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MH370 – A Lithium Fire and the Sparkler Effect?

January 11, 2017

OK. So I just found this post in my drafts folder, and now seems as good a time to publish as any… Just as a reminder I’m pasting a copy of Lizzie’s graphic recreation of what I saw. At one stage I was wondering if the glow I saw was caused by a fast moving object creating a trail. Ie, perhaps the illumination I saw was from the cockpit window and that was leaving a trail. Like a sparkler?

EFortuin Mar2015

Graphic illustration of the plane I saw [pending correction to remove logo]

Well maybe we’ll never know.  But this lengthy but very interesting post from the esteemed Duncan Steel goes a way to explaining why it might have been possible…

Duncan posted the following on his forum, with my permission. His response is worthy of a look…

Kate (the Sailoress) sent me the following message, and I replied as appended. With Kate’s approval I am posting both her original message and my reply below. The suggestions I made are open for debate, discussion, disproof, dumping in the circular file (i.e. the trashcan).




There is some stuff I want to run by you, but am not ready to post yet. Two days is a long time, when sanding decks, to reflect. I am ready to enlarge upon the cockpit windows which Henrik asked about.

Even though I am certain this is a real memory, I have been unwilling to share it, and I don’t know why. But it’s a memory that filled me with fear. I have been having visions of it coming at me face on, so I am not sure if my memory has morphed on this. But it was at a distance, and I think it came between when I thought it was a missile and when it became ‘elongated’ and I realised it was a plane. Therefore it was far away, and it doesn’t make sense that I could see it in that detail. The windows were illuminated. Orange, not white. That makes me wonder if Bobby’s theory of the interior fire is close to the truth, except for his altitude.

The first thing I want your opinion on, is whether this would even have been possible for me to have seen this much detail. AT that distance – But I am sure it’s a real memory, since I remember the jolt (internal scream would be a better description) I felt at the time when I realised it was a plane on fire, before I put that aside.

All the best,


Kate, Sorry for the delay.

First, I have not been following the discussion and analysis of the visual aspects of your sighting as closely as many others obviously have, nor the work that Bobby has done. This past week or so I have been excruciatingly busy with other matters, only getting a few hours of sleep a night, which is why I often approve comments at weird hours (given that I am currently in the UK). That is, every so often I check the website and approve things that look sensible without giving them detailed thought. A peculiarity of me (and I guess a lot of scientists) is that we only give considered answers after giving a matter due consideration! For me, on a piece of research, that sometimes needs a week of doing not much else but think about it, and sometimes far longer. Our asset is not so much remembering facts, but the developed capability to think long, hard, and with a certain quality. (Again, I am just a little lad from Midsomer Norton, and there are lots of other people out there far smarter than me.)

OK, now what Bobby was talking about when he was addressing “diffraction limited” and “Rayleigh criterion” is the *theoretical* limit of resolution that any optical system can have. (Theoretical limit means “best possible” here.) The reality is that light does not travel in straight lines! A “perfect” optical system has a limited resolution, which is set by what is called diffraction. For an aperture (e.g. a telescope mirror, or a camera lens aperture, or your eye’s pupil) of width D that limit is 1.22 times the wavelength divided by D. That is what Bobby calculated, and found that your eye (if it were “perfect”, and no eye actually is or can be in terms of the physics of image forming) might be able to distinguish two passenger windows separated by one metre at a distance of 5 nautical miles (I think it was). All that means is that you might be able to see a row of pinpricks of light, rather than an overall glow. And the latter seems to be what you saw. That seems to make sense, in terms of Bobby’s analysis of the theoretical limit.

Next would be the overall shape of the aircraft. Given suitable background illumination (e.g. from the Milky Way, and from cities over the horizon for you at sea level but not for the aircraft at say 10,000 feet) you would be able to make out its broad shape, just as you described. That is, you could tell it was a large jet, and not a small commuter plane or a fighter jet. But you would not be able to tell much more than that. Not knowing the distance to within a factor of 2, for example, it would be easy to confuse a 747-sized airliner with a 737-sized airliner, unless you could count the engines.

On the cockpit windows, these are rather larger than the passenger windows/portholes. Still, at the distance involved one would not expect you to see any detail (e.g. shape of the windows). What you would/might see would be light emanating from there, especially if full cockpit lights were on (as opposed to the dim displays at night): similar to having internal lights on in a car at night. This would especially be the case if the passenger cabin lights were off or dimmed (as is usual for a landing approach). On the other hand, one would not expect the internal cockpit lights to be on for a landing approach, especially at night.

Overall, one would have expected the main lights to be seen to be the navigation lights, and the landing floodlights, if they were on. The apparent fact that the navigation lights were NOT on indicates a problem on board, of some description.

My interpretation of what you saw is NOT that you were seeing light produced by an internal fire. A fire like that soon extinguishes due to lack of oxygen, unless there is a gaping hole in the aircraft, and even then the oxygen supply to feed a fire would be difficult to explain.

My suggestion early on of a fire on board causing CO poisoning of the crew and passengers was not a thought of any flames at all. Flames produce mainly CO2. A slow, smouldering fire due to (e.g.) Li-ion batteries is what I had in mind. Especially if in the hold no-one would be aware of it, possibly, and it would not compromise the physical integrity of the aircraft: it would just knock the crew and passengers out. Again, though, this is just one possibility, one suggestion that cannot yet be excluded.

It would be interesting to know if, in the case of a power interruption (prior to 18:40) and subsequent re-powering, whether the cockpit internal lights come on as a default. That would make sense to me in that the crew need to see their controls first so as to AVIATE, with the next step being NAVIGATE, then COMMUNICATE. That is, the highest priority, hence the default, one might expect to be: lights in the cockpit (as opposed to passenger cabin, navigation lights, landing lights) along with power to control surfaces etc. Top priority after a power loss: enable the crew to keep the aircraft in the air; anything else is secondary until they have done that (and I think here that they were incapacitated by then, and so unable to move on from that default).

Thus: my best explanation for what you saw would be a “zombie” MH370 flying on default modes, automatic pilot, and so on. The lights you saw from the cockpit windows were internal lights, not a fire: especially at a low light level such lights would appear orange (try turning down the voltage on an incandescent light bulb and see what I mean). No light or very little light from passenger portholes, with the line of windows simply looking fuzzy and orange-ish again: your eyes (or anyone’s eyes) simply cannot resolve separate light sources that are closely-spaced from such a distance, because the physics makes it an impossibility!

In summary: what you have reported makes sense (at least to me) in terms of physics, and also what I might anticipate in terms of a zombie MH370 as aforesaid, although I would like to know from aviation experts what the default re-power configuration would be for the B777 in terms of both the aircraft systems, and also the autopilot system (which I regard as being a separate computerised system).

I can understand why you reacted to the sighting the way you did, but although I suspect that a fire on board may have been the original cause of the catastrophe, as I wrote above I do not think a big fire with flames occurred; and so what you saw was not that, but rather light from the internal cockpit lights being the major emission visible to you, of course on a dark night, far from city lights, and with the Moon long since set. I’ve spent hundreds of nights on mountaintops using telescopes under those conditions, and few people nowadays know what a truly dark night is like, and how a light source that is intrinsically dim can appear when all around is virtually black. It happens that a *moving* light source of this type is also more easily picked up by our brains, which are essentially hard-wired to detect moving objects against a stationary background: just as well, else our distant ancestors would have been eaten by dinosaurs and other predators.

Kind regards to yourself and Marc,


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