LONDON – The search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has so far failed to examine the most likely crash site because it was distracted for weeks by false readings thought at the time to be from the plane’s black boxes, British satellite operator Inmarsat said Tuesday.
Inmarsat scientists told a British broadcaster they had calculated the plane’s most likely flight path and a hot spot in the southern Indian Ocean in which it most likely came down.
The flight disappeared from radio contact on March 8 flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board.
Scientists calculated its likely flight path based on automated pings transmitted every hour to an Inmarsat satellite.
Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield was dispatched to investigate, but before reaching the likely site it began to detect a signal that it believed was coming from the wreckage, Inmarsat said.
Two months were spent searching 850 square kilometers (330 square miles) of sea bed northwest of Perth, but the source of the “pings” was not found and a submersible robot found no evidence of debris on the ocean bed.
“It was by no means an unrealistic location but it was further to the northeast than our area of highest probability,” Chris Ashton at Inmarsat told Horizon.
Company technicians modeled the most likely flight path using data recorded as the hourly pings came in. They assumed a speed and heading consistent with the plane being flown by autopilot.
“We can identify a path that matches exactly with all those frequency measurements and with the timing measurements and lands on the final arc at a particular location, which then gives us a sort of a hot spot area on the final arc where we believe the most likely area is,” Ashton said.
Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre, established to manage the search, said the four acoustic “pings” picked up by the black box detector operated from Ocean Shield could not be ignored.
“The four signals taken together constituted the most promising lead in the search for MH370 and it was a lead that needed to be pursued until completion so the search team could either discount or confirm the area as the final resting place of MH370,” the center said in a statement.
Australian officials agree that a linear arc produced using the satellite messages, or “handshakes,” leading to the southern Indian Ocean likely represents the plane’s flight path.
But the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said experts were still working to define the area to be scoured in the next phase of the search, which will plumb ocean depths of up to 6,000 feet.
“The search strategy group is continuing its analysis of satellite and aircraft performance data, along with a range of other information, to determine the area that offers the highest probability of finding the aircraft,” a spokesman said.
“This is highly complex work that requires significant collaborative effort with international specialists. The revised search zone is expected to be available in the coming weeks.”
Malaysia’s civil aviation authority and Inmarsat last month released the raw satellite data after coming under criticism from relatives over the fruitless search.
However, its complexity has led to few independent conclusions being drawn about the likely crash site.
Malaysian Selamat Umar, whose son Mohamad Khairul Amri was on the ill-fated jetliner, questioned the motives behind the data release.
“I am not convinced at all by the data,” he said. Why are they releasing it now? Before when we asked for it, they did not want to release it. What can we do with it now?” he said.