29 Jan 2015

Disappearance of MH370 ‘an accident’: but what do we know?

After almost 11 months, Malaysia officially declares the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean was an accident, meaning compensation claims can now go ahead.

Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) said that all 239 passengers and crew onboard the Boeing 777 aircraft are “presumed to have lost their lives”.

The plane disappeared on 8 March shortly after taking off from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing.

Map: MH370's final location?

The announcement is in accordance with standards and annexes 12 and 13 in International Civil Aviation, DCA director general, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said in a statement, adding that it would allow families of the passengers to obtain assistance through compensation.

Rahman said he acknowledged the difficulty of the announcement, but urged families of the victims to attempt to “resume normal lives, or as normal a life as may be possible”. An official government website has also been set up for families to follow continuing search and investigation efforts.

The underwater search is expected to continue with the help of Australia and China.

What do we know about MH370?

On 8 March 2014, at 1.22am (local time), flight MH370 lost contact with Air Traffic Control at a notional point in the South China Sea named IGARI, an airspace between Malaysia and Vietnam while en-route to Beijing.

There were 227 passengers, two flight crew and 10 cabin crew on board. The passengers included 153 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, according to the manifest, while other passengers came from Iran, the US, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

The plane’s last contact happened at 1.19am Malaysian time, in which authorities say the last words spoken between air traffic control and the cockpit were “Good night Malaysian three seven zero”. The last full “handshake”, in which the aircraft communicates with a ground station was at 8.11am in the morning of that day.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the jet appeared to have changed direction just after the transponder communications – that sent location data to air traffic control – were cut at 1.20am on the day that it disappeared.

The search and rescue phase was carried out from 8 March to 28 April where the area covered the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman Sea and the southern Indian Ocean, nearly three million square miles, with the help of 25 countries. More than 150 aircrafts and vessels were sent to assist with the search.

Crews had launched a targeted underwater hunt for the aircraft’s black box, which was due to expire a month after the plane disappeared from the radars.

However, on 28 April, after the batteries of the device had run out, the mission was changed to search and recovery. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority subsequently announced that unmanned vehicles would be sent underwater in a bid to trace any wreckage.

Ongoing search

Using Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), an area of around 208,000 was investigated, which continues to assist the ongoing underwater search.

The vessels named the Go Phoenix, Fugro Discovery, Fugro Equator and Fugro Supporter have managed to cover more than 18,600 square kilometres as of yesterday.

Based on analysis of satellite and aircraft performance data, MH370 is thought to be in seas far west of the Australian city of Perth.

An interim statement detailing the progress of the investigation is expected to be released around the one year anniversary of the accident (8 March).

What don’t we know?

Soon after the disappearance, there were claims that passports of two passengers had been stolen by two Iranians. However, further investigation revealed 19-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad and Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza, 29, was travelling to Europe via Beijing, and had no apparent links to terrorist groups.

Read: Missing Malaysia plane: claims and counter-claims

On 15 March, the homes of the pilots were searched, after the Malaysian prime minister said the disappearance looked like “a deliberate action” that required expert knowledge. While pilot Zaharie Shah was named as the “chief suspect” after reports that he had built a flight simulator, nothing came of this line of investigation.

More than a week after connections were lost, the world’s best survey ships and observation planes converged at a remote location in the Indian Ocean, where two large objects were reported to have been seen. There have also been various sightings of objects spotted by satllites, however, no debris has yet been verified as being from the plane.

On 5-8 April, Australian and Chinese search teams claim to have detected ultrasonic signals, thought to be from the aircraft’s black box. The “pings” appeared to be the most promising lead so far, and were used to define the search area for the Bluefin-21 submersible robot, but on 29 May, Australian officials ruled out the area where the “pings” were heard.