New York: The Search for MH370 Seems to Be Over. What Now?

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Australian officials have concluded that the $180 million search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has failed. In a report timed to coincide with the wind-down of the two-year-long inspection of the southern Indian Ocean, a panel of experts convened by the Australian Transport Safety Board opined that the plane most likely lies somewhere in a zone of open ocean about the size of New Hampshire to the northeast of the current search area.

This new zone probably won’t be examined. The three countries responsible for the search — Australia, Malaysia, and China — have already stated that no further attempts to find the plane will be undertaken, unless compelling new evidence emerges.

In short, the biggest mystery in the history of modern aviation doesn’t look like it will be solved anytime soon. So it’s a good moment to take stock about what we know and what to expect in the future as we try to make sense of frustrating and tragic irresolution:

The investigators now say they have a pretty good handle on how the plane went down.

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.

The plane is almost certainly not in the huge patch of ocean investigators spent two years searching.

The investigators long believed that the plane’s impact point lay within a nearly 50,000-square-mile rectangle calculated by Australia’s Defense Science Technology Group. But this high-probability zone has now been searched out using towed side-scan sonar arrays and autonomous underwater vehicles. Apparently, the plane isn’t there.

Some observers have speculated that the wreckage might have been missed by the sonar scan, perhaps falling into the shadow of a seamount or the depths of a ravine. The report, however, throws cold water on this idea, explaining that the technology is capable of searching all but the most rugged 1.2 percent of the search area, and therefore, “There is a high degree of confidence that the previously identified underwater area searched to date does not contain the missing aircraft.”

The new proposed search area probably won’t be examined.

If the plane isn’t in the priority search area, then it must be somewhere else. But the range of possibilities is limited. If it crashed any farther north, the debris field would have been spotted during the massive aerial search conducted just after the disappearance. If it crashed south of the current search area, debris would have been swept to the coast of Australia and likely been discovered by beachcombers. By a process of elimination, then, the endpoint could only be in a fairly tightly constrained area, about one eighth the size of the current search zone and adjacent to its northeastern edge.

“The participants of the First Principles Review were in agreement on the need to search [this] additional area,” the report states. But this extra area is large — about 10,000 square miles — and it would take months and tens of millions of dollars to scan. In its previous agreement with China and Malaysia, Australia stipulated that the search would only continue if “credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft” were found. This new analysis will not likely fit that bill.

What if the new area is searched and the plane still isn’t found?

That, the report states, “would exhaust all prospective areas for the presence of MH370.” That is to say, if the plane isn’t there, then the searchers weren’t just unlucky, their analysis was altogether wrong, and something else entirely must have happened to the plane.
But what? One possibility is that they misinterpreted one of the satellite pings. For instance, the ATSB has long puzzled over the value of the final ping but recently became convinced it must indicate that the plane was plummeting in a steep, fatal dive. If this conclusion is wrong, and the plane was instead being held in a long Sullenberger-esque glide by a suicidal pilot, then the plane’s endpoint could lie anywhere in a much larger swath of ocean.

Another possibility is that the ATSB misinterpreted all the satellite data. After MH370 disappeared from radar over the Malacca Strait, it was electronically invisible, flying over empty ocean in the dark of a moonless night. It could have gone anywhere in the world and no one would have been the wiser. Then, mysteriously, just three minutes later, its satellite communication system switched back on. This is not something that happens accidentally, or that most pilots know how to do. And yet, it is this baffling event that provided everything investigators know about the plane’s final hours. Could this strange satcom behavior have been the result of tampering by sophisticated hijackers, in order to feed investigators misleading clues? Twice I’ve asked teams within the investigation whether the satcom data could have been altered; both times they told me that they assumed that it was good.

Now that the ATSB has thrown in the towel, such questions will remain in limbo. The search will not be officially ended, only suspended. This means that according to international aviation treaties search officials will not have to issue a comprehensive final report. And so potentially vital clues about the fate of the airplane will remain hidden away indefinitely.

The mystery will endure.

(This article originally ran on December 21, 2016, in New York magazine.)