Between May 2014 and January 2017 the ATSB led an underwater search for MH370. With the publication of the final report The Operational Search for MH370 on 3 October 2017, the ATSB ceased to have any formal role in searching for the missing aircraft.

History of the search

MH370 cover image

On 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370), a Boeing 777 carrying 12 crew and 227 passengers (including 7 Australian citizens and residents), was lost during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, People’s Republic of China.

Under Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation, the Malaysian Government, as the state of registration for Malaysia Airlines, was responsible for the search for, and investigation into, the disappearance of MH370.

After initial air and sea search operations focused on the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca, on 17 March 2014, the Malaysian Government requested that Australia assume responsibility for the search operations when analysis showed the aircraft did not head north but turned south to the southern Indian Ocean, within Australia’s search and rescue region.

A surface search by aircraft and surface vessels in the Indian Ocean, coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and supported by the Australian Defence Force, and an acoustic sub-surface search for the aircraft’s flight recorder underwater locator beacons, found no debris nor signals associated with MH370.

At the conclusion of the surface search on 28 April 2014, the Australian Prime Minister offered that Australia could continue to lead search operations. On 5 May 2014, Ministers from Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China and Australia met to consider next steps and agreed to take all decisions regarding the search together as a Tripartite. Ministers agreed that Australia would take the lead in the underwater search operation in the southern Indian Ocean with support from Malaysia and China.

The ATSB on behalf of Australia led the underwater search. Scientific principles were applied to define the most probable area to be searched through modelling the aircraft’s flight path and behaviour at the end of the flight. The flight path modelling was based on unique and sophisticated analysis of the metadata associated with the periodic automated satellite communications to and from the aircraft in the final six hours of the flight. The end-of-flight behaviour of the aircraft, when MH370 was considered to have exhausted its fuel, was also analysed and simulated.

Search vessel Fugro Discovery in typical sea conditions.
Search vessel Fugro Discovery in typical sea conditions.

Throughout the underwater search, Geoscience Australia provided specialist advice and capability in bathymetry and sonar imagery, providing an understanding of the environment in which the search was conducted.

The search was further aided by the discovery of debris from MH370 on the shores of Indian Ocean islands and the coastline of east Africa in 2015 and 2016, which yielded significant insights into how and where the aircraft ended its flight. Drift modelling of the debris was performed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The primary objective of the underwater search was to establish whether or not the debris field of the missing aircraft was in the area of seafloor defined by expert analysis of the aircraft’s flight path and other information. If a debris field was located, optical imaging would have been used to confirm the debris was MH370 and to map the debris field to enable planning for a recovery operation. (Tripartite meetings in August 2014 agreed that Australia, through the ATSB, would lead a recovery operation.)

The ATSB-led underwater search would cover over 120,000 square kilometres of the sea floor, in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean that would leave the search vessels exposed to difficult conditions, thousands of kilometres away from the nearest port.

ROV images of man-made objects discovered during the underwater search.
ROV images of man-made objects discovered during the underwater search.

Despite the extraordinary efforts of hundreds of people involved in the search from around the world, the aircraft was not located, and on 17 January 2017, the governments of Malaysia, Australia and the People’s Republic of China jointly announced the suspension of the search until further credible evidence became available that could identify the specific location of the aircraft.

The ATSB published its final report The Operational Search for MH370 on 3 October 2017, which details where the search was conducted and why, how the search was conducted, and the results of the search.

With the publication of the report, the ATSB ceased to have any on-going formal role in the search for the missing aircraft.

On 16 January 2018, the Malaysian Government announced the commencement of a second search, led by the Malaysian Investigation Team, by Ocean Infinity on a “no find, no fee” basis, located immediately north of the previous search area.

On 29 May 2018, the Malaysian Government advised that the second search operation to locate MH370 had come to an end, bringing the total seafloor searched to more than 1,800 kilometres long, between 86 and 146 kilometres wide and close to 200,000 square kilometres in total, without locating the missing aircraft.

The Malaysian Government released its final Safety Investigation report on 31 July 2018, which acknowledged that, as the main aircraft wreckage, including the aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder had not been located the investigation was unable to draw definitive conclusions about what happened to flight MH370.

In support of Malaysia’s investigation, in addition to coordinating the search for MH370 the ATSB also performed examination and analysis of several pieces of aircraft debris, including a section of the right outboard wing flap, and provided limited planning and analysis assistance.

Right outboard flap section in the ATSB's Canberra facilities.
Right outboard flap section in the ATSB's Canberra facilities.

The ATSB acknowledges the importance of the aircraft being found, both for the families of those on board and for the interests of improving aviation safety.

The ATSB continues to express our deepest sympathies to the families of the passengers and crew on board MH370. We acknowledge their profound and ongoing grief, and deeply regret that we were unable to locate the aircraft.

Further information