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May 18, 2016

As the search ends for MH370, what we know -- and what we never will

Hopes that the wreckage fragments from MH370 will tell more about the jet's last moments have been dashed.

Stories that the search for MH370 will be called off by the end of July aren’t new, as those who follow the saga would know better than those who wrote the latest general media stories with no doubt sincere, but indignant, bewilderment.

It has been there in large letters at the end of every official search update for more than a year, stating that unless there was a discovery or a credible new lead, the deep ocean search would end when the designated priority search zone had been fully examined.

Less than 15,000 square kilometres remain unsearched of the last-gasp 120,000-square-kilometre zone that was identified on the “known probabilities”, and that remaining terrain will likely be exhausted by the end of this July. Or maybe sooner.

But there is one perhaps not surprising morsel of new information in the interviews given by the outgoing chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Martin Dolan, in relation to the five pieces of wreckage so far identified as coming from the missing Malaysia Airlines 777.

That is, they don’t tell us all that much. Little has been deduced from them as to the last moments of the flight, which went “dark” over the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board on March 8, 2014, or so Dolan said.

The fragments — from a right-side horizontal stabiliser near the tail; from the trailing edge of the right-hand side of the wing; from the cowling of one of its two engines; and from a bulkhead panel near the first door on the right — do, however, allow a few obvious but not necessarily helpful conclusions to be drawn.

They have all been torn or detached off the main body of the jet. The cabin panel is arguably ominous for those who believe in a survivable ditching at the end of MH370’s flight to oblivion. It appears to have been sheared off at a hinge.

Given its location, it points to an enormous force of water smashing inward through the cockpit of the 777 on impact with the sea.

The mechanics of “liberating” the cabin fitting from its housing do not therefore seem amenable to a controlled ditching of the jet, as some followers of the mystery have suggested.

When MH370 struck the Indian Ocean, it was a blunt force that tore that panel off its location near the right front door. It was torn free of its setting, and it escaped to the surface from a hole in the jet.

Keep in mind that the plug nozzle type setting of the main doors of all jet airliners are structurally very strong and are often found intact in a mess of smaller pieces of wreckage in plane crashes. The three-metre-wide piston of high-velocity water was unlikely to have come in through the door, but from in front of it, and past it. In seconds.

The fuselage itself is of thinner gauge construction, albeit with a flexible strength that accommodates cabin pressurisation cycles according to very different design and certification criteria for doors and the associated slides and release mechanisms, which are intended for human activation and deployment.

You should, if you are a very good, attentive passenger, dutifully read all you need to know about doors and smaller exits from the handy “how to get out of the plane when the cabin crew are ‘incapacitated’ drill” that is set out in the safety card.

If the search is declared over without result in coming weeks or months, there are two major questions to be asked about it, apart from potential criminal action or negligence related questions that can only be answered in KL.

The first: “Has MH370 been passed over or missed by the search effort?” The answer would be “possibly”.

The search zone is in a very complex and often very deep area of the south Indian Ocean, and the ATSB has acknowledged that risk and commissioned follow-up repeat looks at some locations.

The second: “Were there too many variables at play for the definition of a most probable search zone?” The self-evident answer to that one would be “yes”.

*This story was originally published at Plane Talking

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