Nowhere Left to Look for MH370

Image pilfered from Victor Iannello

The suspension of the search for MH370 has been frustrating for many who care deeply about finding the plane. They feel that solving the mystery is essential not just for the emotional well-being of the passengers’ relatives but to protect the safety of the flying public. One group of MH370 relatives has gone so far as to raise money to fund a search on their own.

Assuming one were to raise the money, though, the question would then become: where to look?

Turns out, it’s not so easy to say.

Officially, of course, Australia says it knows where the plane most likely went. As I wrote in my last post, they’ve released a CSIRO report that uses drift modeling and other techniques to argue that the only plausible endpoint is on the 7th arc between 34 and 36 degrees south.

But as Victor Iannello points out in a recent post on his blog, there are some holes in the CSIRO’s logic. For one thing, according to their drift modeling, no-windage debris that enters the water at 35S will reach the shores of Western Australia in fairly significant quantities, but will not reach the South African coast by December 2015, when the real stuff started to turn up there. (You can play around with the kmz files that the CSIRO has made available online; say what you want about the Australians, they have been fabulous about explaining their work and making gobs of data available to the public.)

There’s another problem: the area between 34S and 36S has been searched out to 10 nm and beyond. I am very skeptical that a plane last spotted accelerating downward at 0.6 g, and already descending at 15,000 fpm, could possibly travel anywhere near as much as 10 nm. If anyone has produced flight sim runs that accomplish this, I would very much like to see it. (The IG said as much in their September 2014 paper.)

I’d add my own third reason to suspect that no wreckage would be found in the ATSB’s new search zone: it doesn’t play well with the DSTG’s Bayesian analysis of the BTO data, which is why it was excluded from the 120,000 sq km seabed search as it was ultimately defined.

So if not the ATSB’s new area, then where? South of 39.5S is ruled out because the plane couldn’t fly that far. 36S to 39.5S is ruled out because it’s been searched. 34S to 36S is ruled out for the reasons discussed above. And north of 34S is ruled out because the debris would have been spotted during the surface search.

This is where we stand, three years after the disappearance: with lots of different kinds of clues delimiting where the plane could have gone, it’s hard to make a plausible case that MH370 went anywhere.

UPDATE: Elle Hunt has written a story in the Guardian about Victor’s criticism of the ATSB’s new search zone. Unfortunately it takes seriously the idea that 30S is a plausible alternative. In addition to the ATSB’s assertion that the debris here would have been spotted during the surface search phase, there are the additional problems that:


  • Low-windage debris would have reached the coast of southern Africa in early 2015, and the flaperon would have arrived in Réunion late 2014. Both are way too early.
  • This endpoint was calculated as having a zero percent probability in the DSTG Bayesian analysis of the Inmarsat data.