National Geographic News
Photo showing a map on board a Vietnamese helicopter.

Teams from eight countries are involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, including this Vietnamese helicopter crew. The Malaysian military now believes the plane flew for more than an hour after vanishing and changed course to travel west over the Andaman Sea.

PHOTOGRAPH BY HOANG DINH NAM, AFP/GETTY

Laura Parker

National Geographic

Published March 11, 2014

As the search for the missing jetliner extends into the vast seas on both sides of the Malay Peninsula, the world is wondering: How can eight countries, using more than 24 vessels and 9 aircraft over four days, fail to locate debris from a jumbo jet in shallow waters?

It seems now like the searchers have been looking in the wrong place.

Military officials in Malaysia disclosed Tuesday that military radar tracked the missing Boeing 777 hundreds of miles west of its flight path—more than an hour after the jet disappeared from civilian air traffic control radar, Reuters reported.

The new military radar data prompted Malaysian officials on Tuesday to expand the search for the missing jet into the much larger and deeper waters of the Andaman Sea on the west side of the Malay Peninsula.

General Tan Sri Rodzali David, chief of Malaysia's air force, told Reuters Tuesday that the plane was last detected at 2:40 a.m. by military radar near the island of Pulau Perak at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca. The jet had turned off its transponder and dropped off civilian air traffic controllers' radar at about 1:30 a.m. At the time, it was flying at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and headed northeasterly over the Gulf of Thailand toward Beijing, approaching the southern Vietnamese coast. The transponder makes the aircraft visible on radar to controllers.

The military radar also tracked the plane flying at lower altitude.

The new developments only deepen the mystery and add urgency to efforts to determine what caused the plane to disappear.

Finding an aircraft underwater and mapping its debris field is complicated work, usually performed by technical experts using sonar and hydrography, the science of plotting depths, to retrace an aircraft's final movements before an accident. The work is often compared to finding a needle in a haystack, and as days passed without any trace of the jumbo jet, experts began referring to the search as looking for "bits of a needle." With this latest news, the haystack in the search for the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew, has only gotten bigger.

"If you're looking in the wrong place, no matter how good you are, you're not going to find it," says Dave Gallo, chief of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He is leader of the team that found Air France Flight 447, a jetliner that in 2009 crashed into the deep Atlantic halfway between Africa and Brazil.

Map of the last traces of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from March 8, 2014.

The Search for Debris

The goal at this stage of the search is to find floating debris, which experts believe will indeed be located, if the searchers are looking in the right haystack. When seat cushions, life vests, insulation, life rafts, and control panels begin appearing on the surface, specialists armed with sonar and hydrography can use the location of the flotsam to pinpoint the rest of the wreckage on the seafloor.

The arduous task of mapping the debris field is accomplished through a process known as "hindcasting," says John Fish, vice president of American Underwater Search and Survey in Bourne, Massachusetts. "They use a process of predicting or, to state it differently, post-dicting where that debris was an hour ago, where it was three hours ago, 12 hours ago. If they know the time of the accident, they can find where the debris was that many hours ago." That enables searchers to more easily zero in on the black boxes, which are equipped with pingers that activate once the plane is in the water; the pingers operate on a battery that lasts about 30 days.

"I am very confident they will find the plane and solve the accident," says John Purvis, the former chief accident investigator for Boeing. "But there is urgency, because of the life of the pingers."

Singapore, a major marine supply center in the Far East, sent a sonar-equipped submersible, because the Royal Malaysian Navy's submarines are equipped only for combat, according to the Malay Mail. On Monday, China announced it would use satellites in order to find the plane.

Several pieces of debris that were spotted in the Gulf of Thailand have turned out to not be connected to the Malaysian plane, officials told reporters. An oil slick spotted 120 miles (193 kilometers) off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday night was ruled out on Monday after chemical tests concluded it was ship fuel; an elongated item glimpsed off Vietnam thought to be the plane's tail turned out to be logs tied together. And a floating yellow object that looked from afar like a life raft turned out to be a moss-covered cap from a cable reel.

A computer generated image of the submarine.
Specialists searching for airplane wreckage in deep waters depend on submarines with sonar, such as the one in this computer-generated image of the submarine used to locate the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which plunged into the ocean in 2009.
Photograph by Charles Platiau, Reuters

Lessons From Air France Flight 447

At first glance, the search for Malaysia Flight 370 would appear to be far less complicated than the two-year hunt for the downed Air France Airbus. After all, the water depth is about 160 feet (49 meters) in the Gulf of Thailand and the seafloor is mostly flat. In contrast, the hunt for the Air France jet took place two and a half miles beneath the ocean surface, on the slopes of a rugged undersea mountain range with steep slopes, landslides, and a lot of shadows that obscured pieces of the plane. By then, of course, the pingers in the black boxes were silent, as their battery had died.

"In the deep ocean, you've got to get bigger robots, bigger submarines," Gallo says. "Everything has to be protected against the pressure of the ocean." Gallo's team employed three REMUS 6000 underwater vehicles, using sonar imagery, to sweep the seafloor in methodical back-and-forth runs that Gallo likens to mowing the lawn. Every day, the vehicles returned to the surface and downloaded data, then returned to the bottom. Once Gallo's team found the right "haystack," it took just eight more days to locate the black boxes.

But shallow waters have their own challenges, Gallo says. "The currents are stronger. Visibility can be horrible, because you are nearer to land and runoff from rivers."

The time it has taken to sort out the radar data will only make locating the wreckage more challenging. As the days pass, the pieces of wreckage drift with the currents and tides. "Every day that goes by can mean there is more error in the ability to go back and find out where the pieces came from," Gallo says.

A combination image of photographs of plane wreckage of Air France flight 447.
A team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used underwater vehicles to take 185,000 photos of the Air France Flight 447 wreckage on the ocean floor.
Photograph by BEA/Handout/Reuters

A Possibly Huge Debris Field

Complicating the Malaysian search is the mystery of what made the plane fall from the sky. If the jet indeed turned back and flew several hundred miles to the west, that would rule out the possibility of a sudden mechanical failure after air traffic controllers lost contact with it.

But the pilots' failure to contact either controllers or officials at the airline still suggests a catastrophic event could have occurred—such as a bomb or a mechanical failure that caused the pilots to lose control of the aircraft.

If the plane broke up at high altitude, the explosion would create a large debris field, scattering parts of the plane over a much larger area than if the plane fell intact and then broke up on impact, as the Air France Airbus did. And a large debris field makes locating the wreckage more difficult.

That's what happened with China Airlines Flight 611, which broke up shortly after takeoff on a Taiwan to Hong Kong flight after an improper repair to the 747 gave way 22 years later. The plane came down in the Taiwan Straits. "The debris was quite spread out," says Fish, whose company was hired to find the wreckage. "The heavier items keep on going in a trajectory, but the lighter things, like aluminum, slow down very quickly and that spreads out the debris field over a much larger area."

Fish's ability to identify the relevant pieces extended to determining the content of a mysterious cloud of material that radar detected for several days after the crash. "It turned out to be newspapers," he says.

53 comments
Anil Sood
Anil Sood

Do you guys think the search for the missing aircraft is going in the right direction? Only GOD knows...nobody knows what has happened here it could be a different story altogether. Maybe the plane has not crashed and is been hijacked or landed at a safe place with a motive behind. 


This needs to be investigated from that perspective also just by looking into the history we can't assume that the same is the case here as what happened with Air France Flight 447 or with China Airlines Flight 611.  The other side of the story which is going on is the specialists are searching for the Airplane wreckage in the deep waters I know but there has to be some mechanism going forward in the aircraft which would help the investigation agencies to search for the whereabouts of the aircraft and the passengers in if such tragedy happens and this goes into the deep sea waters...or anywhere...


O GOD please do something my prayers are with the family members of the passengers and the crew..It is the time to shower your blessings and do some miracle here..Amen 

jon blackmann
jon blackmann

Remember what happened in 1983, KOREAN AIRLINES?? It is looking more and more like the KAL007 story once again.  Use of shadow mystery plane flying parallel to commercial jetliner to evade/confuse radar and then the subsequent missle or laser-like or microwave shootdown by anxious and suspicious military force[s] monitoring the penetrated airspace -- valuable data re: response time in the strategic airspace during a rival's charade 'probe' inside their "territory"  [in USAF parlance it is known as testing the radar/SAT systems of your rival, their reaction time & procedures]. Equally relevant back in 1983 regarding KAL007, the truth can be found by locating the special trainer of the MH370 pilot who went down.  The trainer was most probably BOTH a foreign intel agent and a pilot trainer from outside.

Malini Chugani
Malini Chugani

d some passangers had been died du to no food rst passangers situation is very bad they been tryng to contat and run from locked place but they cant so easy to find from that place i dont understand y they cant reach there 

Malini Chugani
Malini Chugani

i have conform news  regarding missing airplane and also wat is d situation of passangers crying for food i now d exact location but for safe to b i jjust keep my mouth shut

Tuny Hibaty
Tuny Hibaty

Anyone can say anything regarding Malaysian Airline MH370 ,after all talk is cheap but the truth only God knows!!

Ashokha Thegreate
Ashokha Thegreate

Can we trace the Malaysian plane by calling the cell phones of the passengers by their relatives.Eventhoughthis is an  idea without researching any scientific feasibilities as we are doubting whether the plane is under sea water or on the land we can try this.If any signal is received we can pursue the matter with cyber crime people to trace the plane.

Timothy Barnes
Timothy Barnes

What amazes me is the casualness of investigators towards the 2 Iranian passengers with stolen passports who were flying to Germany from Kuala Lampur VIA CHINA. The flight to China then Germany is preposterously and excessively lengthy. Could we please have some attention to this problem?

nina garcia
nina garcia

Maybe it's time to upgrade the technology and the system in the airline industry.

Srinivas R.
Srinivas R.

There are dozens of Air Strips in the Malaca Straights area - In Aceh Province of Indonesia, there are Air Strips on the Islands to the west of the main Sumatra Island too. Besides, just north of Phuket is Burma and here too there are several Air Strips - the Mergui Archipelego Islands were quite active in the World War too. And then, there is Car Nicobar, in Indian Territory. Let's hope and pray, that the jet actually landed on one of these remote Air Strips and every one survived.

Solomon Boyd
Solomon Boyd

During my search I spotted flight 370 sitting just below the water however, the plane was att in tact though the tail section was beginning too separate to the right rear while the plane was listing to the right. In addition I noticed six what appeared to be six windows as if looking down from a diving board. The planes location was SW of Sumatra and NNW of  Jakarta. They are searching in the wrong area. Reports has been forwarded to CNN yet to this day  nothing has happened.

Johnny Daniel Sanchez Vanegas
Johnny Daniel Sanchez Vanegas

What I really do not understand is why the airliners manufacturers don't install ejectable seats or capsules!! How many lives must be lost to realize that saving people is more important than the extra cost of ejection technology? Do the airlines ever think of people's lost of confidence in air transport if tragedies like this keep happening?

Mary Jenn
Mary Jenn

What I do not understand is why the black boxes do not emit any sort of signal in real time upon any sort of technical anomaly -- like an unplanned change in direction or a sudden drop in altitude. This would have saved so many lives! Instead, we don't know anything about what really happened until we find the black box. And it looks like we may not find if we have not already. The technology for the airline industry seems a little antiquated in this regard. 

Munind Sok
Munind Sok

Drones or Blackbird could probably be useful for a search like this

Mary Jenn
Mary Jenn

What I do not understand is why the black boxes do not emit any sort of signal real time upon any sort of technical anomaly. This would have saved so many lives! Instead, we don't know anything about what really happened until we find the black box. And it looks like we may not find if we have not already!

PATRICK FRIEL
PATRICK FRIEL

"If you're looking in the wrong place, no matter how good you are, you're not going to find it," 
Is that the opposite of saying "You'll always find a lost item in the last place you look"?

Vipin Singh
Vipin Singh

This incident looks like the one in sci-fic series "Lost"....this plane must have crashed on some magical island......may God help all the survivors.....

Maarten de Giessen
Maarten de Giessen

I do believe military radar could not only spot altitudes but also flightpaterns and distances.

so I think they could measure its path from that point very well even when it changes its flightpattern straigth or not.....

I believe they have the possibillity to scan at very low altitudes....unless....it wasnot working....

Acong Nizam
Acong Nizam

What could make a plane disappear from civilian radar while at 36,000 feet yet still be visible on military radar?

Mahendar Singh
Mahendar Singh

Unless we make the search criteria complicated here is the simple calculation which can be used to determine the search area. One can draw a search circle considering the center at the last known location of the plan. And max radius as the distance the Plan can travel with the available fuel (1. Minus the fuel that would have consumed to reach to the last known location 2. To be more precise one need to calculate the average rate of fuel consumer just before it vanishes from the radar. This could help in determining how far that plan could travel). I am not sure how much fuel does a plan keeps in reserve

Bea Moeller
Bea Moeller

Why, if passengers' cell phones ring through still,  can they, at least, not be located?

Aseef Khan
Aseef Khan

Either under water or safely landed with a broken wing somewhere Hopefully!

But however, what have we learned from previous crashes, how can the jet crew turn OFF the transponder when its is a vital communication device. You'd think it be standardized by now that tracking GSM/GPRS and comms components on aircrafts cannot be disabled during a flight-at least it won't take this long to start looking for a missing plane. Why can't a black box(flight recorder) leave behind a location to work with or how about live streaming of such crucial data recorder. When it comes to saving lives financial restraints or rather being competitive is not an option! 

Denise Porter
Denise Porter

It seems odd that no one from the plan made contact after the transponder was shut off - no relatives made calls - how many cell phones were on that plane? I'm not buying that there is no ill will playing a hand in this and shame on Malaysia for not inspecting the passports - Planes from Malaysia fly into the US everyday - Why bother having all this security after 9/11 if people know there are certain ways to get through? And why can we not figure out a way to identify and make null and void stolen passports - Like a credit card, once they are reported stolen and lost? This is awful for the families of those on board and a real wake-up call for anyone else who is paying attention

Gábor Kovács
Gábor Kovács

A mai műholdas technikával, amivel egy arcfelismerő segédprogram egy adott embert is felkutatni a földön, miért nem képes egy hatalmas repülőt megtalálni?

Dawn Soule
Dawn Soule

Perhaps one of the two people with the stolen passport hijacked the plane. He managed to do it without the pilots having time to alert anyone and flew the plane to another location.

Alimokoi Xchange
Alimokoi Xchange

How about they use the  Google Imaging Satellite and everyone will search for it, using google earth.

Vitradi Huang
Vitradi Huang

Why do they keep looking in water? Try to look in mainland/forest.

Sirisha Jakka
Sirisha Jakka

Not even a single clue with this high technology, may be Aliens might have hijacked the plane.

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Timothy Barnes  it seems around 6M travel with fake passport around the world yeary. The fact that one of the asylum seeker's mother was indeed waiting at Germany and she made a police report when the plane went missing indicates he seems more probable as a sylum seeker than anything else.... but the real truth will only come to light when the blackbox recorder was retrieved.

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez

@Johnny Daniel Sanchez Vanegas  I congratulate you for your original thinking. I don't know why they don't do it now, but those sort of ideas (breaking paradigms) are worth pursuing. Nay sayers are dime a dozen, brave clear thinkers are one in a million. 

Niya Chen
Niya Chen

@Johnny Daniel Sanchez Vanegas  Because it will take enormous money to actually train every passenger on aboard, like what you do for a fighter jet pilot. Without training, the eject seat and parachute jumping will 100% kill you, but if you stay in the plane and put your fate to the pilots and the plane, maybe you will have a chance. Besides, the average cruising height of a commercial plane is 30,000 ft, way above the parachute jumping level at 3500 ft for well trained skydivers. At that height, getting out of the plane is suicidal, you will lose conscious almost in a couple of seconds, because of low oxygen, and huge air pressure difference between your body and the thin air. There are very few people who survived exposing in that extreme environment, and every one of them is considered unbelievably lucky.

zoya mohsin
zoya mohsin

@PATRICK FRIEL  i thought the saying "you'll always find a lost item in the last place you look" a bit silly, I mean obviously I will find my item and I will look no further therefore I found it in the last place I looked.

Mahendar Singh
Mahendar Singh

@Acong Nizam I guess military radar have capability of tracing object at low altitude and that civil radar don’t

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Mahendar Singh  i think that was explored but not feasible....


Example... total flight time of this plane is 7hrs minus 2 hrs in the incident, left with 5hrs. Now at speed of approx 950Km X 5 hrs = 4750KM ....and now if we search 360 degrees each of 4750Km of sea grid, it will take years to finish (unless the wrack was near) and also need to consider the sea currents that can pull push the debris across....

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Bea Moeller  a quote from csmonitor.com ... "“When you place a call it takes a few moments for the call to be completed, so phone companies typically start the ringing tone so you know it is ringing,” he says. “[That way] you know it is being connected so you won’t hang up and try again.”


In another words, a ring does not mean it is reachable...

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Aseef Khan   sucidal pilot turned off ? pilot turned off cause there is no electric supply? hijackers forced turned off? possibly the transponder turned off due to electrical failure on the plane?

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Denise Porter  interpol has 80M records of stolen passport records...for various reasons plane operators around the world do not access the database...possibly it takes time to search i guess...

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Alimokoi Xchange  tomnod.com is using more recent imaging ...but most google globe image are three months old or more..

Raul Gabrito
Raul Gabrito

@Alimokoi Xchange  Actually this has already been implemented as of yesterday on www.tomnod.com/nod/challenge/malaysiaairsar2014 and we all can help them find debris or oil slicks by looking and examining the satellite imagery.

Mahendar Singh
Mahendar Singh

@Sirisha Jakka : Aliens!!! Hope we will come to know about the actual incident soon. Alien stuff here seems to be of least probability

Timothy Barnes
Timothy Barnes

@Ufw Monk @Timothy Barnes  Ufw, you, like the Malays and others, are missing the point I think. If you look at a globe of the world, you would conclude that only a madman would travel from Kuala Lampur to Germany VIA CHINA, because it is an insanely indirect and long route. This very willingness of the Iranians to travel a hugely unnecessary and expensive extra distance is SUSPICIOUS. It is so frustrating that this issue is dismissed.

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Mahendar Singh @Acong Nizam  true...most  civilian radars track flights at 30000 and above...any lower will fall into military radar array.... thats is why communication with ATC becomes important while they are flying above oceans...

Rj Nieto
Rj Nieto

@Timothy Barnes @Ufw Monk  Actually, Chinese carriers offer the cheapest rates, but all their long-haul flights usually start from their hub (Beijing or Shanghai). 


The 2-or-so Iranians will probably take multiple connecting flights, like Bangkok-Beijing; Beijing-Dubai/AbuDhabi/Manama/Doha; then to whatever city in Germany.

Besides, if we're insinuating that they're terrorists, then they would more surely avoid a direct flight. I mean, terrorists are supposed to be more ingenious and harder-to-catch than mere asylum seekers, right?

Timothy Barnes
Timothy Barnes

@Ufw Monk @Timothy Barnes  Thank you, dear friend, for taking the time to explain this. Next time I travel from New York to Los Angeles, should I go by way of Pakistan to save money? LOL  If it is Malaysia Airlines, maybe so!

Ufw Monk
Ufw Monk

@Timothy Barnes @Ufw Monk  if some of the reports out there are true, what i have read are as follows...


In thailand, a third party tried to book tickets on behalf of them. Final destination: Germany and they also wanted the cheapest fair. It was the sales rep at the ticketing office who told them it will be cheaper for them to fly via china and the arrangements were made...

Share

Popular Stories

The Future of Food

See more food news, photos, and videos »