The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is losing one of the three ships assigned to it—and one of the world’s most experienced teams of deep-water search technicians that goes with it.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is in charge of the search, has confirmed to The Daily Beast that the vessel, the GO Phoenix, will quit the search this Friday on the orders of Malaysia.
“The GO Phoenix, and the experts and equipment aboard are contracted by Malaysia,” Daniel O’Malley, the ATSB spokesman, said via email. The Malaysian government has advised that the contract will end with the completion of the current swing.”
The work of the GO Phoenix has been so important to the search that even though its equipment was badly damaged in a storm this month it returned to the search area with only a week left of its contract after repairs in the port city of Fremantle.
The ATSB gave no explanation of why the Malaysians decided not to continue the contract. After all, the Boeing 777 belonged to the country’s state-run airline, was crewed by 12 Malaysians, and carried 38 Malaysian passengers.
The GO Phoenix is operated by Maryland-based Phoenix International, whose role in the search for Air France Flight 447 was crucial in finding the wreckage in deep water at the bottom of the south Atlantic in 2011, two years after the airplane crashed.
In the search for Flight MH370 the GO Phoenix deployed a remote-operated side-scan sonar vehicle able to operate at depths as much as 20,000 feet. The area of the ocean floor being searched in the southern Indian Ocean is far more challenging than it was for the searchers in the case of Flight 447—three-dimensional mapping carried out for this operation has revealed a daunting underwater Alpine landscape with mountains, volcanoes and deep valleys.
Originally the Australians said that the search would be suspended by the end of May with the onset of the Southern Hemisphere winter and its severe storms and violent seas. However, with a search area of 47,000 square miles to be covered they have decided not to pull out.
“Winter conditions are expected to continue to hamper the search,” O’Malley told The Daily Beast. “This means several days of poor weather at a time as fronts pass through the area with several days of more benign conditions in between the fronts. We have excellent weather forecasting systems for the search area, and will take advantage of the periods of better weather to continue the search.”
After several requests over previous months, O’Malley finally responded to a question that, after more than 15 months since Flight 370 disappeared, has become increasingly worrisome:
Why, having commissioned experts to produce a computerized drift model to predict where floating wreckage would turn up and announcing that it would most probably turn up on the western coast of Sumatra by March, none has been found?
“Detailed drift modeling has been undertaken to supplement the original work that identified the western coast of Sumatra as the most likely first landing point for debris. The work, once finalized, will be released,” O’Malley said.
In other words, Plan A, not having panned out, has been succeeded by Plan B.
“There are several possible reasons as to why no debris has been found,” O’Malley added. “Key among them is the fact that the search in the Indian Ocean did not commence until nine days after the aircraft would have entered the water and in that time any debris would have been significantly dispersed by winds and currents. The initial search targeted an area covering the current underwater search area and thus represented the best chance to identify and recover any floating debris.”
This reply seems disingenuous (not to mention tortuous) on several points.
First, the nine-day delay in fixing the target area for the search (following data provided by the satellite operator Inmarsat) would have little bearing on a calculation that allowed a full year for the debris to reach the predicted landfall.
Second, by saying the initial area that was searched is now subsumed into the area now being searched ignores the fact that last April the total area to be searched was doubled. Until then there was high confidence that the searchers were in the right place, and seemingly the drift model was calculated using that location as the origin of the floating debris. Drift can’t be accurately calculated without a starting point, but the starting point suddenly became a lot less precise.
The fact is that by April, a year after the Boeing 777 disappeared, with more than 70 percent of the original area already searched, nothing had turned up.
Now we have a situation that with a far larger area to be searched the resources devoted to the operation have been reduced by one-third. And the difference is not just numerical. The two remaining vessels, the Fugro Discovery and the Fugro Equator, are operated by a Dutch company, Fugro NV, with crews who lack the experience of having taken part in the successful search for Air France 447.
It will be a long and tempestuous winter for them, and leaves a situation that raises more serious questions about the commitment of the Malaysian government to the search.