Tech by VICE

Answers to the Malaysian Airline Mystery Still Lie on the Ocean Floor

Newly found wreckage, the first breakthrough in the search for MH370, might not be such a breakthrough after all.

by Geraldine Cremin
Aug 4 2015, 4:50pm

Airplane debris found on Réunion Island on July 29. Image: AP

A Boeing 777 wing piece that washed up on the east coast of Réunion in the Indian Ocean is suspected to be part of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The flaperon, the moveable section of the back edge of an aircraft wing, has been flown to France where aviation experts are expected to confirm whether it is part of the passenger plane.

So if the part does come from MH370, what does this find actually mean for the 17-month long investigation? Primarily, the washed up flaperon will confirm that the flight ended somewhere in the depths of the Indian Ocean. That should put an end to some of the conspiracy theories that have filled the absolute void of answers.

But realistically, no amount of analysis of the flaperon will fully answer how or why the flight with 239 people on board came to an apparent end in the Indian Ocean rather than Beijing International Airport. The only real chance of solving that mystery is the flight's black box. The black box recordings could reveal key mechanical information about the flight and what went on in the cockpit after the plane vanished from civilian radar and stopped communicating with ground control in the early hours of March, 8 2014.

Importantly, unlike the flaperon or other parts of an aircraft wreckage, a black box does not float, so it's most likely that MH370's black box and any answers it holds is currently lying somewhere on the seabed of the Indian Ocean. Underwater search efforts for the black box and plane wreckage continue off the coast of Western Australia.

Last week's discovery—about 3,100 miles from the underwater search zone—comes too late for investigators to use reverse computer modelling to retrace the debris along the Indian Ocean's complex currents to figure out exactly where the plane might have crashed. But Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia, told me the location of the find is consistent with the plane going down in the 46,000 square mile search zone.

The current search zone in the Indian Ocean. Click to enlarge. Image: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

"The finding of the debris in Réunion Island is entirely consistent with what we predict and what we know of the current system," said Pattiaratchi.

Working on the assumption that the plane crashed inside the designated search area, Pattiaratchi used ocean current data and "the laws of physics" to map probable debris movement. His map, below, charts where any debris from the wreckage might wash up over a two-year period. The red areas show where the debris could have spread to by now.

Pattiaratchi's debris map. Image: University of Australia

Réunion, where the flaperon was found, is to the East of Madagascar, right where those western-most red tendrils suggest debris would wash up 18-24 months after the crash.

"You could say, 'Well that's not very accurate,' because I'm saying it could end up in Madagascar or it could end up in Tasmania (but) that's the realm of the chaotic system in the ocean," Pattiaratchi said.You can test the mapping out for yourself at www.adrift.org.au; just place the rubber ducky off the coast of Western Australia and watch its potential voyage.


3D model of the seabed terrain, based on data collected by the Australian Government. Image: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Pattiaratchi said that more than anything, the debris can give search teams confidence.

"Having found this one piece of debris doesn't change the process that investigators are going through at the moment where they're searching…It's just another step in that hopeful situation that we will ultimately know what happened."

Australian authorities are leading the seabed search and have so far scoured 21,200 square miles of the search area with no luck.

Still, there's hope the flaperon might also offer clues about how the plane went down; air accident experts will analyze the failure point and any other signs of damage to the wing part that might indicate whether the plane plummeted into the sea or "pancaked" in a controlled landing.

In addition, Australian scientists say analyzing the barnacles attached to the piece could figure out how long the debris was floating in the water. Barnacles usually only attach to flotsam so the type and size of barnacle might show whether the flaperon went down with the plane or detached from the wreckage later.

"Barnacle shells ... can tell us valuable information about the water conditions under which they were formed," Ryan Pearson, a PhD student at Australia's Griffith University, told Reuters.

Search teams have been dragging sonar devices called towfish about 330 feet above the seabed to hunt for wreckage. The towfish are equipped with jet fuel sensors, and use sonar scanners and multi-beam echo sounders to survey the surrounding area. Search crews on board the boats identify and assess data collected from the towfish and investigate any contacts that look promising. Only two contacts of high interest have been identified so far; one was a rock bed, the other an old wooden ship wreck.

Anchor and debris from shipwreck, photo taken from search vessel Fugro Survey. Image: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

The search area is based on analysis of "ping" signals picked up from a series of "handshake" transactions between the Boeing 777's messaging system and the satellite of a London-based communication company. The pings show the plane veered off course and continued to fly over the Indian Ocean for six hours after it lost contact with ground control.

The search area covers remote and previously unmapped areas as deep as 19,600 feet. Authorities have warned that due to the rough underwater terrain, including steep cliffs and caverns, the airplane may be beyond reach even if it is discovered.