The "Almost Inconceivable" MH370 Search Failure


Published Oct 3, 2017 7:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has released its final report into missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, saying it is "almost inconceivable" the aircraft has not been found.

“It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era with 10 million passengers boarding commercial aircraft every day, for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those on board.”

However, the understanding of where MH370 may be located is better now than it has ever been, states the Bureau. The underwater search has eliminated most of the high probability areas yielded by reconstructing the aircraft’s flight path, and the debris drift studies conducted in the past 12 months have identified the most likely area with increasing precision. 

The Boeing 777 aircraft was lost on March 8, 2014 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carrying 12 crew and 227 passengers. The search continued for 1,046 days until January 17, 2017 when it was suspended in accordance with a decision made by the governments of Malaysia, Australia and China.

The initial surface search and the subsequent underwater search for the missing aircraft have been the largest searches of their type in aviation history. The 52 days of the surface search involving aircraft and surface vessels covered an area of several million square kilometers. The underwater search started with a bathymetry survey which continued as required throughout the underwater search and has mapped a total of 710,000 square kilometers of Indian Ocean seafloor, the largest ever single hydrographic survey. The high resolution sonar search covered an area in excess of 120,000 square kilometers, also the largest ever search or survey of its kind. 

There were no transmissions received from the aircraft after the first 38 minutes of the flight. Systems designed to automatically transmit the aircraft’s position including the transponder and the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system failed to transmit the aircraft’s position after this time. Subsequent analysis of radar and satellite communication data revealed the aircraft had actually continued to fly for a further seven hours. Its last position was positively fixed at the northern tip of Sumatra by the surveillance systems operating that night, six hours before it ended the flight in the southern Indian Ocean.

The challenge which faced those tasked with the search was to trace the whereabouts of the aircraft using only the very limited data that was available. This data consisted of aircraft performance information and satellite communication metadata initially, and then later during the underwater search, long-term drift studies to trace the origin of MH370 debris which had been adrift for more than a year, and in some cases, more than two years. The types of data, and the scientific methods used for its analysis, were never intended to be used to track an aircraft or pin point its final location.

The underwater search applied scientific principles to defining the most probable area to be searched through modeling the aircraft’s flight path and behavior at the end of the flight. The flight path modeling was based on unique and sophisticated analysis of the metadata associated with the periodic automated satellite communications to and from the aircraft in the final six hours of the flight. The end-of-flight behavior of the aircraft, when MH370 was considered to have exhausted its fuel, has been analyzed and simulated.

In 2015 and 2016, debris from MH370 was found on the shores of Indian Ocean islands and the east African coastline. The debris yielded significant new insights into how and where the aircraft ended its flight. It was established from the debris that the aircraft was not configured for a ditching at the end-of-flight. By studying the drift of the debris and combining these results with the analysis of the satellite communication data and the results of the surface and underwater searches, a specific area of the Indian Ocean was identified which was more likely to be where the aircraft ended the flight.

Re-analysis of satellite imagery taken on March 23, 2014 in an area close to the 7th arc has identified a range of objects which may be MH370 debris. This analysis identifies an area of less than 25,000 square kilometers which has the highest likelihood of containing MH370.

Australian researchers at the nation's research agency CSIRO continue the quest.

The reasons for the loss of MH370 cannot be established with certainty until the aircraft is found. 

The final report is available here.