Australia's involvement in the search for Malaysia Airlines MH370

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 (MH370) disappeared on 8 March 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 passengers and crew aboard, including six Australian citizens, and a New Zealand citizen resident in Perth.

After analysis of satellite communication data, it was discovered that MH370 had continued to fly for almost six hours after contact with the aircraft was lost at the northern tip of Sumatra. All the available data indicates the aircraft entered the sea close to a long but narrow arc (‘the seventh arc’) of the southern Indian Ocean.

Under international convention, Malaysia carries the overall responsibility for the investigation and search for MH370. The Governments of Malaysia, and Australian agreed, however, that Australia would take the lead in an extensive search of the surface of the Indian Ocean by sea and air coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The surface search end on 28 April 2014 when no wreckage had been found.

On 5 May 2014 the Governments of Malaysia, the People's Republic of China and Australia agreed to form a Tripartite arrangement and take decisions regarding the search together. It was also agreed by the three countries, that Australia would lead an underwater search for the missing aircraft. The underwater search, led by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) on behalf of Australia, would search over 120,000 square kilometres of sea floor in the southern Indian Ocean, the largest search of its kind in history.

Suspension of the search

A Ministerial Tripartite meeting was held on 22 July 2016, where it was agreed that should MH370 not be located in the defined search area of 120,000 square kilometres, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended.

Accordingly, the search for MH370 was suspended on 17 January 2017.

The suspension does not mean the termination of the search. Ministers have reiterated that the aspiration to locate MH370 has not been abandoned. Should credible new information emerge which can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration will be given in determining next steps.

History of the search

The initial search

On 17 March 2014, following discussions between former Australian Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, and Malaysian Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib Tun Razak, Australia assumed responsibility for the coordination of a search in Australia's search and rescue region.

The surface search was coordinated by AMSA and supported by the Australian Defence Force and other agencies. The initial search phase involved 22 military aircraft and 19 ships from eight countries, covering search areas of more than 4.6 million square kilometres. Civilian aircraft contracted to AMSA also participated in the search.

Following Malaysia's 24 March 2014 announcement that flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean, the search transitioned to a search and recovery operation led by Australia.

On 30 March 2014, the Prime Minister established the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) to coordinate all Australian Government support for the search for MH370. The JACC was also the coordination point for whole-of-Australian Government information, messaging and stakeholder engagement, including keeping the families of those onboard and the general public informed of the progress of the search.

The JACC also coordinates all international engagement with the Governments of Malaysia and the People's Republic of China.

On 28 April 2014, the Australian Prime Minister announced that it was highly unlikely that any aircraft debris remained on the ocean surface and therefore the search for the missing aircraft would move to a new intensified underwater search.

Investigation

Malaysia is the state of registration for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. As such, under the international aviation treaty arrangements titled the Chicago Convention, it has responsibility for the investigation into the disappearance of the aircraft.

On 26 March 2014, Australia accepted Malaysia's invitation to participate as an Accredited Representative in its investigation into MH370's disappearance in line with the provisions of Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention. The investigation team established by Malaysia comprises Accredited Representatives from seven countries, and Australia is represented by the ATSB.

The ATSB has also assisted with the examination of debris that has been found on the east coast of various African countries. The ATSB supports the Malaysian investigation team in examining various pieces that have been located and determining whether they are connected to missing flight MH370.

Definition of the search area

All the evidence—based on independent analysis of satellite communication, radar and aircraft performance data from many international experts—indicates the aircraft entered the sea close to the seventh arc in the southern Indian Ocean.

From May 2014, the ATSB was responsible for defining the search area and coordinating a search strategy group. The group brought together satellite communication, aircraft specialists and accident investigators from the following organisations:

  • Air Accidents Investigation Branch (UK);
  • Boeing (US);
  • Defence Science and Technology Group (Australia);
  • Department of Civil Aviation (Malaysia);
  • Inmarsat (UK);
  • National Transportation Safety Board (US); and
  • Thales (UK).

The group worked continually to define the most probable position of the aircraft at the time of the last satellite communications and updated this advice based on the latest information and analysis throughout the search. Their work was also peer-reviewed by a range of international experts.

Other work facilitated and led by the ATSB included MH370 debris drift modelling through the CSIRO, and review and refinement activities through the Defence Science and Technology Group.

Bathymetry

Much of the sea floor of the world's oceans is not mapped in significant detail, especially not remote regions like the MH370 search area. Prior to any area of sea floor being searched, a bathymetric survey was conducted to build detailed maps of the sea floor in the underwater search area. This enabled the safe and efficient operation of the sonar equipped underwater search vehicles. Over 700,000 square kilometres of the sea floor were surveyed during more than two and half years of the underwater search.

Underwater search

The underwater search was a comprehensive search of the sea floor for the final resting place of MH370. Most of the search was conducted using underwater vehicles towed behind the search vessels on up to ten kilometres of armoured cable, gathering detailed sonar imagery as they went. Each summer, the towed vehicles were supplemented by an autonomous underwater vehicle which was used to search the areas of more difficult seafloor terrain. All the underwater search vehicles were equipped with side scan sonar, synthetic aperture sonar, multibeam echo sounders and cameras to locate and identify MH370.

The ATSB coordinated all aspects of the search, including the procurement of the services, planning, analysis of the sonar data and liaison with all vessels, the search contractors and other stakeholders.