The Search for MH370 Unravels

The past month of moving targets, recriminations, and a notable lack of floating wreckage means it's time to question whether the airliner even hit the ocean at at all.

Richard Wainwright/Pool/Reuters

Is the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 to be another Amelia Earhart?

As hard as it is to imagine that in this age a 330-ton airplane with 239 people on board can vanish without trace, like Earhart, some important people are now prepared to make that comparison.

And that is just one part of what is turning out to be a nightmare month for those searching for the Boeing 777.

First there were charges that the Dutch company hired to take a leading part in searching the southern Indian Ocean for the remains of the 777 was ill-equipped for the task.

Then one of the specialized vehicles used for deep water searching was badly damaged while it was sitting on the deck of its mother ship in atrocious weather conditions.

Finally Sir Tim Clark, the head of Emirates Airlines, which operates the world’s largest fleet of 777s, said last week, “It will be an Amelia Earhart repetition” and compared the search to a “goose chase.”

So what is going on here? Is Sir Tim’s bleak outlook justified?

For whatever reason, Sir Tim seems to be leading a rush to judgment and, in the process, angering a lot of people who are dedicated to unraveling the most elusive and complex mystery in aviation history.

There are many motives at play here and the longer the mystery goes on the more invested those motives become.

And without doubt the least attractive of these motives is the evasion of responsibility, which is shared by many parties.

First, there is the airline industry itself, which was caught being derelict in its attention to a major weakness in airline safety already exposed by the 2009 loss of Air France Flight 447 in the south Atlantic: the inability to accurately track flights over oceans.

Second, there is the conduct of the investigation that, in turn, involves what one might call "the Malaysian problem." What happens when an airline owned and operated by a state unused to public scrutiny fails to explain its own failures and seeks scapegoats, like the pilots, in order to cover up those failures?

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Third, there is the obligation of the airplane maker involved, Boeing, to assist the investigators in exhaustively testing every technical scenario that could have rendered the 777 vulnerable to whatever overcame its systems and allowed it to “go dark.” The same is true for Rolls Royce, who made the engines. They hide behind a wall of “no comment.”

Finally, there is the quality of leadership and the decision chain in the search operation as conducted by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB): how the contractors were chosen, how they were vetted, and the quality of the scientific support given to the search.

Let’s first take Sir Tim Clark as a representative of his industry’s response to the loss of Flight 370. He is for sure the most innovative airline executive of his generation. Under his leadership, Emirates has made Dubai the improbable number one hub of international routes and set new standards of service. From the beginning he has been the most openly skeptical of how the investigation and search have been handled.

In an interview last year with German newsmagazine Der Spiegel he said, “All the ‘facts’ of this particular incident must be challenged and examined with full transparency. We are nowhere near that.”

This week, in an interview in Miami with a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald, he said, “I am not going to say anything about what I think happened. It remains an unsolved mystery. Somebody knows more about this than they are prepared to say.”

In other words, Sir Tim is implying that there has been a cover-up. But of what?

Having attempted to parse Sir Tim’s frequent and deftly phrased provocations, I suspect that he believes that human action in the cockpit was responsible for what happened, either by the pilots or by intruders. He has also said that to successfully execute such an operation would require more technical knowledge than any of his own hundreds of 777 pilots possess.

However, when it comes to answering the simple question — How is it possible for an airplane as sophisticated as a Boeing 777 to leave no record of the events that overcame it? — Sir Tim, like all other airline chiefs, is evasive.

After the loss of Air France 447, French investigators urged immediate action to equip airliners with technology that would enable them to stream data in real time showing the performance of all critical systems to airline maintenance centers via satellite. Nothing happened as a result -- largely because the industry considered the chance of airliners crashing into deep oceans to be extremely remote.

Despite the fact that since the loss of Flight 370 there has been widespread astonishment and anger that the disappearance of hundreds of passengers can remain unexplained for want of such a readily available technology, the industry has made only a tardy and grudging response.

In the absence of any more conscientious and decisive authority it falls to the notoriously sclerotic International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body representing 191 nations, to build a consensus and take action. When will that be achieved? According to the time table set by the ICAO: 2025.

Sir Tim seems quite content that his airplanes currently transmit data every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the route and airplane. Lufthansa has narrowed that frequency to five minutes. That is not good enough. Fatal events can suddenly unwind in the time between those transmissions. There is no substitute for constant, live streaming of data. (Consider, for example, the web site of the solar-powered airplane, Solar Impulse, now attempting a world-girdling flight, where you can see, via live streaming, every movement of the instruments and controls.)

Having said that, Sir Tim’s frustration with the lack of transparency in the investigation is shared by many.

The most immutable problem faced by the professional members of the investigative team, drawn from Malaysia, the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and Australia, is the total absence of physical wreckage.

Without that, the focus will have been on the possibility of criminal action; the immediate technical history of the airplane and its engines; the handling of the cargo; the performance of the airport management and air traffic control; and the human factors including the psychological and personal histories of the crew.

Many of these actions fall within the authority of the Malaysian government. Just how off-planet on this issue Malaysian politicians can be was shown when 89-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister for two decades and still has enormous backroom influence, said that Malaysia was being unfairly blamed for its handling of the case, and that the CIA and Boeing were involved in a joint conspiracy to conceal information.

Experts on Malaysia say that the current prime minister, Najib Razak, presides over an ingrained system of cronyism. For example, he is chairman of the advisory board of a national development fund that has incurred more than $11.5 billion in debts, much of which is said to have been dispersed as political favors. The questioning of arrangements like this is discouraged, despite government claims of transparency. This has been compounded by an alarming move against more public accountability by deploying new laws against “terrorism and sedition” that Human Rights Watch has said will have “a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

Given that mindset and that all the objects of the investigation are government operated (the airline, airport, air-traffic control), the investigation cannot avoid being entangled in well-protected political interests and fiefdoms.

The sea search, meanwhile, is being directed well clear of this kind of political complexity in Australia, but it has its own problems.

In April, a year after the search began, the area being searched was suddenly doubled, from just over 23,000 square miles to 47,000 square miles. This was surprising because until then the ATSB had said it was confident that it was looking in the right place. Indeed, the target area was moved further south last fall after new information came to light about the projected course taken by the 777.

As has become usual in official announcements about the search, there was no detail about how, why, and by whom the enlargement of the area had been determined. The decision was revealed in Kuala Lumpur when senior ministers from Malaysia, Australia, and China appeared together. They merely said that the decision had been made to “cover the highest probability area identified by expert analysis.”

That meant that searchers, who by then had covered more than 70 percent of the original target zone and felt that as the area left shrank the statistical chances of finding the airplane increased, now had 130 percent more ocean to deal with. The ministers said somewhat optimistically that it would take another year to complete the expanded search.

Originally the ATSB had said it would suspend the search during the Southern Hemisphere winter, beginning in May, when the ocean really demonstrated its reputation for foul weather. However, since the April announcement the search has persisted in conditions that impose frequent and long pauses and, as has now happened, can cause serious damage to the equipment – not to mention the emetic working conditions aboard the vessels.

Moreover, morale aboard the ships cannot have been helped by attacks on the competence of the technicians and the suitability of their equipment.

The principal target of the attacks was the Dutch company Fugro NV that directs operations of the three ships involved. Paul-Henry Nargeolet, a former French naval officer who was involved in the search for Air France 447 in 2009 said, “Fugro is a big company but they don’t have any experience in this kind of search and it’s really a very specialized job.”

It’s important to point out, however, that a lot of the carping is coming from companies who were unsuccessful bidders for the search contract. Mike Williamson, the president of one of those companies, said, “I have serious concerns that the MH370 search operation may not be able to convincingly demonstrate that 100 percent seafloor coverage is being achieved.”

Deep sea searchers are a relatively small and highly competitive bunch of people, and sour grapes attacks are not unknown among them. But Williamson and the heads of two other companies detailed their critiques in letters sent directly to Australian authorities, copies of which were seen and reported by Reuters.

Caught on the back foot, the ATSB issued a response that seemed pained and defensive.

“These attacks are unfounded and unfair,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan. “The search represents thousands of hours of work by hundreds of people who are dedicated, expert and professional. They are fully committed to finding the aircraft.”

In fact, the ATSB has increased the credibility of its critics by keeping a tight veil over scientific work crucial to the decisions it has taken. At the center of these decisions is the data that led in the first place to the deployment of the search vessels in the southern Indian ocean about 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, Australia.

This data came from the London-based communications satellite operator Inmarsat, in the form of the now famous seven “handshakes” exchanged between the Malaysian 777 and a satellite orbiting at 22,236 miles above the Equator.

But, as a result of the two significant changes made to the area being searched it is now abundantly clear that the Inmarsat calculations were not precise enough to provide the Australians with a closely focused target. Nonetheless, the Inmarsat data remains the only guidance to the final course of the 777.

More than 15 months into the search, the single most unsettling lacuna is the failure to discover any floating wreckage. It is physically impossible for every piece of the 777 to have ended up on the ocean floor. In the relatively few cases of large intercontinental jets being lost over water, there is not one case where floating debris did not appear within days.

Last fall the ATSB showed that it was aware of the need to address this absence. They said that a team of scientists who had developed a computer model for tracking oil spills was working on a drift model – by combining their knowledge of ocean currents and weather patterns they would be able to predict where and when wreckage from Flight 370 was likely to turn up. At that time their best bet was that debris would appear on the long coastline of Western Sumatra, part of the Indonesian archipelago, by March.

We are still waiting.

Repeated requests from The Daily Beast to the ATSB for an update on the drift model have been met with silence, the latest being this week. It is now a very troubling silence, with at least one highly consequential implication: An accurate drift model would require knowing with some certainty the original starting point - where the airplane hit the water.

If, indeed, it did hit water.

After all, one explanation for the absence of floating wreckage would be that there is no floating wreckage – because the remains of the airplane lie undetected on some remote piece of terra firma. At this point perhaps it’s time to try thinking the unthinkable.