6 Mar 2015

Flight MH370 one year on: what we know – and don’t know

There is no trace of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on 8 March 2014, nor of the 239 people on board. It remains one of the great aviation mysteries. Will it ever be solved?

There is no modern mystery as disturbing as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

In an age where such much of our lives relies on technology, where many of us can be contacted at any time or place, the idea that a modern aircraft can vanish off the face of the earth is almost unthinkable.

On 8 March it will be one year since the hunt began to locate the missing plane. Channel 4 News Asia Correspondent John Sparks noted at the time that both the company, Malaysia Airlines, and the plane model, Boeing 777, had top-notch safety records. “This tragic event defies attempts at explanation,” he wrote.

And 12 months on, that remains the case. Below is a timeline of the investigation and the latest situation, a summary of Channel 4 News coverage of early reaction to the incident, and an assessment of the theories – some sensible, some not so – about what happened.

Where is the investigation now?

The investigation is searching a priority area of 6,000 square kilometres and, as of 5 March, has searched approximately 43 per cent of the area. The search of the priority area, being carried out by four vessels, is expected to be completed in May.

Sonar is being used to identify objects of interest on the seabed, with category three objects being “of some interest” whilst category one objects are “of high interest and warrant immediate further investigation”. The search has found over 100 category three objects and ten categotry two objects (“of more interest”).

No category one objects have been identified.

MH370 sonar images

Above: left, a category three object, right a category two object, found in the hunt for MH370. Credit: ATSB and Phoenix International

Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is leading the search, says he is confident the plane will be found in the remaining area.

But if it is not, the costs of expanding the search could be prohibitive. The budget for the search is estimated to be around $40m, and most of that is being used to search the 60,000 square kilometre priority area.

Mr Dolan says funding the expansion of the searc into a 1.2 million square kilometre area around the priority site is something “government’s will obviously have to bear in mind”.

Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion aircraft slies over the southern Indian Ocean

New Zealand search aircraft over the Indian Ocean, 31 March 2014 (Reuters)

Search and investigation

The aircraft takes off at 00.41 local time (MYT). The final verbal communication from the plane comes at 01.19 MYT when one of the pilots responds: “Good night Malaysian 370.”

A statement by Malaysia Airlines later on 8 March confirms that contact with flight MH370 was lost at 02.40 and that the Malaysian authorities activated their search and rescue team to locate the aircraft. The focus is the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.

Interactive map: the disappearance of MH370

The initial thrust of search operations is above ground and above water. By 15 March – one week after the disappearance – 26 countries are involved in the search, including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia.

Three days later China – 153 of whose citizens were passengers on the plane – launches a search operation on its own territory.

On 31 March, the Australian government takes the lead in the search and recovery operation in the southern Indian ocean in support of the Malaysian accident investigation.

Indian ocean

Southern Indian Ocean sea conditions from Fugro Discovery (source: ATSB, photo by ABIS Chris Beerens, RAN)

The search is intensified from the start of April amid concern over fading batteries powering the “pingers” on MH370 data recorders. Despite several instances of signal recognition in parts of the southern Indian ocean, there is no definitive identification of data or material from the missing aircraft.

Between May and September 2014, Australia initiates a topographical survey of the seabed in the southern Indian ocean ahead of an underwater search of the area, which begins on 6 October. Fugro is awarded the contract to conduct a search of 60,000km of sea floor in the southern Indian ocean from September. The GO Phoenix “vessel finder” begins work some 1,800 kilometres west of western Australia.

But 12 months on from the plane’s disappearance, and despite a hugely expensive operation across involving the deployment of planes, ships and submarines from countries across the world, there has been no definitive sighting of the plane.

The disappearance

The world was transfixed in the weeks and months following the MH370’s disappearance. An early Malaysia Airlines press conference left journalists and onlookers perplexed over what was known about the episode, while assessments of the mental state of the aircraft’s captain and co-pilot left many people none the wiser as to a possible human motivation for the disappearance.

Meanwhile, Chinese relatives of the missing passengers were threatening hunger strikes as they demanded more information from authorities in Malaysia.

The aftermath was played out across huge areas of land and sea, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, from Perth in western Australia to the bleak, turbulent waters of the southern Indian ocean.