Fugro Clarifies Stance on Unsuccessful MH370 Search

Malaysian and Australian investigators examine the piece of aircraft debris found on Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania

By MarEx 2016-07-21 18:43:54

Fugro has rebuffed a Reuters news story that indicated the company believes the search for the Malaysian Airlines MH370 has been conducted in the wrong place.

Flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014 with 239 passengers and crew on board en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Searchers led by engineering group Fugro have been combing an area roughly the size of Greece for two years.

That search, over 120,000 square kilometres of the southern Indian Ocean off Western Australia, is expected to end in three months and could be called off after that following a meeting of key countries Malaysia, China and Australia on Friday. So far, nothing has been found.

Reuters quotes Fugro project director Paul Kennedy saying that while he does not exclude extreme possibilities that could have made the plane impossible to spot in the search zone, he and his team believe a more likely option is the plane glided down - meaning it was manned at the end - and made it beyond the area marked out by calculations from satellite images.

"If it was manned it could glide for a long way," Kennedy said. "You could glide it for further than our search area is, so I believe the logical conclusion will be, well maybe that is the other scenario."

However, Fugro has since released a statement saying: “A Reuters article by Jonathan Barrett and Swati Pandey on the MH370 search was published 21 July 2016 with the title “We’ve been looking in the wrong place”. The article inferred that Fugro was saying “We’ve been looking in the wrong place.”  

“Fugro wishes to make it very clear that we believe the search area to have been well defined based on all of the available scientific data. In short, we have been thoroughly looking in the most probable place – and that is the right place to search.”

Doubts that the search teams are looking in the right place will likely fuel calls for all data to be made publicly available so that academics and rival companies can pursue an "open source" solution - a collaborative public answer to the airline industry's greatest mystery, stated Reuters.

Fugro's controlled glide hypothesis is also the first time officials have lent some support to contested theories that someone was in control during the flight's final moments.

Deciding the search area in 2014, authorities assumed the plane had no "inputs" during its final descent, meaning there was no pilot or no conscious pilot. They believe it was on auto-pilot and spiralled when it ran out of fuel.

But Kennedy said a skilled pilot could glide the plane approximately 120 miles (193 kilometers) from its cruising altitude after running out of fuel. One pilot told Reuters it would be slightly less than that.

For the aircraft to continue gliding after fuel has run out, someone must manually put the aircraft into a glide - nose down with controlled speed.

"If you lose all power, the auto-pilot kicks out. If there is nobody at the controls, the aircraft will plummet down," said a captain with experience flying Boeing 777s - the same as MH370. Like all pilots interviewed for this story, he declined to be named given the controversy around the lost jet.

Fugro works on a "confidence level" of 95 percent, a statistical measurement used, in Fugro's case, to indicate how certain the plane debris was not in the area they have already combed, a seabed peppered with steep cliffs and underwater volcanoes.

"The end-of-flight scenarios are absolutely endless," Fugro managing director Steve Duffield said. "Which wing ran out of fuel first, did it roll this way or did it tip that way?"

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the agency coordinating the search, has consistently defended the defined search zone. It did not immediately respond to questions over whether it was assessing the controlled glide theory.

Slow Progress

Ongoing poor weather conditions have severely impacted search operations and resulted in delays to search operations of around six to eight weeks. The ATSB started its July 20 operational update with a reassurance: “Our work will continue to be thorough and methodical, so sometimes weekly progress may seem slow. Please be assured that work is continuing and is aimed at finding MH370 as quickly as possible.”

The ATSB goes on to report that a piece of aircraft debris found on Pemba Island, just off the coast of Tanzania, in late June has been transported to Australia for examination. Malaysia and Australia have worked with Tanzanian officials to assume responsibility for the item, believed to be an outboard wing flap. The ATSB is working with Malaysian investigators to ascertain whether it is from a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.

Families want more

Relatives of people on board the missing flight urged governments on Thursday to step up the hunt for the aircraft, a day before a meeting where ministers could decide to call off the search. Malaysian, Chinese and Australian ministers will meet in Kuala Lumpur on Friday to discuss the future of the search.

Almost A$180 million ($135 million) has been spent on an underwater search spanning 120,000 square kilometers in the southern Indian Ocean, the most expensive in aviation history.

Jacquita Gonzales, the wife of MH370 steward Patrick Gomes, said China and Malaysia had not contributed enough to the search effort, which is coordinated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

"China, you could do more. I'm sorry for being so frank but you have the most at stake here," she said at a news conference. Most of the passengers on board MH370 were Chinese nationals.

"(Malaysia), you need to do your bit and not just say 'I'm so sorry, we're short of funds, there's nowhere else to search'," Gonzales said.

K.S. Narendran, whose wife was a passenger on MH370, called on the Malaysian government to seek help in securing funding.

"This country and its leadership have wealthy friends. And I suppose therefore, there really should be no argument for a paucity of funds," he said.

The three governments had previously agreed that unless any new credible evidence arose, they would not extend the search which was originally scheduled to end in June but has been hampered by bad weather and is expected to resume in December.