What Now?

04.14.14

MH370’s Black Boxes Are Dead but the Investigation Is Very Much Alive

Malaysian authorities have so botched their efforts that the search under the sea looks clear by comparison.

Search underwater is much clearer than the one in Malaysia.

How many clues to the fate of Flight MH370 can be found without physical evidence, either from wreckage or from the flight data recorders? In trying to answer this it is important to make a distinction between the vast international sea search being directed from Australia and the investigation that remains in the hands of the Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur.

In both cases a lot is happening that cannot be directly observed and reported. Journalists covering the sea search get regular briefings from Angus Houston, the retired Australian air marshal who is directing naval and air operations from Perth. Some reporters have flown on search airplanes and have been able to show the immensity of the task, but no wreckage has been sighted and journalists end up as frustrated as the searchers.

At the “sharp end” of the search, aboard the Australian vessel Ocean Shield and (as of last week) its companion, the British ship HMS Echo, the crucial and arcane work to interpret data from the towed underwater ping detector goes on beyond the eyes of the media. Houston is careful not to exaggerate the accuracy of the results (and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has had to walk back his more Panglossian view of the progress being made, now admitting that finding the black boxes would be “a massive, massive task.”)

Accepting that no more pings from the locator beacons will be detected, the Ocean Shield will now deploy the Bluefin 21 underwater robot. This suggests that searchers believe that they have sufficiently narrowed the area for the robot to be effective. Each of its missions will last 24 hours, with 16 hours spent tracking the ocean floor.

At least in the case of the sea search, we do know who the participants are, the technical capabilities of the assets being used, and the results so far.

The land-based investigation is another matter. Since the Boeing 777 vanished, the Malaysian handling of the media has been impulsive, erratic, and contradictory, leaving an impression of private agendas. Something very basic is lacking: It’s never been clear what the ground rules are for what can and cannot be revealed.

Of course, we must understand that it’s a given that we cannot expect the same kind of transparency that the Australians permit for the sea search. There are political, corporate and competing national interests involved. Specifically, there are two strongly inhibiting pressures against transparency—the certainty of liability litigation on behalf of the victims’ families and the possibility of a criminal cause rather than a technical one.

The only means of bringing balance and integrity to the investigation lies 2.8 miles down on the silt-layered bed of the Indian Ocean.

However, in the absence of physical evidence from the airplane itself the forensic investigation still has plenty to look at and work with:

First, the recent history of the airplane itself and its engines, including the records of maintenance carried out and any reported operational problems.

Second, the retrievable picture of Flight 370 itself, beginning with the pre-flight briefing of the pilots, the en route weather reports, the fueling of the airplane, the checking and loading of cargo, the delivery of catering, as well as the security of the airline’s ground handling in the two hours before the airplane left the gate.

In fact, there are thousands of hours of diligent investigation to be carried out into a lot of verifiable evidence even before the post-flight profiling of all the passengers and crew. (The Malaysians now say that nothing significant has been turned up from this profiling.)

The narrative of what happened in the first hour or so of Flight 730 has been, to say the least, a contentiously-contested area of inquiry. For example, there have been persistent accounts, the most recent last week, of extreme maneuvers by the airplane, ranging from soaring to 45,000 feet to diving down to 4,000 feet, implying that the pilots were trying to evade radar.

First, MH370 didn’t evade radar; the flight was picked up by both Malaysian and Thai radars but the intercepts were not reported in a timely manner and we have never been given a reliable mapping and time line of the flight’s radar track, such as it exists. Second, the whole idea of an airplane the size of a 777 attempting to fly “under the radar” is risible: it’s not an F-15 and simply can’t fly that low. The trouble is that by the time stories like this are exposed for the rubbish they are, they have flashed around the world to excite a credulous public. Newspapers in Asia have been particularly hungry for any sensation.

Whatever law enforcement agencies are involved, and whatever the cooperation they do or do not get from the Malaysians, it must be a constant challenge for the investigators to restrain the selective release of completely unsubstantiated and far-fetched conspiracy theories, most of them, for whatever reason, intended to impugn the actions of the pilots.

The only means of bringing balance and integrity to the investigation lies 2.8 miles down on the silt-layered bed of the Indian Ocean. The whole story of Flight 370 is hopefully still intact within the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder (even though this records only two hours of cockpit conversations that would cover the essential period when the flight changed course).  Given the history of the closest precursor of this disaster, Air France 447, the black boxes’ batteries die but the data can survive for years at great depths.

The data recorders, positioned in the 777’s tail section, were probably torn free on impact with the water and fell to the ocean floor, along with other heavier and larger pieces of the airplane, like the engines. Any piece of wreckage, no matter how large or small, can have its own clues—like, for example, evidence of fire or an explosion. But the only complete and definitive description of what happened to Flight MH370 is in those recorders.

Captain Phillip Newell, the commander of HMS Echo, has 20 years’ experience of searching sea beds. Few of them are as poorly mapped as this one. “It should never be underestimated that trying to find an object this small on the sea bed at this depth is probably as hard a challenge as you will ever get,” he told the BBC.