[A version of this article appears in the March 24 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.]
Two weeks afterflight MH370 disappeared, aviation safety experts continue to toil over plausible causes. But even if debris from the aircraft is recovered soon, it may be months before a clearer picture emerges about what happened onboard the .
The March 20 sighting of large objects in the Indian Ocean, approximately 1,350 nm off Australia’s west coast, was perceived as a possible breakthrough in the multinational search, but the Australian Maritime Safety Authority says it will be several days until a ship equipped for debris recovery can be on the scene. Analysis of satellite images initially led to the discovery of two objects—one about 79 ft. long—that could be part of the aircraft.
But there are few solid facts regarding MH370’s last flight. The aircraft took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:30 a.m. on March 8 with 239 people onboard its scheduled 6.5-hr. flight to Beijing. While on airway R208 approaching the IGARI waypoint, the crew’s last communication with air traffic control at 1:19 a.m. (“All right, good night”) seemed routine, but the aircraft disappeared from civil secondary radar around 10 min. later. Between 1:07-1:37 a.m. the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System was either turned off or failed.
Investigators are convinced the aircraft turned west and was caught by military radar over the Strait of Malacca around 45 min. later, then its trace was lost. The last signal from the aircraft was picked up by an Inmarsat satellite at 8:11 a.m., more than 7.5 hr. after takeoff and nearly 6 hr. after the last officially confirmed primary radar sighting.
The parts suspected to be part of the missing 777 were found toward the southern end of the two arcs spanning from Kazakhstan to China. An area ranging from Indonesia into the remote South Pacific was identified as a possible location for the wreckage. If confirmed, the sighting means the aircraft had flown north before turning southwest and then southeast for several hours.
The recovery operation would likely prove to be as difficult as that forflight AF447 in 2009-11 in the South Atlantic. The area is not only remote, the sea is 3,500-5,000 meters (11,480-16,400 ft.) deep. In the case of AF447, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders were found and recovered late into the extensive two-year search.
Locating wreckage could help narrow the leads as far as crash causes are concerned, but at this stage, investigators are still pursuing many paths. The Malaysian government’s stance is that someone onboard took control of the aircraft, but the international aviation safety community counts that view as one of many possibilities.is assisting investigators with a number of potential causes, including crew hypoxia or asphyxia. The likely source of such an event would be a progressive fire, emanating in the electronics equipment bay or other areas of the lower deck space.
Part of the reasoning for that line of thinking is the 777’s observed initial left turn, which was made toward a 13,000-ft.-long runway on Langkawi, together with a prolonged flightpath with no further communications from the flight crew.
However, among many conundrums associated with this and other fire-related theories Boeing is wrestling with how to square the apparent randomness of the way in which the communications system ceased to operate within the length of the flight. Although the gradual disabling of the transponder and other communications devices could be explained by a progressive fire, it is puzzling how such an event could occur without affecting the 777’s three main flight-control computers and an eventual loss of control.
But given the fact that the approximate positioning data from the Inmarsat satellite is not consistent with the last known track of MH370, Boeing is also evaluating theories that involve deliberate control of the aircraft.
Space-based remote-sensing assets have been assisting in the hunt for Flight MH370, with multiple satellites from many nations imaging the search area in an attempt to locate signs of the aircraft or a potential crash site.
On March 11, China’s meteorological agency requested activation of the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, a group of 15 national and international space organizations that supply space-based remote-sensing assets free of charge in response to natural or technical disaster relief efforts. From that point on, satellites from various nations have been supporting the search to locate signs of the aircraft.
As part of the effort, commercial remote-sensing service providers such as Berlin-based BlackBridge and DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., have been using their crowd-sourcing platforms to engage the public in the search. DigitalGlobe tasked its ultra-high-resolution WorldView-1, WorldView-2 and GeoEye-1 satellites to capture images over the Indian Ocean, and uploaded archived and new imagery to its Tomnod crowd-sourcing site, where amateur data analysts could peruse pictures and tag potential signs of wreckage.