Is it Time To Give Up On MH370?
Humans love to look for stuff and, in fact, can’t seem to stop once started. The quest for the next bright shiny object is probably coded into our DNA, a vestige from some primeval organism that slithered out of the muck not yet sentient enough to feel the burning need to fly airplanes, but just looking for something to eat.
And so this week comes a flurry of news reports on the latest aviation mystery of the ages: What happened to and where is Malaysian Flight MH370. Brace yourself, but it has been three years since that airplane, a Boeing 777, vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
After burning $160 million looking for it, Malaysia, Australia and China officially ended the search in January, still no more certain of where the airplane might be than when they started 34 months earlier. Now comes new information from drift modeling that claims to put the aircraft within a 9700-square mile area between 40 and 30.5 degrees south latitude, a little north of where the last search was centered. That’s in the southern Indian Ocean, west of Australia. While that’s a more confined search area than has been swept in the past, it’s still the size of Vermont. That’s a lot of lawn mowing with a towed side-scan sonar.
Researchers arrived at this conclusion through drift studies using an actual 777 flaperon like the one recovered on La Reunion in 2015 and a half dozen replicated flaperons. Crunching the data, they’re more confident of a higher probability search datum. The relevant governments haven’t agreed to resume the search based on this data.
But should they? Well, there’s “should” and there’s “will.” My guess is that the latter will prevail because see above. Humans just naturally can’t stop looking for stuff. Rationally—not that aviation is ever that—the argument against resuming the search is pure cost-benefit. We search for and analyze air crashes for one reason: so we can discover the cause and prevent a recurrence. When investigators picked up the pieces of a Lockheed Electra that rained down on Tell City, Indiana, in 1960, they learned about whirl mode flutter in over elastic engine mounts. When they fished a crashed Comet out of the Mediterranean in 1954, they eventually learned that windows in pressurized aircraft needed to be rounded to prevent fatigue-caused stress failures. And the lessons list is a lot longer than that.
If you plotted a curve describing things learned from crashes it would have been a steep slope in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s now almost flat simply because there are so few crashes to provide new data points. Jet transport aircraft are among the safest machines on the planet and the system in which they fly has evolved to equal that reliability, although we have yet to entirely stamp out human error. On the other hand, ranked against other jet transports, the 777 has a good to middling fatal accident rate at 0.24/1M departures. Of six hull losses, two were due to defects in the airplane, one a fuel distribution design issue, the other a fire caused by wiring and/or crew oxygen hose faults. (Neither of those involved fatalities.)
Just as there’s no way to know if fixing those faults prevented recurrence of accidents, there’s also no way to know if MH370 was lost due to a heretofore unseen defect. But is it worth expending another $150 million to find out? Wrong question. Someone will carry on the search, if not immediately, then eventually, curiosity being the irresistible force pushing against the moveable object—money.
In 1985, when Robert Ballard went after the Titanic, there was no scientific reason to do so. The ship hit an iceberg and sunk. The details may have been murky, but the cause wasn’t. Unbeknownst at the time was that the U.S. Navy funded Ballard so he could develop technology to locate lost submarines. Before that, a private entity or two had conducted its own search. I suspect the same will be true with MH370 if the relevant governments abandon the search. Like the Titanic, the search would make great TV and no one can resist that.
Hey, That Guy’s A Pilot
I’m sure you’ve seen Verizon’s overplayed and massively irritating mic-drop commercials. A month ago, they ran four times an hour on cable. The mic dropper is actor Thomas Middleditch, who has a starring role in HBO’s Silicon Valley series. I haven’t seen it, but I’ll add it to my playlist.
Middleditch is a new pilot and owns a DA40, I just learned in this New York Times interview. So at least one Millennial is interested flying and acted upon a lifelong ambition. Yay!
True to character, when asked if he texts and flies at the same time, Middleditch’s answer? “You can. Honestly, when everything is on autopilot, there’s nothing else to do.” Well, that oughta get a few safety nerds spun up. I’d say maybe look outside once in a while, it’s fun to watch the world go by and might avoid making a hood ornament out of a J-3. Not that I'm personally worried, of course.