(USA Today) Uncertainty about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 three months ago haunts the relatives of the 239 people missing, even as governments and the aviation industry vow to get answers in what could be the most expensive search for the largest plane to ever disappear.
The Boeing 777-200ER, with a 200-foot wing span and more than 200 feet long, is by far the biggest and most modern plane to simply vanish since commercial aviation began in January 1914. The lingering mystery could forever change how airliners are tracked across the oceans.
"A large commercial airliner going missing without a trace for so long is unprecedented in modern aviation," says Tony Tyler, CEO of the International Air Transport Association. "It must not happen again."
Aubrey Wood, 76, of Keller, Texas, whose son Philip was aboard the flight, says he and his relatives find it "awful strange" no wreckage has been found since the plane disappeared March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Sparse satellite data suggests to aviation experts that the plane plummeted seven and a half hours after it took off in a remote section of the Indian Ocean, where a massive international search is now focused.
"This is probably the strangest airline disaster in history," Wood says. "There's always been the ability to locate some semblance of the plane."
While worldwide attention is waning, John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, says investigators won't give up no matter how long and how costly the search becomes. The plane's recorders are the key to uncovering what led to its baffling demise.
"It's in the genes of accident investigators, whether they work for the government or for private industry, to want to find out what happened," Goglia said. "It will be a toothache until they find it."
Radar tracked the flight above the Gulf of Thailand on its regular northeast path and then west of the Malaysian peninsula after it apparently flew hundreds of miles out of the way.
But the flight's transponder and maintenance systems stopped communicating less than an hour into the flight, either because of a technical problem, perhaps caused by a fire, or because someone on board turned them off.
Ships and planes from 26 countries swarmed over the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal looking fruitlessly for floating debris.
Innovative analysis of satellite data from the plane's automated maintenance system pointed the search to the southern Indian Ocean, where ships dragging acoustic equipment heard pings in early April that could have come from the plane's recorders. The difficulties associated with this search are why airlines and regulators are discussing how to better track airliners over oceans and make recorders easier to find.
Australian officials who took over the search when it moved to the Indian Ocean said in early May that 29 planes and 14 ships scanned nearly 1.8 million square miles of ocean, an area nearly three times the size of Alaska. But no debris was ever found on the surface.
A Bluefin-21 autonomous submersible combed 328 square miles of ocean floor where the pings were heard. But the U.S. Navy, which leased the sub, pulled it from the mission May 28 without finding anything.
Now the Chinese ship Zhu Kezhen is mapping 23,000 square miles of ocean floor – an area the size of West Virginia – which is expected to take three months.
Australian, Malaysian and Chinese officials leading the search plan to hire private contractors to scour the ocean floor with sonar from towed and autonomous subs during the next year.
Angus Houston, a former Air Chief Marshal of Australia who is leading the search, says the underwater hunt is expected to begin in August after the mapping is completed. He hopes to announce this month the results of a comprehensive review of all data pertaining to the search so far, to explain why it is focused where it is.
"We have undertaken to go out and explain how that data relates to the defined search area, when the time comes," Houston says. "But the analysis is still ongoing."
It's very unusual for a plane to simply vanish.
There are about 80,000 commercial flights per day with Western-built aircraft, according to IATA. But only 28 passenger planes have disappeared since 1948, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a service of the Flight Safety Foundation, which studies the industry and makes recommendations.
"Flying is incredibly safe, and we are determined to make it safer," says Tyler, head of the international airline group
Before Malaysia, the aviation incident with the highest number of casualties occurred in 1989, when a Pakistan International Airlines Fokker F-27 Friendship 200 disappeared in the Himalaya Mountains on a flight from Gilgit to Islamabad with 49 passengers and five crew members aboard.
A couple of British South American Airways flights of Avro Tudor aircraft contributed to the myth of the Bermuda Triangle. One flight in 1948 from the Azores to Bermuda disappeared with 25 passengers and six crew members. Another in 1949 flying from Bermuda to Jamaica disappeared with 13 passengers and seven crew members.
The Pacific also has had its share of incidents. A Canadian Pacific Air Lines Douglas C-54A-10-DC went missing on a 1951 flight from Vancouver to Tokyo with 31 passengers and six crew members..
"Our ultimate goal," Tyler says, "is to predict the potential for accidents and so ensure that they don't happen."
The cost of major plane searches is hard to pinpoint because governments tend to use military ships and planes, whose costs aren't itemized. For example, the Pentagon spent $9.5 million, primarily on operating ships and planes, for its search of the search so far, according to Lt. Cmdr. Nick Sherrouse, spokesman for the Pacific fleet. Australian officials leading the search estimate the next phase of scouring the ocean floor will cost $60 million.
The tab could eclipse what is probably the most expensive search in 100 years of commercial aviation: the one for Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic in June 2009 and was found nearly two years later. The search and recovery covered by French and Brazilian armed forces totaled about 80 million euros, which translates to nearly $110 million at today's exchange rate, according to the French accident report.
"I would say it's going to be the most expensive, yes," says Goglia, the former NTSB member. "We don't know if it's going to be the longest, because we may find it tomorrow."
Australian, Malaysian and Chinese officials are asking for contributions from governments and entities such as Boeing to cover the costs.
The mystery of Flight 370 has triggered proposals to make planes easier to find, whether via emergency signals or better tracking.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines worldwide, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations that sets regulatory guidelines, met May 12 and 13 to develop standards for better tracking.
Airlines have voiced some skepticism about adding equipment to planes because they already signal where they are – if the equipment isn't disabled or turned off as in the Malaysia incident. But pilots generally prefer to retain the ability to turn off equipment, to prevent small fires from disabling a plane.
Initial recommendations for better tracking over water are expected by September.
"Aviation stakeholders are united in their desire to ensure that we never face another situation where an aircraft simply disappears," says Kevin Hiatt, IATA's senior vice president for safety and flight operations.
By international convention, the batteries for the pingers on a plane's black boxes are supposed to last 90 days starting next year rather than the current 30 days. But the batteries are replaced about every six years, so it will take a while for the longer-lasting batteries to be installed on the entire fleet.
After the Air France search, lawmakers and investigators urged the adoption of recorders that would eject from airliners and float, to make them easier to find. But the cost is considered daunting for planes that would have to be redesigned.
"It's extremely important to the civil aviation community that the black boxes be found," says former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, who advocates such recorders. "If there's an issue with the aircraft, that can be addressed. Also, there's a security issue, because you want to be sure that there hasn't been a criminal act."
While designing a better future is crucial, it's important not to forget about Flight 370, says Willie Walsh, CEO of the International Airlines Group that includes British Airways.
"The one thing that the industry should be doing is to find the aircraft and understand what happened," he says. "It's one thing to say we've got to make sure it doesn't happen again, but let's not forget that that aircraft is still missing."
The plane's cockpit-voice recorder holds two hours of information, which might not yield much if the crew became incapacitated during the final hours of flight. But the flight-data recorder has 25 hours of information about more than 1,000 elements regarding how the plane was flying. That is why it is expected to hold the key to determining what happened.
"The recorders," Goglia says, "should tell the whole story."