In Retrospect: MH370

It’s been seven-and-a-half years since Malaysian Airlines MH370 disappeared on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014.

International searches and several inquiries have failed to solve what is without doubt one of the world’s most puzzling aviation mysteries.

While the ‘who and why’ of MH370’s fateful flight won’t be fully understood until the flight data recorders are recovered, US based forensic analyst, Mike Chillit is confident the aircraft’s terminal location is in deep water 1,770 kilometers northwest of the Australian city of Perth.

Chillit’s intricate and complex studies confirm the plane’s journey south after an air traffic control handover ended in the rugged underwater terrain southwest of Zenith Plateau in what is formally known as the Wallaby-Zenith Fracture Zone (WZFZ).

The Zenith Plateau is well outside of the commercial shipping lanes and is colloquially described as ‘the hole’ or ‘the abyss’. The waters are regarded as amongst the deepest in the Indian Ocean.

The physics of Chillit’s work are compelling and explain why a US$42million search effort in 2017 some 2,500 kilometers southwest of the Zenith Plateau failed.

The physics are supported by ocean drift and weather data, and are significant in connection with a recent deep-water expedition conducted by the University of Western Australia and the Minderoo Foundation.

Today, the findings of this expedition are yet to be fully disclosed and while credited with the discovery of new species, it is believed the extensive data and imagery gathered during its numerous deep dives could provide vital clues regarding the location of the aircraft’s remains.

The expedition’s data and imagery so far offers the best chance for science, forensic investigation and hope to bring closure to the tragic loss of 239 lives.

Zenith is not a large area, but it is larger than the Java / Sunda Trench to the northeast, and larger than the Diamantina Trench to the south.

7,000m deep, surrounded by a broad slope on one side and a sheer cliff wall on the other the trench is a hidden void that until recently was largely unexplored.

The plane was 85 kilometers due north of the impact zone on a heading of 182 degrees when the sixth ping occurred, some 9 minutes before the aircraft crashed.

The ‘pings’ are the electronic handshakes between the aircraft’s engine management system and the monitoring INMARSAT satellite. These provide important reference points enabling the physical reconstruction of the flightpath.

Soon after the sixth ping, it is believed that the pilot banked to the right in the final moments of flight; a fact also supported given that the majority of debris recovered along the African coast coming from the aircraft’s right side.

The image below shows the reconstructed path the plane took to reach its terminal location. It has been checked and rechecked for accuracy but may not be in final form. The path was recreated using time intervals, pings, and microsecond distances. The pilot made no effort to disguise his destination after the third ping.

 

Google Earth reconstruction of MH370 flight path in yellow.
Google Earth reconstruction of MH370 flight path in yellow. Click to enlarge.

An expedition to the Zenith location was undertaken by the University of Western Australia and the Minderoo Foundation in May 2021.  Led by the University’s Dr Alan Jamieson, the expedition used the former US survey ship DSSV ‘Pressure Drop’ which is owned by deep ocean explorer Victor Vescovo. The ship is equipped with the world’s only unlimited rated diving vessel ‘Limiting Factor’ which Vescovo uses to dive to the deepest parts of the world’s oceans.

Notably, Dr. Jamieson was one of several lead scientists aboard the R/V Sonne in June 2017. The first leg of the Sonne voyage studied exactly the same seafloor scanned by the Pressure Drop. Presumably, Dr Jamieson’s work onboard the RV Sonne would have been significant in the choice of specific locations explored by DSSV ‘Pressure Drop’ in May 2021.

The expedition advises that it mapped 10,460 square kilometers during the ten day expedition which focused on two locations which coincide with the calculated crash site of MH370.

Red dots below mark areas where the scanning vessel, DSSV Pressure Drop, stopped for long periods of time (more than half an hour). The longest “full stop” location was at -2.26581, 102.2839 for 260 minutes on the left side of the abyss shaded in purple.

In addition to deep dive activities, it is reported that the ship also deployed other equipment including sonar.

Google Earth with NOAA / Scripps enhancement of seabed features and depth.
Google Earth with NOAA / Scripps enhancement of seabed features and depth. Click to enlarge.

The objectives of UWA-Minderoo expedition traverse several aspects of marine science and nautical survey. However, to date, the findings have not been widely shared, particularly what appears to be a carefully selected location, evidenced by the ship’s direct track to the two sites which were scanned during Dr Jamieson’s 2017 survey onboard the R/V Sonne.

It is reasonable to assume that Dr Jamieson would be conscious of the interest in the loss of MH370, yet to date there has been no communication from him, the University of Western Australia or the Minderoo Foundation.

Other academics from the University linked to the expedition are also on record professing various views and theories in relation to MH370 including Dr. Charitha Pattiaratchi.

Unconventionally and unusually, the only public comments regarding the expedition’s activities in the Zenith region have come from the ship’s owner, Mr. Victor Vescovo who appeared to speak on behalf of UWA and the Minderoo Foundation.

At various times between May 22, 2021 and June 29, 2021 Mr. Vescovo posted a total of ten tweets including a statement that denied the expedition “searched” for MH370.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These statements (tweets) by a third party (who is the owner of the chartered vessel), are not typical of academic expeditions and endeavors.

Combined with the absence of public statements by the expedition’s leader, these tweets suggest a lack of clarity around the academic and other relationships between the University, Mr. Vescovo, Dr Jamieson and the Minderoo Foundation.

These relationships are particularly important in terms of academic credit and even the copyright aspects of the acquired vision, images and data.

Some also argue that the University and the Minderoo Foundation as partners in the expedition carry an implied obligation to Australian taxpayers.

Irrespective of the various contractual or academic arrangements, the denials made by Mr. Vescovo specifically state that the expedition’s intent was not to search for MH370.

The ability to dive, map and explore the remote Zenith area was an opportunity to not only expand our scientific knowledge, but also to investigate and explore MH370 theories and commentary promoted by members of the expedition and other senior academics within the proponent University.

There still remains a possibility that amongst the images, vision and data, the several hundred  hours of deep diving and scanning may yield some clues, cues, or information.

This possibility, alongside the forensic work undertaken by Mike Chillit and the discovery of other evidence, accords an equally important obligation that underpins the social license of exploratory science.

Arguably, bringing transparency to what was or was not present in the opaque, cold depths of the Zenith trench is a worthy and respectful acknowledgement of the families of those who lost their lives in the Malaysian MH370 tragedy.