Clock ticking on MH370 flight mystery
Conspiracy theories, 19th-century shipwrecks, fights about money and mapping of unknown territory all play a part in tragic hunt for answers and closure.
On May 19, 11 months after it began the painstaking task of scouring 60,000 square kilometres of Indian Ocean seabed for signs of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, Dutch geological survey company Fugro located a wreckage field.
It was not what they were looking for but it was a boost to the company because it helped to silence critics who said its staff was too inexperienced and it was using the wrong equipment to find sunken wreckage.
Instead of finding the resting place of the 239 souls on the Boeing 777 that crashed in March 8 last year, Fugro located the wreckage of what is believed to be a 19th-century cargo ship, overwhelmed by a storm far off the west coast of Australia.
The find, at a depth of about 3,900 metres – more than four and a half times deeper than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is tall – validated Fugro’s credibility.
“We’re disappointed that it wasn’t the aircraft,” said Peter Foley, director of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is coordinating the search for MH370.
Nevertheless, it is “a fascinating find” that “really demonstrated that the systems, people and the equipment involved in the search are working well. It’s shown that if there’s a debris field in the search area, we’ll find it”.
In April this year, the search area was extended to 120,000 square kilometres, “thereby covering the entire highest probability area identified by expert analysis”, said Malaysia’s civil aviation department.
But ebbing political enthusiasm for the search in Australia means the hunt for MH370 is now a race against time.
Earlier this month, Malaysia’s civil aviation department said it would be holding more talks with counterparts in Australia, which is footing the lion’s share of the bill for the search, and China, which lost 153 of its citizens on board Flight MH370 to find “a way forward”.
A spokesman insisted that all three nations remained committed to the search. However, there is, clearly, tension between them with Australia’s deputy prime minister Warren Truss saying in August that, in the absence of further clues, Australia would not continue the search beyond next year.
A source close to the operation says that means the plug could be pulled as early as March.
Because it was presumed the aircraft had gone down in what the international civil aviation organisation defines as Australia’s search-and-rescue region, Australia, which had six citizens on the plane, had no choice but to assume responsibility for the operation.
Technically, that obligation ended on March 24, when the search officially became a recovery operation, but at a meeting with Malaysian and Chinese officials on May 5 last year, Australia agreed to coordinate the underwater search, which it has also ended up largely funding.
Fugro, a company whose undersea mapping expertise has been developed over decades serving the oil, gas and cable-laying industries, was hired to scan the 60,000 square kilometres of seabed where the wreck of MH370 was thought most likely to lie.
In July a wing part from MH370 washed up on the French island of Reunion. While it has not led investigators to the rest of the aircraft, or revealed exactly what happened to it, modelling of ocean currents has demonstrated that it could easily have been carried to Reunion from the search area, about 6,000 kilometres to the east, validating the choice of search area.
As to clues about what happened to the aircraft and its passengers, one theory is that lack of damage to the recovered wing section indicated that it had broken off in a relatively shallow landing on water and that the hull of the 777 could be largely intact on the ocean floor.
It has also been hypothesised that the piece broke off from the wreckage after the aircraft crashed and sank.
According to former US national transportation safety board investigator Greg Feith: “That piece maintained its integrity. It’s not crushed. You can deduce it was either a low-energy crash or a low-energy intentional ditching.”
With a lack of definitive answers, some of the missing passengers’ relatives – anger fuelled by internet conspiracy theorists – are sceptical about the hunt for wreckage.
In China, many are convinced that their loved ones have somehow survived and that the Malaysian government is covering up “the truth”.
In August, when Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak announced “with a very heavy heart” that the wreckage found on Reunion was definitely from MH370, many of the families refused to accept it.
“I don’t believe it,” said Bao Lanfang, whose son, daughter-in-law and three-year-old grandchild were on the flight.
It had been 515 days since the crash, “enough time for them to have produced fake debris”, he said.
Quite why “they” would want to do such a thing has been occupying internet conspiracy mongers since the day the plane disappeared.
Theories include a vastly complex plot in which Afghan terrorists captured a mobile US drone control centre in February last year and were shipping it in crates to China on MH370 when the CIA intervened, sacrificing everyone on board to prevent the technology falling into Chinese hands.
In August, a Malaysian communications expert – who was part of the initial effort to locate the jet using satellite data – deepened the distress of relatives by circulating unfounded speculation that the aircraft had run out of fuel and glided to a reasonably soft landing on the sea, in the manner of US Airways Flight 1549, which in January 2009 landed safely in New York’s Hudson River.
If true, then the passengers would have endured a delayed fate, waiting for the aircraft to sink.
As the search dragged on, so critics and rivals had begun to whisper that Fugro was not the right choice for the job. In June, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, leading the search operation, dismissed the criticism as “unfounded and unfair”.
Martin Dolan, ATSB’s chief commissioner, said the search for MH370 represented “thousands of hours of work by hundreds of people who are dedicated, expert and professional”.
“They are fully committed to finding the aircraft.”
Fugro’s bid had “represented the best value for money” and finding the 19th-century ship “demonstrated that they could capably manage the technical aspects and deliver the necessary results”.
“The debris in the shipwreck field was significantly smaller, and therefore harder to detect, than we expect to find with MH370,” he said.
Rob Luijnenburg, Fugro’s communications director, said it had “looked at all the technology available in the world and pulled in the best equipment that is also reliable, has a proven track record, has sufficient backup and spares available and sufficient people that can run it”.
Value for money or not, Australia is becoming increasingly touchy about having to foot most of the bill. The search has, so far, cost it close to US$80 million (Dh293m), Malaysia has fallen 50 per cent short on its offer to match that commitment and China has kept its hands firmly in its pockets – a fact to which Australian deputy prime minister Truss referred in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in August.
“The majority of the people on board were Chinese,” he said. “We obviously would have welcomed some financial assistance from them.”
While searching for MH370, Australia has also been looking for a way to avoid a similar costly commitment in future. At a meeting of the UN’s international civil aviation organisation in Montreal in February, the country presented a paper seeking clarity about who should pay in future “when ‘search and rescue operations’ have been terminated but the search continues for the purpose of an accident investigation”.
For now, out in the Indian Ocean, the gruelling work continues.
Fugro has vast experience of sea and land geological surveys for the oil and gas industry and for companies laying fibre-optic cables across the floors of the world’s oceans. But the hunt for MH370, an effort to find an aircraft on a scale never before attempted, has presented altogether novel technical, logistical and human challenges, Mr Luijnenburg said.
The relatively small survey ships – just 65 metres and 70 metres long – are “battling the toughest conditions you can imagine, they have seen waves up to 17 metres high, as tall as a five-storey building”, he said.
Working in waters up to 5,000 metres deep and 3,500 kilometres off the west coast of Australia, the ships are far beyond help in the case of an emergency. “If they see cyclones coming, there is nowhere to run – they have to ride it out,” he said.
That’s exactly what they spent the first week of October doing, holding station on “weather standby” in appalling conditions. The crews of the Discovery and Equator were finally able to restart the hunt on October 5.
Although comparisons have been made with the successful search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic in June 2009, that was “a lot easier”, said Mr Luijnenburg. “The area where Flight 447 had gone down was clear from day one because the sea was littered with debris. Yet still it took about two years to find the aircraft.”
Even if nothing is found, with 75 per cent of the world’s deep oceans unmapped, the search for MH370, taking place on the fracture zone between the Australian and Antarctic continents, is generating invaluable data that will eventually be released to geologists.
For the company and the crews carrying out the search, rotating 40 days on and off duty out of Perth, finding MH370 is all they care about.
“The guys are incredibly committed,” Mr Luijnenburg said.
“Every day they hope and pray they will find it.
“It would be such a relief for us all if we could contribute to the closure for all the people involved.”
Updated: October 21, 2015 04:00 AM