The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which coordinated and led the huge underwater search for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER that went missing in 2014, has issued its final report, saying it is “almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable” that what happened to the aircraft and those onboard remains unknown.
The ATSB’s report, issued Oct. 3, does not reveal any new information about the search or add to what little has been established about flight MH370, but it does recommend further efforts to ensure airliners are tracked continuously.
MH370 disappeared shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur March 8, 2014. The aircraft, with 12 crew and 227 passengers onboard, was scheduled to go to Beijing, but the aircraft veered far from its course, turning west then south over the vast Indian Ocean.
The search for the missing aircraft continued for 1,046 days until Jan. 17, 2017, when it was suspended in a joint decision by the governments of Malaysia, Australia and China.
The initial surface search and subsequent underwater search were the largest searches of their type in aviation history, the ATSB report notes. The 52 days of the surface search involving aircraft and surface vessels covered an area of several million square kilometers. The underwater search started with a bathymetry survey, which continued as required throughout the underwater search and mapped a total of 710,000 sq km of Indian Ocean seafloor, the largest ever single hydrographic survey. The high-resolution sonar search covered an area in excess of 120,000 sq km, also the largest of its kind.
In 2015 and 2016, debris from MH370 was found on the shores of Indian Ocean islands and the
East African coastline, yielding significant new insights into how and where the aircraft
ended its flight, the report states. It was established that the aircraft was not configured for a ditching at the end-of-flight. By studying the drift of the debris and combining these results with the analysis of the satellite communication data and the results of the surface and underwater searches, MH370’s likely resting point in a specific area of the Indian Ocean was identified.
“The understanding of where MH370 may be located is better now than it has ever been. The
underwater search has eliminated most of the high probability areas yielded by reconstructing the
aircraft’s flight path and the debris drift studies conducted in the past 12 months have identified the most likely area with increasing precision. Re-analysis of satellite imagery taken March 23,
2014 in an area close to the 7th arc has identified a range of objects, which may be MH370 debris,” the ATSB report states.
However, the aircraft was never located despite narrowing to the search area to less than 25,000 sq km.
“Regardless of the cause of the loss of MH370, there were no transmissions received from the aircraft after the first 38 minutes of the flight. Systems designed to automatically transmit the aircraft’s position including the transponder and the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system failed to transmit the aircraft’s position after this time period. Subsequent analysis of radar and satellite communication data revealed the aircraft had actually continued to fly for a further seven hours. Its last position was positively fixed at the northern tip of Sumatra by the surveillance systems operating that night, six hours before it ended the flight in the southern Indian Ocean,” ATSB notes.
The report points out that Malaysia is the state responsible for the ICAO investigation of MH370, but as a participant in the investigation, ATSB can make safety recommendations. It makes just four, two of which are related to aircraft tracking. The bureau notes there have been significant enhancements since MH370’s disappearance, but that ICAO’s mandated 15-minute position tracking interval for existing aircraft may not reduce a potential search area sufficiently to ensure that survivors and wreckage are located within a reasonable timeframe.
The bureau therefore recommends that states ensure mechanisms are in place to ensure a rapid detection of, and appropriate response to, the loss of aircraft position or contact throughout all areas of operation. Secondly, ATSB recommends aircraft operators and manufacturers investigate ways to provide high-rate and/or automatically triggered global position tracking in current and future fleets.
“It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era with 10 million passengers boarding commercial aircraft every day, for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those onboard,” the ATSB report notes.
“The ATSB expresses our deepest sympathies to the families of the passengers and crew onboard MH370. We share your profound and prolonged grief, and deeply regret that we have not been able to locate the aircraft, nor those 239 souls on board that remain missing.”