Missing plane, missing ocean floor maps – MH370: Two years on

Map of the area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could theoretically be found. Pechristener, Furfur / Wikimedia Commons

Two years ago on this day, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing, but was never seen again.

In spite of the most massive search effort in aviation history, only one plane part believed with certainty to be from the ill-fated aircraft has been found. In recent weeks, two more parts are believed to have been found – one by the same person as from a year earlier, also on the island of Réunion, and another on the coast of Mozambique.

The two latest parts are currently being sent to Australia for expert analysis.

Today, the international investigation team behind the search efforts released a three-page interim statement that offered no new details.

A separate statement made today by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared to be tactful attempt at drawing the fruitless search effort to a close. He said he remained hopeful that the plane could be found, but emphasised that the current search operation is “expected to be completed later this year”.

“If it is not [found], then Malaysia, Australia and China will hold a tripartite meeting to determine the way forward”, he added.

The relatives of 12 Chinese passengers of the missing plane have filed lawsuits in Beijing yesterday, one day before the deadline for launching legal action. They said that they want the courts to help establish what happened, by obtaining more information about the investigations that have not been publicly released.

The investigations into the plane’s pilots, among other persons, have so far yielded nothing to explain even a possible motive for downing the plane.

The tragic disappearance of Flight MH370 has spawned a cottage industry of books sensationalising conspiracy theories behind the aircraft’s disappearance. One of the most outlandish and irrational ones to have gained traction proposed that MH370 was “switched” with Flight MH17, another Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down over Ukraine in July that same year, because “Flight 370 had to be gotten rid of, and people disposed of.

Relatives of the victims of Flights MH370 and MH17 have criticised these amateurish sleuth efforts as being insensitive.

In an age of space exploration, Earth’s ocean floors not even mapped

In the course of the search efforts for MH370 in the Indian Ocean, it emerged how scant the information on the depth and shape of Earth’s ocean floor is. There are depths in the Indian Ocean that are thought to be between 4.5 to 7.8 km, and all of this is very poorly known.

It is incredible that in an age of space exploration, so much of the terrain on our own planet is not even mapped.

A robotic submarine deployed early on to search for the missing plane in the southern Indian Ocean had its first mission cut short, because it had unexpectedly encountered ocean depths that were beyond its operating limit of 4.5 km.

It may be in bad taste to suggest that a tragedy has resulted in good outcomes. But it should nevertheless be pointed out that the search team has indeed performed an act of service for the international community, in mapping it out the terrain of the ocean bed, as a by-product of its operations.

Reporting positions every 15 minutes: still not enough

The tragedy of MH370 has also pushed the aviation authorities to require planes to report their positions at least every 15 minutes, or every minute if a plane unexpectedly changes course or altitude, or is in distress. Previously, this needed only to be done every 30 minutes during flights.

But as a CNN commentary pointed out, 15 minutes is still a long time for a plane traversing the skies at speeds of over 800 km per hour. If an accident were to happen one minute after the last report to air traffic control, the search area would still be huge.

Most – but not all – airlines now have satellite equipment that report the positions of their planes more frequently than the minimum 15 minute requirement.

Also crucial are the black boxes that would convey important information from planes facing trouble. Their minimum required battery lives of black boxes have to be lengthened, to avoid a frenzied rush to locate black boxes while they still emit signals as to their whereabouts.

Streaming the data from black boxes automatically, in the event of an aircraft emergency, is perhaps even more important, as some propose. The technology required already exists, but airlines have still been slow to adopt it.