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Image: reuters

Time of the essence

Gabriel Domínguez
March 22, 2014

Search teams have stepped up efforts to find Flight MH370, as the hunt for the missing plane enters its third week. But with no confirmed traces, expert Heinrich Großbongardt tells DW that time may be running out.


As the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 enters its third week, pressure is mounting on international search and rescue teams. China recently announced it was investigating new satellite images of an object - 22 meters long by 13 meters wide - located in one of two corridors the plane may have flown, after it was reportedly diverted from its scheduled path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people on board.

Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua said the object was found 120 kilometers (72 miles) from possible debris spotted in waters far off Australia's southwest coast. Aircraft and ships from several countries have been scouring the remote area since March 16, but investigators have yet to find any confirmed signs of the Boeing 777.

In a DW interview, aviation expert Heinrich Großbongardt explains that if the plane crashed into the ocean, it is essential to find traces of it quickly, not least because the airliner's black box, which records voice and flight data, only transmits an electronic signal for about 30 days before its battery dies.

Independent avitation expert Heinrich Großbongardt
'Can't imagine that many big parts could still be afloat'Image: privat

DW: China recently announced it was investigating new images of debris possibly linked to the missing plane. Could Beijing be on the right track?

Heinrich Großbongardt: The bigger the object the less likely that it belongs to the missing Boeing 777. I can't imagine that many big parts of an aircraft's structure could still be afloat two weeks after a crash.

A Malaysian minister recently expressed fears the possible sighting of debris off Australia's southwestern coast may be another false lead, leading some to criticize the sudden focus on that particular section of the Indian Ocean. What is your view on this?

Concentrating some of the effort on certain areas makes a lot of sense, because it is impossible to search the millions of square kilometers where Flight MH370 could have gone down.

Why is it crucial for search and rescue teams to get to the spot of the sightings as quickly as possible?

Two weeks into the disappearance of the aircraft there is no realistic chance of finding any survivors. So all search efforts are now focused on finding the wreckage in order to recover the flight data and cockpit voice recorder.

But time is of the essence, as bigger pieces of debris will sink into the ocean. Furthermore, due to wind and ocean currents, smaller objects will drift dozens of miles every day, thus making it increasingly difficult for investigators to trace their path back to the point of impact.

Chances of locating the wreckage are further limited by the fact that the lifetime of the airliner's "black box" batteries can only be guaranteed for thirty days, which limits the chances of its electronic signal being detected.

There has been talk of using sonar equipment to bolster the search. How would this work?

Searchers will simply listen in to locate the signals of the black box.

How important would be the discovery of debris in terms of finding out what happened to the plane?

The flight data and the cockpit voice recorders are key elements of every accident investigation. They provide information as to what happened in the cockpit, what the pilots did, which course, speed and altitude the aircraft flew and many other things.

Commercial aviation has only been able to reach its extraordinary level of safety thanks to the careful examination of every major incident. Learning from what happened in order to make technical and operational improvements. so that similar accidents can be prevented, is an essential part of the global safety culture of the industry.

What are the likely scenarios as to what happened to Flight MH370?

As nobody has claimed responsibility, an act of terror is the only scenario which in my opinion could be ruled out. This is unprecedented. Scenarios such as an unknown technical failure, a crime, or the suicide of one of the crew members aren't likely either, but remain possible.

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Loadmasters, Sergeant Adam Roberts (L) and Flight Sergeant John Mancey, launch a 'Self Locating Data Marker Buoy' from a C-130J Hercules aircraft in the southern Indian Ocean during the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in this picture released by the Australian Defence Force March 21, 2014.
'The biggest international search and rescue operation we have ever seen'Image: Reuters/Australian Defence Force

How would you assess the search efforts and the international cooperation so far?

As far as I know, this is the biggest international search and rescue operation we have ever seen. After a regrettably bad start, caused by the information chaos created by the Malaysian authorities, it now is quite a well-coordinated effort.

How are the search and rescue operations expected to continue?

If they don't find debris from the plane within the next week, the number of ships and aircraft involved will gradually be reduced. This may well be the first big commercial airliner in the last 50 years which will remain missing.

Heinrich Großbongardt is an independent aviation expert and managing director of Expairtise, a Hamburg-based communications agency specializing in aviation and aerospace.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez

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