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The search for flight MH370: what role Australia will now take

Crikey’s aviation expert looks at the key developments on day 12 of the events that began as a routine red eye Malaysia Airlines flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing …

On a day when Courtney Love found missing flight MH370 and posted the proof on her Facebook page, the near-certain tragic loss of 239 lives in the world’s most mysterious airliner disappearance risks being sunk in a sea of ridicule and supposition. But a major part of the search is now being run from Australia.

Plane Talking journalist Ben Sandilands looks at the key developments on day 12 of the events that began as a routine red-eye Malaysia Airlines flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing …

Where is the RAAF Base Pearce search (near Perth) looking?

At a New South Wales-sized area of the southern Indian Ocean, 3000 kilometres from Perth, far from any reefs, archipelagos or raised land. And it is not even near Antarctica, or Heard Island; it might as well be on the far side of the moon.

What is its significance?

Superficially, the area is in the 12-day drift, current and wind line at the end of an arc of southern possibilities from which an electronic standby signal from a communications system installed on the 777-200ER, known as ACARS, could have been sent to an Inmarsat satellite parked over the equator in the western Indian Ocean.

The signal was recorded at 8.11am Kuala Lumpur time from the flight, which took off at 12.40am on March 8, before it was “intentionally diverted” from its flight path over the Gulf of Thailand. No further signals were received, and the jet is said to have been down to its last 30 minutes of fuel at that time.

MH370 could equally possibly be at any point along a northern arc stretching from Laos to the Caspian Sea at the moment that signal was sent. In theory.

Why has Australia been selective and gone for the most distant part of the southern arc? 

Information kept secret by the Malaysia authorities was provided to Australia by the United States National Transportation Safety Board and refined the satellite data, including, it seems, spy satellite data, to reconstruct the probable flight paths MH370 could have flown to a point on the mirror-image southern and northern arcs of possibility. We see part of that data displayed on the map issued by AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, yesterday …

The two lines of arrows represent modelling of a higher or lower cruise speed prior to the last standby signal.

But they go further, as much as a few hundred kilometres from the signal point estimate, to a splashdown estimate, which could have been catastrophic, or in an optimistic assessment, sufficiently controlled and gentle to permit an escape into life rafts.

Does anything favour a southern rather than northern location for a crash?

US authorities favour the southern hemisphere “solution” and have been saying so for days, despite Malaysia persisting with a South China Sea search. That search also infuriated China, which might well have used similar analysis to the US to arrive at this conclusion.

This is not to say the plane did not come down in the northern hemisphere, but the concentration of  civil and military radar systems and the visibility of most 777-capable airstrips make this less likely.

Australia is clearly in possession of very good intelligence as to the probable movements of MH370.

Are we running our own show?

Very much. The loss of more than titular co-ordination control of the searches that now involve 25 nations was clearly conceded by the Malaysia authorities at their briefing in KL last night.

However, Australia is working very closely with the US, and the aerial resources by the end of today will be four RAAF AP-3C Orions, one NZ Orion, one somewhat faster US P-8 Poseidon and according to some information, another US Orion and a Chinese aircraft, type unknown in the near future.

So why haven’t we flown straight to  the debris on the first sweeps yesterday?

It’s a huge area, the modelling of drift, current and wind effects is seriously imprecise at a fine scale,  and the wreckage might really be in the high Himalayas, or somewhere in Pakistan or Kazakhstan after all.

How can debris be recovered?

Merchant shipping is the fastest option. Although the sea lanes through the search area are lightly used, it was crossed by one vessel yesterday and will be crossed by another two in the immediate future.

What could we find?

Not much if anything of the victims unfortunately after such a long time, but perhaps items of clothing, seating, other cabin fixtures, maybe a phone with images or messages. If any debris can be worked back to a likely impact point there is around 19 days of battery life remaining in the black box data and voice recorders sending out pings, which can be picked up using buoys if they are deployed within reasonable distance of their resting place at the bottom of a very deep sea.

How much credence if any can be given to theories about pilot incapacitation, secret military cargos and the like?

There are a number of very well-argued theories, like this one,  that the pilots were overcome by an emergency like a fire and tried to turn back but lost control of the 777,  which then flew an autopilot until the fuel ran out, around about the time of the last satellite standby signal seven hours 31 minutes after departure.

The problems with these theories include the jet displaying signs of continued, and quite clever, pilot manipulation in flying near but not in several busy air routes well after it disappeared off civil air traffic control screens.  That data has been extracted from primary returns on defence radar.

If there were a severe fire in or under or just behind the 777’s cockpit the damage would almost certainly have compromised the jet’s structure and systems, making a flight time endurance of a further six hours 52 minutes after the co-pilot said “all right, good night” highly unlikely.

Something happened to MH370 soon after those words, at 1.19am on March 8 local time, but we don’t know what exactly happened, nor why it continued to fly, to an unknown location until soon after 8.11 that morning.

The answers may have been scattered over and under the wild south Indian and southern oceans, sharing in that vastness, an unsung and unknown sea burial with Scott of Antarctica and his men.

8
  • 1
    JennyWren
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to hear what you think of this theory:
    http://mh370shadow.com/post/79838944823/did-malaysian-airlines-370-disappear-using-sia68-sq68

  • 2
    Scott Henderson
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Again - great reporting!

    Couple of comments (also made via twitter). They wouldn’t need military sat data to determine these probable tracks. The intermediate ping arcs would only give a few solutions assuming a straight track and constant speed from known start point.

    Also if someone overlaid the final ping arc, I think you would find these tracks assume ‘worst case’ extra fly and glide time - hence the extension of the search area to the north. East extension obviously for wind/current.

  • 3
    Salamander
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Where does the evidence about the aircraft heading for these way points come from?

    Is it merely an inference from the primary radar tracking data of the turn-back flight path?

    On the other hand, if they have evidence that the western way points were pre-programmed, this must have come from an ACAR transmission before it was disabled.

    This would mean the new flight path was programmed before 1.07 am, ie before the apparently normal voice sign-off at 1.19.

    Also, if a “new” return-west flight path was transmitted, why would this not have raised alarm bells or a query at the time it was received?

  • 4
    Scott Henderson
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    @salamander. They (NTSB etc.) have 7 pairs of distance arcs from the satellite MH370 pinged, although only one pair have been published. Each one is one hour apart. If the start point (based on last radar contact) is assumed, and a constant speed, constant track is assumed their will only be a finite number of possible track solutions.

    Other solutions will exist - but they will include variable tracks with variable speeds. These tracks merely represent highest probability against the sat ping data.

  • 5
    j.oneill
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I suggest they focus their search inside a large hangar on Diego Garcia.

  • 6
    Salamander
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Scott. However I am not referring to the pings or to the extrapolated arcs for SAR, but to the navigational way points Vampi, Gival and Igrex marking aviation corridors that some commenters have suggested were pre-programmed into the FMS either before of after takeoff.

    But from further reading it appears that the notion of pre-programming these waypoints was merely an hypothesis put forward to possibly account fot the path actually tracked on the military radar.

  • 7
    Scott Henderson
    Posted Wednesday, 19 March 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Sorry @salamander only half read your comment. PPRuNe suggesting last 30min ACARS reports normally include next two waypoints, and in this case alternate plan must have been executed prior to 1:07 transmission. Speculated alternate plan had same common next waypoint but one after was the one across the peninsula (VAMPI?).

    So yes it would seem Malaysia may have had this info for some time.

  • 8
    ShitsGottaStop
    Posted Thursday, 20 March 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    j.oneill @ #5
    Ditto.
    If it hasn’t already been re-painted and flown elsewhere…
    And why isn’t the Diego Garcia option being seriously reviewed, or talked about by many? Only ‘fringe’ conspiracy sites and some less-than-dubious ‘news’ sites are mentioning it, even though it is one of the more likely destinations, if we are to assume that the aircraft was not crashed/ditched.
    But what of the passengers and crew? Being put to work in copra plantations?

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