Flight MH370 four weeks on: The key questions answered
It is four weeks since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with 239 passengers and crew on board.
Very little evidence has emerged in that time, creating a mystery that has no modern parallel. Simon Calder has been following events closely since the first report of the disappearance of the Boeing 777, and tackles some of the key questions.
How well have the Malaysian authorities performed – and is there evidence of concealment?
Any government confronted with so inexplicable a chain of events would struggle to present a coherent story to the interested parties. Yet there have been significant oversights and inconsistencies that have served to confuse investigators and the watching world, and perhaps deepen the grief of the relatives of those on board. Even the most basic facts - the sequence of events between take-off and the flight’s disappearance - has been altered.
Initially the last verbal communication from the aircraft was said to be “Alright, goodnight,” spoken by the first officer (co-pilot), but the transcript shows it was a fairly standard sign-off – "Good night Malaysian three seven zero” - and it is not clear whether the captain or first officer spoke.
There is also the inexplicable delay in the release of the first significant data, obtained by the British company, Inmarsat. The firm analysed some fragmentary satellite data, found that the aircraft has been flying for far longer than previously thought, and notified the Malaysian authorities of its discovery within 72 hours of the disappearance. But that was revealed only after a week – meaning that four days were wasted searching the South China Sea.
Relatives of the passengers, as well as political opponents in Malaysia, have accused the government of concealing vital information. It is likely to be the case that a number of agencies from the nations involved are keeping secret some details pertaining to their military capabilities and limitations. But the notion of any kind of conspiracy seems far-fetched compared with the much more likely scenario of a cock-up.
How confident can we be that the search operation is now being conducted in the right area?
Pretty confident. While some senior figures in aviation have questioned the accuracy of the analysis of the sparse satellite “pings,” Inmarsat’s calculations have been cross checked by the UK’s Air Accident Investigations Branch, which is very highly regarded.
When will the black box “pinger” run out?
The flight data recorder, which contains details of the aircraft’s performance and the pilots’ commands, and the cockpit voice recorder, are collectively known as the “black box”. International aviation rules stipulate that they must have enough battery life to transmit for up to 30 days, but in practice the duration is likely to be significantly longer.
They are now searching for the “black box” underwater. Does that mean they are getting close?
No, but since a “towed pinger locator” is available it is being deployed in the very slender hope that it might be able to pick up a signal. It is rather like throwing a dart at random at a board and hoping to hit a treble 20.
Shouldn’t the aircraft have other ways to reveal its location?
It does. Indeed, you may recall that last summer there was a fire at Heathrow on a parked and empty Boeing 787. It is believed to have started at an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) in the upper fuselage. But ELTs have to be activated, and for whatever reason this does not appear to have happened.
What scenarios can be ruled out?
In the first few hours after the disappearance was revealed, I drew up a range of possible explanations. Four weeks on, the spectrum of possibilities has hardly diminished. Some form of catastrophic airframe failure or a weather event looks most unlikely, but the possibility of the crew being incapacitated by smoke or depressurisation remains – as does the possibility that the jet was deliberately downed, whether by a hi-jacker or one of the pilots.
Why has no debris be found?
Some aviation figures have speculated that the aircraft did not simply run out of fuel and plunge into the Indian Ocean, but that it was deliberately ditched in such a way that would minimise the impact with the water surface and reduce the likelihood of widely spread debris field. However, it is also entirely plausible that in so wide an area, with very little shipping, the search teams have simply been unlucky.
Will it ever be?
There are thankfully few crashes involving large passenger aircraft over open seas (or anywhere else). But experience of the most comparable recent event - Air France 447, which was lost over the Atlantic in 2009 en route from Rio to Paris – suggests that some debris will turn up – perhaps washed up on a lonely beach in Western Australia.
How will onboard procedures change in future flights?
They are already changing. It is believed that Malaysia Airlines’ standard operating procedures now require a member of cabin crew to be in the cockpit if one of the pilots leaves the flight deck. Similar changes may be made on other airlines.
Will aircraft locations be more precisely recorded?
Yes. A key recommendation of the accident report into AF447 was that better identification of an aircraft’s location should be implemented. This is now likely to move ahead. There is also pressure for the information presently stored on the black box to be transmitted to the airline’s HQ – otherwise it is analogous to losing your laptop with all the back-up files on the same device.
Is it possible we will never know?
The mystery has so many strange dimensions that this cannot be ruled out. But given the vast resources that national governments and the aviation industry appear prepared to invest, the chances are that we will at least find out much more than we do now.
Independent News Service