MH370: The Single, Simple Mistake Behind the Search’s Failure

Seabed Constructor sails into Fremantle, Australia. Source: Mike Exner

Experts from all over the world have converged in Perth, Australia, to meet Seabed Constructor, the exploration vessel tasked with finding the wreckage of MH370, after its first stint in the search area. Technical experts and government officials are having meetings and dinners, touring the ship, and doing photo ops. Everything glitters and spirits are high.

Lost in this excited hubub is the fact that the latest search effort has already invalidated the expert analysis that got it launched in the first place.

In a 2016 document entitled “MH370–First Principles Review,” the ATSB explained that, given the absence of wreckage in the orginal 120,000 sq km search, MH370 most likely wound up somewhere near the 7th arc between 33 degrees and 36 degrees south. A subsequent document by the CSIRO entitled “The search for MH370 and ocean surface drift–Part III” narrowed the target area considerably. “We think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty,” it stated. “This location is 35.6°S, 92.8°E. Other nearby (within about 50km essentially parallel to the 7th arc) locations east of the 7th arc are also certainly possible, as are (with lower likelihood) a range of locations on the western side of the 7th arc, near 34.7°S 92.6°E and 35.3°S 91.8°E.”

The wording is important, because as the original search area was winding down, Australia, China and Malaysia said that it would only be extended if “credible new information” came to light. The CSIRO’s language sounded like an attempt to make the case that this condition had been met. And indeed, the three specified points were all included the “Primary Search Area” that Seabed Constructor recently focused its efforts on.

However, that area has now been searched. And once again, the plane was not where it was supposed to be. The CSIRO’s “unprecedented precision and certainty” was a mirage.

How is that, time and time again, officials heading up the search for MH370 exude great confidence and then come up empty handed? How can we account for four years of relentless failure?

The answer, it seems to me, is quite simple. Investigators have resolutely failed to grapple with the single most salient clue: The fact that the Satellite Data Unit (SDU) was rebooted. This electronic component is the part of the 777’s sat com system that generated the Inmarsat data that has been the basis of the entire search. There is no known way that it could accidentally turn off and back on again.

If one has no idea how the SDU turned on, then one can have no confidence in the integrity of the data that it generated.

The ATSB has never publicly expressed a theory about what could have caused the reboot, except to say that most likely the power had been turned off and back on again. There was always the possibility that, behind the scenes, they had figured out a way that this could plausibly happen other than being deliberately tampered with.

Just today, however, I received confirmation that the ATSB is in fact befuddled. Mike Exner is a stalwart of the Independent Group who is currently visiting Perth, where he has had dinner with employees of Ocean Infinity and Fugro, as well as members of the ATSB and the DSTG. In response to my assertion that investigators “had never stopped to ask how on earth the SDU… came to be turned back on,” Exner tweeted that “Everyone is well aware of the question. We have all asked ourselves and others how it happened.” However, Mike writes, “no one has the answer.”

One might forgive the expenditure of vast wealth and manpower based on data of dubious provenance if there was other evidence that independently supported it. But the contrary is the case: debris collected in the western Indian Ocean shows no signs of having drifted from the search zone, as I wrote in my previous post. It is increasingly clear that the plane did not go where the Inmarsat data suggests it did. The fishiness of the Inmarsat data, and the fishiness of the SDU reboot that created it, are all of a piece.

Soon, Seabed Constructor will return to the search area; some weeks or months after that, it will leave again, empty handed. When it does, people all over the world will ask: How could they have failed yet again?

The answer will be simple. It is this: Investigators never established the provenance of the  evidence that they based their search on.