Sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March 2014, proves that adage again and again.
The jet vanished, seemingly into thin air, with 239 people aboard. There was no distress call, no plea for help from a frantic pilot. There wasn’t even enough satellite data to identify exactly where the thing might be. Instead, there were rumors. Lots and lots of rumors. A high-tech hijacking? A Russian special ops mission, where trained terrorists hid the plane in another plane’s shadow, then landed it in the former Soviet Union, to be used for an attack on a date TBD? Did it become invisible?
We’ll probably never know. Only a couple of pieces of debris and a handful of personal belongings have been found, washed up on beaches in such places as Madagascar.
Eventually, though, scientists studied the available tracking information and came to a consensus. The plane had probably crashed into the Indian Ocean, one of the least hospitable search environments on earth.
In October 2014, the governments of Australia, China and Malaysia launched an investigation. A ship called the Equator used an autonomous underwater vehicle to scour the seafloor. Over 27 months, it searched 46,000 square miles at a cost of about $150 million. Twice, the crew identified large objects that later turned out to be unrelated shipwrecks.
From the beginning, there were doubts. Some oceanographers said they thought the crash site was north of the search area. It turns out that the official investigators might have agreed. Last month, the Endeavor was moved “at high speed” to a new location “more than 200 miles north.” This diversion happened, they allege, as the search team was making “its final sweeps in the area.”
Richard Cole, of the University College in London, detected the shift via satellite tracking; he has been following the operation for many months. He told the Daily Beast: “Equator has re-centered the search to the north, away from the area originally identified in late 2014 by the Australian Defense Science and Technology Group. Using a sonar system, it is now checking sea floor not previously scanned. The search has only limited time left, but they are investing this remaining time in scanning the area they now believe is the most likely location of MH370.”
Lots of other scientists have pointed to the same spot. The Australian search team itself conceded a couple weeks ago that the identified search area “is unlikely to contain the missing aircraft.” They now think the plane is north of the original search area. But officials say without “credible evidence,” a new search won’t be approved.
That decision has frustrated the families of passengers. Advocacy group Voice 370 has called on the search to continue. In a statement, they said, “extending the search to the new area defined by experts is an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety.”