Why hasn’t MH370 been found?

Elle Hunt
Thursday 19 January 2017

Australia’s multimillion-dollar search effort for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight ‘tested the limits of human endeavour’ – and failed. Where did it go wrong?

Nearly three years after the disappearance of MH370, theories abound as to what caused the Boeing-777 to change course and fly more than six hours with its satellite and navigation systems turned off, before plummeting into the Indian Ocean at terrifying speed.

Plenty of theories, but only piecemeal evidence.

And now, with the conclusion of the largest and most expensive underwater search effort in history, the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia have stopped looking for more.

At a media conference in Melbourne on Wednesday, the Australian transport minister, Darren Chester, said the mission led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau had been at the “cutting edge of science and technology, and tested the limits of human endeavour”.

Why did such an extraordinary effort fail?

Chester stressed that “very limited data” had been available in the months after the plane’s disappearance on 8 March 2014. But independent investigators who have been following the search closely say the ATSB made crucial errors in determining where to look.

The Independent Group is a network of about 20 pilots, scientists, engineers and experts around the world united by an interest in solving the mystery of MH370. With members based in the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, France, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong, members communicate mostly over email and analyse publicly available information.

Over the past two years some have occasionally conferred with the ATSB; in March 2016 the then-chief commissioner, Martin Dolan, told the Guardian that the IG provided valuable “criticism and questioning”.

The ATSB and the IG “by and large” agree, according to Richard Godfrey, an aerospace engineer and IG member based in Frankfurt. “It’s a lot to get your mind around, all of the data in its significance.”

But there are also crucial gaps, even in the data that was used to determine the underwater search area.

The turn south

The ATSB’s underwater operation began in early October 2014, nearly six months after the aerial and surface search had concluded without success, with a 60,000 sq km “priority area” determined by analysis of the plane’s last radar and satellite communications.

The critical disagreement between the IG and the ATSB is over the estimation of the moment that MH370 turned south.

At 2.22am local time the Malaysian military’s primary radar said the plane was bound north-west along the Malacca Strait. That was reiterated by Inmarsat satellite data at 2.25. But just after 2.22, the plane was abruptly lost from the radar – and by 3.41 the satellite data showed it had inexplicably changed course to track in a southerly direction.

MH370’s final resting place depended – still depends – on when it made that all-important turn, and how far south it flew before running out of fuel and crashed.

Malaysia Airlines’ operational centre, having noticed the plane had “gone dark” on radar and was not responding on radio, called its satellite phone at 2.39 and again at 2.40. There was no answer.

The ATSB believes the plane had turned south by the point of the first attempted call. “But it could have taken place much later, and that changes things enormously in terms of how far south the plane could have flown,” Godfrey said.

He and the rest of the IG believe that the plane was descending by 2.39, at a rate of about 2,000 feet a minute towards an air force base in India’s Nicobar Islands. This would suggest MH370 could have turned south as late as 3.36 – almost an hour after the attempted phone call.

If the satellite data was interpreted to show a descent, the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed up to 870km further north than the northernmost point of the area searched by the ATSB.

In its June 2014 report defining the search area, the ATSB was forthcoming about “uncertainty associated” with the Inmarsat data and the impact it would have on the plane’s location, going so far as to state that “no evidence was available to conclusively determine” when the turn – or turns – took place.

Despite this significant ambiguity, the assumptions about the satellite data were used to determine the search area, which Godfrey described as a “little bit of a screw-up”. The bigger one was to come.

The search area increases

In April 2015, with some 40% of the priority area yet to be searched, there was a tripartite announcement that the search zone would be extended by a further 60,000 sq km, “thereby covering the entire highest probability area identified by expert analysis”.

This 120,000 sq km total area was a remote stretch of water almost twice the size of Tasmania, nearly 2,500km off the coast of Western Australia.

Over almost two and a half years, eight search vessels scoured depths of up to 6km in waves of sometimes up to 20 metres. Greg Hood, the ATSB’s chief commissioner, said at Wednesday’s press conference they were “some of the most extreme ocean conditions anywhere in the world”.

“This has been the largest and most challenging underwater search operation in history, and we have a high degree of confidence now that the aircraft is not in the area in which we have searched,” he said.

The likely location of MH370’s wreck is a narrow stretch of water known as “the seventh arc” – a line connecting seven so-called “handshakes” with the plane recorded by the Inmarsat satellite. In doubling the search area, the ATSB committed to searching 40 nautical miles of seafloor either side of it.

“That is the one single, huge mistake in this whole exercise,” Godfrey said.

As long ago as September 2014, he and 12 other members of the IG co-authored a report recommending that the width of the search area be reduced but its length be extended northwards. He stands by that analysis today.

The ATSB had been guided by the so-called “glide theory”: that with a pilot in control, the plane flew a further 100 nautical miles after running out of fuel in a controlled ditching. But this was disputed from the start by Inmarsat satellite data that showed that the plane was in a steep dive in its final moments, “accelerating into the ocean at quite a horrendous rate”, said Godfrey – up to 15,000 feet a minute.

This data, only accepted by the ATSB late last year, would situate the wreck no more than 15 nautical miles on either side of the seventh arc. The decision to widen the search area to 40 was unfounded, said Godfrey, and another example of the ATSB committing too much on the strength of too little.

The only other aviation disaster akin to MH370was Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. That recovery operation was stop-start as evidence came to light.

But the ATSB’s analysis of debris that eventually came to be found on beaches in the Indian Ocean and on the east coast of Africa, starting with a flaperon on Réunion Island in late July 2015, occurred at the same time of its search of the seventh arc.

“They set out at the start what they were going to cover, and they kept to it,” Godfrey said.

The next best guess

The ATSB expressed confidence right up until the search’s final stages. Before the second anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, Dolan said it was “very likely” to be in the remaining 30,000 sq km area.

It only publicly expressed misgivings in December, after a three-day summit of experts in Canberra reviewed the findings so far. In its subsequent report, it announced a “high degree of confidence” that the plane was north of the seventh arc, in a patch of ocean of approximately 25,000 sq km.

Even this new area, according to Godfrey, is still based on “the same false assumptions”. He would search even further north: “If I had a million dollars to spend, that’s where I’d spend it.”

But the decision to extend the search was not the ATSB’s to make. In July 2016 the three governments had reiterated their earlier resolution not to extend the search, unless “credible new information” led to the aircraft’s “specific location”.

Those caveats were stressed by Chester, the Australian transport minister, and his Malaysian counterpart, Liow Tiong Lai, after the ATSB’s First Principles Review report was published.

“It did come as a surprise that Darren Chester’s office rather quickly brushed aside any discussion on a possible extension of the search after the First Principles Review,” said K S Narendran from Chennai, India, who lost his wife on MH370. He was present at that tripartite meeting in July.

“I did carry the impression from that meeting that Malaysia was perhaps not too keen on continuation of the search, while the Australians were sympathetic to our situation and our entreaties for a continuation of the search effort,” he said.

“Malaysia has from very early on given the impression that either it was not up to the task, or was keen to fold up the search and investigation.”

A spokesperson for the Malaysian government responded: “We wish to note that every decision with regards to MH370 search efforts are made in the spirit of Tripartite.”

Malaysia’s investigation

Criticism of the Malaysian investigation for a perceived lack of urgency and transparency has been voiced by the IG, journalists and passengers’ next of kin. Communication and reporting has been haphazard and deficient in detail, with a thousand-page report kept confidential within Malaysian police (but leaked to the IG).

Australian authorities have not joined the criticism but they have been somewhat hamstrung in their role leading search and recovery when Malaysia, as the country in which MH370 was registered, holds responsibility for the investigation, as well as the analysis of debris.

When the US independent investigator Blaine Gibson delivered aircraft debris to the ATSB in Canberra in person last September – partly out of frustration at Malaysia’s months-long delay to collect it – the ATSB’s on-the-record response was that it was “seeking advice from Malaysian authorities regarding how they would like to proceed”.

“Australian authorities have a difficult diplomatic issue,” said Don Thompson, an IG member based in Belfast. “One doesn’t make overt criticisms of one’s international partners.”

He characterises the Malaysian authorities’ approach as “incredibly callous” – even secretive.

On 21 March 2014 the country’s air force chief of air operations presented a graphic depicting a series of radar point to a delegation of next of kin in Beijing. The track extending over the Malacca Strait was assumed to show MH370 after it had deviated from its course, as recorded by military radar.

Government investigators made no subsequent reference to the graphic, nor was it shared with the ATSB. A photograph taken by a member of the press is believed to be the only image of the data publicly available.

Thompson pointed to this as evidence of “silence and stonewalling and questionable excuses”. “It’s unconscionable that Malaysia refuses to be more open about this,” he said.

The flight simulator mystery

Last July the journalist and commentator Jeff Wise reported in New York Magazine that the home flight simulator of MH370’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had been used to plot a course to the southern Indian Ocean – one month before the plane vanished along a similar route.

Liow, Malaysia’s transport minister, said Malaysian authorities were “not aware” of the simulated route, nor the FBI analysis of it outlined by Wise – even after the ATSB confirmed both.

The significance of the simulation is another point of contention between the IG and the ATSB, with the latter stressing that it did not show intention to fly; it was not necessarily plotted by Zaharie; and there were only six points relevant to the course apparently taken by MH370.

“I personally don’t think it’s the kind of simulation that people do every day on a flight simulator,” Godfrey said. Taken as fact, he said, it gave “tremendous clues” to the whereabouts of MH370, narrowing it down to an area of below 10,000 sq km much further north of the search area – “that hasn’t been searched at all”.

His personal view, not unanimous within the IG, he said, was that Zaharie crashed MH370 in an act of murder-suicide – a “politically unsavoury” opinion to hold. If found to be true, it has enormous implications for families’ ongoing battles for compensation from Malaysia Airlines, which was placed in government administration in May 2015 after the MH370 and subsequent MH17 air disasters.

The two most advanced of these cases, lodged in the Kuala Lumpur high court and the Australian federal court, have reached an impasse after the airline refused to hand over logbooks, flight crew’s medical records and other documentation.

“You have to ask the question, when you know that someone has information they are keeping secret, is why – why don’t they want to divulge,” Godfrey said. “It is for me rather obvious that they are scared of compensation claims that will go into the billions, not into millions … It’s not just in [Malaysia’s] interest to admit that this was a result of a crime.”

Sucked into the black hole

If Malaysia wants the mystery of MH370 to just go away, public opinion is on its side – particularly in Australia, which is perceived to have gone above and beyond given that it had only six citizens on board.

Wise, the journalist who describes himself as “abnormally obsessed” with MH370, said the public had “lost interest in the story” – his wife included.

For two years he has argued that MH370 is in Kazakhstan after having been hijacked on Vladimir Putin’s instruction. He was excommunicated by the IG in March 2015, he said for “being so far out on a limb”; the IG said for abusing members’ trust.

Wise, for his part, said the IG “really bristle” at the implication that the perpetrators could have been smarter than them. Because at face value his theory is disproved by the discovery of debris, he has also accused Blaine Gibson – who he says has spent his career “eyeball-deep in Russia” – of planting it; Gibson said he had received death threats as a result.

Wise said his questions over inconsistencies in Gibson’s finds were legitimate but acknowledged the challenge of distinguishing them from what he termed “the toxic fog” surrounding MH370. “There’s so much misinformation that’s relentlessly put out there … It’s an almost impossible task for someone who isn’t sucked into this black hole.”

His conviction has been strengthened by the ATSB’s failure in the Indian Ocean. “I don’t expect you to believe me, I don’t believe everyone else. But I would point out that the plane isn’t there.”

Pointing to a new potential search area in the last stages of a failing mission allowed the ATSB to save face, said Wise: it defended its significant investment to date while presenting next steps that it would have known it would probably be prevented from taking.

“It’s frustrating to me that they’re taking this attitude of, ‘We know where it is, we’re just not allowed to look’ …

“As the search winds up three years on, the ATSB is trying to say, ‘We did our best, we were unlucky, end of story – we never solved Amelia Earhart either, but life goes on.’ I think this is the one opportunity to say, ‘Were you unlucky, or were you bamboozled?’”

But a failure can either be an ending or a new beginning. Long before the last ship departed the search area on Tuesday, there had been little incentive to ask “Where next?”

The real barrier to finding out what happened to MH370 is not a lack of evidence, capability or even a next best guess at the plane’s whereabouts. It’s apathy.

Thompson, the IG member in Belfast, said after three years the mystery had “receded from most people’s minds”.

“But there are about 1,000 or 1,500 people who wake every morning with the reality: ‘My husband, my father, my daughter, my cousin, my sister, my brother still hasn’t come home, and I don’t know where they are.’”

Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Bangkok

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