Officials from Malaysia, Australia, and China have come as close as they could to saying that the greatest mystery in modern aviation, the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, will remain unsolved.
Meeting in Kuala Lumpur they said, “In the absence of new evidence [the three countries] have collectively decided to suspend the search upon completion of the 120,000 square kilometer (46,332 square mile) search area.”
They stopped short of saying that the search had been abandoned forever by using the word “suspend.”
“Should credible new information emerge which can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft consideration will be given to determining the next steps…”
Until now the wording had been more brutally definitive:
“In the absence of credible new information that leads to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, there will be no further expansion of the search area.”
The undersea search was due to have been completed this month, two years and four months after the Boeing 777 was lost. But the weather has been atrocious in the notoriously rough waters of the southern hemisphere winter in the Indian Ocean, so bad that equipment has been damaged and crew members injured.
There are only 3,800 square miles left to be searched and Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said in the official announcement “the likelihood of finding the aircraft is fading.”
Inevitably the statement will give new energy to the argument that the search was being conducted in the wrong place. This belief was fueled by a statement this week by the director of the search operations being conducted by the Dutch company Fugro, Paul Kennedy, who said “If it’s not there, it means it’s somewhere else.”
Kennedy then suggested that the scenario on which the search area had been based, that the airplane ran out of fuel and in its last moments and spiraled in a shallow glide to the ocean, could have been flawed.
“You could glide it further than our search area is, so I believe the logical conclusion will be, well maybe, that is the other scenario.”
However, even if this were to be true, the difference between the original glide calculation and a longer glide would be marginal, at most only a matter of 30 miles at most, an adjustment to the area that could easily be made if the Australian officials controlling the search believe there was an error.
As it is, it is important to recognize that there have really been two searches for the airplane. The first is the undersea search that has cost in the region of $180 million, that began immediately, and has so far turned up nothing, and a second entirely random and ad hoc search that has slowly accumulated some significant pieces of wreckage.
This second search got under way last summer when a substantial piece of the 777 called a flaperon, part of the flight controls on the wing, turned up on a beach on Reunion Island in the western Indian Ocean.
Since then four more pieces of wreckage have been confirmed as from the airplane and a fifth piece, by far the largest yet, is now being examined by experts in Australia. Although this piece has not yet been officially confirmed as from the airplane, experts who have looked at photographs have no doubt that it is an outboard wing flap from the 777.
There are two vital clues in this discovery.
The first is the location of the debris. It was found on Pemba Island, north of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. This is much further north than any previous debris location. The discovery was made in late June.
Australian oceanographers plotting the debris locations have allowed a time of around 500 days for wreckage to travel west across the Indian Ocean. They were puzzled why a piece so large could have been lying undiscovered for more than 800 days on an island that is relatively well populated.
David Griffin, who leads the Australian team of oceanographers, told The Daily Beast that he believes the flap was originally beached on a more remote location and was then washed free and only recently landed on Pemba Island.
Griffin’s team are now reviewing what influence this location has on their calculations, called drift modeling, that have been used to reverse-plot the course of the discovered wreckage back to its point of origin, and therefore what bearing it has on the accuracy of the search area some 1,500 miles southwest of Australia.
The second significant point about the flap is its condition. Although it has been ripped away from the wing at the point where it was hinged, the flap itself shows no sign of violent impact and seems to have survived a long time in the ocean with little erosion. An earlier piece of wreckage was related to this flap, a fairing that was found on Daghatane Beach, Mozambique, in December.
Experts following the trail of wreckage are debating how much the flap debris reveals about the angle and force at which the airplane hit the water.
One expert told The Daily Beast: “The airplane could have glided 120 miles after a dual engine failure, with or without human intervention at the end.”
The calculations involved in the simulations that have done by Boeing of the final minutes of the flight are complex and leave open many opportunities for dispute. One issue that could be crucial is the role played in keeping the airplane flying by a small emergency power unit called a ram air turbine, RAT, that drops down from the rear of the airplane so that the airstream provides a windmill effect.
A RAM is the power source of last resort and has, in some cases, saved an airplane when all other systems have failed. In the case of the 777 the RAM was designed to activate when main power systems failed and it could provide enough electrical and hydraulic power to maintain control, either by autopilot or by the pilots.
One thing is for sure, in the absence of any evidence at all from the undersea search it will be the unplanned and unfunded hunt by beachcombers that will provide the only physical evidence for experts to debate for a long time to come and also fuel for conspiracy theorists, of whom there are many, to ventilate.