Recent well-placed hints by Australia that suggest it is looking to wind up the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have made it to The New York TimesThe implications of this need to be carefully considered.

“Looking to” isn’t the same as “has decided”, as Canberra made clear this morning after the US story hit the internet. Australia would not reach such a decision without the agreement of the Malaysian authorities, and there have been no structured discussions with Malaysia or China as to striking a tripartite agreement to end the search.

The ending of a search obligation by a country such as Australia, which is a party to a set of International Civil Aviation Organization protocols, isn’t something lightly done, but Australia has been exemplary in its conduct of the detailed sea-floor search since last year once there was sufficient preliminary bathymetric mapping of the terrain to safely deploy towed side scanning sonar devices (or “towfish”).

The NYT story itself would be a very good catch-up for Australians who have given up trying to follow the mysterious disappearance of MH370, but not much use to those who have been parsing every word to come out of the Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau or the minister responsible for aviation, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss.

Unless the current and well-resourced search of the “priority areas” gets lucky within a matter of weeks, it is likely that Australia, Malaysia and China will contemplate the non-extension of the efforts to find the lost Boeing 777-200ER, which vanished with at least 239 people on board almost a year ago on March 8, 2014, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The search organisation needs to declare this in advance of the completion of the priority search area this May in order to give proper notice to the operators of the four ships that have been variously mapping, sonar scanning, and in one case, closely examining target areas on the complex sea floor with a deep-sea, automated submersible vehicle.

The risk in doing what may, on the available evidence, seem the logical course of action is that of feeding conspiracy scenarios. And some of those scenarios contain hard to dismiss elements of concern, while others are just wacko.

Malaysia’s authorities have lied to or grievously misled the public and the relatives of the lost passengers and crew on a number of counts; they have kept part of the cargo manifest secret for so long nobody will believe anything they might say about it in the future; and they have, no doubt for some good reasons, been opaque about the criminal investigations that have been made made in parallel to the physical search.

It is the performance of the Malaysian authorities that makes quitting so risky, but at a technical level, it has also been the fierce critiques applied to the official view as to where and at what speed and altitude the jet flew to its doom that will continue to be controversial.

With good reason. Much of that good reason comes from the self-styled and exceedingly well-credentialed Independent, Group which, with some difficulty, eventually engaged the ATSB — which, like the JACC, manages the search. (The ATSB/JACC thing isn’t worthy of space for the purpose of this story, which is to explore the implications of ending the search.)

This is a good place to start to understand the Independent Group’s work. It requires your careful and undivided attention.

In recent weeks, Mike Chillit, an indefatigable ship tracker, has been following the activities of the search flotilla, and he has picked up indications that at least some of them have widened their scan tracking, which would work against finding small pieces of wreckage, but radically improve the chances of picking up evidence of big chunks, like the two engines and the main undercarriage assembly of the jet, by exploring a larger area in the same time.

There is no doubt that the search is a determined one, and it is being conducted with confidence that MH370 is in or very near the general area of the priority search. But the problem is the quality of the data on which the search priorities have been framed.

Mike Chillit, who can be followed on Twitter @MikeChillit, has summarised the plausible variations as to where MH370 might be if some tightly held assumptions are incorrect, in this morning’s diagram (below). It makes discontinuing the search graphically understandable.

Peter Fray

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