The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was finally called off Tuesday after nearly three years spent combing the desolate Indian Ocean and its deep seabed, leaving one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time unsolved.
The governments of Malaysia, Australia and China, said crews had finished an underwater sweep of a 46,000-square mile zone of seabed without finding the missing Boeing 777.
The most complex and expensive search in aviation history had cost around $150 million but failed to even locate the plane, let alone answer the questions surrounding its disappearance in March 2014.
“Despite every effort using the best science available, cutting-edge technology, as well as modelling and advice from highly skilled professionals who are the best in their field, unfortunately, the search has not been able to locate the aircraft,” the Joint Agency Coordination Center in Australia agency said in a statement.
“The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness.”
The jet carrying 239 people on board vanished from civilian radar in the early hours of March 8, 2014, without even so much as a distress call from its pilots.
After several false starts, scientists examining satellite pings decided the plane had turned south and flown towards one of the remotest places on earth, directing the search towards a vast arc of ocean some 1,100 miles west of Australia.
Just last month, officials investigating the plane’s disappearance took another look at the satellite data and modelling of ocean currents and decided they might have been searching in the wrong place after all.
They recommended the search be moved more than 200 miles north.
But it was too late: the three governments who had bankrolled the search had already concluded that the search would be suspended unless there was convincing new evidence to pinpoint the plane’s location.
That wasn’t forthcoming so in the absence of fresh leads or private money to fund a new effort, the search for MH370 is now officially over.
The investigation has been controversial right from the outset, with the Malaysian government criticized for releasing contradictory information in the first few days after the plane disappeared, and for initially being reluctant to share information with foreign experts.
As the search area moved south over the Indian Ocean, Australia took charge, but there was still more than a hint of chaos, with hopes repeatedly raised and then dashed.
In April 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced underwater signals had been heard that made him “very confident” that the plane’s black box data recorders – the keys to solving the mystery – had been located. It turned out the pings probably came from the search ship itself or its own towed listening device.
An oil slick was spotted from the air, but didn’t contain jet fuel; debris on the ocean surface turned out to be trash.
Finally, though, confirmation came in July 2015 that the plane had indeed crashed in the Indian Ocean, when a wing flap was found on Reunion Island, east of Madagascar. Since then, more than 20 objects either confirmed or believed to have been from the plane have washed ashore on Indian Ocean beaches, according to the Associated Press.
By then, the search for the plane itself had long moved underwater, with several ships dragging sonar-equipped “towfish” back and forth through the ocean to map vast areas of deep sea floor to look for signs of wreckage. Unmanned submarines were also used to take a closer look at objects of interest or areas of rougher terrain. Still, nothing – apart from a couple of old shipwrecks.
The search zone shifted several times as the satellite data was examined and re-examined, and combined with updated information on ocean currents.
And there was a final twist in December when Australia’s Transport Safety Bureau revealed that another review now suggested they had been looking in the wrong place all along.
But Australia’s government had lost patience – or run out cash, rejecting the bureau’s recommendation that crews be allowed to move north, and arguing that the results of the experts’ analysis weren’t precise enough to justify continuing the hunt.
The three countries funding the search reiterated that view in Tuesday’s statement.
“Whilst combined scientific studies have continued to refine areas of probability, to date no new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft,” they said.
The flight was carrying 152 Chinese nationals, and victims’ relatives here have consistently expressed frustration with the search.
Voice 370, a support group for Chinese passengers’ relatives, said extending the search to the patch of seabed recently identified by Australia’s transport bureau was “an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety.”
“Commercial planes cannot just be allowed to disappear without a trace,” they said in a statement. “Having already searched 120,000 square km, stopping at this stage is nothing short of irresponsible, and betrays a shocking lack of faith in the data, tools and recommendations of an array of official experts assembled by the authorities themselves.”
Jiang Hui, a 42-year-old man whose mother was onboard the flight, said he was “very disappointed, sad and angry.”
“Before, the three governments told the world that they wouldn’t give up. Now they say the search is suspended, but I know they have just given up,” he said. “It is not that humans can’t solve the problem of finding the plane. It’s just that that each government just doesn’t want to contribute more money.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Simon Denyer