As governments sail away from the nearly three-year search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, failing to find the wreckage and explain what went wrong for the 239 people aboard could haunt the industry that has reached lofty levels of safety.
The Boeing 777 disappeared without a distress call March 8, 2014, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Based on clues from the plane’s electronics, the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia spent $160 million scouring a section of the Indian Ocean floor the size of Pennsylvania.
The suspension Tuesday of the underwater search leaves fundamental questions unanswered: What went wrong? Was there a mechanical problem? Did somebody aboard the plane make a mistake – or crash it intentionally?
The search’s end comes two months after investigators took another detailed look at the clues that dictated where they were looking, and a month after they found that another area of ocean floor the size of Vermont might be more promising.
“They’re going to be haunted by what might or might not be in that zone,” said David Gallo, who helped find Air France Flight 447 at the bottom of the Atlantic in 2011 and who is now senior advisor for strategic initiatives at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “This should really drive them crazy.”
Investigators say the plane’s wreckage – and potentially the data and voice recorders – could explain whatever problems happened so that they could be avoided in the future. The Boeing 777 is a workhorse of the long-haul fleet, with 1,200 flying worldwide.
“We really do need to find the wreckage to ensure that there’s no problem with the aircraft,” said Al Diehl, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
For example, the recovery of Air France Flight 447 revealed that pilots made mistakes flying in a snowstorm, but also a problem with pitot tubes, sensors that stick out of the fuselage of the Airbus A330, that gave the pilots bad information.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said the manufacturer has been fully dedicated to the Malaysia search and investigation. The company’s thoughts continue to be with the families, friends and colleagues of those aboard the flight, he said.
“We accept the conclusion of government authorities leading the investigation and search that, in the absence of credible new information that leads to identification of a specific location of the aircraft, there will be no further expansion of the search area,” Alder said.
The disappearance came at a time of dramatic improvements in safety. The number of fatalities aboard passenger airliners worldwide from 1959 throgh 2015 was 29,165, according to a Boeing study. But the total for the last decade was 3,133, according to the study. The last fatal crash of a U.S. passenger airline was in February 2009.
“Historically, we’ve achieved this very high level of aviation safety by finding the wreckage and other data, and analyzing it – lessons learned from previous accidents,” Diehl said.
Finding sunken planes is hard, even when the location is better known than the Malaysia flight. A Northwest Airlines plane that crashed in Lake Michigan in 1950 without modern tracking equipment has never been found. The Aviation Safety Network counts 84 planes, each with at least 14 people aboard, that have gone missing since 1948, typically over oceans, mountains or other remote areas.
The Malaysia flight’s transponder and automated maintenance system stopped signaling less than an hour into the flight. But a satellite caught hourly pings from the plane, which suggested it flew far out over the ocean until running out of fuel.
Because the ocean is several miles deep in the search area, the vessels first mapped the ocean floor and then dragged sonar vehicles on miles-long cords to scan the bottom. They found details as small as anchors and as large as a shipwreck. But no airliner.
“It’s probably one of the largest continuous maps of the seafloor ever made, with the resolution they made it,” Gallo said.
He called deep-sea exploration one of the hardest tasks on Earth, comparable to space expeditions.
“You’re actually mounting an expedition into an unknown world where the mountains are taller, the valleys are deeper and wider. There are volcanoes and earthquakes,” Gallo said. “It’s almost like going to Mars, to look for a plane. You’re mounting an expedition to an unknown world.”
More than 20 fragments of the Malaysia plane have washed up on distant shores, along the coast of Africa, and the islands of Mauritius, Reunion and Rodriguez. Damage to flaps from the wings suggested that they were in position for cruising rather than landing when the plane plunged into the sea.
The search committee conducted a November review of how those fragments drifted and other data. In December, the committee changed its interpretation of where the wreckage might be, to north of where search vessels were focused, in an area of about 9,600 square miles.
“The experts concluded that, if this area were to be searched, prospective areas for locating the aircraft wreckage, based on all the analysis to date, would be exhausted,” the committee said in a Dec. 20 report.
But without a more precise location, the transport ministers of the three countries in charge of the search announced Tuesday the last vessel had left the search area located about 1,000 miles west of Australia.
“The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness,” said the statement from Liow Tiong Lai of Malaysia, Li Xiaopeng of China and Darren Chester of Australia. “Whilst combined scientific studies have continued to refine areas of probability, to date no new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft.”
Chester told reporters that he understood the “disappointment and frustration” of relatives of the passengers, some of whom he met with, and that he shared their disappointment even if he couldn’t “possibly understand their grief.”
“They have been waiting for answers now for almost three years, and it is the unanswered questions for them which is the most difficult part for them to deal with,” Chester said.
But the three governments agreed in July that they would suspend the search if they didn’t develop any more precise information about the plane’s location.
“If I continue the search effort and came to you today and said I have reached agreement with Malaysia and China to find another 20, 30, 40 or 50 million dollars, you’d be saying to me well, ‘Why are you spending taxpayers’ money in this way?'” Chester said. “But by coming to you and saying that we agreed in July last year that in the absence of any credible new evidence leading to the specific location of the aircraft, we intend to suspend the search, you are now asking well why won’t you extend it to a new area. I don’t think there’s a perfect answer.”
The advocacy group Voice 370, which represents families of the passengers, urged the search to continue. The group called the November review “a mere smokescreen” and said requiring the “precise location of the aircraft” before continuing the effort would “bury the search.”
“In our view, extending the search to the new area defined by the experts is an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety,” the group said on its Facebook page.