Three things we learned about: MH370

A US Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) towed pinger locator is pictured on a dock at HMAS Stirling naval base near Perth, March 30, 2014. — Reuters pic
A US Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) towed pinger locator is pictured on a dock at HMAS Stirling naval base near Perth, March 30, 2014. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 — It is nearly a month since the words “missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370” were seared into our consciousness on March 8.

Along the way, we have learned the word “unprecedented” and all its other variations, but not the actual answers to what happened to MH370 and the 239 souls on board.

Here are three things that we gleaned from the story so far.

1. Nobody actually knows

In the vacuum of actual information from on board the plane, we have only hypotheses, speculation and conspiracies.

From the innocent: There was a fire on board and the people succumbed to smoke.

To the insidious: Someone took over the plane and deliberately crashed it into the Indian Ocean, killing everyone on board.

And the inane: “Flight 370 Rescued, Safe in the Hands of Galactic Ship”.

The truth is, however, the mundane: Nobody will be able to tell until MH370 gives up its secrets.

2. We aren’t sure who some of the culprits are

Malaysia has come in for recrimination over the handling of the MH370 crisis, but there is more than meets the eye here.

The crux of the criticism lies with the timing of Malaysia’s initial release of information from British satellite firm Inmarsat, which the latter said it discovered on March 9, one day after the plane disappeared.

At first it appeared that Malaysia sat on this, but as more light was shed on the sequence of events, questions must be asked if others are not at fault.

The information was channelled to Malaysia by the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) only on March 12.

It then went on to US investigators for “further processing” on March 13. And sent back again for added refinement on March 14.

Malaysia then announced the findings on March 15.

Even before Malaysia learned from the AAIB and Inmarsat that MH370 “ended somewhere in the Indian Ocean”, US investigators appeared to already know and had urged Malaysia to direct all search assets there. How did they come to know this before Malaysia did?

While Malaysia has not responded as swiftly as it can in every facet of the investigation, this is one aspect that cannot be entirely blamed on the country’s authorities.

3. MH370 may never tell its secrets

Finding MH370 will be an immense challenge, but there is a very real prospect that, even when it is found, there will be no reward.

At this moment, the entire investigation into what happened on MH370 hinges on the race against time to find the so-called “black boxes” from the plane.

The US Navy’s Towed Pinger Locator, one of only a handful in the world capable of finding the “black boxes” from the plane, is expected to arrive at the current search area 2,000km west of Perth on April 3.

This gives searchers as few as five precious days to find the proverbial needle before they go silent forever in a haystack that drifts ever further each day.

It is also entirely possible that the crucial flight data and cockpit voice recorders are too damaged to be of use, even if they can be found.

A more gnawing fear is that since the recorders only hold a finite amount of data — just two hours’ worth of conversation from inside the cockpit, in the case of the voice recorder — the decisive moments when the plane was rerouted could already have been overwritten.

With so much riding on the data contained in the “black boxes”, investigators may be left with just the “How” of MH370’s end rather than the more burning question of “Why”.

Malaysia on Monday admitted that it was preparing for a contingency in which the plane is never found, but said it was not prepared to divulge the plans out of respect to the families.

Today, the Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar offered a sober appraisal of the investigation’s outlook: “We may not even know the real cause of this incident.”

As frustrating as it may sound, the “unprecedented” mystery of MH370 may always remain so.

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