If flight MH370 is found, it will happen soon

by Bernard Lagan / 29 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Flight MH370

Graffiti of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Kuala Lumpur. Photo/Getty Images

Searchers stand to gain up to $96m if they find the missing Boeing.

By January’s end, a strange ship with a bulbous bow and high-powered antennae that look like billowing white spheres will have arrived at a point far across the Indian Ocean where its crew hope to unravel the world’s greatest aviation mystery.

US seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity is betting that its 8000-tonne Seabed Constructor can find in 90 days of searching what the world’s most expensive hunt didn’t find in 1046 days: flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished from radar screens on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

If the aircraft is found, the Malaysian Government will hand over up to US$70 million ($96 million). If not, Ocean Infinity gets nothing.

The ship left Durban in early January and headed into the Indian Ocean towards a position at latitude 35°S – a lonely, blustery expanse of ocean, perhaps 5-6km deep – where most of the investigators who have studied the aircraft’s disappearance now think MH370 must be lying. The big Boeing vanished after a bewildering course reversal early in its overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It flew south – on autopilot – until, after six hours, its fuel ran out and it went into the Indian Ocean.

What probably happened is that the two pilots were overcome by some catastrophic cockpit event, such as a fire; the aircraft lost the oxygen needed to sustain life at 37,000ft; or it was hijacked by a suicidal rogue pilot.

If the search finds the remains of MH370, it will be a bittersweet moment for a tight group of Australian government investigators who’ve spent two years and much more than A$100 million ($110 million) on a search that Malaysia helped pay for.

Working off sparse positional information from satellites up until the aircraft vanished, they used sonar devices to comb an area of the seabed bigger than the North Island. It was to no avail, as was the world’s largest aerial ocean surface search – aided by an RNZAF Orion aircraft – in the days immediately following the disappearance.

MH370 has since given up secrets in the form of debris washed ashore, and Tasmanian oceanographer David Griffin’s analysis has pinpointed the new, far smaller area, north of the last expanse of seabed searched, where he thinks the lost jetliner must be.

Griffin, a surfer and Scottish country dancer, is a world expert on ocean currents. When, 508 days after MH370 disappeared, a beachcomber on the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion stumbled across a 2m-plus barnacle-encrusted hunk of aluminium and carbon-fibre, Griffin and the Australian search team had their first big break: it was a wing-mounted flight control, called a flaperon, from MH370.

The Australian investigators obtained an identical flaperon from Boeing and set it adrift in Tasmanian waters to discover the speed and direction moved in currents and winds. Using that data, they worked backwards; they were able to confirm that MH370’s flaperon had drifted west across the Indian Ocean to Réunion from a point where the new search will be concentrated.

There is a new clue: French military satellite photographs taken a week or so after the plane disappeared, but only recently re-examined, show white objects on the ocean surface in this new search area, now thought to be floating debris from MH370.

Seabed Constructor will search the ocean floor with eight unmanned submarine-like search vehicles that together can cover 1200sq km a day – more than three times the work rate of the previous search.

If MH370 is where the experts now believe, the world should soon know. If the search fails, it will probably be the last.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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