dead, but what if they're not? And where does one hide an airliner?

Furthermore, since we all fly and want it to be safe, was it one pilot who overpowered/killed the rest of the cockpit crew, or were several working together? Did he then depressurize the passenger area and kill everyone (so that no one would make phone calls or try to take the cabin etc...) or did they all live? What does this say about airline safety? How can we prevent this in the future (especially if we never know what happened) ?

Worst case scenario is that someone has an airliner and plans to use it to do something very bad - possibly worse than 9/11. And they may succeed. So, that's why everyone is interested in it.

From what we've been hearing, it seems like the airliner system is set up to track airspace, not planes. When a plane enters an airspace, it's identified and tracked. When it leaves it's forgotten about and assumed the next airspace will pick it up.

This makes me skeptical of the 'use the plane later for something bad' theory. If 6 months from now a 747 suddenly appears in, say, Japan's airspace heading for Toyko it's going to raise a lot of red flags pretty fast...esp. if that plane has no record of recently taking off from a previous airport. If this was the plan then why not just do your 'something bad' once you got the plane rather than going through the whole script of landing it and trying to get it off the ground again?

I don't know. Perhaps the plan is to bluff long enough to make a military response impossible. If a plane shows up in Japan's airspace, will they know which plane it is? How long will they have to figure out that this is not an authorized airplane before there is a bomb over Tokyo?

Maybe 6 months from now a plane takes off from Australia and then it is blown up or crashes. Then, this newly stolen plan arrives in Japanese airspace at exactly the time that other one is expected and claims to be that plane. Then...boom.

Or maybe it's not Japan, but some country with much more limited defenses.

I would not have thought that anyone could or would steal an airliner. So I probably haven't thought of what they would do with it.

Again this seems like a lot of coordinated events that have to happen in a precise sequence. If you can blow up a plane from Austraila and then 'substitute' the missing 747 for it why not simply hijack the plane from Austrailia to begin with? Imagine what would happen if the flight happens to get cancelled the day your suppose to pull off this elaborate 'swap'? Or if the bomb fails to go off and two planes show up in Japan's airspace at once?

why not simply hijack the plane from Austrailia to begin with?

And do what with it? If they want to put a bomb or zombies on the airplane or something, they have to land it some place. If the plan were to simply hijack a plane, they've done that.

Put a bomb on the plane? Why? Unless you're talking about a nuke, the plane itself is a pretty good bomb. If you happen to have a nuke, I suspect there would be better ways to try to smuggle it into the airspace of some country you want to target

A plane is a pretty good bomb. But a plane with a bomb inside it, is an even better bomb. Also, what are these better ways to smuggle nukes into a country's airspace? I'm asking for a friend.

>Also, what are these better ways to smuggle nukes into a country’s airspace?

Hide the nuke inside a shipment of marijuana. It'll find it's way in on its own.

I remember when the aircraft carrying golfer Payne Stewart depressurized as it reached its maximum flying altitude, the two pilots and passengers (Stewart and two others) became unconscious, and the aircraft continued to fly for hours until finally running out of fuel and crashing, though not before military jets intercepted the aircraft and observers everywhere offered all manner of crazy theories on the rogue aircraft.

Ah, but had he turned off the transponder while that happened? And executed a turn? Or two? And switched off the ACARS?

And flown with nap of the earth radar evasion tactics?

Most probable scenario: pilot simulates depressurization. See below. All passengers, since jumbo was flown to a very high altitude, would be dead or incapacitated. Then, he either (1) flies to Afghanistan (north arc not south arc, unlikely), or, he and co-pilot, die together after joy ride. Instead of co-pilot and pilot, you can substitute crazy suicidal passenger. However, see also this Indonesian SilkAir jumbo jet suicide: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SilkAir_Flight_185 where apparently one of the flight officers saw an old flame as a passenger, and, being in dire financial straits, may have committed suicide with her together, just to spite her family (speculation).

Note simulating depressurization is not the same as actual depressurization, since in the latter, the plane is on auto-pilot (see below), which does not appear to be the case.

Possible reasons for suicide, in order of probability. In some of these scenarios one pilot would have to kill the other, with a weapon, which is easy to do since pilots not checked for weapons: (1) co-pilot, who was 'contemplating marriage' (or suicide, as an old joke might put it), decided to die. I recall a fine young man (has happened many times) jumped from a building, while his family watched, on I think it was rehearsals for his wedding (if memory serves). Co-pilot would shoot pilot in head with concealed weapon before doing this--but why fly plane for several hours, possibly with passengers already dead from lack of pressure (the plane was taken to a high altitude)? maybe to cover his tracks to make it look more accidental? To hide the plane from search and rescue better?, (2) pilot and co-pilot die together for religious terrorism reasons, (3) pilot and co-pilot romantically involved


Helios Airways Flight 522 was a scheduled Helios Airways passenger flight that crashed into a mountain on 14 August 2005 at 12:04 pm EEST, north of Marathon and Varnavas, Greece, whilst flying from Larnaca, Cyprus to Athens, Greece. A lack of oxygen incapacitated the crew, leading to the aircraft's eventual crash after running out of fuel. Rescue teams located the wreckage near the community of Grammatiko, 40 km (25 mi) from Athens. All 115 passengers and 6 crew on board the aircraft were killed.

The aircraft continued to climb until it leveled off at FL340, approximately 34,000 feet (10,000 m).[12] Between 09:30 and 09:40, Nicosia ATC repeatedly attempted to contact the aircraft, without success.[12] At 09:37, the aircraft passed from Cyprus Flight Information Region (FIR) into Athens FIR, without making contact with Athens ATC.[12] Nineteen attempts to contact the aircraft between 10:12 and 10:50 also met with no response,[14] and at 10:40 the aircraft entered the holding pattern for Athens Airport, at the KEA VHF omnidirectional range, still at FL340.[15] It remained in the holding pattern, under control of the auto-pilot, for the next seventy minutes.[15]

What's interesting to me is the contradictions. One the one hand, we have the claim that the US government is reading everyone's e-mail and listening to their phone calls. Yet, they can't keep track of a flying ship the size of a football field filled with communications gear. Then we have the claims about US and Chinese control of the sea lanes and airspace around the pacific rim. Those claims don't comport with a slow moving pile of metal vanishing from sight.

As to what happened, we can probably eliminate explosion, crashing into the South China Sea and magic. Aliens and hijacking remain on the table.

Emails and phone calls go through a small number of undersea cables, and pass through a small number of Internet exchanges. They are generally alleged to be tapped there, not from wireless signals blanketing the globe. That's very different from free movement in two or three dimensions. Nothing contradictory whatsoever.

The email and phone call analogy would be if the plane somehow landed at an international airport, and no one noticed.

Maybe it is because of what I do for a living, but making sense of billions of billions of e-mails strikes me as infinitely more difficult than tracking airplanes. I've always been skeptical of the e-mail reading claims on technological grounds. The fact that we can't keep track of giant slow moving piles of metal makes me more skeptical.

One big difference is Moore's Law. Has helped like hell for making sense of piles of emails. OTOH the inverse fourth power relationship for strength of a passive radar ping is a pretty unforgiving limitation.

Scanning billions of emails for keywords of interest is child's play with today's technology.

Natural language processing, which goes beyond simple keywords and actually does some deciphering of meaning, as also within reach. Not for every email, but a significant percentage after some initial screening.

I don't see anything unbelievable about this.

Actually if the US Government could track any plane in the world, they'd most likely want to keep that knowledge close to the vest. Better to discreetly point the search in the right direction than to be very obvious and give away the fact we're tracking everything all the time.

Not sure why the US government would care about tracking an Indonesian plane unless it was in vicinity of our airspace. The question is: why couldn't they track it?

Well, it was pretty much revealed that we (Boeing) builds in the ability to track the plane live via satellite.

They sell this as a subscription service to airlines, but Malaysian Air didn't subscribe to it. OK, but the basic functionality was still running.

My guess is that even if Malaysian Air doesn't subscribe to that service, the US Government probably does. They obviously aren't going to broadcast that fact, however, so they, and Boeing, will say the plane was only submitting "handshake" information rather than the full monty of location, speed, etc.

There are probably now heads of state, oligarchs, etc, demanding that that hardware be removed.

I suspect so

i wonder what are the odds of finding wreckage in the ocean if the plane crashed directly into it at full speed in a nose dive?

Fairly high, actually. A high speed impact would cause the plane to splinter into a bazillion pieces, many less dense than salt water. A soft landing where the plane takes on water and sinks to the bottom is going to leave the least amount of evidence.

And an oil slick. And an ELT activation. And 30 days underwater beacon from the FDR / CVR.

Is it less dense than salt water? I recall when 'Sully's' plane landed gently in the Hudson River it had sunk after only a few hours and those were under ideal conditions. If the plane was in full nose dive mode I could imagine it hitting the water at over 600mph going straight down or even faster. Even if the plane broke up into many pieces those pieces would plough pretty deep into the ocean, would they really spring back up to the surface or would they just keep sinking at some point?

I know some pieces will be lighter than water and will end up floating, ditto for an 'oil slick' but look the ocean is a huge, huge place.

The plane as a whole would sink, which is what I said. Broken into a billion pieces, most would float. Well, a large enough number will float. The chairs, the bits of aluminum skin attached to insulation, the plastic bits, etc. The bigger issue is the under water listening devices we have all over the Indian ocean. Diego Garcia is a major listening post for the US Navy. They would have heard the thud.

They would have heard the thud? Well we know the earth is bombarded with small meteorites every day which means 2/3 or so would be expected to hit the water. Does the listening post regularly hear 'thuds' day in day out and just has to sort through them? Or is it listening more for the sounds of subs?

I agree about the floating debris bit.

I don't agree about hearing the thud. Unless it felt bang in your vicinity, the impact will probably be drowned in the background noise & grossly attenuated by the time it reaches a listening device.

In a high speed impact, this would be much more like hitting a brick wall than jumping into the local pool. It wouldn't plow into the ocean and maintain its momentum; it would be stopped at near water level and blow apart.

It got a shiny, new El Al paint job, the passenger seats were removed to make room for the cargo, er, device.

^ Yes, unfortunately I completely agree with you. No one would go through the trouble of turning off the ACARS and transponder transmissions and subsequently following established air routes unless they were going somewhere specific. There were plenty of opportunities for pilot suicide without the subterfuge.

No kidding. Based on the current media reports, it is quite clear that an experienced pilot has stolen a 777. Transponders were manually disabled at separate times, and the plane kept flying and turning for at least seven hours. This was clearly not an accident or a suicide.

What fascinates me is how much of the media adamantly refuses to connect the dots they have laid out. The Boston Globe was recently saying "Maybe it was a meteor!!!" God in heaven. Anything to avoid the T-Word, what with al-Qaeda being "on the run" and all.

Pray that the guy crashed it or was shot down. If not, this plane will be in the news again, I guarantee it.

"This plane will be in the news again, I guarantee it."

And so will the pilot. Whomever has this plane also has a pilot who is willing and capable of committing extreme acts to accomplish his mission. (But it could have been the copilot.)

It could have been another pilot altogether, who was either a passenger or a stowaway.

I realize Al Qaeda isn't exactly swimming in liquid cash these days, but surely leasing a 777 or hijacking a cargo plane would have been dramatically easier?

Perhaps that is easier, I don't know. But someone has just proven that you can pluck a 777 out of the sky, for free. And seven days later, no one will have any idea what actually happened. Indeed, the western media will be avoiding the subject of your crime completely. That should horrify you.

I hope he crashed. I hope the Chinese or someone else shot him down and are now just covering their tracks. But these are just hopes.

I agree it is a possibility, even maybe the most probable, but thinking it out until the end, where could they have landed it without a single soul noticing and telling someone? You can't exactly land a 777 just anywhere.

There are abandoned military airfields all over the world. Many of them probably, all you have to do is scrape the layer of dirt off it and chase off the goats.

And how do you explain no radar noticing it on the way?

I'm not an air-traffic controller but I have a pilot license and was allowed to visit my local air traffic control facility and chat with the guys. As I understand it (and I might be wrong), the air traffic control radars do not pick up airplanes (at least not very well), they pick up transponders. No transponder, no big blip with altitude, course, and speed. Which is why if your plane doesn't have a mode C transponder you're not allowed to enter most of the super-crowded airspaces because they just can't see you.


I meant military radar, not civilian. Those ought to notice, transponder or no transponder.

You are right about needing a transponder for civilian ATC but even without you still get a radar spot just no accurate speed, altitude, ID etc. I could be wrong.

Abandoned military airfields, yes, but wholly forgotten and uncharted ones? Because within a day of that incident, high-resolution satellite photographs of every known or suspected suitable runway within reach of of Malaysian 370 will have been on the (virtual) desk of every intelligence officer looking into the hijack/theft/terrorist theory. You'd need a hangar big enough to hide a 777, in a place where either nobody will see or where everyone who will see can be trusted to keep quiet.

Which is to say, you'd probably need a government, or a sizeable chunk of one, as part of your imagined conspiracy.

Hiding it from satellites should be laughably easy actually. Camouflage netting, nearby trees and bushes, etc.

Avoiding radar all the way to the destination and refueling, on the other hand...

We're well into Die Hard / Oceans 11 levels of implausibility...

You don't have to leave it at that first runway. You could refuel and take off quite quickly if you had supplies pre-positioned. Probably long before one of the small number of spy satellites passed overhead. Maybe certainly if you new the orbital elements. Then you could be anywhere. And if you're going to posit pre-positioned fuel trucks, maybe you could posit that they made the runway with earth-moving equipment, so it wouldn't be anywhere the spy satellites knew to look. They'd have time to plow it into the earth when they were done with it.

I'm making things up here. This sounds ridiculously sophisticated. Close to needing a government's involvement.

Also, keep in mind that the market value for a stolen 777 is about the same as the market value for a stolen Mona Lisa, for about the same reason. Boeing, among others, tracks every single 777 ever made - and has a monopoly on some of the parts a thief would need to keep his stolen bird in the air.

I won't say it is impossible to find a profitable use for a stolen widebody jet, but it's a pretty tall order. The only case I know of where a jet airliner was "successfully" stolen was a nigh-antiquated 727 owned by an air freight company in darkest Africa, and that was more of an insurance fraud thing where all the thieves had to do to cash in was hide it in a hangar. And even then they were discovered in a month or so IIRC. Until Malaysian 370 is found, every 777 that parks in a hangar that didn't house a 777 last week, every order for 777 parts from a new customer, is going to have people asking questions for which the quickly provable answer is, "that isn't one of the 1,177 legitimate 777s that aren't Malaysian 370..."

Is it even possible to land a plane in the ocean? Is there any reasonable chance someone has survived? I'm surprised that we don't know more. Have you seen Lost? Or Gravity? It always seems that it is so easy to survive. Yet we never see any lucky survivors. Maybe this is where our personal bias comes from - we invent stories that are highly unlikely just because we saw them in some movie.

News of this little-publicized incident might not have reached here, but it demonstrated the possibility of a river landing:


nope. those safety manuals and life preserver seats are just for aesthetics

It's less well-known than the landing in the Hudson but more than half of the passengers on Tuninter 1153 survived a water landing in the middle of the Mediterranean.

So many far right conspiracies circulating.There are fools who actually blame obama for this.

You should probably think about getting a CAT scan.

Or a DOG scan!


Yours was the first I saw. I guess we now know where far right conspiracies come from.

Social science? Back in time, Perrow made an interesting discussion about accidents and warnings in complex systems after the Three Mile Island incident. http://www.penelopeironstone.com/Perrow.pdf Perhaps a little biased but it brings rationality into the analysis of "irrational" events.

Abusing from my hindsight bias, I'd say all this mess is an engineering design fault. Why the system that allows to locate a plane can be turned off in a flying plane? I understand the utility of turning it off while landed to avoid crowding the land receptors with useless signals, but while flying? What was the Boeing engineer thinking?

The pilot as yet is given ultimate control as a design principle, at least in theory. Perhaps our new robotic overlords will change that, based on this incident.

Maybe the secondary transponder goes haywire, shorts out and starts emitting RF interference that blocks radio contact. Gotta be able to shut it down.

Why the system that allows to locate a plane can be turned off in a flying plane?

All electrical devices on a plane need an off switch in case of an electrical fault. And, even if it didn't have an off switch, it would still be on a circuit breaker.

The Boeing engineer was thinking that A: turning it off while landed is indeed a useful capability to have, and B: electrical fires happen. For both of these reasons, you absolutely need to have either an "off" switch or a circuit braker on the relevant circuit. If you are imagining that there should also be HAL-9000 saying, "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't let you do that - my sensors say we are still flying and that there isn't an electrical fire, so I'm going to ignore the off switch", I think you grossly overestimate the intelligence and common sense of computers. There will, from time to time, be real disagreement between the pilot and the computer as to e.g. whether the airplane is flying or not, on fire or not. However obvious it may be to you that nobody can get that one wrong, well, robots can and do get that one wrong.

While I totally agree with your point, it's ironic that in any given flight it's entirely possible (I think) that there's a location tracker that the pilot indeed can never turn off: GPS based, stand alone tracking pods in your cargo bay.

I think some high value, time critical shipments these days travel with these brick sized global tracking devices. That the pilot would technically have no way to turn off in flight (unless there's a rule against such devices in cargo? Not sure).

So all Boeing would have to do is to provide an independent power source perhaps? A rechargeable swappable battery maybe?

It's really a need based thing. Post Malaysian I suspect most planes will get such retrofits.

Any radio transmitter in the cargo bay will not send a message beyond the cargo bay, because radio waves do not penetrate electrical conductors like the aluminum skin of the aircraft.

"but it does slant me away from some of the more extreme (and worrying) scenarios"

Someone has almost certainly murdered 230 people. What more extreme scenario are you worried about:
1) the plane was carrying a deadly virus and was shot down by the authorities to contain the virus?
2) the plane and all its passengers have been abducted by aliens?

This seems most likely to either be a suicide by one of the aircrew or a hijacking gone wrong. There may still be some small chance of it being a mechanical failure.

Negligible chance of pure mechanical failure. You'd have to explain away (a) transponder switch off, (b) Why ACARS was switched off early in flight (c ) Why flight kept flying around for 6 hours after last transmission.

Progressive failure of electronic systems which initially goes undetected. Pilots realize there is a problem and try to turn back. System failures lead to pilot unconsciousness in a locked cockpit. Airplane flies on auto-pilot until it runs out of fuel.

Did he turn back? If it was on auto-pilot then it made some pretty crazy "auto" turns and flight paths.

I may be wrong but I think we know now that the ACARS was shut off (as opposed to a sudden power out failure mode). I think there's a bit of a logoff protocol & that was completed. A bit earlier than even the last ATC contact.

True or False:

If commandeered to a successful landing, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 stands a good chance of reappearing on radar screens one day soon following its refueling, with or without its former complement of passengers and crew.

Reappearance of the 777 jet (with or without its Malaysia Airlines markings) would likely mean that the airliner has been weaponized in some fashion.

Tragic outcomes may have not yet begun to ensue, by this view, and it will be up to air and naval personnel in the region to limit the intended severity of an attack.


1) If the plane was commandeered and successfully landed, it may all have been for the purpose of murdering a passenger, stealing some cargo or stripping the plane for parts so only a 50/50 chance of it reappearing (assuming a successful landing, which itself seems exceedingly remote)

2) 80% chance given the assumptions

3) If it is used as a weapon, the only sensible target within range is probably Hawaii (or an American aircraft carrier) and the chances of a successful attack seem exceedingly remote.

This airplane is at the bottom of an ocean somewhere.

Agreed, a 777 isn't like a Toyota Camry, you can't part it out and ship it to Mexico. Every part is identified and catalogued, and requires specialized knowledge to install and service. Not to mention factory support at every step.

When hijacking a plane, there seem to be only three options:
1. Terrorist attack (plane as missile).
2. Ransom
3. Suicide with lots of company

1&2 are highly unlikely; you'd get shot down. #3, unfortunately, pretty easy.

If this was merely a dramatic suicide by the pilot, co-pilot or a hijacker, the tricky thing to explain is why the plane continued flying for so long. Once you have control of the aircraft, why take a joyride? Why not just nosedive like the Egypt Air flight?
It also seems like a gratuitous step to disable the transponder if all you are looking to do is crash. Even assuming some degree of irrationality here, the step seems too purposeful if your goal is simply to destroy the plane.

My current favorite is 1 or 2 gone wrong. You'd think suicide would involve something more dramatic or some sort of tirade on the radio.

Ransom is something I hadn't thought of before. You have 230 hostages - and an airplane. Deliver bitcoins to this location....

But if the plane has landed (Better than 50% chance I'd say) then I think weaponization is the most likely purpose. They would never be able to hit an aircraft carrier or Diego Garcia (though that is an interesting target). But there are innumerable soft targets out there.

Landed where? Not necessarily what country, but what airport or landing area would allow a plane of that size to land with not a single soul noticing telling someone that would eventually get out? Its at the bottom of the ocean with a better than 95% I would say.

That is an excellent question.


So while the mystery hangs in the air, so to speak, we face two options: the plane crashed (or: was destroyed in mid-air) for whatever reason or it landed intact (with or without its passengers).

If the plane crashed for whatever reason, searchers have two targets to account for but so far have not located either a crash scene or a (separate or separating) debris field. Having enlarged the scope of search, the search parameters are now being reduced and refined. Oceanographic resources may need to be activated to scan the ocean depths, but searching the deep ocean in earnest could take months simply to organize and reach assignments.

Meanwhile, if the plane landed intact, the purpose for its commandeering was at least equally nefarious to if not more so than any crash scenario. Identifying culprits and intent in the short term may be fruitless: no claims of responsibility, no hostage or ransom demands have been made to date and seem not to be forthcoming. Passengers may or may not be dead. The "mystery" does not have to be resolved immediately, though, to give the perpetrators time to equip their air force of one as they see fit. The 777 could reappear any day now, through the weeks or months to come, though the risks of detection of the plot continue to rise through the period. All the more incentive for a relatively rapid utilization.

Most unfortunately, both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur stand as tempting targets for showcasing the perils of low-altitude 777 flight.

My own bias is towards a crash couple with local incompetence/corruption. We'll learn that the pilot or co-pilot was a well known lunatic. Or, the security is full of holes. Or, they have no idea how to track planes. The plane will be found under the ocean and eventually the truth will be revealed. That's my bias.

The longer it goes on, however, the more inclined I am toward to think the plane turns up somewhere on land. Perhaps it crashed into a remote area or was hijacked. The reason is the longer it goes on the more likely it is to find debris from a crash floating in the ocean. If nothing from the plane is found in a month, I will be inclined to accept the James Bond version of events.

The final words probably went something like this:

We are going to die........this will not be the end, we will live on in another life.

Yes, we will be forever immortalized as a simulator training sequence.

It may be worth distinguishing small-c conspiracies (involving a small number of conspirators) from big-c Conspiracies (involving hundreds or thousands of conspirators, large government agencies, etc.). Critiques of conspiracy theories are usually aimed at implausibly large ones (Area 51, etc.).

The question is: at what size does a conspiracy become implausible? What are the key variables (e.g., funding, # of distinct organizational cultures involved, etc.)?

*The question is: at what size does a conspiracy become implausible?*

When the number of people who have to keep their mouth shut > 25*.

* a number I pulled out of thin air.

That's actually not a bad guess.

On the theory that, if you want advice about conspirators you maybe ought to ask a successful conspirator, consider Osama Bin Laden and company. The original plan for 9/11 was ten hijacked airplanes, meaning about fifty hijackers plus logistical support personnel. OBL and company vetoed that one on the grounds that no way could that many people keep a secret, and downscaled it to twenty hijackers plus support. And one of the probable hijackers, while keeping his mouth shut, nontheless managed to get himself arrested under very suspicious circumstances - another like him, and there'd have been dots to connect.

Similarly, the "Bojinka" plot to down 11 airliners via simultaneous bombings, was successful in its proof-of-concept phases (a mall bombing and a single airliner), but failed when expanded to full scale. Again, it wasn't someone literally opening his mouth and spilling the beans, but ordinary carelessness leading to discovery.

My own educated-guess number is about forty conspirators, max. This assumes you need to keep the existence and/or essential nature of the conspiracy a secret. If it's something like the Mafia or the French Resistance or whatever, where everybody who matters knows approximately what is going on and why, you can maintain operations with an arbitrarily large number of conspirators by means of compartmentalization and redundancy.

Bletchley Park, the English "Ultra" facility for decoding German Engima messages, employed nearly 10,000 people by 1945. It was officially kept secret until 1974. I can recall that it was a very big deal when it was revealed after 29 years.

Did every single person who ever worked there keep their mouths shut for 29 years? Of course not. Did interested parties (e.g., French or Soviet intelligence) know about it? Sure. Did old WWII correspondents gossip about it over drinks? Probably.

Did average people like me know about it before it was revealed? No.

Right, but it's not the "average person" standard that matters, it's whether police and intelligence agencies have an approximate understanding of what's going on. Nazi, French, and Russian intelligence agencies understood that a bunch of British boffins were trying to break their codes; in that particular case it didn't really matter. But if the Malaysian police, or the CIA, have a vague understanding that the militant East Asian Pastafarian movement has been doing some heavy construction around an old abandoned Kreplachistani airbase for the past month, this mystery is pretty much over on day one even if the average person never knew about that part.

Also, "conspiracy" by definition refers to an illegal activity. Or at least one broadly considered nefarious in the society where it is taking place, in cases where there is doubt as to the relevant law. You can keep bigger secrets if you have all of society's enforcement mechanisms backing you up and silencing anyone who tries to expose you. If it is the police themselves who are trying to expose you, that's when you need to keep the numbers down to no more than a couple dozen per cell or operation.

"Critiques of conspiracy theories are usually aimed at implausibly large ones (Area 51, etc.)."

Area 51 isn't a myth, it's an air base created by people my father knew at Lockheed. It was kept officially secret from 1955 to 2013, but of course lots of desert rats and RVers had been talking about it for decades. It was home to the otherworldly-looking SR-71 and Stealth Fighter, among other secret technologies, so it's hardly surprising that some people who caught a glimpse of these literal UFOs went on to theorize that they were alien UFOs.

In general, the sheer outlandishness of many Cold War technologies is easy to forget.

An economist should not ask the question, "What good are we?"

Why not?

Setting aside a jab at economists and taking the question seriously, isn't that a variation of the question most seekers of knowledge (scientists, analysts, parents) should always be doing?

Am I doing this right, is my data correct, is it falsifiable, etc? I have an entire group of people at my company whose sole job is to try to break my software (e.g. answer the question, "Is this software any good?")

Is the hypothesis that the plane landed intact somewhere realistic? How many airfields are there in the world where a plane that large could land undetected?

Not just undetected, but not a single person telling anyone who wouldn't tell anyone and so forth until word got out. This isn't a private prop-plane landing in some backwoods landing strip, presumably an air field of the required size would have many many people required to run it and witness a large out of place plane landing.

All the evidence now points towards an intentional diversion - somewhere. But that makes it all the more puzzling - surely you couldn't land a 777 on an airport without being noticed by someone. It's not like you can land these things on a dirt strip on an island. You'd think by now the authorities would have mapped out every possible airport that could accept a plane like that and would be inspecting them and interviewing people in the area. It seems like a plan with a very low possibility of success - unless it's a conspiracy with local officials in some unfriendly country.

But it's hard to avoid the evidence that the transponder and ACARS were intentionally shut off, after which the plane flew on for hours. That's not a suicide or a mechanical failure.

If you're landing in the daytime and don't have any intention of taking back off, I think it the set of possible landing strips is larger than commonly believed. The runway doesn't have to be especially long, and the world is a lot bigger than people seem to realize. Whoever pulled this off was certainly not risk-averse. You don't need an international airport, just a 4000-foot long strip of hard-packed, flat land in Central Asia.

You can land these things on a dirt strip on an island. Not ideal, but can be done. Or it could be landed on a long stretch of straight road.

You can land a lightly loaded 777 in about 4,000 ft on dry pavement at sea level. If you're landing on hard packed dirt, it'll be much longer. If you want to take off again (and I assume you would if you're going to the trouble of stealing an airplane) you'd need twice that distance - you'd probably need it to stop anyway if landing on dirt because your braking won't be so hot.

But granted - if the effort was put in in advance to prepare a hard-pack dirt strip somewhere, it might be do-able. It'd have to be really hard dirt, though - those things are heavy and the gear isn't designed to distribute weight like that of a rough-strip capable jet.

The next part of the plan would be to presumably load some kind of payload onto it - a warhead, lots of explosives, whatever - and then fly it somewhere and crash it into a target. I can see the logic in that - keep the plane loaded with passengers and shooting it down becomes dicey. But ultimately you'd want to thread it back into the system so that no one realizes you shouldn't be there until it's too late. I wonder if that's possible?

This is turning into a Tom Clancy novel.

9/11 was a Tom Clancy novel. Almost literally, I believe.

There's an air strip on the Cocos Islands and presumably one on Christmas Island. Christmas Island has a considerable ethnic Chinese population and the Cocos Islands a Malay Sunni one. The thing is, there's a detention center on Christmas Island run by the Australian Government. The Australian government says that it checked the Cocos and the plane was not there. They went north or they went into the drink. Since you cannot save the passengers at this point if the plane went into the sea, it would seem sensible to put most of your assets on a search up north at this point. Given the amount of fuel they had left, they would have to be somewhere within about 350 miles of that northern arc. That puts you in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Sinkiang, Tibet, the Shan States, western China, or the extreme northeast of India. Supposedly there are a couple-dozen 5,000 foot runways in these areas.

I don't see why everyone is assuming they want to take off again. Stealing a fully-loaded jetliner is just about the worst way to get an airplane; it's far more likely (though by no means certain) that there was something onboard that jetliner the hijackers/pirates/conspirators wanted.

I'm especially baffled by the conclusion that this is all a plan to move some sort of payload into place, since, you know, other planes exist, and can be bought with money. Theatrically murdering 240 people is a terrible way to get money or airplanes.

-- Theatrically murdering 240 people is a terrible way to get money or airplanes.--

True, but the theater may be a part of the effort.

If 240 passengers end up in a slave camp somewhere with gruesome pictures being released detailing what happens if you end up on the wrong flight, I would imagine that the airline business would take an even bigger hit than they do from a plane crash (which seems to have little or no impact on consumers.)

If you're doing the terrorism thing- and I have no idea if that is what is going on here- why not up the ante by not just killing the passengers, but brutally mistreating them for an extended period.

To be sure, I think the odds of such a thing are about one in elevyntyquadrillion- but that is right about where I would have put the odds of a 777 disappearing for a weeks time until a couple of days ago.

Well, I'm not really assuming anything, but when trying to figure out why someone(s) would want to hijack a plane, not crash it into something and not let anyone know that or why they did it, wanting the plane itself seems like one of many possible goals of such an operation. And if you want a plane, one reason is because you want to fly it. Or you may not want to fly it. Or you may want something on the plane. Or maybe some thing on the plane. Or maybe....some other thing. But stealing a plane so that you can do with it the things that people do with planes seems reasonable. If you want people there are other ways to get them. Ditto with stuff. But the only way to get a plane is to actually get a plane.

Actually you would not be able to land a 777 on a dirt strip or any road. The dirt or the asphalt would not be strong enough to support the weight of the aircraft and the wheels would most likely sink into the surface.

I was thinking the same thing, but I wouldn't want to make a categorical claim that it's not possible. Hard dirt packed runways have been used for some pretty heavy aircraft.

Rich Solan, who flies 777-200s for American Airlines , disagrees. "A runway wouldn’t even necessarily have to be paved; hard-packed dirt would likely be good enough."

Sophisticated satellites, IR tracking. I'd be surprised if some nation/agency doesn't already know where this plane ended up. And one very major reason we the people don't yet know the answer is secrecy. That nation/agency doesn't want to reveal its technology to the world.

Why not an anonymous leak to a media outlet then? You can be vague enough to not reveal tracking nation identity nor technology sophistication.

What you would do is find corroborating evidence and leak that. You can't leak it until there's another plausible way for the information to have been generated.

Nation, singular?

I believe all five permanent members of the UN security coucil, plus Japan and India, operate high-resolution spy satellites with visual, IR, and synthetic-aperture radar capability. Signals-intelligence capability is not so well understood, but probably similarly widespread.

That's a pretty hefty conspiracy of silence you are postulating. More likely, the plane is in a place where satellites just can't see. The obvious candidates being, bottom of the ocean or inside a building. And there's a short list of buildings large enough to hold a 777 adjacent to runways long enough to land a 777.

"But I also find interesting the question of whether a social scientist, or an economist, should have a systematically different interpretation of what might be going on"

I think it's just fine if economists do not have any special insight into disappearing airplanes.


You need to be very discrete and sophisticated when telling a story about where the plane is and why you know, without revealing secrets to an opposition just waiting for clues on your technology.

That's how the Japanese lost at Midway.


It's probably why the first Gulf War SCUD hunts were unsuccessful. It wasn't worth revealing the strategic mobile ICBM targeting systems in a small conflict.

In keeping with Tyler's point 2 above, I think it's weird that so many people (some here, but also on the news, etc.) think the only reason to commandeer an airplane is as terrorism or to sell the aircraft. We don't really know what was on that plane, and we don't know everything about the people who were on the plane. The true motive is probably something that doesn't occur readily without additional information. A scenario in which the plane is landed somewhere, someone or something is taken off of it, and the evidence is hidden or destroyed, still leaves open a vast and unknowable spectrum of possibilities.

Too much of the analysis concentrates on slotting this unprecedented act into the mold of a handful of historical scenarios, none of which are especially factually analogous (and most of which are themselves essentially unprecedented).

I think it’s weird that so many people (some here, but also on the news, etc.) think the only reason to commandeer an airplane is as terrorism or to sell the aircraft.

Well, for me it's history. How many jetliners have been commandeered in history? I can think of a few. How many have been done so by terrorists? By my memory, it is a very high percentage. So then I'm applying the historical ratio of Planes-stolen-by terrorists/stolen planes and applying it to current events. But I recognize that historical rates are not always predictive.

Still, if you decide that someone stole a plane and killed 230 people as part of some theft instead of some sort of terrorist attack, then this is more like Diehard than a Tom Clancy movie, and the Diehard franchise jumped the shark years ago.

People just is crazee sometimes. Dont mean they aint got the brains or the balls to pull crazee stunts.

Perhaps a better way to address this is to ask when do conspiracies work and when to they fail? The obvious way to study this is by looking at successful and failed conspiracies.

I haven't done any grand survey but I suspect one would find the following:

1. Simple conspiracies that require fewer people and either allow for flexibility in carrying out the specifics tend to work better.

For example, robbing a bank and 9/11 both had working for them that they didn't need a huge number of people to plan. They also allowed for flexibility. If, for example, on of the flights had been cancelled or if the bank you want to rob happens to have a cop sitting in front, you can abort or change your target on the fly to some degree.

2. Conspiracies that require a lot of intricate steps to happen at particular times or in particular order are almost certain to fail. Call this the 'No Oceans Eleven' hypothesis. Say you need 15 things to happen, the failure of any is fatal but each thing has a 95% chance of being pulled off. Odds are still less than 50% that the whole thing will work.

3. conspiracies that have a vague goal are unlikely to work, or even backfire. The Hudsucker Proxy is an excellent movie on this principle. If you haven't seen it, the corrupt board of a successful company hatches a scheme to drive the share price down by appointing an idiot to run the company. They will then buy the company and take it private on the cheap. Again here 9/11 and bank robberies have very clear goals. The first was 'shock the world' and the second is simply 'take the money and run'.

Successful conspiracies that do not fit the first 3 criteria require something approaching a market structure to provide incentives to avoid the conspiracy from coming apart.

I think a good examples might be:

Professional Wrestling - it's fake.
Summo Wrestling - As we know from Freakonomics, they are throwing the matches.
Steroids in Professional Baseball
Corrupt police precints - a minority of cops may be 'on the take' yet the entire dept covers for them.
The MAfia in the US until, say, the 70's or 80s.

In all of these you had conspiracies that required many players to act in the interest of the conspiracy. What's interesting IMO is that they are not so much acting like a player in Oceans Eleven, playing a very specific role in a vast, complex plan, but act more like a caretaker. They have to 'care' about the conspiracy working hence have to use their intelligence to protect it strategically.

Here I think the conspiracy works by giving everyone a strong, shared, incentive to protect it. The incentive is non-rivious. Consider a conspiracy to rob $1M. If 4 people are in on it, then one person may be tempted to toss the other 3 under the bus to take the whole $1M rather than just share $250K each. OK but look at professional wrestling. Whether your a low level person or high level one, you 'stake' in maintaining the fiction that it's real is not easily turned against the conspiracy for personal gain.

In those cases, personal gain is pretty much reduced to an 'all or nothing' affair. If you turn against the conspiracy with, say, a 'tell-all' book you may become rich but if it doesn't work the community will shun you with a vengence (at best!).

Two things that I think history has shown absolutely doesn't work well for large scale conspiracies; ideology and religion. Whether your're talking about the Crusades, White power groups, Communism, or Islamist extremists large conspiracies don't usually work. Someone will spill the beans for money or to avoid prosecution or simply because they have a bone to pick.

North Korea, for example, probably doesn't engage in many international conspiracies. It simply enforces silence on it's people by limiting contact with the outside world and putting a very high price on those trying to defect.

The obvious way to study this is by looking at successful and failed conspiracies.

By definition, all conspiracies you've ever heard of are failed conspiracies. If a conspiracy was successful, it would be a secret.

People don't pay much attention to giant government conspiracies. For example, the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA weren't very new. James Bamford had written a series of books about NSA from 1981 onward. The president of France frequently complained about the "Anglo-Saxon Powers" listening in on his phone calls via ECHELON. Distant in-laws of mine would move from near Fort Meade in Virginia to the dead center of Australia for a couple of years at a time for very vague reasons. Fox News ran a series by Carl Cannon in 2001 about how Israeli firms had written backdoors into telephone billing software that was tossed down the memory hole by Fox shortly after it aired.

But everybody acted really surprised by Snowden's revelations.

I'm unclear what the conspiracy would be with the NSA or ECHELON before that. I think instead we have just an overestimation of gov't information collection.

Consider: Your employer pays you and let's the IRS know he is paying you. Therefore in a sense the gov't 'knows' whenever you have a job (except under the table cash jobs). From that, though, it's very easy to assume far too much. For example, if the state police were investigating you for a crime, they would probably ask people where you work. Even though the gov't supposedly 'knows' where you work, it doesn't really. The information exists in one part of the gov't that may or may not be accessible to other parts. Likewise Google 'knows' what I search for yet there's probably not a single person at Google who could intelligently discuss my search history with me.

Maybe, but here absense of evidence might be evidence of absense. Conspiracies with highly complicated moving parts should have a high failure rate, therefore the lack of failed complex conspiracies littering our history books is evidence that few people outside of fiction really engage in true 'Oceans Eleven' conspiracies.

Beyond that, the need to keep a conspiracy secret diminishes a lot with history. There is no longer much need to cover up, say, sophisticated spy rings from WWI. As time goes by we should be able to learn about successful grand conspiracies, if they exist.

There are a lot of giant conspiracies that work for years. Both Lockheed and Northrup worked on stealth aircraft from 1975 to 1980 before Jimmy Carter's defense secretary revealed the concept during the election campaign to justify canceling the B-1. The Soviets apparently were clueless after half a decade about what was coming at them.

Isn't there a difference between a secret & a conspiracy? Why is developing a stealth aircraft a "conspiracy"?

The word "conspiracy" is today used as a pejorative to imply that a secret project would be impossible, either because it's too complicated or it couldn't be kept secret. As soon as a giant secret project is revealed to be true, however, such as Area 51 or its Project Oxcart (the spyplane that flew >2,000 mph over 50 years ago), well, then it couldn't possibly have been a conspiracy, now could it?

Sure, it involved a base kept secret for 58 years that was guarded by CIA agents with submachine guns, and when an SR71 prototype crashed in 1963, the CIA gave each witness $25,000 and a threat to kill them if they ever mentioned it. And, yeah, the government more or less promoted the idea of alien flying saucers at Area 51 as chaff to discredit witnesses.

But that can't be a conspiracy because we know now that it all actually happened. And therefore we can't use our knowledge of the facts of Area 51 to gauge the plausibility of any other conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories, by definition, can't be true.

Big military companies working on a new secret weapon IMO would fit the 'professional wrestling' model. Those who are participating in protecting and advancing the 'conspiracy' (or secret if you will) are given a direct financial stake in it's outcome (get caught leaking or even just being sloppy with the secrets and you'll be fired...or possibly put in jail). Ideology plays a part as well. I'm sure many who worked there felt a patriotic duty to maintain the secret but the financial incentives had more of an impact IMO.

Both the US and USSR were successful in keeping 'conspiracies' secret from each other, but it was a struggle for both of them. With large numbers of people involved the history of spying is mostly a history of successfully compromising secrets, not keeping them.

Here's a 2010 Seattle Post interview with a blue collar worker at Area 51 from the 1960s that describes various carrots and sticks to keep secrets. But mostly there's a culture of keeping your mouth shut.


My wife's uncle was an Air Force colonel with a doctorate in metallurgy. He used to spy behind the Iron Curtain. In civilian clothes he'd cross into East Berlin as a tourist and go to a prearranged address and climb into a car where a disaffected Soviet Jewish aerospace engineer who had been put on ice for the mandatory 5-year cooling off period before emigrating to Israel was waiting to talk about what he'd been working on.

But you need an ethnic network to set that kind of thing up. Back in the Cold War, the Soviets just didn't have much of an in with SoCal engineers. These days, Moscow probably keeps a few Russian cocktail waitresses in Las Vegas on the payroll to flirt with Area 51 guys, but it's just not as interesting as it would have been in 1977 when the first stealth plane flew there.

That's a type of market imposed cost, though not a financial one. If breaking the 'conspiracy' costs you your social standing with your friends and co-workers then you have a huge incentive to work on behalf of it, even if you're not benefitting directly from it.

Hence the example of corrupt police departments where even cops who are not corrupt feel the pressure to cover for those who are.

Has anyone else read much on the pilot. As best I can tell, the politician he's supposed to be a partisan for, Anwar Ibrahim, is downright reasonable compared to the average South Asian politician. He seems relatively free trade and anti-corruption oriented and socially liberal.

Thus, if this was an act of politically motivated terrorism, it's basically one designed to promote more liberty. That's... unusual.

Most likely scenario to me;

- Pilot or co-Pilot part of an Islamic conspiracy. Perhaps a "sleeper" designed to convince people otherwise. Plenty of previous examples of this.
- Plot was to take over plane and then fly back to attack KL or Singapore. My bet would the Twin Towers in KL. Repeat of 9-11 scenario so definitely possible.
- Pilot kills co-pilot (maybe with knife) or vice versa. Transponders switched off without passengers knowing. All looked fine so far.
- Plan was then to kill the passengers before backtracking to KL to prevent a repeat of the passenger revolt like brought down the 9-11 plane attacking the White House. Basically the pilot or co-pilot puts on oxygen mask and takes the plane to 42k feet, everyone on board dies due to lack of oxygen. We know everyone must be dead as there were no phone calls whatsoever. Unfortunately the pilot dies as well due to error in the way he was using mask. Or maybe there was a struggle in the cockpit with the still alive but second dying cockpit member and he pulls off the mask.
- Plane then brought back to level flight by autopilot and flies on into Southern Ocean, crashes after 6 hours.
- No-one claiming responsibility as they want to try again.

A very good theory:


My new theory is that nothing went wrong, the plane landed normally but the airport just failed to record their arrival (have you ever been to Malaysia?).

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