Australian officials are refusing to call for a new search for the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 even though a team of their own scientists has significantly narrowed their estimate of exactly where the crash site is.
In fact, Dr. David Griffin, the team’s leader, has told The Daily Beast that he has dramatically revised down the area he suggests should be searched from 6,700 square miles, the estimate made last December, to just three “hot spots.”
These fall within two strips of ocean just 62 miles long and between 12 to 18 miles wide, reducing the search area to less than a third of the original.
This new precision is the result of an extensive and continuing international scientific effort led by the Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO.
Using Australia’s most powerful super computer Griffin’s team has for many months been re-creating the path of debris from the Boeing 777 found on beaches in the western Indian Ocean. By April they were confident that this work had led them to a much more exact idea of where the debris had originated—in other words the place where most of the jet remains at a depth of as much as 18,000 feet.
The team’s confidence in this calculation increased when they retrieved satellite images of the southern Indian Ocean taken on March 23, 2014, two weeks after the airplane disappeared. These showed 12 “probably man-made” objects floating at a point that Griffin’s team believed would be consistent with where debris would have drifted westward in the time elapsed since the crash.
The problem with these images is, though, that they are not sharp enough—they are not in high resolution—for experts to distinguish between the known profile of debris from the jet and other debris in the sea.
“Something the size and shape of the flaperon could equally be a piece of building debris,” Griffin told The Daily Beast, referring to one of the largest and most crucial pieces of debris. “The big things show but can’t be identified.”
In the report, Griffin says that the dimensions of the objects “are comparable with some of the debris items and their location makes them impossible to ignore” but adds that “there is no evidence to confirm that any of these objects (let alone all) are pieces of the aircraft.”
An expert on satellite technology told The Daily Beast that the images were taken by a French operated satellite, a Pleiades 1A, that made only one pass over the site and probably completed the sweep in three minutes. Only four images from the satellite were passed to the Australians. The satellites are used for both civil and military missions and it is possible, the expert said, that French military security was involved in how much of the satellite’s capabilities could be revealed.
At the time the images were taken an international air and sea search for signs of wreckage and survivors was under way, involving 19 ships and 21 airplanes. It covered 181,000 square miles. False hopes were raised several times when debris was spotted but none of it was from the airplane.
Later in 2014 a systematic underwater search was launched to find the wreckage. That search ended in January 2017, having cost at least $150 million. By that time the Australian politicians knew why the search had come up empty. The search area had been too far south.
When the search began, its area and location were based on only two sources of data. The first came from Inmarsat, a company based in London that runs a fleet of satellites used to track ships and airplanes across the globe. Inmarsat received the only messages sent from the flight, seven robotic “pings” received at hourly intervals by a ground station in Australia. Analysis of these signals made it possible to establish a line marking the limits of the flight, known as the seventh arc. This track, curving southwestward in the southern Indian Ocean some 1,700 miles from Western Australia, remains the center line for plotting the search area.
The second source of guidance was directed at trying to establish where, along the seventh arc, the airplane ran out of fuel and spiraled into the ocean. This calculation depended on computer simulations of the flight path by Boeing. Combining the two sources produced the original search area of 46,000 square miles, ranging around 60 miles each side of the seventh arc.
What has changed in the Griffin team’s new estimate of the most likely crash site is not the position of the seventh arc itself, which remains constant, but where along that arc they believe the jet hit the water.
In a report published last December, Griffin’s team moved their prediction of the most promising area to the north, about 100 miles beyond the area already searched, when they proposed a new search area of 6,700 square miles, the size of Vermont. At that point the government agency directing the search, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, ATSB, was impressed enough with this new prediction to divert the last remaining search vessel to the new area but there was not enough time for it to find anything.
Since December that original prediction has become steadily more refined.
That was largely because their reverse-tracking of debris had better data to work with. The first piece of debris to be discovered, called a flaperon, was found on the island of La Reunion in the summer of 2016. La Reunion is under French jurisdiction and the flaperon was sent to Paris. French authorities refused to release it to the Australians to use for tests to show how the flaperon behaved in the water and, therefore, how it had drifted to the beach in La Reunion.
This frustrated Griffin’s team, who were left to use, instead, replicas of the flaperon they made. Then, in January, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board sent Griffin an actual flaperon taken from a retired 777. Tests using this showed that the replicas had not been a reliable substitute. By April, armed with what he regarded as far better data, Griffin said that his oceanographers were “even more confident that the aircraft is within the new search area.”
Now, in his latest report, Griffin is far more precise, giving an impact location of 35.6 degrees South and 92.8 degrees East. And, doubling down on this prediction, he says, “we think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft with unprecedented precision and certainty.”
This language is deliberate. In January the Australian minister of Transport, Darren Chester, announced that the search had been “suspended” although everything else he said then and later made it clear that this was a euphemism. It was over. And Chester said “no new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft.” He must have known that “specific location” was, no matter how you defined the term, an impossible goal to meet.
This remains the Australian government’s position. It was re-stated to The Daily Beast by Dan O’Malley, a spokesman for the ATSB, in adamantine terms:
“The reports by Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO were provided to the Malaysian authorities. Malaysia, as the state of registry for the aircraft, retains overall authority and responsibility for the investigation into the causes of the aircraft’s disappearance, and for decisions regarding any future search.”
In other words, the buck has been passed. There is no acknowledgement or appreciation of the unprecedented effort by the Australian oceanographers and their international collaborators. More damningly, there is no apparent realization that the first and ultimately futile search was launched on the basis of data that was then far from complete—while a new search based on the latest data would require far less of an investment of resources and time. Relatives of the 239 souls lost on Flight 370 have every right to ask why this is so.
The Malaysians don’t seem interested, either. An American underwater exploration company, Ocean Infinity, has offered to launch a new search on the basis of a bounty reward: no success, no fee. So far they have received no response.
Before a new search could begin the seabed terrain would have to be mapped—bathymetric mapping to reveal in detail the awesome topography, including a mountain range, volcanoes and a massive ridge, is essential before sonar-equipped vehicles can be sent down to the great depths. The wreck is there, somewhere, and yet it seems this is an agonizing example of “so near yet so far.”