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Search for Missing Malaysia Plane Poses Challenges

Co-Pilot, Flying Officer Marc Smith, turns his Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion aircraft at low level in bad weather whilst searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean, March 24, 2014.

Co-Pilot, Flying Officer Marc Smith, turns his Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion aircraft at low level in bad weather whilst searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean, March 24, 2014.

Australian authorities Tuesday suspended the search for MH370 for 24 hours, citing bad weather and rough seas in the southern Indian Ocean. So far, authorities have not found any debris from the plane, despite numerous possible leads. Reporter Rebecca Valli spoke with Jason Middleton, aviation professor at the University of New South Wales, about the search process and the challenge of determining what happened to the flight.

(Q) What is going on at the moment with the search mission?

(A) “Firstly the basic technology is to try and identify debris in the ocean, which is done by satellite. Then trying to locate it with airplanes, and then have it picked up with ships. Unfortunately there have been no pieces of airplane yet picked up. At this stage no ships have actually picked up pieces of debris which can be identified as being part of the airplane.”

(Q) What happens after the debris is picked up?

(A) “It has to be identified as being part of the airplane and there are Australian investigators that certainly could do that task immediately in Perth. Then what would happen is the search would then intensify, they would try to estimate where the currents had been taking the debris in the last two weeks and try to back track where that debris came from. That would then be the search point for the sunken debris of the airplane.”

(Q) What sort of technology can be used when a search point is located?

(A) “For starters they would need to have a pinger locator because the flight data recorder, the black box has an underwater pinger. While the battery on there is still going they are going to be able to identify where the crash is from that. Unfortunately it generally has about a month of battery and already half of that time has been taken out. So they'll have to try to get instrumentation out there as quickly as possible, to try and see if they can hear the pinger. Of course it is a very big ocean and the pinger doesn't ping very far, probably only tens of kilometers so they have to be quite close to the wreck before they can in fact find it.”

(Q) Authorities say that the search mission has moved into a recovery and investigation phase. What should we expect from that investigation?

(A) “The Malaysian investigators will be seeking advice as they do from all of the experts around the world, from the British Aviation Accident Investigation Branch, from the National Transportation and Safety Board in the United States, from Rolls Royce, from Boeing, and the ATSB the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau. Investigations like these are always a team effort, so people can have confidence that there will be investigators from probably ten or fifteen different organizations, all looking at all the evidence, so they probably can have confidence that the team will be thorough in their investigation.”

(Q) Relatives of the passengers in Beijing say that Malaysian Airline and the Malaysian government have covered up information and are “cheating them.” What is your opinion on how they handled the situation?

(A) “This is an unprecedented accident, usually an airplane is found very close to the point where it was last heard, and the Malaysian authorities did the right things. They built the search around the area that they thought was most likely, which was the gulf of Thailand. That was a very sensitive thing to do, they extended the search when they could not find it directly there, they extended it wider and wider. And then only recently with this additional information from the satellites has the search been moved wider. None had any idea that the wreck could be in the Southern Indian Ocean, nobody had that idea two weeks ago. I think they have done a professional job of handling the investigation, how they handled the crowd is a different matter. Handling the relatives is a very difficult thing to do, because you have grieving relatives and they are very concerned and it is very difficult to satisfy them when you don't have any information.”

(Q) There has been lots of speculation about the causes of this accident, some suggesting foul play by individuals on board, or even a suicide attempt by the pilot. Based on the information we have so far, can we make an informed guess on the cause of the crash?

(A) “No, I am afraid we can't. That's the sad thing, no conclusion can be reached yet. You could makes lots of different hypothesis but really there is not enough hard data to stand behind any of them. Eventually I think they will find the airplane and they will find the reasons, but I am afraid we are a long way off that yet, and that is going to be very frustrating for the relatives.”

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