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Moment that mattered: Flight MH370 disappears


MH370 became such a huge story in the media because it was an unexplained disappearance of a large airliner, which is extremely rare. Since 1948, about 84 airplanes have disappeared around the world, but an awful lot of those were small aircraft. The last time something like this happened was in 2009, when an Air France Airbus A330 crashed into the Atlantic. The media speculation is inevitable, but probably not very reliable. I can think of maybe half a dozen scenarios of what might have happened, but until the plane is found there’s absolutely no evidence to indicate which of those is more probable.

When an accident happens, you get to the site as quickly as possible. If it’s over land, you start by wandering around with your hands in your pockets to get a general feel for it. You find the distance over which the wreckage is spread and the depth of the crater. That tells you something about the horizontal and vertical speed of the impact. If there are propeller chop marks you can measure the distance between those to get an idea of the ground speed. At the crash site you try to gather all evidence that’s going to be lost when you start moving things. After that, you take it back to the hangars of the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch, where you can lay it out and examine in detail.

Recovering an airplane from the seabed is a different matter entirely. The deepest plane I’ve helped locate was Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to London, which came apart in the air in 1985 due to an improvised explosive device on board. The crash killed 329 people. I got into an inflatable boat about 120 miles southwest of Ireland and dangled a hydrophone into the water. Fairly soon we heard very faint but definite bleeps from the underwater locator beacon, which is what they were also looking for with flight MH370. The recovery team used a remotely operated vehicle with lights and cameras that grabs small parts of the airplane and puts them into a basket lowered down next to it.

Once you’re back in the hangar you look for fractures that don’t seem quite right, unusual leakage of hydraulic fluid, and if you’ve got a flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder [the ‘black boxes’] you look at that. There are some complete mysteries, but usually you can come up with a probable cause. That doesn’t mean our job is done at that stage. We also try to find out why an accident has happened by looking at things like maintenance procedures and human factors.

The end result of an investigation is a report that is very long and indigestible, which often includes recommendations. The big frustration with the job is that it’s very hard to get effective action on those. I’ve seen many repeats of accidents over the years, where it was pretty certain that if recommendations had been acted on, the next accident wouldn’t have occurred. The aviation world is very conservative in many ways. Sometimes you get laughed out of court by people saying, ‘We’re not going to do that because that’s not the way we do things
in aviation.’

The fact that the search effort for MH370 is being carried out by multiple countries could pose an additional challenge. I’ve been part of investigations that haven’t gone well because a sort of rivalry emerged. In these cases, each country is putting in a lot of effort and is pretty desperate to be the one who finds the goods. It all depends on the personalities of the people involved. Generally there’s good cooperation and people put trying to prevent another accident from happening first. But you can get idiots who turn it into a competition.

I can’t explain the reports that they heard signals from the underwater locator beacon. They’ve done a pretty thorough search of that area, so you would’ve thought some wreckage would have turned up. The battery of [MH370’s] two underwater locator beacons will have run out some 30 days after the crash. That’s a huge setback. They now have to search a very large area [60,000 square kilometres] of deep ocean which might take around a year, with ships just ploughing up and down. Searching a two or three-football field area in shallow water like the North Sea is a big undertaking already. With the search for MH370, they’re right at the most extreme end of the business.

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