Australia Issues Postmortem on Seabed Search


The search isn’t officially over yet–the crew of the Fugro Equator still has a Christmas and New Year’s at sea to look forward to, as well as most of the month of January–but it looks like Australia is throwing in the towel on the current seabed search as it issues its First Principles Review looking at what it learned during the last three years and where it thinks the plane’s main wreckage still might be.

The upshot of the report is quite similar to the postmortem posted here in September entitled Commentary on Neil Gordon Interview. In short, the First Principles report argues that the debris most likely is located in a small (25,000 sq km) area to the northeast of the 120,000 sq km search area, and that if it isn’t there, the ATSB has no idea where it is.

Personally, I’d like to see them go ahead and search that area, but as I read the tea leaves Malaysian and China will not allow it. They’re done. (They’ve heard the “we’re absolutely certain it’s in this area but oops it’s not so we promise it’s in the next area” line before.)

So what did the report contain that was new?

What we didn’t learn, to my great dismay, was anything about the biofouling or anything more about the mechanical breakage of the debris, and what it could have told us about how the plane came apart. Patrick De Deckker’s findings might be buried forever.

There were, however, some interesting revelations:

  • For the first time, the ATSB went into some detail explaining just how much of the seabed it might have missed because the seabed terrain was too steep or rough. They reckon this to amount to about one percent of the total.
  • Search team members agreed that “the distance required to be searched from the arc could be reduced to 25 NM from the 7th arc.” At one time officials believed that the plane could have gone as far as 100 nm, so excluding that possibility greatly reduces the search zone size.
  • For the first time, the ATSB has said that the quantity of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean by itself is useful in reducing the search area: “From the number and size of items found to date from MH370 there was definitely a surface debris field, so the fact that the sea surface search detected no wreckage argues quite strongly that the site where the aircraft entered the water was not between latitudes 32°S4 and 25°S along the 7th arc.”

For me, the most exciting part of the report is the section provided by the CSIRO discussing how the debris might have drifted. The piece de resistance is a photograph provided by the French showing how the actual Réunion flaperon floated when put in the test tank (above). There are two stable states, both of which require heavily-encrusted parts of the flaperon to stick out well clear of the water. This is clearly impossible–barnacles can not live high and dry.

In the past, during discussions of this topic on this forum, people have said, “but wave action might flip the flaperon over so the whole thing might stay wet.” I’ve pooh-poohed this, saying that the flaperon looked quite heavy, and riding low in the water it would be no meant feat for a wave to flip it over. But lo and behold, the report contains a fifteen second video of a replica flaperon being tossed around in a choppy sea by 20 knot winds, and by god if it isn’t flipping over all the time. And therefore I acknowledge that it’s easy to imagine a flaperon getting continually flipped over, so that no barnacle would stay out of the water for more than a few seconds. However, what I cannot imagine is that a state of 20 knot winds is going to persist for 15 months. At some point, the wind is going to die down, and all the barnacles on the high side are going to die. Then the wind will pick up, the flaperon will get flipped over, and the barnacles on the other side will die. The only barnacles that would be able to survive such flip-flopping would the those in the band between the two exposed “poles.”

This is a really obvious problem that the French addressed in their own original secret report (though as I’ve written they couldn’t reconcile it). I find it a little surprising that CSIRO didn’t engage in the topic at all. I wish they’d let me write the questions for their FAQ!

As it stands, I feel that the photograph above provides a huge clue as to what happened to MH370.

UPDATE 12/20/16: To clarify this “huge clue,” here are some pictures of the trailing edge, which according to the French tank test should have been sticking out of the water (right-click to expand). (You can see a video of a replica floating in this way here.)



117 thoughts on “Australia Issues Postmortem on Seabed Search”

  1. @ Jeff Wise
    For the record I just want to say that despite your unique theory about the northern route, and your efforts to substantiate it by seeking evidence for planted debris, your open-minded attitude is quite evident, and that is what brings me to this blog every day.

  2. @DennisW

    Whilst I agree entirely with your point 3 post mortem analysis (“The behaviour of the Malay Government should have been strongly challenged, and challenged early on.”). They, the Malay Government, have been correct about the 9M-MRO mystery on one matter, the origin of the flaperon. Malay Prime Minister Najib Razak at a press conference at 1:45am local time Thursday the 6th of August 2015 announced the flaperon from Reunion Island was from 9M-MRO. This was in fact 100% honest. Boeing officials could only say it a 777 part and the French took some weeks to forensically confirm the provenance of the flaperon. At the press conference he stated “It is our plane and we know it best”.

    The timing of the press conference probably answers your question of the difficulty asking tough questions.

  3. @Jeff
    Please keep going there are too many aspects of this whole story that dont pass the smell test ! Richard Quest interview with co-pilot is the start in my mind.What are the odds of him being the first officer to disappear in the most infamous 777 loss ever?
    No ID plate on the flaperon,why is that ?
    ATC voice recordings with office noises , why ?
    Radar traces with impossible turns ?
    Yep I am with you Jeff , dont let the buggers get you down.
    Motive; Revenge for War crime trial in KL against Bush and co two years earlier is worth looking at .
    Before Dennis starts, who got Britex , Trump and Egypt air crash cause right this year,oh yes me from the not so wacko after all department.

  4. @StevenG, @Matt:
    There are, obviously, different scales of insanity; those two are not on the same scale. To me they are incomparable, although they might share a political mis-/over-interpretation by the perp. But the mh370 tragedy is not likely politically motivated in the same way, if Z is the perp. To me, for one, mh370 begins in the suicide end while the assasination of the Russian ambassador ends in the suicide end. On one level mh370 has in that case more in common with the crowd-slayings with vehicle, but with the important difference that the perp of mh370 is taking great pains to avoid notoriety as a slayer. And his act is not all aimed at his victims.

    But politics — the art of words — does things to people, more to some than others, that is true.

  5. @Owen

    “Before Dennis starts, who got Britex , Trump and Egypt air crash cause right this year,oh yes me from the not so wacko after all department.”

    I did not toss out a prediction on either Brexit or the US presidential election, but if I had I would most likely have gotten both of them wrong.

    I’m not going to start. In fact, I regard it as interesting (and even sometimes amusing) to have people “running around the edges” of this thing. However, I tend to look at this issue through different optics. I like to ask myself, if I were in charge, what would I do?

    I would certainly not run into my boss’s office and tell him I think the Inmarsat data is wrong, the debris has been planted, and that the plane is in Kazakstan. At least not based on what we collectively know on this forum. You don’t get to be in charge by doing things like that.

    What I would do is:

    – Let the current search play out, just like the ATSB is doing.

    – Toss the SSWG under the bus, to deflect as much blame from management as possible.

    – Wait awhile to let a clamor grow for further action

    – Press to award a contract to Larry Stone (Metron) to look at the problem with a fresh set of eyes.

    Do I think Stone is some sort of miracle worker? No. However, a fresh look might be useful, and it would be a relatively inexpensive way to buy some time in the hope that more information will come along. It would also reinforce the notion that the SSWG are a bunch of wankers.

    What I would not do is press to expand the search to the North. The information we have relative to that action is not a whole lot better than the information we had that got us where we are.

    BTW, Owen, the absence of the flaperon ID plate would seem to conflict with the notion that the debris was planted. If you wanted people to think the debris came from 9M-MRO, the last thing you would do is remove the ID plate. Regarding debris in general, how would you remove parts from the aircraft, and simulate crash damage? I don’t think you can’t take a flaperon off an airplane, and go to work on it with cold chisels or a band saw, and expect to fool anyone.

  6. @OZ

    Yes, he referres to the latest CSIRO drift study but he only pics the Reunion and flaperon issue to make his case (which is outdated).
    This is far too limited IMO.

    The latest CSIRO drift study is about a lot more than only the flaperon and Reunion.
    And that possible 2 months difference in arriving/beaching at Reunion of the flaperon he suggests as being quite important isn’t at all in the whole latest CSIRO picture.

    Anyway not important enough to draw the conclusions he draws.
    He seems to pic just this limited information to serve his confirmation bias.
    And advocate with it to end the search for possibly years without searching the newly recommended ATSB search area of 25.000km2.

    I strongly disagree and object this kind of argumentation and drawing conclusions.

  7. @DennisW

    I’m Dutch so it’s quite difficult for me to do as you know..
    But I have to say I (almost;) completely agree with your two latest posts.

    Your argument on the flaperon ID-plate stands out IMO.

  8. @Owen, regarding the “office noises” in the audio recording.

    They don’t really surprise me, here is how it works (in France) : every audio and radar data of every ATC sector is stored in a computer, away from the control room, and in case of an incident/accident/non-standard event, some people (in my country they are “special” ATCs dedicated to this task but it may be different in other countries) to retrieve this data and make an elaborated summary, with the audio transcript, the possible causes, what the ATCs who were working at that time think about this event, etc.
    What happened here IMO is that they replayed the audio data in an office and recorded it using a portable tape recorder of some sort. The thing is, they were sloppy enough to not impose absolute silence during the audio replay. Which doesn’t surprise me as well considering how the whole MH370 case was handled right from the start.

  9. @jeffwise:

    This is the most sensible thing you have written on the simulator data in a long time. Congratulations.

    Ironically, while admitting failure, the Australian report reflects the experts’ increased confidence that they understand more or less what happened the night of the vanishing.

    Based on automatic signals — “pings” — exchanged between the plane and a navigation satellite during the final six hours MH370 was in the air, investigators believe that after the airliner vanished from radar screens over the Malacca Strait it must have taken a final turn to the left and flown south on a magnetic compass heading (one of several possible navigational modes a plane can use). It then flew straight until it ran out of fuel and dived into the ocean at high speed, smashing apart into small fragments.
    The scenario would be consistent with pilot suicide, but the report does not mention the secret Malaysian Police report leaked earlier this year that revealed that captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had saved a set of points on his home flight simulator in which he flew with zero fuel in the remote southern Indian Ocean. The simulator data could reasonably be interpreted as evidence he planned a suicide flight, or it could be a freak coincidence. The ATSB has long maintained silence regarding the possible identity of the perpetrator, saying that its job is to figure where MH370 went, not why it went there.

  10. @DennisW

    And about your remark:

    “Regarding debris in general, how would you remove parts from the aircraft, and simulate crash damage?”

    I would say it’s impossible.
    The only way the damage on the debris can be explained is by a crash- or violent ditching in the water and by long time interaction with salt water environments regarding the type of damage, biofauling and corrosion.

    IMO the only way this debris could have been planted was not long after a crash or violent ditch in the water somewhere else.

    The only option then would have been to dump a fairly large amount of selected debris in a desired area that would not conflict the Inmarsat data and let nature have its cause. With the easily available data the outcomes would have been easily predictable: African coasts and Islands.

    Removal of parts and damage them convincingly to look like a water crash or ditch is out of possibilities IMO.
    Then also to keep those pieces long enough in suitable water conditions to grow barnacles on it the size and age recorded (and not recorded!) makes a scenario like this very complicated if not impossible.
    Impossible IMO.

    The only ‘planted scenario’ I can imagine is one by the American military after a shot down of MH370 in critical Diego Garcia territory waters.

    In this scenario they collected the debris and victims and decided to cover up by selecting debris and dump it in the ocean there after the Inmarsat data showed a most probable crash area and let nature do her predictable work.

    I don’t believe in it. It’s just too complicated and a far more fetched solution too simpler scenarios.

    Someone wanted to let the plane and all evidence to disappear.
    The route to the SIO was the perfect option.
    All other routes; West, East, North would have attracted numerous radar stations, eye whitnesses, ship lanes, air corridors and so on.

    This route to this bearly whatched and visited SIO area was the perfect option to let vanish a plane and people. And it worked out.

    This cann’t be a coincidence IMO.
    A mentally driven over the edge captain or other hijacker is a more plausible explaination than a ‘planted scenario’ by American military or anyone else IMO.

  11. @Victor@Jeff

    I agree the NYMag piece is great. It ties together all of the important information in a clear and compact fashion that anyone should be able to easily understand.

  12. @JeffW
    That is a very nice article as Victor points out. I also appreciate that approach.

    Of course the simulator run is apparently using McMurdo waypoint as you know, but ATSB is suggesting magnetic heading South. I am wondering if it is possible the Captain used McMurdo waypoint as surrogate for 180 South magnetic with wind (conservative approach).

  13. We possibly/hopefully influence official and unofficial public opionions.
    That’s all that mathers in the process as far as I’m concerned.

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