After 13 days of false starts and the emergence of piecemeal information in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370, nobody wants to jump to conclusions about the satellite sightings of two pieces of debris spotted in the Southern Indian Ocean.
Officials are emphasising caution but several factors explain the intense effort that has been mustered around this lead.
Australia took charge of the search in the Southern Indian Ocean earlier this week based on a potential track for the plane along what has been called the “southern corridor”. This flight path is based on a series of rudimentary satellite communications from the Boeing 777 over the course of seven hours after it last contacted air traffic control, and the distance it could have flown in that time.
The site of the debris field is almost exactly at the end point of this southern corridor. This is, the hypothesis goes, the point at which the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed.
Then there’s the debris. It includes one piece assessed as being 24m in size. From the satellite image that’s been released, this larger object is floating around just under the surface. It looks curved, like you would expect a piece of airliner fuselage to appear. (But we won’t know until one of the five military aircraft tasked with finding it does so, and makes a low pass.)
The location combines with the nature of the debris to make this what officials have described as “probably the best lead we have”.
This graphic from Australian designer Scott Henderson combines various maps, including a base map from Reuters, to show where the search area is, and it is thought-provoking. Have a look (and click to enlarge):
One of the theories that has gained huge attention in recent days has been that the pilots were rendered unconscious by smoke in the cockpit. Pilots are divided in their assessment of this, but one of the key reasons it’s so plausible is it would account for the continued satellite pings from a plane flying in a straight line on autopilot with its key communications systems shut down, until it ran out of fuel.
In the event of a fire, pilots would immediately start to shut off electrical circuits trying to isolate the cause. A key objection is that they would have at some point radioed the fire in to air traffic control.
Rob Bishop, aviation expert from Central Queensland University, spoke on Sky News Australia a short time ago and while he didn’t want to suggest that it was the answer, the smoke theory did fit the current scenario. (Again, remembering that the debris could be another false start.)
The map above shows how closely the search area fits to the hypothesis that the plane at least was flying in a straight line until it could fly no further.
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