Blaine Alan Gibson has been called a modern-day Indiana Jones – though in temperament he’s probably a lot closer to Sherlock Holmes.
Gibson, 59, made headlines around the world earlier this year after he found debris from a Boeing 777 that was later confirmed to be a piece of the infamous Malaysia flight 370 aircraft, which went missing shortly after take-off on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board.
After diligently working to transfer the panel to the authorities, Gibson stayed on the case, conducting his own unpaid investigation in 12 countries to solve the mystery of flight 370.
This isn’t the first time he’s tried to solve a puzzle. Journeys to Guatemala and Belize allowed him to develop a theory on the collapse of the Mayan civilization; an overland expedition to Siberia was about getting to the bottom of the mysterious 1908 Tunguska explosion; and he’s chased down the Lost Ark of the Covenant on the back roads and waterways of Ethiopia.
Gibson is a man who defies easy description. He is a lawyer who has never practiced law, a businessman who isn’t particularly focused on making money, and a traveller whose goal is to find clarity, not see the sights.
We linked up with Gibson in the Maldives, where he was searching for more flight 370 clues, to find out if a humble traveller can indeed solve some of the world’s great mysteries.
Q: Where did your interest in travel come from?
I was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Bay Area and Carmel. My father was the Chief Justice of California so I grew up with politics, but I always loved travel. I collected National Geographic magazines, and from a young age I was interested in memorizing where all the countries were located and what their capitals were. I decided early on I wanted to go to all of them. I’m going to do it. I have 18 countries left to visit. Mozambique was number 177 and I found part of a Boeing 777 while I was there.
Q: How much of the year do you spend travelling?
Essentially all of it, now. I used to travel half the year but since I sold our family home in Carmel [California] and got interested in Malaysia 370, now I’m travelling non-stop. I want to keep looking for more debris and find answers regarding Malaysia 370. That’s my search, that’s my adventure right now.
Q: How do you finance your travels?
My style of travel is not the expensive kind. I like to go places where I know people or meet people who invite me to stay in their homes. Or I stay in moderately priced hotels, or I camp and backpack. I’m in the Maldives right now and I was staying in a $34 per night hotel, not a $1,000 per night resort. That’s my style. I hang with local people everywhere I go.
Q: Do you think you have to travel to get the real story?
Absolutely. You can go to a place and no matter how much you’ve read about it, you can just feel things in the air. If there is going to be a coup or if things will be resolved peacefully, you can feel it and no amount of reading and research can substitute that.
I went to the Soviet Union in 1976, age 19, just to understand what it was like. I met the Russian people and saw that they were no different from us. I could tell in 1976, when people were trying to buy blue jeans and get rock ‘n’ roll music, that communism wouldn’t last.
Q: What were some other trips you’ve taken?
The first big mystery I went to solve was to figure out what happened to the Mayan civilization. A lot of my interest was inspired by [the film] Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out in the 1980s. I went to Belize and Guatemala between 1984 and 1992 to volunteer on some archaeological expeditions. We were trying to figure out what happened to the Maya, and we did it.
We discovered some caves in Belize that had a bunch of bashed-in skulls. They had the royal and noble obsidian inlay in their teeth, which told us that they were royalty, nobility and priests being killed. We concluded that there was a civil uprising. The people in the mountains and the jungle got tired of serving the high priests. They overthrew them, went down the coast, started trading and made money. The Mayans didn’t get on a spaceship and vanish; they simply had a social upheaval.
Q: Did Mayan experts accept your findings?
I wouldn’t say that they did, because our findings upset their pet theories. But I think what we found has now been generally accepted. At the time, I didn’t really care if our findings were accepted; I just wanted to know for myself.
Q: Tell us about the mysterious Tunguska explosion
On 30 June 1908, something crashed into the Earth and sent shock waves twice around the world. The skies of London were glowing for two weeks after. It hit in the middle of the Siberian forest, north of a city called Krasnoyarsk, and levelled a 40-mile radius of trees, but didn’t kill anyone, though it fried some reindeer. No one was there and there is still no definitive conclusion about what happened.
A Russian astronomer went back a few years later and found that the trees were pointing away from the epicentre. And at the epicentre, trees were standing straight up – the ones that were left, that is – with their branches stripped off. So he thought that the thing blew straight up in the air, whatever it was.
Then they had the Russian Revolution, the whole country was closed and no Westerners could go in until an astronomer from Maine went in 1994. I went in 1995 and was the second American to see it. It was incredible. You fly into a small town called Vanavara, you take a boat and then you have to walk for 24 hours to get there.
Q: What were your conclusions?
I think the astronomer was right, that it blew straight up in the air. The leading theory was that it was a meteorite because no traces of it were found. Other theories said it was a comet or an atomic spaceship or atomic blast. I’m always open to anything, but I tend to go with the stony meteorite theory. I wasn’t able to find a piece of it; no one has, because it vaporized.
Q: And you travelled to Ethiopia to look for the Lost Ark of the Covenant?
I was interested in it from [the films] Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones. But when I went to Ethiopia in 2011, I noticed that their Coptic Christian religion was centred on the Ark rather than the cross or the crucifixion and sacraments. Every church in Ethiopia had a replica that they’d bring out for the Timkat Festival (Epiphany) in January. I wondered: why is this Christian country so obsessed with the Ark?
I’d read that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians insist it’s at Aksum, a small town near Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea. I don’t think this stuff is just folklore. When something is that predominant, there is usually some legitimate historical basis for it.
Q: So you think the Ark is in Ethiopia?
I do. The Ethiopians tell everyone that it’s at the monastery in Aksum and it’s guarded by one monk who can never go out or talk to anyone. He is the guardian of the Ark.
Q: Did you try to find him?
I did, but since they’re telling everyone it’s there, that’s probably where it isn’t. It’s probably a false ark. You can’t get within 200ft of this place because they have security, and you can’t even see inside the building.
Graham Hancock, who wrote Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, thinks it stayed in Egypt and then came up the Nile to a place called Lake Tana in Ethiopia, which is the source of the Nile.
I took a boat to the monastery there, Tana Kirkos. Strangely, my GPS didn’t work there. It worked everywhere else. Every time I took a photo, it showed an aura and a light leak. My compass was spinning. And the priest showed me some of the artefacts that supposedly accompanied the Ark. But he too said it was in Aksum, though he added that three exact copies were made. The four Arks were distributed among four monasteries: Aksum, Tana Kirkos and two others. He said the real one has the stone tablets in Hebrew with it. The replicas have the tablets carved in Amharic.
But I wanted to see the original one. I sent my friend back after I left. He talked to them again and was given some manuscripts. The head monk at Tana Kirkos, a very old man who no one gets to meet, showed up in my friend’s room that night and said, “There’s a boat coming, take it and don’t come back here.” So, I think I was close.
Q: Where were you when Malaysia 370 disappeared?
I was selling our family home in Carmel, going through boxes of childhood memories and photographs. As I was doing this, I learned that the plane had flown on for seven hours and had crossed from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and disappeared. I was captivated. It piqued my fascination with geography, aviation, terrorism, travel – all of it.
When I learned that there were sightings of the plane in the Maldives but they were disregarded because the satellites said the plane went way south, I remember thinking, “Why not listen to the witnesses? There could be survivors in those warm waters near the Maldives.”
That’s why I’m here in the Maldives now, to pursue these angles. I’ve met a number of these fishermen and their testimony was very credible. They told me they saw a low flying, white, red and blue jet plane fly over their island at 6:15am local time, which would have been right before the flight ran out of fuel, if it went that way. That plane has not been identified. If the eyes of the satellite data are wrong for whatever reason, the eyes of the fishermen may be right. It could have been 370; it matched the description.
Q: How long have you been investigating this disappearance?
I started around March 2015, one year after the disappearance. The official search off the coast of Australia, based on satellite interpretation, found absolutely nothing. So I thought I’d talk to the family members at the one-year commemoration and people in the Maldives. The officials were spending $100 million and hadn’t found anything, so I thought maybe I could help solve this. I’ve travelled to Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, the Maldives, Cambodia, Mauritius, Reunion, Australia, the US, Madagascar and Mozambique looking for clues.
Q: How did you find this part of the plane wing?
Madagascar blocks most debris traveling from the east; it’s like a magnet [in June 2016, Gibson found more possible debris from the plane in northeast Madagascar]. But Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, an aviation expert at the University of Western Australia, told me that if debris misses Madagascar to the north or south, it would likely wash ashore in Mozambique.
So I chartered a boat in February 2016, and asked the locals, as I have in every country I’ve gone to, where does stuff tend to wash ashore? They said there was a sandbank near the town of Vilankulos, where fishermen go to pick up nets and buoys that wash in. I had no expectation to find anything. I had already combed beaches in the Gulf of Thailand, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and the Maldives, and had found nothing by this point.
We walked around and it was just beach junk. But suddenly, maybe 15ft away, the owner of the boat holds up a triangular, grey piece and he says, “Is this Malaysia 370?” I walked over, and saw it had the words “No Step” on it. I knew it was from a plane. “No Step” is written on plane tails and wings so that workers don’t step on them, and it’s distinctive to Boeing aircraft.
Q: What did you do with the panel?
That was a challenge and an awesome responsibility. I sent emails and photos to Australia’s Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is leading search operations for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean.
Air Crash Support Group Australia, a non-profit that helps family members with loved ones involved in aviation accidents, had previously introduced me to key personnel from the ATSB, so they knew me and knew to take me seriously. They said, “Take good care of this and please try not to talk too much about it because it could upset the families. Get it into our hands.”
I took it to Maputo and went with the Australian consul to turn it into the country’s head of civil aviation. It was finally confirmed that the panel was part of the plane about three weeks later.
Q: Did this discovery lead you to any conclusions?
It did. I always thought they wouldn’t find it deep underwater where they were looking. After I found the panel, more people reported debris. A high school student found a piece of the plane on a Mozambique beach in December that was confirmed as authentic as well. An archaeologist was walking on the beach in South Africa and found a piece that looked like what I found. Now five pieces have been found: one in Mauritius, two in Mozambique, one in South Africa and one on Reunion.
Through these findings, I have eliminated some theories of what happened. The plane crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean, south of the equator but north of 40 degrees. It didn’t crash way down south or the debris would have gone to Australia and Tasmania. It didn’t crash in the Gulf of Thailand or the Bay of Bengal.
Q: Do you think the official investigation is on the right track?
I think they’re doing the very best they can, but they are basing it solely on satellite data interpretation. If the satellite communication system wasn’t working perfectly, or if any of their assumptions about speed, altitude and course are wrong, then they’re looking in the wrong place.
Q: How will you know when you’re ready to move on to something else?
Since I found a piece of the plane and have gotten to know many of the family members [whose relatives were on the flight], I’m probably not going to give up on this until I or someone else finds it. I want to solve this mystery.
Q: What do you think is the most likely scenario?
It could have been a mechanical problem or fire; but it’s also possible the plane was hijacked by a third party. The debris is small and shattered and the flap was retracted, which shows it was not a controlled glide. From the very beginning, people were trying to blame the pilot and sweep this under the rug. But there is nothing in his history or psychology to suggest that he would have wanted to end his life and take other people down with him. We must search on for the sake of the families and the flying public. We need more evidence to know for sure.
Q: How do you respond to people who tell you to leave the investigation to the experts?
I have heard this often. People say mine isn’t a real investigation. Well, the experts haven’t found anything and I have. The foreign policy experts didn’t see the breakup of the Soviet Union coming. I knew it was coming because I had been there. Experts are often so shielded that they miss the big picture.
Q: Do you have other mysteries you’d like to solve?
I haven’t thought about it yet because I am so focused on this. But I do want to get to every country on Earth, and most of the ones I have left are in the middle of Africa. The two countries I’m most eager to visit are Libya and Algeria.
Q: Is there one place you’ve travelled to that is most important to you?
It’s not a place, it’s an event. A total solar eclipse is one thing you must see before leaving the planet. There’s going to be one in Central Oregon on 21 August 2017, and you’ve got to see it. I saw the last one on 9 March 2016 in Indonesia, on Belitung Island. Any solar eclipse is spectacular because it turns the world upside down. The moon blocks the sun. And in the middle of the day, you are looking at the stars and the sun’s corona. You see the solar flares – these flickers of orange and red. It’s remarkable.
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