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What the MH370 search will — and won’t — find

The search party for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight is now fuelled by satellite imagery rather than speculation.

Even if a section of wreckage with the Malaysia Airlines logo on it were to turn up in satellite images or be seen by search aircraft looking for lost flight MH370 anywhere in the world today, the battle of the theories as to why it ended up there would blaze away for ages.

In one camp, mostly populated by professional and highly qualified pilots, the rallying cries are around a mechanical or systems failure explanation. These theories are in part driven by revulsion at the repercussions of pilot suicide and mass murder on their collective standing and reputations, should this be held to be the case at the general public and political level.

In the other camp, war cries come from those who believe the Boeing 777-200ER and its 239 passengers and crew are the victims of unknown but skillful persons who understood the aircraft and its systems intimately, and intentionally diverted it for motives that are unfathomable. Whether or not the Australian-led air and sea search finds something  in what remains a vast and shifting target zone in the northern reaches of the Southern Ocean, it won’t end the arguments.

The mortal remains of those on board when the red-eye from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing shortly after takeoff on Saturday, March 8, may not be recoverable in any useful way for much longer. But their images or messages on mobile phones found in jackets or seat backs might be evidence of attempted aerial piracy. The chances of retrieving such items are probably much better than those of finding and bringing to the surface the black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, or just possibly, a less well-protected device called a quick access recorder, which ground crew can access between flights or “turns” if there is a doubt about operational matters.

Black boxes on older airliners, and this was an older model 777, can be more readily interfered with or over-ridden than on some newer airliners. Among the most lucid and widely distributed arguments for mechanical or systems failure is this “simple” explanation by experienced Canadian pilot Chris Goodfellow. He sees the sudden failure of the identifying transponder on MH370, and its turn westwards, as the consequences of a fire that drove the pilots to head directly for the long runway on Langkawi island on the other side of the Malaysian peninsula.

To summarise Goodfellow’s theory: The cardinal priorities of flying in sudden emergency situation came into play as aviate, navigate and communicate.  They were consumed by the task of flying in a burning cockpit and never made it to the lesser priorities until overcome by depressurisation and lack of oxygen, after which the jet flew on until it ran out of fuel. However, fire destroys airlines very rapidly (on average 18 minutes, according to some studies), and in a cockpit, fire also destroys control systems including control computers, whether in a Boeing or an Airbus. MH370 didn’t land at Langkawi; it flew away from it, out into the busy air corridors off the western coast of Thailand and into mystery and history, according to the decoding of primary radar traces picked up on the defence radar of Malaysia, and as more recently revealed, Thailand.

It is the strong suggestion from the reconstructed early hours of MH370 (using military radar traces from a large aircraft with a dead transponder) that the 777 was under active control in making significant changes of course that further undermines the mechanical and systems failure theories. But it doesn’t eliminate them. Under questioning in Kuala Lumpur last night the acting transport minister and minister of defence Hishammuddin Hussein conceded that total failure of the aircraft rather than criminal actions could have caused the flight’s loss.

However Malaysia has come down on the side of deliberate human intervention on board MH370 to divert its intended course.  The question according to some airline operations persons spoken to last weekend by Plane Talking is how long that interference with the flight prevailed before the flight was abandoned to an autopilot setting to take it to oblivion in the southern ocean, as well as for what reasons. The follow-up flights underway today, and most likely for some time, to locate the suspicious objects found in analysis of satellite images of the Australian search area are statistically far more likely to find maritime debris like lost shipping containers or other deck equipment than parts of an airliner.

This would be true even if it were known with precision that soon after MH370 ran out of fuel on the morning of March 8 it had come down in that area. There will be something wrong with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority search if it doesn’t find shipping debris, regardless of where the 777 came down. The big X-factor in this search is the satellite data available to AMSA. Not just the time-consuming data  represented by analysing the photos satellites provide of the area of interest, but the electronic traces of MH370 that were recorded by a commercial Inmarsat parked over the west Indian Ocean on March 8, which “saw” the plane in standby communications mode seven hours and 31 minutes after it had taken off.

The Malaysian authorities have persistently resisted talking about “additional” satellite data that could have picked up electronic traces of a communications system on the Boeing 777 and through triangulation of the signals, unambiguously assigned a northern or southern hemisphere origin for those traces, rather than both alternatives, which is what happens if you rely on only a single satellite recording of such signals or “pings”. There is indirect evidence that the people at AMSA were given some very important additional US signal data, which allowed it to refine its southern search area predictions, and in turn, start the analysis of a massive amount of satellite imagery, which might reveal traces of possible MH370 debris in a particular part of the southern search zone.

It is possible that elements of the theories advanced by both camps as to the reasons why MH370 was lost are correct.

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