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Air crash investigation: how the search for flight MH370 is run

The longer it takes, the harder it gets to find the lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Spotting small objects floating on the surface of the water is a tough task after any air crash. But the more any…

Singapore Navy’s in the hunt for missing flight MH370 as part of the international search effort. EPA/Republic of Singapore Navy

The longer it takes, the harder it gets to find the lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Spotting small objects floating on the surface of the water is a tough task after any air crash. But the more any debris has a chance to disperse, the greater the degree of difficulty in spotting it, even with sophisticated airborne search radars.

The search area has already been widened from the initial location south of Vietnam. The aircraft disappeared on Saturday during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board.

Without a large dose of luck or detection of any of the emergency locator beacons from the aircraft, some of which should have automatically activated but seemingly didn’t, it may take months – even years – to locate the wreckage.

The international response

The Malaysian search teams have been joined by others from Australia, China, the US, Singapore, Vietnam, New Zealand, Indonesia and Thailand.

Indonesian airforce officers check the map as they prepare for a search operation for the missing flight MH370 over the Malacca strait. EPA/Dedi Sahputra

Such a massive international effort is maintained through conventions governed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), part of the United Nations.

All signatory countries maintain maritime search and rescue organisations that are able to swing into action rapidly in response to an emergency.

The conventions also allow countries in whose jurisdiction an incident occurs to call upon help from others. This allowed the Australian government to act quickly and send two Royal Australian Air Force Orion aircraft to the search effort.

Piecing together answers from a crash

When the aircraft is eventually located the recovery phase should begin fairly quickly, depending on its location and degree of difficulty.

If bodies are recovered, there will be the need to conduct post mortem examinations to determine the nature and cause of death. If the bodies of the flight crew are recovered, their examination may also shed valuable light on what may have happened in the cockpit that led to the crash.

In any wreckage recovery phase, an international collaboration may be necessary to make sure the right equipment is available to access the wreckage, and recover the flight recorders.

While many countries have capacity to analyse flight data, many do not. Some agencies, such as the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, have developed specialist expertise in this area and can provide assistance if requested.

Investigators may also attempt to “reconstruct” the aircraft from any wreckage. They will be looking for any signs or symptoms of pre-crash damage or failures not consistent with the overall damage pattern in evidence from the subsequent crash sequence.

This has been done in many past accidents to help establish the cause beyond doubt, including the Boeing 747 Pan Am 103 flight that exploded over Lockerbie in 1988.

That kind of reconstruction is particularly effective in cases of an internal explosion, because the outward bending of the aircraft skin in the area of the blast may be clearly evident – provided, of course, the sections of skin from around the blast area are recovered.

Who is responsible for the investigation?

Even in the investigation phase, international conventions under the ICAO dictate which state is responsible for the investigation and which others have the right to participate.

ICAO Annex 13 to the Convention on International Air Transportation makes the state where the accident occurs responsible for the conduct of an investigation. This will not be known until the aircraft is discovered.

Where the accident occurs in international waters, the responsibility to mount an investigation rests with the State of Registry of the aircraft, which is Malaysia in the case of flight MH370. Other nearby states are required to provide assistance where possible.

Annex 13 also grants rights to others to participate in the investigation of aircraft accidents. They include the state of registry, the state of the operator and the state of design and the state of manufacture.

Each representative will have full access to all the facts and data collected as part of the investigation, including rights to examine the wreckage, obtain witness information, suggest areas of questioning and make submissions about various elements of the investigation.

Other states can ask to have representatives participate, especially where there is a significant interest, such as where a state might have a lot of the same aircraft type on its register. These requests are generally granted.

Making it safer

The aim of these international conventions is to make sure that – where possible – lessons are learnt from the investigation into accidents, regardless of where they occur. They also allow for any changes to be made to prevent similar accidents from happening again.

The conventions are a vital component of aviation safety and without them an already difficult post-accident situation would be rendered completely chaotic.

The secrets to what actually happened to flight MH370 are locked in the plane’s flight recorders, so let’s hope they’re found before too long so their story can be revealed.

Only that will start the closure and healing of those close to this incident, and provide vital lessons for the rest of us to learn.

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

    1. John Smithton


      In reply to Garry Baker

      'Evidence' is a big word. Instead we have a lot of different claims, many of which turn out to be false upon further investigation.

      How about we let this one play out? There are too many unknowns to speculate - and do so may be offensive to the families of the victims.

  1. Michael Phillip Kivinen

    Security investigator

    There is more to this story that is not being told, and information that is known that is being kept secret, as no one or group has claimed responsibility as an act of terrorism. As time goes on, its plain within logical thinking and with past knowledge of air crashes, that the plane has broken up into pieces which explains why the transponder stopped working, and will have to be from an on board explosion at 35,000 feet, which is why there will be little or no floating debris on the surface of the…

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    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Michael Phillip Kivinen

      You may be right.
      Why would a terrorist group responsible for blowing up a plane and killing people not tell the world about it? To carry out such an act and keep quiet would seem to be illogical.

    2. Robert Hamilton

      Government Lawyer Retired

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Hi Michael and Colin

      As you can see from my other post, I am concerned that there must be a period in any S&R operation, and that is what this still is, where one must carefully ensure that one does not start to overemphasis the obvious or focus on what one wants to believe. In this case, the obvious is staring us in the face but, tantalisingly, we do not seem to be able to show it in an area where the evidence of any crash should quickly reveal itself. Yet different information is now coming…

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    3. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Define terrorist?

      who says it wasn't a state, or one of its security organizations? If it was, assuming the above (Michael) to be correct, then there's all reasons to keep silent about it, right? Doesn't necessary need to involve more than a few key members, depending on their their freedom of action. Look at how secret services are involved in all sorts of shady things, as drug smuggling etc.

    4. Robert Hamilton

      Government Lawyer Retired

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Good for you Yuron! I theorised exactly this point 5 days ago in a comment in response to a related article and, aside from one person who screamed oh no! it could not possibly be so, the point raised no response. But from the word go, this event looked suspicious. And I hope that someone is going to write a case study when it is over because it seems all about believing what one wants to believe rather than clear minded investigation.

      The 2 hints were there early. If this event had been an aircraft…

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  2. Robert Hamilton

    Government Lawyer Retired

    So, where are we today at dawn on 14 March 2014? The Chinese satellite photos have been discounted and we are into claim and counterclaim about the veracity of reports that the aircraft flew on for a number of hours after it supposedly crashed. There are also reports that Malaysian authorities will refocus today on the original likely crash area. The focus of the US talking heads is on ACARS and some sort of explosive decompression that disabled the crew.

    The idea of explosive decompression or…

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    1. Barry White


      In reply to Robert Hamilton

      It maybe that the end point of the flight will never be known.
      So minds must now turn to preventive measures.
      One recent posting suggested that drone equipment be fitted to airliners. That I think would be quite practical but would be very expensive. I guess the insurance companies will decide that not aviation people. It is not generally acknowledged that it is insurance companies that make the laws.

      It would require that all the controls and instruments be disconnected from the cockpit and connected to the drone system.
      Then control could be passed to a pilot on the ground.

      Simpler measures could be taken immediately such as removing control of the ACARS beaconing system by removing the on/off switch and messaging system.

    2. Barry White


      In reply to Barry White

      An extra thought; the ACARS switch could be left in place and if turned off would give all indications of being off line but in fact continue operating but additionally set an extra bit in the data & turn on another VHF transmitter with encyphered conversations in the cockpit. It would cost peanuts.
      What do the experts think of that ?