Press Conference — MH370



02 November 2016

Subjects: Progress report on the search for MH370

Darren Chester: Thank you, but also thank you on behalf of the Australian Government for the work that's been undertaken. In many ways, the search for MH370 has been both historic and heroic and our thoughts are always with the loved ones of the 239 passenger and crew on board who have been missing since March 2014. Australia's role since April 2014, though, has been leading the underwater search in some of the most inhospitable waters in the world. Keep in mind we are talking about a search here which is located 2600 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. We're talking about a search area in many cases up to 6 kilometres deep, in terms of the water, and we see conditions which have been extreme on many, many occasions these past two years.

Australia has been working closely with the governments of Malaysia and China in the search for MH370. The three countries have had an agreement to take all significant decisions regarding the search on a tripartite manner. Our current search efforts continue to be focused on what is known as the Seventh Arc in the Southern Indian Ocean which is associated with the final handshake between the aircraft and the satellite ground station. There are two vessels currently deployed by the search effort, there is more than 110,000 square kilometres which has been searched so far. We have remotely operated autonomous underwater vehicles which have been used to further examine contact points which have been identified by the sonar towfish operations.

The operations, as I indicated, 120,000 square kilometre high probability search area, have been hampered on many occasions by extremely poor weather and particularly of recent times. In fact, later this week, there are forecasts of sea conditions of seven to nine metres and this is by any summation a challenging environment. The searching of the entire area, the 120,000 kilometre high probability search area, is expected to be completed early in 2017, which I acknowledge is later than has been anticipated which has been due primarily to the inclement weather. And I remind everyone that following the meeting in July this year in Malaysia where the Ministers from Malaysia, Australia, and the People's Republic of China gathered on the 22nd of July it was decided that should the aircraft not be located in the current search area and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended on completion of that 120,000 square kilometre search area.

I'd like to acknowledge again the efforts of the crews who are on station west of Western Australia. Can I say every effort has been made at this stage to locate the aircraft and we remain as hopeful as ever that the aircraft will be found in the remaining months of this search. Should this not occur, the entire highest probability search area which has been identified by expert analysis will have been covered. This week, we have here in Canberra ATSB experts joined by a team of international experts to undertake what we call a ‘first principles review’ to reassess the evidence and the information which is currently available to us and I want to thank the international team for their efforts and their involvement to this stage.

Shortly, I'll hand over to Greg Hood to comment on the findings of the report and activities planned for this week. Let me simply conclude by saying the search for MH370 is ongoing and we have a team of experts who are analysing all the available information. In the absence of finding the aircraft, there will always be speculation and there'll always be theories, but I'm not going to second guess the experts. I would like to thank Greg Hood and Pete Foley and the entire team for the work they've done, the work they've undertaken on behalf of the Australian people and on behalf of the families of the MH370 victims.

Greg Hood: Thanks Minister and thanks to members of my team at the ATSB and also the international and Australian experts that are gathered for the next three days. So, today the ATSB has released this report. It's entitled MH370 Search and Debris Examination Update.There are four elements to this report. One is the analysis of the satellite exchanges between the aircraft and the satellite at the last point of contact, which indicates a steep and increasing rate of descent. The second point is some end of flight simulations conducted by the aircraft manufacturer. The third is what is maturing drift modelling, largely effected by CSIRO. And finally, an analysis of the right outboard main wing flap of Nine Mike Mike Romeo Oscar, the airframe operating as Malaysian 370. So, I'd like to once again thank the ATSB team and those international folk that are gathered here for the next three days to conduct a further review of where we're at with the scientific analysis.

Darren Chester: Well, ladies and gentlemen, we're available to answer any questions.

Question: Minister, how long to do you anticipate this first principles review will take to complete?

Darren Chester: Well, the team's going to be here in Canberra for the rest of the week, so we're talking about a three-day process and that will conclude by the end of this week.

Question: What do you hope to get out of it?

Darren Chester: Well, it's an opportunity to gather the experts from around the world to look at the available information, to exchange ideas. It's an opportunity for a full assessment of how the underwater search has been carried out, and a reassessment of the information from this process will be made publicly available at the conclusion—once there has been time to evaluate the discussions.

Question: Will there be a new search come out of it? It seems pointless to have a reassessment if the search is drawing to a close.

Darren Chester: Well I disagree. There is nothing pointless about what I said was quite an historic and heroic effort to search for MH370. We do owe it to the families involved of the passengers and crew to do the best we possibly can. We are doing the best we possibly can, and we assembled experts from around the world to reassess the data that's available to us and then make our decisions.

Look, into the future I must emphasise that decisions made in relation to the search area are not those for Australia alone. As I indicated, it's a tripartite agreement. We work in partnership with the Malaysian and Chinese governments on these issues. Quite rightly, we will continue to explore every bit of information that's available, and allow the experts from the ATSB in Australia, also the international experience, to inform our efforts.

Question: Are you ruling out a new search?

Darren Chester: All I'm providing for you today is an update on what's occurred thus far, and the plan for the next three days in terms of the first principles review. It's not my role as a Minister to second-guess the experts. What we're saying is there was an agreement reached in July this year between the three nations involved to focus on and complete a 120,000 square kilometre search area, and in the absence of any further credible evidence leading to any specific location, the search would be suspended at that time. So that is the process we've undertaken.

Question: Darren, you said that they're quite confident that they should be able to find something in the current search area. How likely is that?

Darren Chester: Well, those aren't words I've used in terms of confidence, or levels of confidence. We've remained hopeful throughout the whole process that we are searching the right area, and the report released today confirms we are searching in the right area. But in the absence of finding the aircraft, obviously it leaves room for further speculation and theories, but I simply won't second-guess the experts.

The information provided to us is that we are searching in the right area, but the degree of difficulty is something we all need to understand. We are talking about a search area which is 2,600 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia; we're talking about searching sections of the ocean which are four to six kilometres deep, with canyons and ravines. It is an extremely difficult and complex search. It has tested the limits of human engineering excellence and technical capacity, and it has been an historic effort.

To have not found the aircraft at this stage is frustrating for everyone involved, and particularly for the families of the passengers and crew, but we're continuing to work through the final 10,000 square kilometres of the 120,000 square kilometre high priority area, and we look forward to the discussion this week in terms of gathering experts from around the world to allow them to exchange their ideas, to re-examine the evidence that's available to us. And I think everyone involved is trying to keep hopeful and keep their spirits up about the prospects of locating MH370.

Question: Minister, could you actually give us an idea—you've mentioned that this is 6 kilometres deep in places, the canyons and ravines, very tough underwater terrain. What are the chances the aircraft could've slithered into some sort of underwater gully?

Darren Chester: Look, it's probably best if I defer to Peter now, in terms of the technical details in that regard. You've painted a very accurate picture of the challenging circumstances. If we were to imagine this 120,000 square kilometre search area and imagine it was on land, you're talking about a section of terrain from Melbourne to Sydney along the Great Dividing Range, except the depths are deeper than the Dividing Range is high. It is an extraordinarily challenging search area, but I'll refer you to Peter, if you like, in terms of some of the technical aspects.

Peter Foley: It's a good question, Brendan, and essentially why we're conducting the reacquisition of a number of sonar contacts with a remotely operated vehicle is to eliminate them. We've also got an AUV out there that covers some of the more challenging terrain, and it's a process of improving our confidence that we haven't missed it within the current search area.

Question: One of the aspects of this whole search that is quite extraordinary is the tiny amount of evidence you're actually working with. Now, you are–Defence, scientists and others–have helped you mine tiny signals that have come from this aircraft, or have been sent to this aircraft, responses to signals or whatever. This has been criticised by some as being too slender a body of evidence for you to rely on. Now, I understand that's all that you've got, but you do have an expert panel advising you–I gather some of those members are here. Is the feeling among the experts that you have advising you supportive of the conclusions you've reached so far?

Peter Foley: I must say, ATSB convene and coordinate the search strategy work as a whole, it's contributed to by a range of expert individuals, we've commissioned additional work, drift modelling is a good example of that where we've commissioned an expert to do our drift modelling as well once we started to see debris turn up around the coastlines of Africa. So you know, in essence we're not just reliant on the very scant satellite data, it's a key piece of the puzzle but we're also informed by anything that we can be informed by in addition to that. At this point it is probably debris which has enhanced our knowledge of certainly what happened at the end of flight, with the analysis of that section of main flap and indeed what we are doing with drift modelling, and currently in the process of, which is outlined briefly in the report there.

Question: Can you explain a little more about the flap, whether it was extended or not and what that actually means in terms of whether anyone was in control of the aircraft?

Peter Foley: What we've concluded from the analysis of that section of right main flap is that it was probably in a non-extended position which means that the aircraft wasn't configured for a landing or a ditching. You can draw your own conclusions as to whether that means someone was in control or not but taken together with the analysis of those last two burst frequency offsets, which indicate a high and increasing rate of descent, it means that we're looking for an aircraft that's actually quite close to the seventh arc.

Question: When we last spoke you mentioning the doubt about the evidence of the flap, what would it point to, I'm just wondering how confident you are as it's the mother of all conspiracy theories around some of these things. I mean how much solidity is there in kind of what you found? Is it sort of possible to definitively say you've got enough here to rule out some of those odd theories going around?

Peter Foley: The words in the report are most likely and that's the state that we indicate the flap was in, it was most likely in a non-extended or housed position, so you can never be 100 per cent and we are very reluctant to express absolute certainty but that's the most likely scenario.

Question: If the plane doesn't turn up in this last 10,000 square kilometres that needs to be searched, would the search be seen as a failure or do you think it was always the case of a needle in a haystack? You're probably not going to find it anyway?

Peter Foley: I don't think in any way, shape or form spending two and a half years of extraordinary effort looking for the aircraft could be seen as a failure and I would hate to express that thought amongst my team and indeed all the experts who are in the room who've devoted an extraordinary amount of time to finding the solution to a puzzle. I mean every single one of us is motivated by the desire to find the aircraft for the families and indeed for aviation safety more broadly.

Question: What do you hope this re-examination of evidence will achieve?

Peter Foley: Robin, it's really about going back to first principles and looking at all the evidence before us, any new analysis that we have before us and some of the analysis is emerging as Greg indicated, the drift analysis is evolving, I think also it's a chance to look back and see if there's anything else that we can possibly do to better our understanding, any additional work that can be done to better our understanding about what happened to that aircraft.

Question: And with this first principles review could we then see the search extended?

Peter Foley: That's not a question for me, it's a question for government, so I mean we will produce a report at the end of the day, from what the experts discuss, so over the next three days and then of course it's up to the governments tripartite to make any decisions in relation to that.

Question: And what is a realistic timeline though with searching for the aircraft? Obviously there's an end date at the moment, how long would you like to see that extended for?

Peter Foley: I have personal views, which I don't care to share but I don't think anyone, anyone who's been involved in this search wants to walk away without finding that aircraft, that's just human nature.

Question: Is this your last shot at maybe you know, finding that somewhere else?

Peter Foley: I don't think there's a last shot, I think we're doing what's a sensible approach at this point and that's to review all the evidence we have and look at the analysis and see if there's anything extra that can be done.