Scientists working on the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are more confident than they have ever been that they know where the airplane went down. And yet after looking in the wrong place for 27 months, the search is about to end for want of funds.
Two weeks ago the Australian Transport Safety Bureau admitted that an area of 46,000 square miles in the southern Indian Ocean where the search has been conducted “is unlikely to contain the missing aircraft.”
At the same time they said “the most likely location” of the Boeing 777 was in an area of 9,600 square miles north of the original search area.
On the heels of those statements the Australian transport minister, Darren Chester, said that until “credible evidence” was available to fix a more specific location, the current search, which has cost around $150 million, will end soon and no new one will be approved.
However, The Daily Beast has learned that even in the absence of a decision to fund a new search the cutting-edge scientific effort—employing resources from all over the world, including from the U.S.—will continue, involving a series of tests simulating the voyage of wreckage from the jet across the Indian Ocean and months of feeding data from those tests to super-computers.
One thing is for sure: The remains of Flight MH370 lie at the bottom of one of the most inhospitable stretches of ocean in the world. But more than that is now apparent—when the jet hit the water at the end of a flight lasting seven hours and 40 minutes it met a violent end and many pieces of debris did not sink but remained as a debris field floating, undetected, above where larger and heavier parts did sink to the bottom.
Over a period of many months this floating debris was dispersed, some of it eventually sinking, some of it ending up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean and some of it likely to spend years as specks floating on the vastness of the seas, forever undetected.
The score or more pieces of floating debris that have been collected so far from Indian Ocean beaches as far south as the South African Cape, as far north as Tanzania, and as far east as a tiny atoll called Rodriguez Island have provided scientists with information of immense value in attempting to fix the precise location of the crash. Indeed, that debris has provided vital missing pieces in the most challenging puzzle ever to face an airplane crash investigation.
The true scale and drama of the science involved is hard to grasp because it has mind-melting complexity, but the basics are relatively simple.
The first principle of navigation, of knowing precisely where anyone or anything is on the globe at any time, is fixing the intersection of two lines. Modern navigation began when it became possible to accurately calculate the intersection of the lines of longitude and latitude.
But this case began with a huge handicap: There was only one line to work with, a line serving the same purpose as longitude, moving from north to south in an arc describing the flight path of the jet. The track of the arc was fixed as a result of the only messages ever received from the 777, a series of seven hourly automatic “handshakes” exchanged between it and an orbiting satellite operated by the London-based company Inmarsat.
Only someone with a grasp of arcane math can explain how these exchanges produced the data that enabled Inmarsat to establish the arcing flight path. But they did, and with a high level of confidence. The arc became known as the 7th arc and indicated that the jet had tracked into the southern Indian Ocean about 1,700 miles west of the coast of Western Australia.
But the crunch question was, and remains, where along that arc did the flight come to an end? In other words, where was the X point, a line of latitude that intersected the arc at the precise place where the airplane hit the water?
The best guess at this was made by Boeing running computer simulations of the 777’s final five hour and 40 minute cruise, the period known as the “zombie flight” because no word was ever received indicating that anyone aboard, including the pilots, was still alive.
The Boeing simulations assumed that the jet was cruising at 35,000 feet as it would under the command of its automatic pilot until it ran out of gas and spiraled into the ocean. These simulations were refined over months and even then they could not be very precise—they placed the X point somewhere between latitudes 36 and 39.3 degrees south and up to 60 miles on each side of the 7th arc, the current search area.
And, as it has now turned out, that guess was wrong.
The chance discovery of debris, beginning in the summer of 2015, has transformed the quality of the information available for the calculations. For the first time there was physical evidence, and it brought a new confidence to the analysis that could not be achieved using computer simulations alone. Although all the pieces of debris were thousands of miles apart when they washed up they had—obviously—all started their voyage at the same place, the X point. Not just at the same place, but at the same time. The time was already known, and that has become essential to the new calculations.
Looking at the distribution of the debris, the scientists realized that—given access to data already gathered by a number of ocean-monitoring organizations across the world—it could be possible to create a picture of the exact state of the seas in that region of the southern Indian Ocean as they were in March 2014 and extend it for months afterward into other parts of the Indian Ocean.
The aim was to reveal in detail the elemental forces that steered debris away from the crash site. If that exercise could show how each piece of debris wound up where it did, then by reversing those tracks the scientists would get a far better idea of where the debris had originated.
Of course, it sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. Few things are more complex than the constant interaction of waves, wind, currents, temperature, and climate on the ocean surface. And yet any hope of finding the remains of MH370 now depended to a large extent on being able to build such a picture. No other catastrophic event in aviation had ever called for such a reach in scientific skills and resources.
In order to do this exercise the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO, in Australia, called on scientific agencies in the U.S., Europe, and India, including those operating satellites that monitored the oceans from space.
One of these was our own National Oceanic and Atmosphere Organization, NOAA, and very early on it was NOAA that provided a breakthrough. At any one time the agency has many hundreds of buoys, called GDP drifters, scattered across the world’s oceans collecting data on sea conditions and behavior—including data that has helped to build a detailed picture of climate change.
When the Australian scientists began trying to recreate the forces at work in the area of the 7th arc in March 2014 they realized that by pure luck there were at that moment two NOAA drifters in the water at the northern end of arc. Their data, once retrieved, revealed that there were strong influences that would have steered debris north and west—away from the coast of Western Australia and toward Africa. (NOAA has since donated 10 drifters to the project as well as complete access to its huge archive of data.)
A second break came in June 2016, with the discovery of one of the largest pieces of debris, a wing flap, on a beach of Pemba Island, off the coast of Tanzania. Its significance was not just related to the tracking of the paths taken by debris.
A wing flap is a part of the flight controls not controlled by the automatic pilot—it is activated only by the pilot and only during takeoff and landing. One of the unknowns limiting Boeing’s simulation of how the jet had finally plunged into the ocean was whether it had been under human command—this affected the final trajectory and therefore how close to the 7th arc it hit the water.
After weeks of examination investigators established that the recovered flap had not been deployed, making it possible to reduce the estimate of the impact point to 25 miles on each side of the arc.
The first piece of debris to be found was another, smaller part of the wing’s control surfaces called a flaperon (one that constantly moves during a flight commanded by the automatic pilot) that turned up on a beach on La Reunion Island in July 2015. It is significant for other reasons and has inspired the most improvised experiment of the program, requiring carpentry rather than telemetry.
Six near-replicas of the flaperon were made of wood and steel. They were life-sized and close to the actual shape, with ballast added to replicate the right weight. They were fitted with motion sensors and GPS trackers and launched into the waters of a bay near the CSIRO’s laboratories at Hobart in Tasmania, and monitored in two one-hour immersions on each of eight days of experiments.
The behavior of the replicas in the water—how they floated, depending on which side was up, how wind and wave action affected their speed—was compared to the data received from the drifter buoys in the open ocean. The experiment showed that the flaperons moved faster than the buoys. A few months later more tests were carried out in the open ocean, including tests with replicas of two smaller pieces of debris.
The results of the tests using debris replicas and data gathered from drifters was combined with a detailed history of the main steering currents in the Indian Ocean gathered from satellites for more than a year after the airplane disappeared. The arrival time of the flaperon on the beach at La Reunion, July 31, 2015, then took a significant role. The flaperon was found 509 days after the crash. By retrieving the day-by-day historical record of the ocean conditions for that period and tracking the debris’ likely path in reverse the scientists realized that it must have originated at a point further north than the area being searched.
As a result of this and other debris tracks, the CSIRO scientists now believe that the 777 went down between latitudes 32 to 36 degrees south, with a location close to 35 degrees south as the most promising. In fact, they say that this estimate is much more precise than they once thought would be possible.
Before the Australian experiments were conducted, a team at a European body called Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, based in Italy, carried out its own independent analysis of the ocean currents using a different computer model and a different source of data. They published a report in July 2016, saying “if the current search proves unsuccessful, a northward extension of the search area should be considered.”
Their results had, in fact, suggested the most promising area was between latitudes 28 and 35 degrees south.
One of the authors of the report, Eric Jansen, told The Daily Beast, “The CSIRO results are very interesting. It is the first study to represent field experiments to determine the drift characteristics of the aircraft parts. This has been missing from previous studies. The CSIRO study is more thorough than ours, and confirms that our assumption was realistic.”
Thus both the Europeans and Australians were on the same page in their view of the correct resting place of the remains of the airplane.
David Griffin, one of the leaders of the Australian team, told The Daily Beast that their analysis is far from complete. There will be more tests using debris and drifters and, using a new method analyzing data still being gathered, they will require months of super-computer time.
Meanwhile in the original search area the Dutch-operated vessel Equator is making its final sweeps—in the knowledge that that entire search has almost certainly been futile.
What happens now?
The search is directed by the ATSB. Questions from The Daily Beast to the ATSB about the future of the operations were referred to the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, a body that includes officials from Australia and Malaysia. In response, the JACC repeated an agreement made in July 2016 between Malaysia, Australia, and China (the majority of passengers on the flight were Chinese) stating that “… in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended on completion of the existing search area.”
The JACC added, “The position of the three countries has not changed.”
However, 24 hours later the ATSB added: “Ministers have reiterated that this does not mean the termination of the search.”
In just the first month after the jet disappeared an international air and sea search, including airplanes and ships sent by the U.S., cost $44 million. That was almost as much as the cost of the successful search for Air France Flight 447 in the south Atlantic between 2009 and 2011. Of the $150 million spent on the search now ending, Australia contributed $60 million, China $20 million, and the rest came from Malaysia.
There is, of course, an almost inexplicable and glaring anomaly: Not a cent has been spent conducting a systematic search for debris. All the debris so far has been discovered either by dedicated amateurs or, by chance, by people walking beaches. And yet the debris has been instrumental in reaching the compelling new conclusions about the probable location of the wreckage.
Those conclusions are obviously putting new pressure on both the Australians and Malaysians when they consider what they actually mean by “credible new evidence.”
So near—and yet so far.