MH370: What we know

  • 02/19/2019

Confirmation from Malaysian authorities that plane debris found on the French island of Reunion is from missing plane MH370 has been hailed as a breakthrough by Malaysia Airlines.

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But for the families of those on board the plane, the answers of how and why the plane went missing 16 months ago are still elusive. 

The search for MH370 has become the greatest aviation mystery of all time, with the case involving a number of red herrings in the 515 days since the plane disappeared. What is unknown about the incident greatly outweighs what is known.

The proverbial needle in the haystack analogy has since been adopted to describe the difficulty of the task.

Mark Binskin, the vice chief of Australia’s Defence Force, said last March: “We’re not trying to find a needle in a haystack; we’re still trying to define where the haystack is.”

How did flight MH370 disappear?

Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8 last year while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, about 3,700 km from Reunion Island.

The Boeing 777 was minutes into its scheduled flight when it disappeared from civil radar. Investigators believe that someone may have deliberately switched off the aircraft’s transponder, diverted it thousands of miles off course, and deliberately crashed into the ocean off Australia.

Is the wing fragment discovery a ‘breakthrough’?

Malaysia Airlines said in a statement it both expected and hoped more objects would be found.

“This is indeed a major breakthrough for us in resolving the disappearance of MH370,” the airline said in a statement, offering deep sympathies to the family members of passengers.

Investigators were less certain of the significance of the discovery of the flaperon, which is part the planes wing.

“The real key to finding out what, exactly, happened to MH370 is finding the debris field in the seas west of Australia,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at industry publication Flightglobal.

“Debris such as the flaperon can only increase our understanding of the last seconds of the flight.”

Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities have urged to Indian Ocean nations near Reunion Island to be on the lookout for more debris.

Predicted pathway of MH370 debris

University of Western Australia scientists compiled computer modelling maps 12 months ago that indicate the debris from MH370 would travel from the south-east Indian Ocean to Reunion Island. 

“Having found this piece of debris does not change the process the investigators are going through, however it’s another step in the hopeful situation that we will ultimately know what happened to the missing aircraft,” Professor of Coastal Oceanography Charitha Pattiaratchi said.

What could further analysis of wing fragment tell us about MH370’s disappearance?

The two-metre wing fragment is being examined at a French military laboratory specialising in aviation research. The component is known as the flaperon, which helps stabilises the aircraft.

Boeing has provided technical expertise during the examination process that has been monitored by officials from the United States, Australia, China, Britain and Singapore.

Despite Malaysian officials stating their certainty the wing fragment is from the missing plane, French investigators said they cannot offer final confirmation yet.

That confirmation could come as early this week, according to Australia’s deputy prime minister Warren Truss.

Investigators hope that an examination of the metal through microscope analysis and ultrasound will yield answers on how the flaperon broke off, as well as the direction and altitude of the plane when it made impact. Further analysis could take months.

Scientists said even the barnacles attached to the flaperon could provide clues.

“If it has cold water barnacles on it that might tell them it went down further south than they think. Or if it’s got only tropical barnacles, that might tell them it went down further north,” Australian Museum crustacean specialist Shane Ahyong told the AFP news agendy.

“If it has cold water barnacles on it that might tell them it went down further south than they think. Or if it’s got only tropical barnacles, that might tell them it went down further north,” said Shane Ahyong, a crustacean specialist from the Australian Museum.

Will the search area change after confirmation of MH370 debris found on Reunion?

Investigators are concerned that the cause of the disaster will remain a mystery unless the data and cockpit voice recorders are recovered or more debris is found.

The Australian government’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre, which is leading the joint search effort, said the finding of the flaperon is consistent with the search area in the southern Indian Ocean.

The agency believes that confirmation of the plane debris can only help the agency further pinpoint the exact location of other elements of the plane.

“Thorough and methodical search efforts will continue in the defined search area,” the JACC said in a statement.

The CSIRO said a video simulation of drift analysis confirms that debris found on Reunion Island confirms search teams are looking in the right area. 

Blue, black and red dots simulate items with leeway factors (applied to the 10m wind velocity) of 1.2, 1.5 and 1.8 per cent. The items originated along the black arc (7th arc) on 8 March 2014. White arrows are the winds for the day shown. Magenta symbols are positions of real drifting buoys (with sea-anchors at 12m) on the day. Their movement has been used to estimate the errors of the ocean current component of the total drift velocity.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also confirmed Australia would continue to search for the black box and other parts that might solve the mystery for the victims’ families until such time as experts advise otherwise.

“I hope that this finding will enable us to find the plane sooner rather than later,” Ms Bishop said.

How much has the search cost?

A total of $89.9 million was set aside by the Australian government in last year’s budget to continue an underwater search in the southern Indian ocean. It is reported both Australia and Malaysia, who agreed to split the bill, have each spent around $30 million to date.

Vessels Fugro Discovery and Fugro Equator are carrying out the search in the southern Indian Ocean.

The Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in late July up 55,000 square kilometres of a potential 120,000 square kilometres area of seabed, off the West Australian coast, had been searched.

The search, said to cover 95 percent of MH370’s flight path, has yet to yield anything.

Can the mystery be solved?

Jean-Paul Troadec, the former head of the French agency Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses (BEA), which investigates air accidents, said with the limited information at hand, it could still be difficult to find all the answers.

In particular, the question of why the plane veered so widely off course between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing could remain unanswered.

“One should not expect miracles,” Troadec told the AFP news agency.

But psychologist Carole Damiani said even knowing the final resting place of the plane and the passengers on board would help bring closure for loved ones.

“When there is a ‘natural’ death, everyone always asks ‘what were their last words, what were the last moments like?’ And in this case, there is none of that. Families need to know how and why,” she told AFP. 

– with AAP, Reuters

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