“We will spend what we need to spend to get this job done,” former prime minister Tony Abbott declared with a familiar messianic zeal in March 2014, shortly after the massive, multi-country effort to find missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 began. The Boeing 777 had gone down en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 239 people.
Almost three years and some $200 million later, the underwater search is off and the plane has not been found. Barring a miraculous development, the mystery may never be solved. Explaining the decision, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester insisted: “The cost hasn’t been the deciding factor.”
Such a difficult call has raised difficult questions: When to stop looking? Can a mystery of this magnitude be left unsolved? To the victims’ families there can be no end until they receive the answers they need. But to governments – that need to weigh up other factors – surely there is a justifiable limit?
“We are in a position where we don’t want to be providing false hope to the families and friends,” Chester said this week.
For the search to restart, there would need to be “credible new evidence leading to a specific location”. The imposition of such a high threshold – requiring a discovery more or less pinpointing the wreckage site – was decided in meetings of the tripartite group in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 and 2016.
They agreed that, unless such information came to light, completion of the original 120,000-square-kilometre search area would be the end of it.
In December, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released the First Principles Review. This was fresh analysis of the search effort conducted by a group of international experts. Using newly available data and revelations, the panel confidently concluded the search had been in the wrong area and recommended it be extended into another zone, further north.
The original search area – the size of almost two Tasmanias – was almost completed. And the three governments, Australia, China and Malaysia, said the review was not enough to continue into this new 25,000-square-kilometre area. It is understood that scouring it would cost in the realm of $40 million, proportionate to the price tag so far.
Those involved with the search have become passionate. “We all want to find it. There’s only one reason we are out there, it’s not for fun. We really want to find it,” a source inside the search effort said.
The December ATSB report said: “The participants of the First Principles Review were in agreement on the need to search an additional area representing approximately 25,000 kilometres square.”
Fairfax Media understands that, in recent weeks, the search did venture into the new northern area to make cursory efforts to locate the wreckage. This is despite the governments’ public stance that the effort would not go beyond the 120,000 square kilometres.
In a statement, the ATSB said the last active vessel’s “search operations in the north were to complete its final swing and gather sonar data in areas that haven’t previously been completed”.
Other observers are more hard-nosed about the merit of persisting with the search. Professor Jason Middleton, head of the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales, said it was “not at all cost-effective at this stage to continue” and that money could be better spent elsewhere if advancing aviation was the objective.
“If you’re looking at aviation safety, you spend it proactively. You spend it on research and emerging technologies. That’s going to give you better value for money than extending a search,” he told Fairfax Media.
“The public’s going to be a lot safer as a result of that. There’s no guarantee that if they found the wreckage they would be able to fully identify the cause or problem.”
One reason: this long after the crash, the batteries in the black box flight data recorder could be dead.
Abbott had conceded some limits to his commitment. “At some point, there might need to be a reckoning, there might need to be some kind of tallying,” he said in April, 2014. But, according to the now frustrated backbencher, January 2017 is not the time. “Disappointed that the search for MH370 has been called off. Especially if some experts think there are better places to look,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Voice370, a group formed to advocate for the families of passengers and crew, views the search extension as an “inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety”.
“Commercial planes cannot just be allowed to disappear without a trace. Having already searched 120,000 square kilometres, stopping at this stage is nothing short of irresponsible,” the organisation said in a statement this week.
The Australian government maintains “the suspension does not mean the termination of the search”.
Some onshore analysis will persist until February. Groups around the world will continue to pore over available data. And there could be an accidental discovery or technological breakthrough. But, realistically, the underwater effort appears over.
Its scale has been unprecedented. Equipped with a fleet of ships and aircraft and the best available technology – but lacked robust leads – the search crews were confronted with ocean depths of between 3500 and 6000 metres. They battled tropical cyclones and 20-metre waves.
Because MH370 was registered in Malaysia, under international aviation convention, the country bears primary responsibility for finding the plane. As it is believed to have gone down in Australia’s search and rescue region, the Abbott government assumed a leading role as well.
Chester said any action to renew the search would be led by Malaysia. Danica Weeks, whose husband Paul was on board, is looking to them to save the day.
“It just can’t end like this. The Malaysian government promised to bring them home. If they think this will go away, it definitely won’t,” Weeks told Fairfax Media this week.
Malaysia echoes the view that a “credible clue” would be needed. Late this week, Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi promised “cash rewards in the millions” (of Malaysian ringgits – worth about 30 Australian cents) for any private body able to locate the fuselage.
“We are opening up the options because the government of Malaysia is committed to continue the search,” he said.
Theories and questions about what happened have proliferated, from the compelling to the conspiratorial and downright deranged. Was it technical failure? Was captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah suicidal? Was a malicious government responsible? Was it terrorism? Did it glide in a controlled descent or did it come down rapidly?
A leading proposal is the “ghost flight” theory: that the crew became unconscious, the plane flew on autopilot and eventually crashed in a rapid descent. Another is the “glide” theory, in which the pilot flew the plane in a controlled descent long after the fuel had run out. Some pilots have insisted that Shah must have carried out a murder-suicide. Ultimately, there is little certainty
One high-profile development was the “flaperon” wing component that washed up on Reunion Island off the east coast of Africa in July 2015. An examination of it concluded that the plane dived rapidly, ruling out a controlled descent. Oceanic drift analysis of the part and other bits of debris found nearby also informed the search.
Former deputy prime minister Warren Truss, who was intimately involved with the project as the infrastructure minister, said the question of whether to end or persist with a search like this is “enormously difficult”.
While he believed there was “great value” for families and industry in finding the aircraft, Truss remains doubtful about the merit of exploring the new area now the original has been exhausted. He predicts it would then be replaced by another “next-best option” once completed.
“The search has been suspended rather than cancelled for all time. And certainly if any new credible evidence came along, or improved technology, or better searching equipment, some other new breakthrough, one would expect that the search might be resumed,” he told Fairfax Media.
Then again, Truss said: “There are sometimes mysterious disappearances even with the best available technology. It is certainly possible that the mystery won’t be solved.”
The story When do you give up on a mystery? The torturous MH370 question first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.