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As MH370 search nears its end, doubts surface about the plane’s final resting place

For over two years, engineers and investigators from multiple countries have searched for the remains of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The plane’s disappearance on March 8 2014 has remained a mystery — one that authorities and the relatives of the deceased both hoped to solve by recovering the plane’s wreckage. As the search enters its final phases, the engineering team behind the operation has admitted it may have been looking in the wrong place all along.

Radar data from 2014 shows that MH370 deviated from its expected flight path and turned southwest, flying over Malaysia, then northwest, before turning and flying south as shown in the image below.


Without direct communication from the aircraft or its flight data recorder, the search team had to make a series of assumptions about the aircraft’s final hours. This data was gleaned from automatic check-ins and handshakes with satellite communication systems. The data provided an arc of potential locations for the aircraft, but couldn’t zero in on its precise location.

One of the key assumptions the search teams made was that the aircraft lost power and fell out of the sky in an uncontrolled dive. The prevailing theory since MH370 vanished has been that the passengers and crew were incapacitated or killed long before the aircraft crashed into the ocean. According to this theory, the plane continued on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and lost power. This is at least somewhat bolstered by the communication timeline — the aircraft’s satellite system automatically authenticated to Inmarsat’s network at 08:10:58, but sent a log-on acknowledgement at 08:19:37. This is expected behavior if the aircraft lost main power — the auxiliary control unit (ACU) would’ve kicked in after the fuel tanks were exhausted and rebooted the satellite communication network.

If the plane didn’t fall out of the sky, it would change the entire parameters of the search area. All aircraft have what’s known as a glide ratio — the amount of distance they can travel forwards for every amount of distance they fall. I haven’t been able to locate the exact glide ratio for a Boeing 777, but the 747 had a glide ratio of 17:1 — meaning it could travel 17 feet forwards for every foot it lost of altitude. One of the problems with MH370 is that we don’t know exactly how high up the plane was when it fell. An aircraft with a 17:1 glide ratio that loses power at 29,000 feet can fly 93 miles before it hits the water. If it starts at 35,000 feet, its range is up to 112.6 miles. Both of these figures are themselves general estimates and don’t reflect ambient weather conditions or the skill level of the pilot.

Fugro, the Dutch company leading the search for MH370, has previously refused to consider the glide hypothesis, but with the search now nearing completion, it’s increasingly likely that one of our initial assumptions about the plane’s final hours was incorrect. “If it’s not there, it means it’s somewhere else,” Fugro project director Paul Kennedy told Reuters with impressively impeccable logic.

We already know where some of the plane is. Multiple aircraft fragments belonging to MH370 have washed up on the shores of islands off the coast of Africa. A fragment of wing was located on La Reunion island late last year, while part of a wing flap (pictured above) washed up on Pemba Island and was found on June 23. That piece of wreckage has now been transported to Australia for further examination.

Unfortunately, if the initial search area comes up empty, these fragments may be all we ever find. The ocean is enormous and it has taken two years just to map the tiny slice we’ve got. Various groups are expected to call for Furgo to release its data and analysis to the wider public, in the hopes that it could improve a new set of models for what might have happened to MH370 and where the plane ended up. Absent significant sources of new funding or major evidence, however, the search is nearly finished.

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