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Malaysia's not quite final report into MH370

Editorial Staff

In late 2017, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released its "final" report into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. It was clear that the ATSB considered the issue unresolved but closed. A private enterprise search, with a contingency fee, subsequently ran for several weeks but turned up no further information. In the past few days, Malaysia's Safety Inspection Team 13 operating under the auspices of Malaysia's Ministry of Transport published what is called it's final report - but the transport minister says that, while searches have concluded and semi-final conclusions reached from the evidence gathered over four years, the book is not closed until definitive answers can be given. It's a desperate situation and, for those involved, time isn't healing.

The two reports make it clear that while three countries led the investigation, there were far more working to try to find out what happened. The simple fact is that while the media and so-called social media capitalised on the developing tragedy, there were many people struggling to filter fact from malicious or opportunistic fiction (for example, CNN when one of the Channel's stars, Richard Quest, led with a fake news story that "we know where the aircraft is" and pointed at a position off the north-east coast of Malaysia). The tabloidisation of the tragedy continues even to day with Australia's News.Com.au promoting its MH370 coverage with what purports to be a picture of the aircraft crashing or landing (it's not clear which it's supposed to be) in water.

The three countries leading the search were Malaysia, Australia and China which was both the destination of the flight and the country with a significant number of victims.

There is no point in re-hashing all the fake news stories that ran and continue to run, nor the speculation, the self-serving opinions or even the frauds and scams that came out of this situation. The two government reports total some 900 pages and make both interesting and disturbing reading, in particular to some communications components (known as ELT or Emergency Locator Transmitters) that, it is now revealed, have a failure rate of well over 60% and, therefore, no conclusion can be drawn from the fact that that component was not activated on MH370: it is designed to activate in the event of shock e.g. crash or to be activated manually. The ELT does not transmit continuously. However, even if activated, the ELT does not work underwater and, in any case, there is not 100% coverage of the earth by the relevant satellites: where they "see" varies.

The reports detail the sea searches, the analysis of debris that washed up in the Indian Ocean (even to the extent of analysing the specific barnacles on a piece of fuselage to try to identify where it had been) and many communications channels.

There's a need to blame someone: the Malaysian report opines that there is no logical conclusion other than that the aircraft was under the control of a person or persons. But it is equally clear: there is not only no evidence but there is no ground for suspicion that either the pilot (known as the "Pilot in Command" or "PIC") or the co-pilot (a.k.a. First Officer) took any action detrimental to the aircraft. So who was in control? No one knows. If there was anything remarkable about the cabin crew, it's that the least experienced had been with the airline for 13 years.

The only conclusion is that no one knows what happened. Various possibilities have been excluded but even that is not absolutely conclusive as the exclusion is based on circumstantial not direct evidence. What is clear is that there are almost no facts except that the aircraft went off radar and Vietnamese air traffic control failed to notice that it had not appeared on their screens as expected. Malaysian ATC is noted as having not followed up on the aircraft after it initially left Malaysian airspace.

There have been various reports that say that the aircraft was flown so as to prevent radar tracking. The report says, clearly, that was not so.

Analysis of the behaviour of both the pilot and co-pilot at the airport, as recorded on CCTV, prior to departure demonstrated nothing inconsistent with their behaviour on previous occasions. Analysis of voice recordings up until the last message, including arranging for friends and family to listen, showed no unusual patterns in the speech of either the pilot or co-pilot.

The aircraft was maintained as scheduled and within all its approvals. There are also inspections every time the aircraft is on the stand at an airport and "no significant defects were noted during the checks including the turnaround transit checks." There had been no material incidents in the aircraft's history except that, in 2012, it ran into another aircraft while taxiing in Shanghai. A wing tip was damaged and repaired by Boeing on site. There were a small number of non-urgent maintenance matters noted in the maintenance log as "deferred defects."

There is a great deal of technical information which can be summarised simply: there was nothing recorded that would indicate any likelihood of failure and nothing to explain the change indirection taken by the aircraft. The point is specifically made that MAS made a point of topping up the oxygen even when it was already above the level at which it was required. The aircraft was some 4 tonnes under its maximum weight.

The conclusion is that a person manually turned off (who and by what means is unknown but it is considered to be unlikely to be the crew) the various communications systems and flew the aircraft to ... again, no one knows where.

The final paragraph says it all: "In conclusion, the Team is unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance of MH370."

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