Investigator's new plan to find MH370Save
Air crash investigators are planning to dump replica Boeing 777 wing flaps fitted with satellite trackers into the Indian Ocean in an effort to discover the wreckage of the missing MH370 jet.
The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 vanished from radar screens on March 8, 2014 shortly after leaving Kuala Lumpur with 239 people on board.
In July 2015, a section of the aircraft's wingtip, known as a flaperon, washed ashore on a beach in Saint-Andre, Reunion Island.
Now experts want to "reverse" the flaperon's journey in an effort to determine the most likely crash site.
So far, experts have searched approximately 46,000 square miles of the ocean floor during a two-year operation but have failed to find the missing jet.
Greg Hood Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner, who last month took over responsibility for the search, is currently trying to identify new areas where the jet could be.
However, a new search would require a new funding commitment, with Malaysia, Australia and China agreeing in July that the $160 million search will be suspended once the current stretch of ocean southwest of Australia is exhausted unless new evidence emerges that would pinpoint a specific location of the aircraft.
Hood said: "If it is not in the area which we defined, it's going to be somewhere else in the near vicinity."
Further analysis of the wing fragment known as a flaperon found on Reunion Island off the African coast in July last year - 15 months after the plane went missing - will hopefully help narrow a possible next search area outside the current boundary.
Six replicas of the flaperon will be sent to Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's oceanography department in the island state of Tasmania where scientists will determine whether it is the wind or the currents that affect how they drift, Hood said. This will enable more accurate drift modelling than is currently available.
If more money becomes available, the Australian bureau, which is conducting the search on Malaysia's behalf, plans to fit the flaperons with satellite beacons and set them adrift at different points in the southern Indian Ocean around March 8 next year - the third anniversary of the disaster - and track their movements.
Meanwhile, barnacles found on the flaperon and an adjacent wing flap that washed up on Tanzania in June are being analysed for clues to the latitudes they might have come from. The flap is in the Australian bureau's headquarters in Canberra where it has been scoured for clues by accident investigators.
Peter Foley, the bureau's director of Flight 370 search operations since the outset, said the enhanced drift modelling would hopefully narrow the next search area to a band of 5 degrees of latitude, or approximately 550km.
Foley said: "Even the best drift analysis is not going to narrow it down to X-marks-the-spot."
Some critics argue that the international working group that defined the current search area - which includes experts from the US National Transportation Safety Board, Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the plane's manufacturer Boeing, Australia's Defence Science and Technology Group, satellite firm Inmarsat and electronics company Thales - made a crucial mistake by concluding that the most likely scenario was that no one was at the controls when the plane hit the ocean after flying more than five hours.
The airliner veered far off course during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. What happened to the plane has become one of the biggest mysteries in aviation, with a wide range of theories, including that a hijacker could have killed everyone on board early in the flight by depressurising the plane.
The current search area was defined by analysis of a final satellite signal from the plane that indicated it had run out of fuel. Scientists have determined how far the plane could have travelled from a height of up to 40,000 feet after both engines lost power.
But critics who favour the theory that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah hijacked the plane argue that he could have glided the plane beyond the current search area. Some say he could have made a controlled ditch at sea in order to minimise debris and make the plane vanish as completely as possible. Officials say Zaharie flew a similar route on his home flight simulator only weeks before the disaster.
Foley said Australian analysis of the flap in Canberra suggested that it had not been deployed when it hit the water. It had been retracted inside the wing. A pilot attempting a soft landing would have extended the wing flaps. The Australians are awaiting the verdict of a Boeing accident investigation team on their findings.
Recent analysis of the final satellite signals also suggest the plane was descending at a rate of between 12,000 feet and 20,000 feet a minute before it crashed. A rate of 2000 feet a minute would be typical of a controlled descent.
Foley said: "The rate of descent combined with the position of the flap - if it's found that it is not deployed - will almost certainly rule out either a controlled ditch or glide.
"If it's not in a deployed state, it validates, if you like, where we've been looking."
Crews have not given up hope of finding the plane in the current search area, which because of bad weather and 20m swells could take them until December to finish scanning.
Less than 4000 square miles of seabed, which is outside the original 23,000-square-mile high-priority search zone, remain to be searched.
More than 20 sonar contacts require closer examination by a sonar-equipped underwater drone. These are between 1700 miles and 1200 miles from the Australian port of Fremantle where the search ships are based.
Hood said: "We are still hopeful and optimistic."
Foley said finding the plane was the only chance of the solving the mystery of what happened aboard Flight 370.
Foley added: "We will never know what happened to that aircraft until we find it."