Update 1, 21st July: I have updated my report to include some relevant observations, which I initially forgot to include, about the plane’s track, and what I believe is the time window of my observation. I have included my updates in red.
Below is a more comprehensive account of what I saw the night a glowing orange plane flew past the back of our boat. It is perhaps the sort of thing I should have thought about carefully, and written and submitted before going public, but then again ‘going public’ wasn’t on my mind at the time, and neither was the scale of the incident.. I was just responding naturally to what was an overwhelming reaction to a simple post I made asking for advice: http://www.cruisersforum.com/forums/f108/i-think-i-saw-mh370-127132.html
Anyway, here is the more considered version (which I wrote without referencing or reviewing any of my previous statements, although I have added in footnotes to address some issues which I forgot to include in my first draft, but which were pertinent)
Aaza Dana Eye Witness Sighting of MH370
Although supposed to be a report, this is more of an account, which contains a lot of my thoughts which I kept out of the twenty minute phone conversation I had with ATSB, since I was trying to keep to facts only. However, I now realise that the thoughts I was having do explain some things which I couldn’t pinpoint logically at the time, so I am including them. And I had a lot of thoughts, since thinking is really all there is to do on a night watch alone.
On 20th February 2014, Sailing Yacht Aaza Dana left the port of Cochin in India, bound for Phuket with three people onboard; Marc Horn, his wife Katherine Tee (myself) and one other British crew member. It was a 19 day passage, passing through heavy weather when we rounded Sri Lanka, during which the boat got soaked, important things kept breaking (including rigging), we had no working life raft, my suggestions were being dismissed instantly by the Captain, and tempers soared; resulting in Marc and I not communicating from about a week into the passage, and that lasted until we dropped the anchor at Phuket. Two weeks is a lot of time to be at daggers with your partner under any circumstances. On passage, when there is nowhere to escape to calm down and reflect, two weeks can be excruciating. And Marc and I were truly at each other’s throats. By the time this happened, my rucksack was packed, and I intended to leave as soon as we cleared immigration. I was in a low state of depression and furious with the world.
At some stage towards the end of our long passage across the Indian Ocean (which we have subsequently narrowed down to the night of 7th March, details in Note #1), I was on watch alone, and we were on a Port tack, heading approximately West to East. Since I had decided to do what I wanted when I wanted, I hadn’t been standing regular watches until this point, merely going on deck when I felt like it, and the Captain and Crew were both exhausted. The Captain was below at this time, getting his first decent sleep in over a week. The crew was on deck sleeping – he wasn’t a good sleeper, and was in the habit of grabbing a few hours when he felt weary. I was enjoying the first alone time I’d had for weeks and wasn’t about to give it up.
This in way of explanation as to why I didn’t wake anyone – we were in no danger, they needed to catch up on their sleep, and I decided I was witnessing an experimental air show for an audience of one, and I was fascinated (Note #2 explains why I didn’t report it when we arrived and I heard the news).
After a few hours on watch, I noticed a bright orange glow above the horizon, about 8 o’clock relative to the boat’s heading. My first thought was to wonder if it was Mars rising, but Mars wasn’t supposed to be there, and besides it was in the North. I then wondered if it was a meteor, as it quickly got bigger and brighter. I thought it was heading towards us (ie, moving from North to South). I considered the possibility of it wiping us out. Then I thought it’d just be more likely to land near enough to cause a massive tidal wave and wipe us out, which I thought was typical, since we’d just got the boat dried out. Then I decided I’d rather it hit us, since that would be an easier escape from the marriage than a painful divorce. That was when I realised that my thinking was insane. From that point on, my thoughts were all about rationalising what I was seeing, and trying to explain it logically (much as forum members did).
And then I saw what looked like black smoke behind the orange glow, which resembled a contrail, but black (see note #3) The sky was very dark, so I suspect it may have been illuminated by the glow. It was difficult to see, and I wasn’t sure about it at this stage, although I did become sure later. ‘Missile’ crossed my mind for a second, but at that stage the orange glow started to look like a plane. I momentarily panicked, thinking it was a plane on fire.
But I couldn’t see any fire or flames, or anything like that, it was just a plane glowing orange and surrounded by an orange glow like a halo. As though it were being lit up by sodium lights, but I couldn’t see sodium lights. As it came a little closer, I could clearly see the hull was glowing orange. I considered the lights might be orange landing lights, but couldn’t see any lights under the hull, and there were no wheels down. I could see the hull of the plane very clearly from this point onwards. The ‘halo’ was fuzzy though.
I tried to pinpoint the source of the light. By this time I doubted it was a fire, because I could not see any source of the lights. The black trail was still present, and was present throughout. It simply looked like a black contrail.
A few times I checked behind it, waiting for the fighter planes and fire engines (not so rational!!) which I assumed would be chasing it if it was indeed a passenger plane on fire. There were none, so I relaxed. There were two planes higher than it, and they appeared to be regular airliners cruising at high altitude (one was at a lower I altitude than the other). They were travelling from South to North (the opposite way from the glowing plane) and appeared to have regular nav lights. I wondered where they were going and considered Bengal or Russia. I assumed that if the plane was in distress, the pilots would report it. It never occurred to me that it was not visible to the higher aircraft and they would not be able to see it either on their instruments or visually.
The glowing plane did not have nav lights, which made me wonder if it was a military plane, conducting some experiment. It was low and I even wondered if it was high enough to do a hop and pop, and I had the impression it was coming in to land, but logically couldn’t understand where, as there was nothing in the direction it was heading except the white glow (which we had assumed was a maintenance vessel which by now I suspected might be a research vessel connected with this experiment, although the glow was no longer in sight) and I didn’t note a change it altitude. I felt it was travelling slowly.
As it moved behind us, I could see the shape very clearly, and it was that of a passenger plane. However, my impression of the hull was that it was monocolour, I assumed light matt grey, although it appeared orange and had an orange ‘halo’ around it. I do not recall any markings of any kind.
I looked for the windows, to see if it was maybe emergency lighting from inside, but I couldn’t see any. I could see where the windows were supposed to be, but the whole hull was glowing uniformly and I could not see windows. I decided it had formerly been a passenger plane, but had its windows blocked out to act as a cargo plane, since it appeared too long and pointy to be a cargo plane. At this stage I decided it must be military.
[Edit – don’t get stuck on this image with amateur artwork, we have new ones published more recently, like this]:
As it came behind us, I think the elevation angle was about 30° (Note #4 explains how I arrived at estimate for elevation angle).
There was a gap in my observation then, as I went below. When I exited the cabin the plane had moved past and was at about half past 5, relative to the boat, and appeared to have borne away. The black trail seemed more obvious, and at this stage I wondered if it’s too much or too little oil in the mix that makes the exhaust black, and even as I thought it I realised that applies only to boats. I couldn’t understand why the smoke was black. It was a concern, but I believed that everyone knows where all large planes are all the time, and if it were in trouble there would be more action around. I dismissed it with the final thought he should get his exhaust fixed.
From then on my observations were patchy, but I did observe it a few times briefly, and it appeared to be moving to the South, but getting further away from us; at about 5 o’clock relative. (Update 1: Note 5 illustrates my observations and describes some thoughts which might be relevant to establishing our position at the time)
I have absolutely no idea of the time scale of this observation.
I have been asked about clouds at the time. I can’t remember. They were not of particular interest to me. I do remember at that stage the weather had calmed down a lot. I know the skies were clear and stars visible between the orange plane and the two “airliners”. For some reason I thought I had observed clouds behind it when I first saw it, but I suspect this was the smoke, before I identified it as such.
In response to questions about the moon, I don’t recall the moon at that time, but it wasn’t a point of interest. I do recall that the sky was very dark, that it was hard to make out the black smoke. Because I found it difficult to see, I spent a lot of time looking at it to see if it was indeed black smoke. I think I first thought it was dark cloud, until it became a trail. The black trail was much clearer as the plane moved away at 5 oçlock relative.
I believe I think caught some sleep. When I awoke, there was an orange glow (like a dome) over the horizon, in the approximate direction I felt the plane had flown. My first thought was “Shit, it has crashed after all”, but the orange glow was not flickering in any way. It was very similar to the white glow we had seen two and three nights previously. I noted it over several observations, and the intensity remained constant. I stopped worrying again.
Note #1, Narrowing down time of sighting:
- I narrowed down the day using Marc’s observations of the bright white light, which we all observed over the nights commencing on the 4th and 5th. The night of the 6th we did not see them, and the night of the 7th I believe I saw the same lights, but glowing orange rather than white, after the plane had passed (heading that way). I know we had already passed those lights, as one of my thoughts was that the plane was involved (I suspected experimental research) with those lights, since it was headed back towards the area we had observed them after it passed us.
- On the morning of the 8th, Marc and the crew observed what appeared to be a search vessel zigzagging around on our Starboard side (south of us). I do recall this was after I had seen the orange plane.
- I narrowed down the time of the observation because it was the only time during the two possible nights that we were on a Port tack heading Easterly, that I was on watch. We did head Easterly for a short time during the night of the 6th, but it was not that night. On the night of the sixth, I had seen a ship when we were on the Port tack, which required us to throw in the tack. However, I was making a point, and refusing to make decisions, so I pointed it out to the crew, and threw the responsibility on him. He also refused to make the decision, and woke the skipper, so I went back to bed, smug in the knowledge that I had even further disrupted Marc’s sleep, and made it clear that I wasn’t going to be his (First) Mate only when he wanted one, if he wasn’t willing to accept my decisions all the time. It certainly wasn’t that night – nobody was sleeping then except me.
Note #2, why I took so long to report the sighting:
Because I couldn’t believe what I think I saw. I mean, I saw it, but it was just so unlikely. Plus I was stressed by the time we hit shore. Very stessed. And although I didn’t report it, I did say what I’d seen to cruisers at the Yacht Club, and to other people of two later occasions, all of whom dismissed it, and pointed out that it was over the South China Sea, not the Andaman Sea.
And I wasn’t absolutely sure of what I had seen, and can’t even be positive it was that night. I don’t follow the news, not even when ashore (I barely have time to do my job, it’s lucky I have an understanding boss), and for the two months after we arrived in Phuket I was living on the yacht at anchor, with limited internet access, no A/C electricity onboard to charge devices, and zero interest in the news.
The reason it started bothering me when I did report it was because of a news item I heard on Thai Radio saying the survey boat was heading back in due to technical difficulties, and it peaked my interest.
Note #3, Possible tyre fire:
I was asked if the smoke resembled a tyre fire. Yes it did, although I’m not sure if it was as dense as tyre fires I have seen. Also, the wheels were not down, I ascertained that when looking to see if the glow could be coming from landing lights.
Note #4, Elevation Angles:
My initial estimate of 30° to 45° was based on a piece of paper I had folded into a triangle. When asked if it could have been lower, I procured a protractor, and checked my angles more carefully, at which stage I realised it could well have been even lower than 30°. Since that time I have observed planes on take-off, and have realised that not only was the angle 30° or lower, the plane itself had to be at quite a fairly low altitude and close in order for me to see the hull so clearly.)
Note #5, Possible Position:
Attached is an illustration of my limited observation of the plane’s track as it approached and as it moved away. I first emailed this to ATSB on June 6th. There are a few points I’d like to clarify. In an email to a contributor to Duncan’s Blog on June 23rd I explained:
i) The boat’s position on the track is irrelevant, so ignore the chart data. The green arrow is simply where a forum member suggested I was at the time the plane passed, so I drew it there. The plane’s track is relative to the boat only.
ii) I drew two lines for the plane’s track as it moved away. The light blue track is the line I first drew, but the dark green track is the strongest image I had, based on when I first saw the plane after it’s turn as I was returning to the cockpit from the cabin.
In a subsequent email to ATSB on 12th June, I stated:
“Looking at our track, seems likely that we hit a lull [at approx 1920] and went into an accidental gybe (not unusual in itself) then I decided to stay on the new tack. It would have been at this time my scan picked up the orange glow coming towards us from 8 o’clock relative. I held that tack for 5 minutes, which would have been the time in which I watched the glow turn into a plane.
At that stage I would have gone below to turn on the engine battery (there is no question about the engine having gone on at this stage, since that’s the only thing which would have allowed us to head up as we did)” That would explain why I went below.