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The search for MH370 continues

By Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner

It’s now been more than 11 weeks since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from air traffic control radar after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on a scheduled passenger service to Beijing.

Despite one of the most intensive and coordinated air and sea search efforts ever undertaken, there has not yet been any sign of the missing aircraft.

The complexities surrounding the search cannot be understated.  It involves vast areas of the Indian Ocean with only limited known data and aircraft flight information. While it is impossible to determine with certainty where the aircraft may have entered the water, all the available data indicates a highly probable search area close to a long but narrow arc of the southern Indian Ocean.

It is now highly unlikely that surface debris from the aircraft will be spotted. This means that the most effective way to continue the search is to look for MH370 under the water.

The search will be a major undertaking. 
The complexities and challenges involved are immense, but not impossible.

Following an announcement by the Prime Minister of Australia in late April, and at the request of the Malaysian government, the ATSB is planning an intensified underwater search of a 60,000 square kilometre area—roughly the size of Tasmania.

As part of its search operations, the ATSB’s initial work involves:

  • reviewing existing information, from an expert satellite working group, to refine a search zone of up to 60,000 square kilometres in the southern Indian Ocean
  • conducting a bathymetric survey to map the search area
  • consulting with domestic and international authorities—including various oceanographic institutions and private companies—to prepare the plan and specialist services required for the next search phase. 

The bathymetric survey—or mapping of the ocean floor—has already commenced, with the Chinese survey ship Zhu Kezhen conducting a survey of the areas provided by the ATSB. Zhu Kezhen will shortly be joined by a contracted commercial survey vessel in June. Taking around three months to complete, the bathymetric survey will give us crucial knowledge of the seafloor terrain needed to begin the underwater search.

The intensified underwater search will aim to locate the aircraft and any evidence (such as aircraft debris and flight recorders) to assist with the Malaysian investigation. The equipment used for the search will likely include a towed sonar, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle with mounted sonar, and optical imaging equipment. We expect the search to begin in several months and take up to 12 months to complete.

The search will be a major undertaking. The complexities and challenges involved are immense, but not impossible. The best minds from around the world have been reviewing, refining and localising the most likely area where the aircraft entered the water, which is why we remain confident of finding the aircraft.

I encourage you to visit the ATSB’s MH370 webpage. The page features a series of factsheets that provide a great deal of detail on our underwater search operations. We will also provide regular updates on the page as significant information comes to hand.

Written by Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner at 4:00 PM
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Bruce Lamon said...

What percentage of the search area associated with the underwater ping detections you wanted to search with Bluefin-21 was too deep?

Will you be consulting statisticians as in AF447? Will you search again in the areas Bluefin-21 searched?

Was any of the large debris found by satellite images in the original search area (circa March 18-24) ever retrieved?

Thank you.

June 4, 2014 01:12
Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner (author) said...

There is no need to look further at those areas. We have completed a close search of the sea floor there and found no aircraft debris. We have discounted the area as a possible location for MH370.

The specialist satellite working group has all the capabilities necessary to undertake complex analyses of radar, satellite and aircraft performance data to determine the zone where the aircraft most likely entered the water. As a result, we have been able to determine a priority area for the underwater search for MH370.

We are currently finalising our acquisition of the equipment and personnel necessary to undertake the search of that area. This will include a team to manage the overall direction of the search and the priority allocation of search areas.


July 2, 2014 12:46
Brock McEwen said...

Does the ATSB still agree with its fuel analysis (per AMSA's March 28 release) which suggested MH370 crashed at roughly [21s, 105e] - or has it found a flaw?

If so, what was the flaw, and on what date was it found?

I ask because [21s, 105e] seems now to have been ruled out, and the mid-March sites ruled back in.

Many thanks.

June 12, 2014 03:23
Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner (author) said...

In the early part of the search, there was the possibility of detecting the underwater locator beacons (or pingers) fitted to the aircraft’s flight recorders or finding floating wreckage. As the beacons have a limited duration of nominally 30 days, and to minimise the inaccuracies of the reverse-drift calculations, it was important that the search be commenced as soon as possible. This meant that the focus of the search moved over time as the analysis of the data was progressively refined.

At the time of the 28 March announcement, the specified search area was based on the best information we had. The search strategy group has now completed its analysis of the satellite handshakes and aircraft performance data (including fuel consumption) along with a range of other information. As a result, we have determined the area that offers the highest probability of finding the aircraft.

This is highly complex work that has required significant collaborative effort with international specialists. The revised search area has been announced publicly. You can find details of it, along with more information on how the search has been defined, in the report <em>‘MH370 – Definition of Underwater Search Areas’</em> online at www.atsb.gov.au/MH370.

July 2, 2014 12:55
Lilly Summer said...

So sad for the families. It is hard to fathom how in this day and age things like this can happen. Still, I commend the Australian government for the huge effort it has made (and continues to make).

June 18, 2014 06:48
Jason Hunter said...

I can't imagine how hard this has been for the families. Hard to also believe that something like this can happen in this day and age.

June 19, 2014 07:21