Australian authorities released the final report into missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370) saying that what happened to the Boeing 777 will remain unknown until the plane is found.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) 440-page report into the $200 million two year search for the aircraft, which disappeared on March 8, 2014, having left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 12 crew and 227 passengers on board, says that after scanning more than 120,000 square kilometres of the ocean floor, they now have narrowed down its final resting place in the “highest likelihood” to 25,000 square kilometres of Indian Ocean seabed.
“The reasons for the loss of MH370 cannot be established with certainty until the aircraft is found,” the ATSB report concludes.
“It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era with 10 million passengers boarding commercial aircraft every day, for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those on board.”
The largest ever search or survey of its kind involved authorities from China, Malaysia and Australia, who conducted a 52-day surface search of several million square kilometres, as well as mapping 710,000 square kilometres of Indian Ocean seafloor – the largest ever single hydrographic survey.
“Despite the extraordinary efforts of hundreds of people involved in the search from around the world, the aircraft has not been located,” the report says.
In August, Australia’s peak science body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) released details on its latest report to the ATSB about where MH370 could be found, based on drift modelling matched to satellite photos of suspected debris in the Indian Ocean taken a fortnight after the plane went missing with the parts subsequently washed up on the African coast and Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, in 2015 and 2016.
“The debris yielded significant new insights into how and where the aircraft ended its flight. It was established from the debris that the aircraft was not configured for a ditching at the end-of-flight,” the ATSB’s final report says.
“The understanding of where MH370 may be located is better now than it has ever been.”
But it also summed up the challenge for search crews dealing with the mysterious disappearance thus:
Regardless of the cause of the loss of MH370, there were no transmissions received from the aircraft after the first 38 minutes of the flight. Systems designed to automatically transmit the aircraft’s position including the transponder and the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system failed to transmit the aircraft’s position after this time period. Subsequent analysis of radar and satellite communication data revealed the aircraft had actually continued to fly for a further seven hours. Its last position was positively fixed at the northern tip of Sumatra by the surveillance systems operating that night, six hours before it ended the flight in the southern Indian Ocean.
The challenge which faced those tasked with the search was to trace the whereabouts of the aircraft using only the very limited data that was available. This data consisted of aircraft performance information and satellite communication metadata initially, and then later during the underwater search, long-term drift studies to trace the origin of MH370 debris which had been adrift for more than a year, and in some cases, more than two years. The types of data, and the scientific methods used for its analysis, were never intended to be used to track an aircraft or pin point its final location.
The underwater search area was up to 2,800km west of the coast of Western Australia in weather conditions the ATSB called “challenging”.
Following the loss of MH370, the requirements and systems for tracking aircraft have been enhanced and steps are being taken to advance other aircraft systems, including emergency locator transponders and flight recorder locator beacons, the ATSB says.
But unless Malaysian authorities take steps to continue the search for MH370, one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history, despite the biggest search ever, will remain just that.
The report’s executive summary concludes: “The ATSB expresses our deepest sympathies to the families of the passengers and crew on board MH370. We share your profound and prolonged grief, and deeply regret that we have not been able to locate the aircraft, nor those 239 souls on board that remain missing”.
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