Malaysia Airlines flight MH370: underwater search called off

MH370 search ends with no plane, few answers

The search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has come to an end with passengers’ families being informed that the effort to find the plane has been suspended.
Next of kin were told in an emailed statement today that Australian authorities’ underwater search of 120,000 sq km in the southern Indian ocean had concluded without success.

The search had been ongoing for more than two years.

The MH370 Tripartite Joint Communiqué seen by The Guardian was co-signed by the transport ministers of Malaysia, China and Australia, representing the three countries involved in the search. It was made public at 2pm Malaysia time.

“Today the last search vessel has left the underwater search area. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has not been located in the 120,000 square-kilometre underwater search area in the southern Indian Ocean,” it read.

“Despite every effort using the best science available, cutting edge technology, as well as modelling and advice from highly skilled professionals who are the best in their field, unfortunately, the search has not been able to locate the aircraft.

“The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness.”

Flight MH370 disappeared on 8 March 2014, vanishing from radar shortly after take-off from Kuala Lumpar en route to Beijing. The plane is believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean, claiming the lives of all 239 crew and passengers on board.

The announcement comes six weeks out from the third anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, with the underwater search effort led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau in the so-called “seventh arc” since October 2014 concluding without success.

At a tripartite meeting in July 2016, the three transport ministers had acknowledged the “diminishing” likelihood of finding the plane. If the full 120,000 sq km area was searched without success, the effort was to “not end, but be suspended” indefinitely, they said – reiterating the earlier resolution made in April 2015.

In December, the ATSB said they had a “high degree of confidence” that the wreck would not be found in the tranche of Indian ocean originally pinpointed, instead highlighting a new area of approximately 25,000 sq km – between latitudes 33 degrees south and 36 degrees south – as “the area with the highest probability of containing the wreckage of the aircraft”.

The tripartite statement said today’s announcement was consistent with its decision made in July 2016.

“Whilst combined scientific studies have continued to refine areas of probability, to date no new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft.”

The flight was carrying 152 Chinese nationals and 50 from Malaysia, as well as passengers from Australia, Canada, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine and the United States.

Chandrika Sharma, of Chennai in India, was among the 239 people on board MH370.

“This decision appears premeditated and a betrayal of the commitment to the families and the public that the governments are committed to the search,” K S Narendran, her husband of 25 years, told The Guardian.

“It must also come as a blow to all this who have worked tirelessly to find answers and find the plane.”

A series of “pings” from what was believed to be one of the black boxes from the plane initially narrowed the search zone to a smaller region of the Indian Ocean. Australia’s then prime minister Tony Abbott and Malaysian transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein both suggested the plane was close to discovery weeks after the crash.

But the hunt for the plane quickly became one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries after a lengthy aerial search yielded no results.

Following the exhaustive aerial survey, the search for the missing plane had a fourth-month hiatus while experts mapped the part of the ocean where the plane was believed to have crashed.

In October 2014 the Australian Transport Safety Bureau began a new phase for the search for MH370, an underwater search effort of 120,000 sq km of the Indian ocean floor.

The search has been a multimillion-dollar effort on the parts of Australia, Malaysia and China. The operation is believed to have cost around A$180m, paid for by Australia and Malaysia. China donated A$20m in funding and equipment.

Progress was frustrated by difficulties in reaching the search zone and the largely uncharted part of the Indian Ocean it was believed to have crashed in. The final 20,000 sq km in particular were delayed by poor weather conditions throughout 2016.

But investigators remained optimistic, with Martin Dolan, the head of the ATSB, expressing confidence in March 2016, the two-year anniversary of its disappearance, that the plane would be found within that 120,000 sq km area.

In July 2015 authorities had a breakthrough in the search, when they found debris on the island of Réunion that was later confirmed to be a flaperon from the flight.

Several more pieces of debris were confirmed to have come from MH370, including a wing flap found on an island off the coast of Tanzania in June and sent to Canberra for analysis that was found to be from a Boeing 777.

Investigators say the failure to find the wreckage does not mean all search efforts will end. But those seeking answers for the disappearance of the plane – and those on board – now face the prospect that the fate of MH370 might never be known.

© AFP/Getty Images A 2m-long wing flap from MH370, found off Tanzania, was identified by experts in Canberra in September 2016.

MH370: Decision to end search for missing plane is incomprehensible

It is nearly three years since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared.

For most of this time the searchers have been exploring a deep, 120,000-square-kilometer stretch of water in the southern Indian Ocean.

The choice of location was based on satellite data (the so-called Inmarsat handshakes) as the area most likely to contain the missing aircraft.

However, despite finding dormant sea volcanoes, previously uncharted shipwrecks and a miscellany of sea junk, the missing Boeing 777 was not found.

On Tuesday, the search was suspended by the three governments involved.

Huge search
The search operation has been among the most challenging ever undertaken.

The ships involved patrolled for around six weeks at a time in the middle of nowhere in some of the most atrocious weather conditions on Earth, with vicious winds and huge waves. There have frequently been days when searching had to be halted because of the weather.

Even though the ships have a doctor on board, there have also been medical emergencies that required urgent returns to base in Australia.

During the search, parts of the plane (some determined as certainly being from MH370, others "almost certain") have washed up on the coasts of various east African countries. These finds didn't tell us much about how the aircraft went down, or what condition it was in, but were the first pieces of hard evidence that proved MH370 had crashed.

The research effort over the past three years has been herculean. Led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), several reports have been compiled trying to eke out further details from the slivers of clues that exist -- especially the seven handshakes between the plane and Inmarsat satellite and the two unanswered satellite calls that were made from the ground to the plane.

Researchers have also examined various flight computations of potential routes, distances and end-of-flight scenarios -- such as which direction would the plane have fallen out of the sky once the fuel ran out and the engines stopped.
Throughout, there have been teams like the Independent Group -- a respected group of satellite and aviation experts -- whose own research has added to the understanding of what might have taken place. There have also been the critics, like Capt. Bryon Bailey in Australia, happy to tell investigators that their theories are wrong and they are looking in the wrong place.

Why call it off now?
Now the search is over and the plane has not been found.

The recent "First Principles Report" reviewing the search was definite in saying the area probably didn't contain the plane. The report went on to review the latest research and conclude "experts identified an area of approximately 25,000 square kilometers as the area with the highest probability of containing the wreckage of the aircraft."

The three governments involved in the search -- Australia, Malaysia and China -- have rejected that recommendation.

I find it bewildering that the governments have decided not to spend the extra money and search this new, smaller area. It is incomprehensible to me that their experts should have identified this potential new lead and the governments deny them money to continue.

This decision makes total nonsense of the Malaysian and Chinese governments' promise to do whatever is necessary to find MH370. The statement issued Tuesday calling off the underwater search doesn't even refer to the "First Principles Report."

Frankly, after three years of searching, it is a disgrace to suspend the effort now.

Search should continue
Why should the search go on? Because we know so little about what caused the plane's fate.

We know that the plane crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, because debris has been found and it can be tracked back to where the plane is believed to have gone down.

But that's about it. We don't know what happened on board the aircraft after 1:19 a.m. when the last words "goodnight Malaysian 370" were said from the cockpit. We don't know whether the captain was involved in the disappearance. We don't know why the transponder was switched off. We don't know why the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System was disabled. We don't know why a Malaysian air force radio operator didn't raise the alarm when he saw the plane flying back across Malaysia. We don't know what Indonesian radar saw (if anything) as the plane went around the country.

In short, we don't know whether the disappearance of MH370 was nefarious or mechanical. Which is why the decision to suspend the search is so wrong and should be reversed.

Were opportunities for clues from MH370 debris missed?

Three nations shelled out around $160 million and years' worth of work on the underwater search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The result: No plane. The only tangible — and arguably most important — clues into what happened to the aircraft have come courtesy of ordinary citizens, who bore the costs themselves.

The deep-sea sonar search for the vanished Boeing 777 was suspended on Tuesday after officials conceded defeat following most expensive, complex aviation search in history.

But while search crews spent years trawling in futility through a remote patch of the Indian Ocean, people wandering along beaches thousands of kilometers (miles) away began spotting pieces of the plane that had washed ashore. Those pieces have provided crucial information to investigators and prompted some to question whether Malaysia, Australia and China — who funded the hunt for the underwater wreckage — missed key opportunities by failing to organize coastal searches for the remnants that drifted to distant shorelines.

"It would have been good to have been getting people looking for debris," said David Griffin, an Australian government oceanographer who worked on an analysis of how the debris drifted in a bid to pinpoint where the plane crashed. "I think that was a job that fell between the cracks of whose responsibility it was."

Since the plane vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, more than 20 pieces of debris confirmed or believed likely to have come from the aircraft have turned up on beaches along the east coast of Africa and on island nations including Madagascar. All of the parts have been found by local residents and tourists who stumbled upon them, and by an American amateur sleuth who launched his own hunt for debris after working with oceanographers to estimate where bits of the plane may have ended up.

Several family members of Flight 370's passengers asked officials to launch a search along the coastlines for parts of the plane. When their pleas went unheeded, they banded together and traveled to Madagascar to encourage residents to keep an eye out for more debris. The family members, who covered all their travel expenses themselves, even offered a potential reward to anyone who found a piece of Flight 370.

Grace Nathan, a Malaysian whose mother was on board Flight 370, was among those who made the trip to Madagascar last month. She is deeply frustrated that the families felt compelled to take on the task themselves, and that the underwater search yielded nothing.

"Every single clue to date has been found by private individuals by chance," Nathan said. "Not a single piece of hard evidence has been found by the official search."

Nathan believes the governments' failure to search for coastal debris may have resulted in missed clues.

"They should have done more to initiate something like what we did," she said. "We are laypeople. We don't have the kind of reach they have, we don't have the kind of contacts that they have."

Initially, experts believed that the pieces washing ashore would be virtually useless to the investigation. Too much time had passed, they argued, and ocean currents are too volatile to make it possible to trace the pieces back to their origin.

Yet the recovered parts of the plane provided valuable insight into what happened to it. They confirmed, firstly, that the aircraft went down somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Before the first part — a piece of airplane wing known as a flaperon — was discovered on Reunion Island, farther east of Madagascar, in 2015, some people continued to insist the plane had flown north into Asia, rather than heading south. The flaperon effectively killed that theory and bolstered the investigators' interpretation of satellite data that indicated the plane had ended up somewhere along a vast arc slicing across the Indian Ocean.

A wing flap that washed up in Tanzania also gave investigators clues into what happened in the final moments of the plane's flight. No one knows why the aircraft veered so far off-course after takeoff and turned south into the Indian Ocean, though Malaysian officials have said the plane's erratic movements after takeoff were consistent with deliberate actions. Investigators operated on the theory that the plane was on autopilot in its final hours before it ran out of fuel and plummeted into the sea.

A key question was whether anyone was still at the controls when the plane hit the water, which would affect how far the plane could glide after running out of fuel. Critics who favor the theory that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah hijacked the plane say he could have made a controlled ditch at sea in order to minimize debris and help the plane disappear as completely as possible.

But an analysis of the wing flap by Australian investigators suggested it had not been deployed when it hit the water. A pilot attempting a soft landing would have extended the flaps.

The flaperon and other debris also helped officials narrow down the potential search zone. Griffin, the Australian oceanographer, set replicas of the flaperon adrift in the ocean, measuring how fast they traveled and noting how much the wind influences their rate of speed. He and his team then ran computer simulations of how the aircraft parts could have drifted, giving them an idea of where they originated. Late last year, investigators coupled that drift information with a fresh analysis of other data on the plane's movements and concluded that search crews were looking in the wrong part of the Indian Ocean. The investigators recommended crews instead search an area to the north, where they now believe the plane may lie.

But Australia, Malaysia and China have nixed that idea, saying they won't relaunch the search until they have credible evidence pointing to the plane's exact location.

That decision has stunned Blaine Gibson, the American sleuth who conducted a self-funded hunt for the debris along shorelines in the west Indian Ocean. To him, the debris that has been found is the most credible evidence investigators have.

"Debris is the key. Debris is the main clue. Those are actually pieces of the plane," he says. "The debris is really narrowing it down better than it's ever been narrowed. ... There's no excuse for them to not go search that area."

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