By Mark Odell in London
March 28, 2014
The sudden switch in focus across hundreds of kilometres of the southern Indian Ocean in the hunt for flight MH370 underlines just how little real information investigators have at their disposal.
The favourite phrase of officials is “the most credible lead”, of which they have had a few during the past week as the families of those aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight – and a fascinated global audience – wait for answers. But it reveals how much of the search is still down to trial and error.
“The information is very, very confused at the moment,” says Matthew Greaves, head of the safety and accident centre at Cranfield University in the UK. “They [the international investigation team] are trying to be as open as possible but some of the information they are releasing is wrong and they are having to correct it.”
After numerous “credible leads” of debris in parts of the southern Indian Ocean this week, in an area spanning 1.6m sq km, the search abruptly shifted 1,100km northeast on Friday after data appeared to help investigators get a fix on the speed of the aircraft.
Establishing the speed, just one of the many unknowns in a search that is by far the most perplexing of modern aviation history, is crucial as it should give investigators a better idea of where the aircraft would have sent it last “ping” to an Inmarsat satellite.
If the speed is not known, all that can be established is that MH370 was somewhere on a large arc, equidistant from the satellite, that spans thousands of kilometres of ocean.
But the explanation behind why the search has shifted closer to Australia – that it was travelling faster than first thought, burning more fuel and thereby reducing its range – appeared to contradict information out this week from Malaysian investigators.
That information predicted that the faster the aircraft had flown, the farther away it would have ended up from the west coast of Australia.
Even the chart published by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority on Friday suggests the latest search area is closer to where the aircraft should have gone down if it was flying more slowly – 400 knots compared with either 469kn or 475kn.
No one involved in the investigation in either Malaysia or Australia could be reached for comment, although drift and ocean currents were both possible explanations for the discrepancy.
Mr Greaves, who helps train investigators from the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch, which is one of the main agencies involved in the search, says the problem is that the hunt for MH370 is unlike any normal investigation.
“Normally, all of this gets done at a much slower pace and behind closed doors. Every investigation has good information and bad information to sift through but in this case they don’t have much to go on so they are putting out every bit of information they have.
“As soon as they find some debris that indicated the aircraft has gone down at sea things will be different but at the moment there is a total void,” he says.
The sightings by five aircraft on Friday of “objects of various colours” may give cause for hope. Much will depend on whether any debris can be retrieved by ships in the area this weekend.
Until that happens, search efforts will have progressed little since the beginning of the week, when investigators decided they had enough proof the aircraft had come down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
Mark Binskin, vice-chief of the Australian Defence Forces, left little room for doubt about the challenges for the multinational teams, when he said this week: “We’re not searching for a needle in a haystack. We’re still trying to define where the haystack is.”