28 Mar 2014

Flight MH370: looking for haystacks in the wrong field

The recovery teams are quickly losing their best opportunity to find the plane. They have to find what is left of it to have any chance of understanding what really happened.

There has been plenty of talk in Australia over the last few weeks of needles and haystacks – how the search for missing flight MH370 is principally about finding the right haystack, never mind the needle.

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It’s only then, say experts, that the multinational search team can put sophisticated sensors into the water and begin combing the seabed for wreckage.

Well today, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the world that they’d been looking for haystacks in the wrong field. The agency was working on a “new credible lead”, said its general manager, John Young, in a news conference in Canberra. It’s based on analysis of radar data taken from the initial stages of the Boeing 777’s journey, as it flew between the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait.


The data shows that the aircraft travelled faster than previously expected, thereby using up more fuel – and that suggests it may not have flown as far south as previously thought. As a consequence, the search zone moves out of the so-called “roaring 40s” – a wild stretch of ocean between the 40th and 50th degrees of latitude – and plonks it 1,100 kilometres to the north-east.

In some ways, recovery experts will be happy about this development. The new search area is in a shallower part of the Indian Ocean where the weather is better and critically, it is a lot closer to the city of Perth – the main staging ground for the search operation.

It took 10 specialist aircraft between one and two hours to reach there today – far quicker than the four hours of flight time previously required – and that gives personnel more time to scour the sea.

That said, at time of writing, nothing of significance has been spotted – a huge and continuing problem for everyone connected with this operation.

Here’s why: the recovery teams are quickly losing their best opportunity to find the plane – and they have to find what is left of it if they are going to have any chance of understanding what really happened on board.

The black box flight recorder will provide many of the answers but the battery in its underwater beacon – a device that helps people find it in the event of a crash – is losing power. Authorities calculate that it will continue to emit a signal for roughly 10 days. After that point, the whole process of finding the plane gets far more difficult.

But to have any chance of finding the black box, search teams have find the “haystack” – only then can they put a number of sophisticated – yet slow moving tracking devices into the sea in order to find it.

So the pressure is on for the search vessels and various aircraft out looking for aircraft debris. It is only when they find it that the underwater search can start in earnest.

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