Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero

It is the 39th day of not knowing what happened to MH370, the Malaysian airliner which disappeared on March 8, supposedly somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

In those five weeks we have learned relatively little. In the beginning, we were told, the Boeing 777 could have ended up anywhere within an arc of numerous countries north-west of its point of origin – or an arc fanning out across the vast southern-reaches of the imponderably-deep Indian Ocean.

At one point the search was covering an area of 7.68 million sq km – which is roughly 1.5% of the surface of the Earth. Since then, the search has changed on numerous occasions as satellite images of flotsam and jetsam have caused excitement and then disappointment. To date, not a single piece of debris has been identified or recovered from MH370.

There have pieces of circumstantial information that might be related: that pilot Zaharie Ahmed Shah was close to a Malaysian political activist; that he may have had marital issues; that he had built a 777 simulator in his basement and that files had been deleted from it in the days before he took command of MH370. Then we learn – alarmingly belatedly – that a mobile phone belonging to the younger co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, connected with cell towers on the ground shortly into 370’s intended flight path, suggesting that the plane was, briefly, at a low enough altitude for the phone to ‘shake hands’ with the network before abruptly leaving it (consistent with a fast-moving jet passing through a cell).

We have been grasping at any straw that passes. 39 days of potentially relevant, possibly interesting things, but nothing anyone could or would call conclusive. For all we still know, the farcical notion that it landed at the remote US airbase on the British dependency of Diego Garcia could be true. Or that the area it is believed to have disappeared in is the polar opposite side of the planet to the Bermuda Triangle, and somehow the Boeing got sucked into that.

Such nonsense aside, the information vacuum surrounding MH370 has meant 239 families from Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Australia, the United States, Canada, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands still do not know what happened to their loved ones.

Even today, the focus is on retrieving the ‘black box’ flight recorder, rather than bodies, as it has become the sole hope of ever finding out what probably happened (and we will never know, I suspect, what actually happened).

Clearly the deployment of unmanned submarines, sonar buoys and oceanographic survey ships in one particular area of the Indian Ocean indicates that the search is most likely to be closing in on its quarry. But still, all that has happened is that the haystack has simply been reduced in size. The needle is still in there.

Despite frankly inappropriate grumbles in the media about the cost of the MH370 operation, I’m sure that, even with the flight recorders’ signal now completely faded, a breakthrough will come soon and we will at least know the plane’s final resting place, even if we don’t discover how it got there.

Perhaps as important – and, even, more important – is what happens next. No, I don’t necessarily mean a salvage operation (it’s likely that the plane is now at a depth that puts it beyond retrieval), but what happens next in the industry.

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, strapped into an Air France Airbus A380 and wondering, what if I suffered the same fate as the passengers on board MH370?

ABIS Chris Beerens  © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence 
Air crash investigations are grisly affairs, but the fact that the international community has chipped in to support the hunt for 370 is as much to do with finding out what happened and preventing it from happening again as it is to provide closure to the victims of the crash itself.

What will be the lessons learned from MH370? Aggregated technology has already provided clues to 370’s fate, so it is not beyond imagination that technology could be improved further, if not to prevent whatever happened, but at least prevent the agony the families of 370’s passengers and crew have been through. How is it possible that we all carry devices in our pockets that can be traced and tracked, and yet a 209ft-long airliner can disappear into an ocean, seemingly lost forever? I know, two different scales, but you get the point.

What questions will the Malaysian authorities and indeed Malaysian Airlines have to answer? There has been much to criticise in the way they’ve handled this crisis. How does an airliner that big simply turn back on itself, fly fast and low over one of the most militarised regions in the world and not get noticed by at least some form of ground radar? Didn’t 9/11 teach the worlds of civil and military aviation anything?

The chapter on what happened to MH370 may be coming to a close. The chapter that follows will be its legacy...

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