SYDNEY (Apr 9): Paul Kennedy couldn’t believe what his sonar showed him March 7: what looked like a debris field on the floor of the Indian Ocean. It’s Flight 370, he thought -- the Malaysia Airlines plane that had vanished 364 days earlier.
A camera was raced down to confirm that the aircraft’s wreckage had been found. Satellite Internet on the search vessels was cut off to prevent the news from leaking.
“We thought, ‘We might have solved this,’” Kennedy, a deputy managing director at search operators Fugro NV, said in an interview. “It was the right size, the right shape.”
The cameras brought back the truth: No wreckage, just volcanic boulders and starfish crawling over a silty sea floor.
At Fugro’s operations center, surrounded by mallee-tree scrub in the northern suburbs of Perth, Australia, analysts who’ve been clicking through orange-and-yellow sonar images in search of the plane since last October aren’t deterred.
“Most people come to work and think, ‘Maybe today’s the day,’” said Steve Duffield, the local managing director for Leidschendam, Netherlands-based Fugro. “We’re a long way ahead, because now we know where the plane isn’t.”
While investigators try to understand why a Germanwings pilot deliberately crashed his flight on March 24, the current search for Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370 is winding down with no answers about the fate of the 239 people on board.
Australia’s A$39 million ($30 million) contract with Fugro runs through August 2016, but Australia, Malaysia and China haven’t agreed on funding for any further searching after May. Government ministers are slated to meet to discuss the issue later this month, a spokesman for Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said by e-mail.
More than 60 percent of the main search zone has been scanned without finding any sign of the Boeing Co. 777-200. The rest of the zone should be analyzed more quickly, Duffield said, allowing searchers to finish the task before the end of May, when the seas become too rough to navigate.
Fugro, which mostly surveys the seabed for oil and gas and telecommunications-cable companies, has nearly 200 people dedicated to the search, including two 30-person crews on each of its three search vessels.
Fewer than 20 people sit at desks here in Perth, carrying out more detailed analysis of the roughly 10 objects a week deemed worthy of further study. Hopes still run high among members of the team.
“We’re absolutely in the right spot -- all the analysis has been done,” Kennedy said, examining a spare sonar submersible in a quiet warehouse two minutes’ drive from the operations center. “It’s actually getting more exciting as we get closer.”
Duffield, who expects that the search will indeed continue beyond the current stage, is already fitting out his ships to handle winter weather further to the north, where seas are calmer.
The main question at this stage is whether Flight 370 glided for longer than expected after it ran out of fuel, or plunged into the sea further north than assumed, Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said in a March 27 interview.
It’s “possible but highly unlikely” that one of the pilots was flying the plane to the end, said Dolan, the main government official responsible for the hunt.
“Our assumption, based on the evidence available to us, is crew incapacitation,” he said by phone from Canberra. “There was no one actually at the controls.”
If the plane isn’t found by late May and funds permit further investigation, “we would move further north, but we’d also have to contemplate whether we would go wider” from the place where fuel ran out, Dolan said.
For the moment, Duffield is focused on filling in gaps that amount to four or five percent of the 36,000 square kilometers scanned so far.
Eyeballing the images is still the most reliable way of spotting debris, said Magnus Windle, the team’s lead geophysicist.
“We’ve logged hundreds of contacts, and 99 percent of them look like that,” he said, pointing to a yellow smudge on his computer screen that indicates an object sticking above the seafloor. “The plane’s not going to be sitting there as a beautiful silhouette with two engines and a tailfin and everything else. We’re just not going to see that.”