MH370 Investigators Painfully Face Their Own Failure

A Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion in 2014 after returning from a search mission. Image: AP
A Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion in 2014 after returning from a search mission. Image: AP

In January, authorities officially called off the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, nearly three years after the plane vanished from radar on March 8, 2014. The reckoning, though, isn’t over. In a new report released Tuesday, the Australia Transport Safety Bureau called the failure to find the plane “almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable.”


Australia coordinated with officials in China and Malaysia in their search for the plane, which ended up covering over 46,000 square miles of ocean floor, using boats, planes, sonar, and other equipment. They found four shipwrecks in the midst of the search, but never the plane.

The report makes clear some of the challenges.

During the early stages of the procurement, careful consideration was given to the methods available for conducting a large scale search of the seafloor. Water depths were known to be up to 6,000 m with unknown currents and unknown seafloor topography. Search operations would also have to be conducted in poor weather conditions and in a very remote area far from any land mass.


The mapping of the seafloor in the search area revealed a challenging terrain for the underwater search which used underwater vehicles operating close to the seafloor. While the deep tow vehicles selected as the primary search method proved to be very effective, the seafloor terrain necessitated the use of a range of search methods including an autonomous underwater vehicle to complete the sonar coverage.

The underwater search area was located up to 2,800 km west of the coast of Western Australia and the prevailing weather conditions in this area for much of the year are challenging. Crews on the search vessels were working for months at a time in conditions which elevated the operational risks.


It was a monumental task, in other words, all of which doesn’t make the failure to find the plane hurt any less; investigators surely know this, as their conclusion amounts to a pretty hard look in the mirror.

The reasons for the loss of MH370 cannot be established with certainty until the aircraft is found. 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 on board.

The ATSB expresses our deepest sympathies to the families of the passengers and crew on board 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.

A few pieces of the plane have washed up on African beaches, but the rest may never be found. According to the Australian report, no transmissions from the plane were received after 38 minutes in air; it continued to fly for another seven hours, likely ending up in the southern Indian Ocean.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.



What MH370 teaches us is the need for better methods to track planes, and ideally to have ongoing telemetry transmission to enable troubleshooting and post-incident analysis.

This wasn’t really possible a decade or two ago, but the global communications network has evolved quite a bit since then.