Early this morning, local time, the Seabed Constructor recovered the last of eight sea drones it had sent to scour a remote patch of the southern Indian Ocean. Then, with little fanfare, the ship set off on a course for Dampier, Australia. Thus came the end of the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, an epic feat of undersea exploration that lasted nearly four years, covered a total of some 85,000 square miles (an area larger than Great Britain), and cost on the order of a quarter-billion dollars.
The search found not a single trace of the plane. How could such an epic undertaking have come up empty?
Here’s one idea: the experts were wrong all along about which direction the airliner flew—it went north, not south toward the deep Indian Ocean. If that sounds like crazy second-guessing, then consider it’s the point of view of someone who helped solve one of the biggest missing plane cases of the 21st century.
Here’s a quick catch-up on how we got here: Based on a series of seven signals automatically transmitted from the plane to an Inmarsat communications satellite shortly after MH370 disappeared from radar, investigators came to believe that the plane flew on autopilot for six hours and then ran out of fuel shortly after midnight, universal time, on March 8, 2014. The airliner then sent a final burst of data as it plummeted earthward.
This data came in two ways. The first, the so-called “burst timing offset” (BTO) data, was a measure of how far the plane was from the satellite at the time of transmission. The set of all possible places from which the plane might have made it formed a ring, or arc, on the earth’s surface. The second type of data, the so-called “burst frequency offset” (BFO) data, could provide a rough sense of whether the plane was flying to the north or to the south. After spending weeks developing the mathematics necessary to interpret it, investigators decided that the BFO values meant the plane must have gone south.
The subsequent search for the plane’s wreckage was defined by two factors: where exactly on the final arc the plane was when it sent its last transmission, and how far it could have traveled afterward. After further mathematical analysis, investigators became convinced that the final BFO values meant that the plane was in a steep dive at the end. The condition of debris recovered in the western Indian Ocean in the years after the crash further convinced investigators that the plane hit hard and fast. Taken together, those factors would imply the plane’s final resting place lies close to the arc.
Applying a technique called Bayesian analysis to the BTO data, researchers at Australia’s Defense Science & Technology Group were able to identify a 500-mile-long segment of the arc along which is likely where the transmission occurred. According to their calculations, there was virtually a zero chance that the plane could have wound up south of 40 degrees south latitude or north of 33 degrees south latitude. It had to be between those lines.
Or so they thought.
With the completion of Seabed Constructor‘s work, investigators have now searched that entire length of that 500-mile stretch—and 650 miles beyond it—up to a distance of 25 miles in either direction. With zero to show for four years of effort, the authorities are stumped. They don’t believe the plane ended up somewhere else on the arc, nor are they willing to accept it could have glided more than 25 miles past the line. They’re also confident that the plane isn’t sitting in the already-searched area and they just missed it. It’s just gone.
The country ultimately responsible for finding the plane, Malaysia, seems resigned to an unsolved mystery. Anticipating that Seabed Constructor would not find any wreckage in its final days of work, the country’s minister of transport, Anthony Loke, issued a statement on May 30 announcing the search’s end, explaining: “Whilst combined scientific studies have continuously used (sic) to refine areas of probability, to date however, no new information has been encountered to determine the exact location of the aircraft.”
However, many observers outside the investigation are unsatisfied with this declaration of surrender. Plenty of online conspiracy theorists and armchair investigators have their own ideas about the fate of MH370, but one person you should actually listen to is David Gallo. He’s the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute researcher who co-led the search that found Air France 447.
Writing on Twitter on May 25, Gallo suggested that the search’s heavy reliance on Inmarsat signals might have been a mistake. “I never accepted the satellite data from day one,” he wrote, adding: “I never thought I’d say this….I think there is a good chance that MH370 never came south at all. Let’s put it this way, I don’t accept the evidence that the plane came south.”
When I reached him on the phone, Gallo told me he was flummoxed by the authorities’ insistence that the Inmarsat data and its interpretation had to be correct. “This is where I got so frustrated,” he said. “The plane’s not there, so what the hell? What’s going on?”
Gallo doesn’t claim to know how the satellite data could have been misinterpreted, but one possibility is that a sophisticated hijacker might have deliberately tampered with it in order to throw searchers off the trail. Search officials have never come up with an explanation for how the satcom system came to be turned back on an hour after all its other electronics went dark. Victor Iannello, a member of the influential Independent Group of amateur researchers, has pointed out that by changing a single parameter inside a satcom computer, a hijacker could have tweaked the BFO data to make it look like the plane was winging south when it was really heading north.
That’s a controversial idea to say the least, flying in the face of years of official near-certainty about a southern terminus. But given search officials’ quarter-billion-dollar failure, the truth must lie among one of the possibilities they haven’t yet deemed worthy of consideration.
Gallo argues that a fresh approach is in order. “My advice to the Malaysian govt is to STOP and think,” he wrote. “Turn over controls to a small independent group and let them work out the way forward.”
Note: This article originally ran in Popular Mechanics.