Day 50 of the search for Flight MH370 has come and gone without one fragment of the Boeing 777 being found. This is extraordinary. The greatest mystery in aviation history eludes explanation in spite of the enormous effort being made in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Two questions prevail over many others:
Are enough resources being devoted to the underwater search?
Is it realistic to persist with the search during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter when the conditions can only get worse?
A reasonable way of assessing the answers to both questions is to measure the effort against the only similar exercise in recent experience: the search for Air France Flight 447 in the south Atlantic that began in 2009.
First of all, it’s striking that the Flight 447 search was never a continuous and open-ended effort. It was carried out over a period of a little more than two years in four discrete, limited-time operations.
The first began immediately after the Airbus disappeared at the beginning of June 2009, and concluded, with a final tally of floating wreckage and bodies, at the end of that month.
The second was carried out for three weeks between July and August 2009. Although this search located nothing, it did provide valuable information that contributed to eventual success. A multi-beam echo sounder attached to the hull of a French research ship mapped the profile of the seabed—a formidable combination of deep valleys, sharp ridges, and sand-covered plateaus—that would greatly increase the efficiency of the autonomous underwater vehicles, UAVs, deployed in later searches. (The British Royal Navy’s HMS Echo has been performing the same sonar mapping work in the search zone west of Perth, Australia.)
The third search, a year later, was divided into two phases and in total lasted from April 2 to May 24, without result. It deployed much more sophisticated deep-water equipment, including a towed Orion deep-water sonar scanner and three highly advanced remote-controlled Remus UAVs from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. (There has been discussion of sending an Orion, owned by the U.S. Navy but operated by a company called Phoenix International, to Australia to supplement the Bluefin-21.)
The case of Air France 447 serves as an international benchmark for the integrity of crash investigations.
The fourth operation, which was again split into two phases, lasted from March 24 until May 13, 2011 and was successful. It was one of the three Remus vehicles, again operated by the Woods Hole team that on April 2 detected a concentration of debris at a depth of nearly 13,000 feet. The recovery of the debris and bodies was made by another vehicle, the Remora III, operated by Phoenix International.
It was only then that the searchers realized that in the first 2009 operation two towed ping detectors, similar to the one deployed three weeks ago in the search for Flight MH370, had passed very close to the debris field without detecting it, which warns us that ping location is far from being a perfected science.
The flight data recorder was retrieved and taken to the BEA headquarters in Paris. Steps were taken to ensure total transparency. The data from the recorder was downloaded in the presence of investigators from Brazil (many of the passengers were Brazilian), the United Kingdom and Germany (both partners in Airbus), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, and two representatives from the French judicial system.
It is clear that the search for the remains of the Air France Airbus A330 was carefully planned, systematic and well-resourced, each operation timed for the season when the south Atlantic was at its least challenging in terms of weather.
Of course, the searchers had a boost that the search for Flight MH370 does not have: the early discovery of wreckage. But, even with that advantage, the Atlantic search demonstrated that there is no point in using the most effective deep-diving equipment until the area can be narrowed to a searchable size. Then, and only then, can the technology work—first the location of debris and then its recovery.
In the search for Flight MH370, the Australians seemed confident that they had a sufficiently focused target zone of 154 square miles, hard decisions now have to be made. The single Bluefin-21 UAV could be supplemented by either Orion or Remus-type UAVs, but none has yet been requested and those available would take at least two weeks to arrive, either from Europe or the U.S.
Or, given the likelihood of worsening sea conditions as winter deepens, a decision could be taken to call off the search for at least six months. That would be politically unpalatable, given the very vocal anguish and frustration of the families of the missing. But it would also be realistic.
As well as questions about the future of the search, there are others raised by the persistent lack of transparency in Kuala Lumpur about the crash investigation.
Last week the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, told CNN’s Richard Quest that an initial report on Flight 370 had been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the ICAO. That was somewhat surprising. It’s not customary for air accident investigation reports to go to the ICAO. It’s the responsibility of each nation’s accident investigation agency to release the reports directly to the public as they see fit, according to long-established protocols that demonstrate the independence of the investigators from both political and industry influence.
As it happens, the case of Air France 447 serves as an international benchmark for the integrity of crash investigations.
Only one month after Flight 447 disappeared, French investigators issued their first brief report. They could not explain the sequence of events leading to the accident, but were able to rule out scenarios that could have fed public alarm and conspiracy theories. The airplane had not broken up in the sky. It had hit the water with great force, but there was no evidence from pieces of wreckage of either fire or an explosion.
Five months later, without any additional physical evidence to work with, the BEA issued an update on their investigation. By then they were able to identify a critical sequence of events—and what had probably triggered them. The Airbus’s speed gauges, external devices called pitot tubes, were vulnerable to icing in turbulent weather at high altitude. Consequently they had given false readings which, in turn, had caused the autopilot system to shut down.
And the BEA was already emphatic about an issue that had suddenly been made urgent by the challenges encountered in searching for the Airbus’s black boxes. Among their recommendations to the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, and the ICAO, were:
“To make it mandatory, as rapidly as possible, for airplanes performing public transport flights over maritime areas to be equipped with an additional ULB [underwater locator beacon] capable of transmitting on a frequency and for a duration adapted to the pre-localisation of wreckage;
“To study the possibility of making it mandatory for airplanes performing public transport flights to regularly transmit basic flight parameters (for example position, attitude, speed, heading).”
This was, it should be emphasized, in November 2009.
There was never any doubt about the BEA’s commitment to go public with what they found. They were well aware of the public anxiety that follows a large loss of life in unexplained circumstances.
At the same time though, as they pressed on with their investigation, the BEA was under the increasing scrutiny of four powerful interests, Air France, Airbus, the aerospace conglomerate Thales who manufactured the speed gauges, and the two very aggressive unions that represent French airline pilots.
The investigators were careful to preface their reports with this caveat: “…the investigation is not conducted in such a way as to apportion blame or to assess individual or collective responsibility. The sole objective is to draw lessons from this occurrence which may help to prevent future accidents or incidents.”
The BEA’s final report in July 2012, reflecting the value of the data retrieved from the black boxes, ran to more than 200 pages. It was descriptive, prescriptive, and exemplary in its clarity.
Careful not to blame, it nonetheless left no doubt that that the fate of Flight 447 required urgent action on at least three issues: the flawed speed gauges, Air France’s failure adequately to train pilots to take control after an autopilot failure in the “blind” situation of a night flight, and to equip airliners with live streaming of data that would end the dependency on black boxes in accidents over water. (They also recommended that the battery life of the pingers used to locate sunken black boxes be extended from 30 to 90 days—something that the Florida manufacturer of the Boeing 777’s pingers is now finally offering.)
So, why did the Malaysians not follow this model and, instead of sending their report to the ICAO in Montreal, release it themselves?
Everybody involved in assisting the Malaysians has been very tight-lipped about what is going on.
Boeing staff have been in Kuala Lumpur working alongside technicians from the NTSB. In a statement, Boeing said: “We continue to serve as technical adviser to the NTSB and in that role we have been an active and engaged party to the investigation.” The British, represented by the Air Accidents Investigation Board, AAIB, are equally buttoned-up: They explained that they are there as part of a large international effort because the Boeing 777 was powered by Rolls-Royce engines, but concluded, “it is not appropriate for the AAIB to comment further on the investigation.” Investigators from the BEA spent a week in Kuala Lumpur advising on the organization and operation of undersea searches, but they left late in March.
In any case, the investigation has had no physical evidence to work with. Something as basic as the timeline of Flight MH730 from when it took off to when it was last spotted on radar has never emerged in a form that could inspire confidence—the whole issue of radar coverage and intercepts has been used more to fuel speculation for bizarre theories than to bring dependable detailing to the narrative.
Boeing and the U.S. investigators are in an uncomfortable place. No doubt lawyered up for future liability litigation Boeing is, at the same time, trapped in an investigation that few aviation experts have any confidence in. With the Malaysians in charge, there is a clear risk for Boeing of being compromised by a process that is not sealed off from political influence and agendas.
The Malaysian prime minister did say that the report sent to the ICAO was pressing for the mandatory adoption of live data streaming from airliners, which is rather like a bank manager who has not installed alarms complaining that it was too easy to rob his bank. He did tell Richard Quest that the report might be released this week.
To put it mildly, transparency is not exactly second nature to Malaysian politicians. It’s a single-party state unused to public scrutiny. By sending their first report to the ICAO, the Malaysian politicians can argue that they have shared responsibility for it with the appropriate United Nations agency. In fact, the ICAO is culpable in the inexcusable failure to act on the BEA’s 2009 recommendation that critical performance data should be live-streamed from airplanes flying over water.