HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

MH370 Search Comes Up Empty, but a Secret Hint Reveals It's Not Over

A last-minute switch to a new area indicates preparation for another mission, after 28 months of the most demanding and terrifying underwater search in history.

© REUTERS FILE PHOTO / Reuters

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has come up empty. After 28 months of operations in the southern Indian Ocean the last remaining vessel, the Dutch-owned Equator, is heading back to port in Australia having completed its final sweeps.

An announcement from the governments of Malaysia, China, and Australia said, “Despite every effort using the best science available, cutting-edge technology, as well as modeling and advice from highly skilled professionals who are the best in the field, unfortunately the search has not been able to locate the aircraft.”

They said that the search was being “suspended” not terminated—a term they have used for some time.

But behind “suspended” lies a controversy that is only likely to increase: The governments are under intense pressure to renew the effort at a different location that experts believe is far more likely to contain the remains of the Boeing 777.

In fact, as The Daily Beast first revealed, the Dutch-owned search ship Equator was urgently switched to the new location for several sweeps in the last two weeks. And we can now reveal that part of those missions was spent not searching for wreckage, but mapping the ocean floor—something that would be necessary only if a new search is authorized.

In December, a team of Australian scientists said it was very confident that it now knew that the jet had dived into the ocean in a different place—an area north of the one that has been the subject of the most intense underwater search ever undertaken, which began in October 2014. Moreover, this new area is far smaller, 9,600 square miles (the size of Vermont) compared to the original area of 46,000 square miles.

It was this report that gave relatives of the people lost on Flight 370 renewed hope that the airplane’s remains would be found. Now those relatives are expressing despair and distress that the announcement of the suspension of the search gives no indication that a new one is being considered.

“I feel so furious about the suspension, which is only due to a shortage of funding” Jiang Hui, whose mother was one of the passengers, told The Guardian.

The crucial evidence that transformed calculations about the most likely end of the last five hours and 40 minutes of the flight—the period known as “the zombie flight” because nothing was heard from anyone on board—was not produced by the sea search but by the discovery of debris on beaches in the western Indian Ocean.

Australian oceanographers made replicas of the first piece of wreckage discovered, called a flaperon, and carried out tests with them in ocean waters to measure the speed of their drift. They combined this data with the results of an unprecedented international effort to recreate the exact weather and ocean conditions from the time the debris originated as the airplane crashed in March 2014, to when it washed up. By these means they were able to far more accurately assess the most likely point of its origin, the crash site.

The search was funded by the governments of Malaysia, China, and Australia, and has cost $150 million. Five specialized vessels have at various times been involved, three operated by the Dutch company Fugro, one by the American company Phoenix International, and one by the Chinese.

Because of weather conditions, the work can be conducted only in the Southern Hemisphere summer, which is now drawing to an end. Even then, the crews have faced some of the most severe sea conditions—storms with waves as high as 50 feet.

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Seas were often so rough that crews, working 42-day missions on shifts around the clock, had to sleep on the floor wedged between a table and a bed—lying in bed was impossible. Even for the most hardened crew, sea sickness was a constant curse needing continual treatment. When crew were injured or fell ill, the ships had to return to port because they were out of range of helicopters, 1,700 miles from the nearest Australian port and, in any case, seas would have been too rough for evacuation by helicopter.

Teams of experts aboard the vessels reviewed data as it came up from the depths and it was then streamed live to another team of experts in Australia for more lengthy review. On two occasions, debris was spotted that was thought to be of the Boeing 777 but, after closer examination, turned out to be shipwrecks.

During the last few months, the Equator was assigned to return to more than 30 sites that had previously been scanned and that, after review, were judged to require another look to make sure that wreckage had not been missed. Those sites have now been scanned without result.

The underwater equipment used to search for the airplane’s debris field was often working at the limits of its capabilities—between 16,000 and 20,000 feet. The same would be true if a search in the newly identified area was launched.

Executives of Fugro have emphasized that the deeper the search, the more limited is the equipment able to deal with terrain they describe as the most challenging they have ever faced. That is why mapping of the contours of the sea floor is so essential before a search can begin. Three-dimensional color images are created from a sonar scanner attached to the hull of the ship. (Only 5 percent of the world’s ocean bed is surveyed in any detail.)

Despite the abandonment of the search there is no doubt that it is not only the families of the passengers who are hugely disappointed and will be applying pressure for a new search. The Australian oceanographers whose effort came up with the new projection of where the wreck is likely to be are continuing their work and believe that they will be able to convince officials to fund a new search. But given the scale and cost of the operations involved, the time needed for the three governments to consider the costs of a new search, agree on the time required it is highly unlikely that a decision will be taken soon.

Ultimately it is difficult to believe that it should be acceptable that the wreckage of the airplane will never be found. That would imply that there are no scientific resources equal to the challenge when, in fact, those resources have been greatly advanced specifically as a result of the work done so far – in the same way that in the past great leaps of technology were made in the pressure cooker of war.

There is also an ethical issue: money, and the relative value of people’s lives. For more than two years the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has been at the center of a scandal. He has been unable to explain how $680 million from a sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, ended up his own bank account. Whistleblowers in his government have been swept aside, and the prime minister has clamped down on press freedoms. In the context of this kind of corruption the refusal to find new funds to resume the search for Flight 370 looks like the worst kind of misanthropy.