MH370 mystery could take years to unravel

08:28, Mar 20 2014
MH370
Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
MH370
Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
MH370
Australia officials say they still have no clear indication if the objects are the missing plane.
MH370
Updated search area charts for Friday's operation from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

If the debris field in the Indian Ocean proves to be the remnants of flight MH370, it will be a major breakthrough in the investigation. But the question of what exactly happened to the aircraft could still take years to ascertain, if it is revealed at all.

Hampering investigators are the depths of the Indian Ocean; the strong and unpredictable currents in the expanse of water; and the failure to find any physical sign of location of the plane for 12 days.

Over that period, says University of NSW Oceanographer Erik van Sebille, the debris from any crashed plane would have likely moved 100km. The only problem is that it could have gone in any direction from the crash site.

All these factors make finding the all important flight data recorder - the black box - all the more difficult. It would have likely sunk to the ocean floor quickly if the plane ditched into water.

It took two years, a search involving French nuclear submarines, three robo-subs and at least A$50 million (NZ$52.91m) to find the black box from Air France flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 in deep waters.

In this case, the debris was sighted within 2 days and positively identified in five days, making the job easier.

With about 30 days of battery power, the black box - actually two orange containers of electrical equipment and sensors built to withstand high speed impacts and deep submersion- emits a signal for only a limited period. From the bottom of an ocean that is 4km deep on average and has trenches 8 km deep, it's range could be as little as 10 nautical miles.

Even if the black box is uncovered, it won't necessarily reveal the secrets of the flight. The cockpit conversation recorder is on a two hour loop. If the plane flew for another seven hours after its last sighting by Malaysian military radar, as appears the case, the drama of the moment the plane suddenly veered off course would be lost.

Even so, any recording of the last two hours in the cockpit would still be instructive, confirming whether the pilots were alive or not at the end of the flight.

The black box has to record as many as 1000 aspects of a plane's performance, from its altitude and speed, to oxygen and smoke levels and any inputs by the pilots into the plane's control system.

Finding significant remnants of the fuselage of the plane will undoubtedly assist investigators, but not as much as the black box. It could reveal signs of fire or explosion that might have led to a decompression incident, where the occupants of the were rendered unconscious by lack of oxygen before dying while the plane continued flying.

If the debris is confirmed, it will sadly debunk the theory that led to any hope the families of those on board might have held.

That is, that the plane was taken in a hostage incident or heist and had been secretly landed in a remote location somewhere in central Asia.

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The MH370 story in pictures
The saga begins on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 departs Kuala Lumpur at 12:41am, local time. On board are 227 passengers and 12 crew.
The MH370 story in pictures
Captaining the flight of the Boeing 777-200 is 53-year old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, shown here on the right.
The MH370 story in pictures
At 1:21am the MH370's transponder stops signalling, halting the regular responses it usually gives to radar signals. The plane makes a series of strange but controlled movements, turning west sharply, then climbing above its designed height limit and back down.
The MH370 story in pictures
At 1.30am, on point 4, the plane is spotted for the last time on civilian radar. At 2.15am, on point 5, military radar spots it, although it is not clear at the time that this was MH370. Satellite data suggests the plane could also have angled towards point 6.
The MH370 story in pictures
At 6.32am air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur sends a radio signal on an emergency channel asking MH370 to contact them. The plane is now overdue at Beijing Airport, shown.
The MH370 story in pictures
Relatives of passengers despair, and the search begins.
The MH370 story in pictures
International news media focus on the story immediately.
The MH370 story in pictures
Multiple false leads pop up, like this oil spotted by a Vietnamese search plane.
The MH370 story in pictures
Malaysian government and airline officials have released confusing and contradictory information. Here, Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, left, and Department of Civil Aviation director general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman take questions at a press conference.
The MH370 story in pictures
Concerns are raised when it becomes apparent that two Iranian men, shown here, boarded the plane with stolen passports. Interpol rejects the suggestion of terrorism, however, concluding the men were probably asylum seekers.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
Theories abound. Fellow pilot Chris Goodfellow has suggested that a tyre may have caught fire, causing the pilots to turn towards the closest suitable airport, with the rapid ascent and descent perhaps representing an attempt to extinguish the fire. Critics of this theory have pointed out that the change in path was programmed into the plane's computer 12 minutes before the calm toned "good night" transmission, suggesting the change in course was planned.
The MH370 story in pictures
Given the amount of fuel on board, the plane could have made it as far north as Kazakhstan, on a possible flight path shown in orange.
The MH370 story in pictures
Or somewhere southwest of Australia, on a possible flight path shown in orange.
The MH370 story in pictures
Others have speculated that the pilot or co-pilot may have intentionally crashed the plane. The FBI is trying to restore deleted simulator-flights from Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah's computer – but these could be innocuous. Critics of the crash theory say neither the pilot nor co-pilot had ever expressed any kind of radical sentiment or displayed mental issues, and both possessed adequate flying experience.
The MH370 story in pictures
The ever-present worry of terrorism remains. No groups have claimed responsibility for the incident, and a political motivation is unclear - but that doesn't rule it out.
MH370
On March 20, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told his parliament that objects had been spotted in waters hundreds of kilometres off the western Australian coast. Further searches, by Australian, New Zealand and US planes, were needed to find out if they were part of the missing plane.
Perth
The crew of one of two Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft used in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 walk away from their plane in Perth.
MH370 search
Thirty-eight days after the plane went missing, an Australian navy ship is guided into position by a Royal New Zealand Airforce P-3K2 Orion aircraft. Officials say they will deploy an underwater robot to aid in the hunt.
MH370
Announcing that an underwater drone will be deployed imminently, Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre chief Angus Houston says an oil slick has been detected in the search area for the missing plane.

Sydney Morning Herald