Reports/The Operational Search for MH370/Background
On 8 March 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER aircraft, registered 9M-MRO and operated as Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370) disappeared during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 12 Malaysian crew members and 227 passengers.
At the request of the Malaysian Government, the Australian Government accepted responsibility for initial search operations in the southern part of the Indian Ocean on 17 March 2014. A surface search by aircraft and surface vessels in the Indian Ocean, coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), and an acoustic sub-surface search for the aircraft’s flight recorder underwater locator beacons, found no debris nor signals associated with MH370.
The Malaysian Government, as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Annex 13 state of registry for Malaysia Airlines, was responsible for the overall strategic approach to the search for MH370 and the associated investigation. The majority of the passengers on board MH370 were from Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China, however due to the proximity of the search area to Australia, and the request from Malaysia to Australia to lead search operations, Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China and Australia agreed to collaborate in relation to the overarching search strategy. This cooperation is referred to as the Tripartite arrangement.
On 30 March 2014, the then Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, established the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) to coordinate the Australian Government's support for the search for missing flight MH370. The JACC was the coordination point for whole-of-Australian Government information, messaging and international engagement, including keeping the families of those on board and the general public informed of the progress of the search.
At the conclusion of the surface search on 28 April 2014, the Australian Prime Minister offered that Australia could continue to lead search operations. Tripartite meetings in May 2014 agreed to this arrangement and the ATSB was tasked to lead an intensified and continuous underwater search of an initial area of 60,000 square kilometres (km2 ). Subsequent Tripartite meetings in August 2014 agreed that Australia, through the ATSB, would also lead a recovery operation if and when the aircraft was located and a recovery was deemed suitable by the Tripartite.
A Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation between the Governments of Australia and Malaysia in relation to MH370 (the MOU) provided a mechanism to formalise agreements on cooperation between the two governments. The then Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, the Hon Warren Truss MP, and Malaysian Minister for Transport Dato' Seri Liow Tiong Lai signed the MOU on 28 August 2014.
The MOU included a number of supplemental arrangements as annexures detailing the scope of work and responsibilities for specific areas of cooperation regarding MH370. The areas of cooperation included search, recovery, disaster victim identification, investigation, dealing with the debris site, and facilitating interactions with the next of kin. The MOU, and associated annexures, was deemed to have come into effect on 17 March 2014 for a period of three years.
On 16 April 2015, Tripartite Ministers met, considered next steps for the search and agreed that:
- If MH370 was not positively located in the initial 60,000 km2 search area that the search would be expanded to an area of 120,000 km2.
- When MH370 was located, a recovery operation would proceed with priorities for the recovery operation to include:
- - the aircraft’s flight recorders
- - selected wreckage
- - where possible, human remains.
On 22 July 2016, Tripartite Ministers met and agreed that should the aircraft not be located in the search area, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended, not ended, upon completion of the 120,000 km2 search area. However, should credible new information emerge that can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration would be given to determining next steps.
On 17 January 2017, in accordance with the decision made at the Ministerial Tripartite meeting in July 2016, the Tripartite countries issued a Joint Communiqué to announce the suspension of the underwater search following the completion of the 120,000 km2 search area.
The search program
The operational search for MH370 (search program) was a large-scale complex international operation involving multiple assets in a dynamic environment. The search program encompassed a number of component activities, all of which were interdependent but with the unifying goal of ensuring the Australia (through the ATSB) fulfilled its obligations under Annex 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention) and the MOU with Malaysia.
Figure 1 (not included here) depicts the search program objectives and the component activities.
The primary goal of the ATSB search program was to assist the Malaysian Government’s Annex 13 safety investigation into the circumstances surrounding the aircraft’s disappearance. Recovery and analysis of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) in particular, would assist in determining the events leading to the loss of MH370.
Investigations conducted in accordance with Annex 13 of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Chicago Convention are for the sole purpose of the prevention of accidents and incidents, not to apportion blame nor to provide a means of determining liability.
Australian assistance has been provided in accordance with Annex 13 protocols. The ATSB has provided assistance to the Malaysian Annex 13 investigation since the initial stages of the search for MH370. The appointment of an Australian accredited representative to the Malaysian ICAO Annex 13 safety investigation team for MH370 was formalised on 1 April 2014. The Malaysian Annex 13 investigation team also includes accredited representatives from aviation investigation agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China, France, Indonesia and Singapore.
The final results of Malaysia’s Annex 13 Investigation are yet to be published by the Ministry of Transport Malaysia.
The underwater search consisted of three component activities as outlined in Figure 1, defining the search area, conducting underwater mapping of the search area to enable the underwater search and conducting the underwater search.
Definition of the search area
The key component objectives were to:
- review the available data to determine the most likely location of MH370
- define the search area, initially for an area of up to 60,000 km², extended to an area of up to 120,000 km2 in April 2015, for the purpose of conducting an underwater search for MH370 within Australia’s search and rescue region in the Indian Ocean.
This aspect of the underwater search was the most challenging with analysis to refine the underwater search area being performed concurrently with search activities for the entire period of the search.
The work of many organisations and individuals from Australia and around the world was coordinated by the ATSB. Of particular note was the contribution of members of the search strategy working group (SSWG) including; Inmarsat, Thales, Boeing, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) of the United Kingdom, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the United States, the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST Group) and the Department of Civil Aviation Malaysia. Other significant contributors were the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Geoscience Australia.
Underwater mapping of the search area
The key component objective was to obtain a topographic map of the search area detailing the contours, depths and composition of the seafloor to enable safe navigation of underwater search equipment and prioritisation of search zones.
The method chosen to map the seafloor was a bathymetric survey. A combination of vessels contracted by the ATSB and vessels provided by the Tripartite governments were used to conduct the bathymetric survey.
The majority of bathymetric survey data was acquired from June to December 2014. However, as the underwater search progressed and the area increased from an area of 60,000 km2 to 120,000 km2 , further bathymetric data was acquired.
Early in the underwater search the ATSB established a National Collaboration Framework Head Agreement and Project Agreement for technical assistance with Geoscience Australia. This was a key relationship for the ATSB, used to facilitate many technical aspects of the underwater search. This included the analysis, quality assurance and storage of all underwater search data including the bathymetric survey data.
The key underwater search objectives were to:
- search for, locate and positively identify MH370 within the defined search area on the seafloor
- obtain optical imaging (photography or video) of the aircraft debris field if MH370 was located, and, if possible, recover the flight recorders
- positively eliminate areas searched within the defined search area for the presence of MH370 with a high degree of confidence.
Coordinating the underwater search involved the procurement of search services and overseeing all aspects of the underwater search from vessel tasking to data analysis, quality assurance and management. Fugro Survey Pty Ltd (Fugro Survey) was contracted by the ATSB to provide vessels, personnel and equipment, initially to conduct a bathymetric survey and later, underwater search services.
Phoenix International Holdings Inc. (Phoenix International) and their subcontractors Hydrospheric Solutions Inc., were initially contracted by the Malaysian Government (and later in the search by the ATSB) to provide search services including the synthetic aperture sonar equipped SLH PS-60 ProSAS (ProSAS) deep tow vehicle for underwater search operations.
Quality assurance and data management
This section has not been extracted. Please refer to the original publication.
A key program objective was to prepare for a recovery operation, pending the location and positive identification of the MH370 debris field, in accordance with decisions made by the Tripartite governments in August 2014 and May 2015.
This involved planning, preliminary procurement activity and the formulation of a range of agreements with Australian and Malaysian Government agencies, including the Australian Federal Police, Western Australia Police and the Royal Malaysian Police, in order to coordinate and facilitate the recovery of evidence relevant to the investigations into the disappearance of MH370.
Source: The Operational Search for MH370, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, 3 October 2017
Extracts from The Operational Search for MH370 have been included here for reference purposes, particularly the sections which relate to the history of the flight; times and events; the aircraft's satellite data unit (SDU); and the Pilot in Command’s flight simulator.