John Young: “… Most Credible Lead”

This post documents the first public disclosure of MH370’s crash location. Debris was reported by an unidentified party. It appears from Mr. Young’s comments that the report was originally given directly to Malaysia, which then passed it down to the Australian search team. A proper search of the area, defined as a seabed search with deep ocean sidescan sonar, was never undertaken. The BlueFin-21 that was loaned to Australia for the purpose by the U.S. Navy was limited to an manufacturer’s operating depth of -1,500 meters, and was barely suitable for searching the top of the plateau with a known depth of about 1,500 meters. The plane is in more than 5,000 meters of water, so had no chance of being detected by that effort. Unfortunately.

The complete transcript for the March 28, 2014 presser with John Young and Martin Dolan can be found at the end of this post. It is about 8 pages from that 22 minute briefing.

John Young: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is John Young from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. I’m joined today by our colleague, Mr. Martin Dolan, who is the chief commissioner for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. I will, as usual, make an opening statement, as will Mr. Dolan, then we’ll take questions. He will answer questions about aircraft accident investigation issues, and I will take questions on implications for the search effort. We would like to update you on some credible information AMSA has received from the ATSB, which will see the search area refocused today.

The AMSA search for any sign of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been shifted to an area north following advice from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. An international air crash investigation team in Malaysia provided updated advice to the ATSB, which has examined the information and determined an area 1,100 kilometers to the northeast of the existing search area is now the most credible lead as to where debris may be located. The new search area is approximately 319,000 square kilometers in area and about 1,850 kilometers west of Perth.

The Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation, AGO, is retasking satellites to capture images of the new area. Weather conditions are better in the revised area and ten aircraft have been tasked for today’s search. They are two Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orions, a Japanese Coast Guard Gulfstream V jet, a Japanese P-3 Orion, a Republic of Korea P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules aircraft, a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Ilyushin 76, a United States Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft, and one Australian civil jet acting as a communications relay.

Figure 1: Reconstructed flight path for MH370. Pins 1 thru 7 mark the locations of each of seven pings. The yellow connecting ribbon is an approximation of the path. It is almost certain that the pilot deviated from the yellow path between pins 1 and 3, with up to an hour of circling or holding or checking for following aircraft, and monitoring radio transmissions.
Figure 2: Google Earth view of the crash area. The geometric terminal location is shown by Pin 7. It is important that the final 7th Ping from the plane was incomplete and had to be reconstructed by Inmarsat Technicians. The last good ping was the 6th Ping about 70 kilometers northwest of Pin 7. By a fluke of the Fates, a German vessel and crew examined that very area in 2017 for unrelated geologic reasons. The team appears to have used Hull-Mounted Multibeam Sonar. A copy of those sonar returns in included below.
Figure 3: MH370’s final ping was broadcast where shown, based on Inmarsat’s reconstruction of that ping. The final ping was a partial ping and it is possible transmission occurred farther west, but not much. The partial nature of the final ping suggests the plane was in the water at that point, but that is not certain. As shown, the crash location is only 50 kilometers east of the deepest known point in the entire Indian Ocean.

The complete transcript for the March 28, 2014 presser with John Young and Martin Dolan.

John: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is John Young from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. I’m joined today by our colleague, Mr. Martin Dolan, who is the chief commissioner for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. I will, as usual, make an opening statement, as will Mr. Dolan, then we’ll take questions. He will answer questions about aircraft accident investigation issues, and I will take questions on implications for the search effort. We would like to update you on some credible information AMSA has received from the ATSB, which will see the search area refocused today.

The AMSA search for any sign of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been shifted to an area north following advice from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. An international air crash investigation team in Malaysia provided updated advice to the ATSB, which has examined the information and determined an area 1,100 kilometers to the northeast of the existing search area is now the most credible lead as to where debris may be located. The new search area is approximately 319,000 square kilometers in area and about 1,850 kilometers west of Perth.

The Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation, AGO, is retasking satellites to capture images of the new area. Weather conditions are better in the revised area and ten aircraft have been tasked for today’s search. They are two Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orions, a Japanese Coast Guard Gulfstream V jet, a Japanese P-3 Orion, a Republic of Korea P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules aircraft, a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Ilyushin 76, a United States Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft, and one Australian civil jet acting as a communications relay.

Four of the ten aircraft are overhead in the search area as we speak, with a further six planes to fly over the area today. A further Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion has been placed on standby at the Royal Australian Air Force base in Pearce, in Western Australia to investigate any reported sightings. Six ships are relocating to the new search area, including HMAS Success and five Chinese ships, and Success is expected to arrive in the search area late tomorrow night. Additionally, the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration patrol ship, Haixun 01, is in the search area.

Allow me to add that we in AMSA know Haixun 01 quite well. She visited Sydney and Cairns last year in order to support our Regional Maritime Safety Conference, and we had the opportunity to do a search and rescue exercise with that ship. A United States Towed Pinger Locator and a Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle have arrived in Perth to assist with location and recovery of the black box. These will be fitted to the Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield, which will arrive in Western Australia in the coming dates. The depth of the water in the search area is between 2,000 meters and 4,000 meters.

Martin: Thank you, Mr. Young. The ATSB as Australia’s transport safety investigation agency is working with a range of other international expert organizations to analyze available data relating to the flight of MH370 and to determine the best area to search for the missing aircraft. The key pieces of information being analyzed relate to early positional information from the aircraft and its later polling of a satellite through its aircraft systems. The new information is based on continuing analysis of radar data about the aircraft’s movement between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost.

These continuing analysis indicates the plane was traveling faster than was previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance it traveled south into the Indian Ocean. The international investigative team supporting the search continues their analysis of the data. This could result in further refinements of the potential flight path of MH370. Radar and satellite polling data has been combined with information about the likely performance of the aircraft, speed and fuel consumption in particular, to arrive at the best assessment of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have entered the water.

The information provided by the international investigative team is the most credible lead we currently have in the search for aircraft wreckage. However, this information needs to be continually adjusted for the length of time elapsed since the aircraft went missing and the likely drift of any wreckage floating on the ocean surface. Finally, let me stress that under international convention, Malaysia has investigative responsibility for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. At this stage, the ATSB’s main task is to assist in the search for the aircraft. Thank you. We will now take questions.

Speaker 1: Do you think this is the crash point of the [inaudible 00:06:09]?

Martin: This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean, yes.

Speaker 1: You have considered [inaudible 00:06:18]?

Martin: In determining the search area, Mr. Young will comment further, we have taken account of drift information as well as the likely entry point of the aircraft into the water. Mr. Young, do you want to add?

John: That’s correct. That’s what we’ve been doing with all of the searches that we’ve conducted so far. This is day 21 of the search for the aircraft. We have, using our own in-house systems as well as expert advice from the United States Coast Guard and commercial companies, drifted the area for 21 days of movement, taking into account the actual weather and the known currents for the area.

Speaker 2: Mr. Dolan, how much faster was the plane going according to your analysis and how do you know it continued to go at that fast a speed after [inaudible 00:07:21] lost contact?

Martin: This will remain a somewhat inexact science. I don’t have in front of me the exact figures of the estimated speed, but this was an estimate of the estimated speed between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, and then a range of assessments have been made about likely speed thereafter.

Speaker 2: That suggested no human control of the plane, is that the point?

Martin: The assumption is that the aircraft was traveling at a constant or close to constant speed. The reason we know that the aircraft continued to travel is we and the international investigative team are bringing together two sets of data, the data from polling of the satellite that can give an arc within, at specified times the aircraft was and aircraft about from which we rely, particularly on Boeing, about the likely performance of the aircraft and matching those two sets of data to get points where the aircraft is likely to have gone through and ended up.

Speaker 3: Mr. Young, how many of these are debris fields spotted by planes or satellites could have drifted from that area? Does this rule out any of the potential debris fields?

John: Firstly, I would not use the term debris field associated with the satellite imagery. The imagery see lots of objects out of the ocean that may or may not actually be objects. What we do is to seek expert advice from the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation to advise us which of those are credible enough to search on. You might recall we’ve done some of that lately and not found any objects. Does that answer your question?

Speaker 3: Well, in that case, is the previous search areas of the southwest, are they active or are they now abandoned?

Martin: No, we have moved on from those search areas to the newest credible lead. Based on the information from the accident and investigation side, that is now our best place to go. I would remind you that the analysis, in fact, is the same form as we started with. It has been refined and moved on. It’s not a new theory.

Speaker 4: Mr. Young, you got a range of aircraft and ships from several different countries involved in the search. Hopefully, now we’ll start being able to pick up some pieces of wreckage. Is there any agreement or understanding or maritime rule that says that all of this wreckage or any debris they find, it must all wind up in the same country so it can be properly investigated or could it wind up scattered around the world?

John: Mr. Dolan, answer?

Martin: The answer to that question actually comes from the international convention that relates to accident investigation which says that it’s the responsibility of, in this case, the country of registry of the aircraft to initiate an investigation and that that country through their investigator in charge has to secure the wreckage and make it available for the investigation. Any wreckage that is obtained, we will hold on behalf of the Malaysian investigation team and await their instructions. We’re in continual discussions with the Malaysian about the progress of the search, and we will continue to discuss with them the handling of wreckage as and when it comes to hand.

Speaker 4: Any ship that picks them up would have to hand it over to Australia?

Martin: Yes, we are in the search operating on behalf of the Malaysian government.

Speaker 5: I think the previous analysis indicated that the last ping was at 11:00 AM on that particular morning, if the plane was flying faster [inaudible 00:11:16]?

Martin: No, the previous analysis had a range of possible assumptions about aircraft speed, and those assumptions have now been refined. What is tested is the aircraft speed and aircraft likely position against the arcs that come out from distance from the satellite, the polling data. Bringing those two together gives you the most credible path for the aircraft. It’s an iterative process and it’s being refined over time, but what we have at the moment is the most credible location of the entry to the water and therefore the place to search.

Speaker 6: The area that you’ve refined is still very remote but it seems less remote [inaudible 00:12:04]. What does that mean [inaudible 00:12:06]?

John: We were setting to get better time on scene. We started nearly 3,000 kilometers from Perth, so we’ve taken quite a lot off that and now we will get, you might recall we were talking in terms of one to two hours on scene. We’re now doing much better than that. The other benefit we get from moving further north is the search area has moved out of the Roaring Forties, which creates very adverse weather frequently. I’m not sure that we’ll get perfect weather right there, but it’s likely to be better more often than we’ve seen in the past. We will see what that does in terms of satellite imagery when the retasking of satellite starts to produce new material as well.

Speaker 7: If something did come down in that area, [inaudible 00:13:02]

Martin: Forgive me. I’ll have to take that one on notice and get back to you. I think the drift is towards the east, but I need to look at it and get back.

Speaker 8: You mentioned for the continuing analysis of radar data, is there absolutely new radar data? Can you be a bit specific about which data you’re talking about, or which country in specific?

Martin: The data is a matter in detail for the Malaysians. International divisions say the data is released by the country responsible for the investigation. There was a set of radar data from a number of sources. About most of this work is closer analysis of existing data rather than new radar data coming into light.

Speaker 9: Our geospatial organization, can you explain a little bit about their role and what satellites or whatever we have access to or are sharing that we can actually retask

[inaudible 00:14:02] pass over this area once a day or 10 times a day [inaudible 00:14:05]?

John: The Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation is effectively providing a service for government agencies. We take it as a consumer. They are looking through all of the satellite imagery that’s available. I’m sure they take it from commercial sources and from government sources, and they provide us with the best leads that are available. I think if you want a detailed explanation, you would probably need to talk to them.

Speaker 10: How much of the potential debris spotted supports the current search area? [inaudible 00:14:45]?

Martin: Referring to the new area, aircraft have only just arrived on scene today. We’ll need to wait to see what emerges. In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris. I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris nor would I want to classify any of the few visual sightings that we made as debris. That’s just not justifiable from what we have seen.

Speaker 10: Effectively, the search to date has been a waste of time because it has been focusing on that southwest area?

Martin: The search to date has been what we had at the time. I might add, that’s actually nothing unusual for search and rescue operations. This actually happens to us all of the time, that new information will emerge out of sequence with the operation itself. I remember occasions when, at least on one occasion, we searched for six days for a missing helicopter in the Victorian area. It was only on the seventh day that we got a break from someone who had been camping in the area, seen it, phoned the information in, we refocused some significant distance and found the aircraft. This is the normal business of search and rescue operations, that new information comes to light, refined analyses take you to a different place. I don’t count the original work a waste of time.

Speaker 11: About the [inaudible 00:16:24], the press release said that [inaudible 00:16:27]. Are you still working on that?

Martin: The new area is based on the refined data. That’s the best information we have on careful analysis at this point. I’m just warning that it’s possible that further analysis may change that again. We, at this stage, don’t expect significantly, but there are no guarantees in that area. This is the best available information and analysis.

Speaker 12: Could you please explain to us just in a little more detail about the data you’ve refined? We’ve had various things like the succession of pings that came out once an hour or whatever on various radar, so the idea that the aircraft appeared on radar [inaudible 00:17:13]. What are you actually refining here?

Martin: We’re refining the relationship between assessments about the aircraft performance. Not just speed and fuel, but the overall performance of a 777in a range of scenarios. We’re looking at the data from the so-called pinging of the satellite, the polling of the satellites, and that gives a distance from a satellite of the aircraft to within a reasonable approximation and bringing those two assessments, the various projections of aircraft performance against the information about distance from satellites at given times of the aircraft, which is an arc. I was trying to find the right coincidence of those and derive the best end point and then look at beyond that, where the search is best therefore located.

Speaker 12: When an aircraft like this runs out of fuel, do all the engines stop at once so it just goes straight down [inaudible 00:18:12]?

Martin: There are a range of scenarios that had to be fed in and that’s one of the reasons why the search area remains a very large one. This is something that we probably should underline. I’m sure Mr. Young would have a comment on this as well. This is still an attempt to search a very large area, and for surface debris, which will give us an indication of where the main aircraft wreckage is likely to be. This has a long way to go yet.

Speaker 13: In the early days of this episode, gentlemen, there were indications that the plane had changed course several times, and this was one of the reasons that foul play was suggested. Can you just explain the [inaudible 00:18:50]?

Martin: The radar data that I was talking about was related to those initial stages, where there was some changing of course of the aircraft. The best assessment from then on in is that the aircraft headed south consistently into the Indian Ocean. What we’ve now been doing is working out the most likely flight path based on all the information available to the international team.

Speaker 14: To narrow down the search area, what lead do you think is most incredible aside from finding the debris? Actually, this question is for ATSB. Are you currently looking at other leads from the Malaysian investigation [inaudible 00:19:42] data or satellite data?

Martin: This is a question about search, so Mr. Young, I think, should answer it first.

John: Can I start by saying the two primary methods that we’ve had so far are these analyses, which are about the movements of the aircraft. That, in fact, is the best information we can have. Anything we can have about the movements of the aircraft create the greatest degree of confidence. We’ve also had satellite imagery. Satellite imagery has been followed up. It’s actually not produced any sightings for us, but that may change in the future. We also use sophisticated oceanographic modelling to determine where objects will move. In terms of keeping the search area confined, knowing what happens to the water is very important. Recall please that this is 21 days after the event was expected to happen. Over that 21 days, there will be significant amount of random dispersion of objects, so the search area steadily gets bigger with time. We’ve been fortunate with the previous search areas that the water movement was low, not much movement at all and, therefore, the search area didn’t rapidly get bigger. In direct answer to your question, we will put data marker buoys that report back their movement by satellite to the Australia Maritime Safety Authority into that search area so that we know with accuracy where the water is moving. That provides us the best way to keep the search area confined rather than simply accept that it’s going anywhere and the search area gets bigger. I’m sorry that’s a complicated issue.

Martin: All the information that is currently available to the investigation that is relevant to the likely movements of the aircraft and the analysis of that have been made available to the search. We will continue to do that. We are not at this stage, but we will continue to consult with our international colleagues seeing other lines of inquiry or information that are likely to add much information to what’s currently on the table.

John: Thank you, everyone. We’re out of here.

Martin: Let’s go. Thank you very much.

[00:22:20] [END OF AUDIO]