MH370 Search Area Announcement

Interview

WTC011/2014

26 June 2014

Warren Truss: Well ladies and gentlemen, welcome. I am joined today by Martin Dolan, who is the Chief Commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. It has now been over 100 days since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from air traffic control radar after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.

At the request of the Malaysian Government, Australia has been leading the search of this, as the aircraft is thought to be resting in Australia's air search and rescue area. The search remains a highly complex operation and involves vast areas of ocean, and can rely on only limited data and aircraft flight information.

From the little available data, specialists at an early stage calculated that the aircraft entered the sea close to a long but narrow arc in the Southern Indian Ocean. This arc has been the focus of the search efforts since late March.

The effort to find evidence of the missing aircraft near this arc has already become the biggest search operation in history, covering 4.5 million square kilometres of ocean surface. And we are grateful for the countries who offered and provided assistance to this search over the last three to four months. The search area has, at all times, been based on the best information analysis available. It has changed its focus as results have come to hand and the search area has been refined.  The search has not yet located any wreckage or trace of MH370.

The working group tasked with locating the final resting place of MH370 has been working to identify the area which represents the highest priority for our future searches. The latest refinement of the search analysis has involved the efforts and expertise of specialists from around the world. They have performed extremely complex calculations and analysis on satellite communications information, information which was never really intended to have the capability to track an aircraft. Now, that process, which has been going on now for several weeks, is complete.

The new priority area is still focused on the same seventh arc in the Southern Indian Ocean where the aircraft last communicated with satellite. We are now shifting our attention to an area further south along that arc, broadening the area where our first search efforts were focused. The area has already been subject to aerial and visual searching for refuse and debris, but now we will move to an underwater search.

Again, I want to reiterate that this area of the sea is very deep - three to five kilometres is estimated—and it is largely unmapped. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is today releasing a report that outlines the basis of the search area and the calculations that have been undertaken, which lead us to the view that the new search area is the most likely place where the aircraft is resting. The aim is to ensure an efficient and effective search effort with the highest chance of successful outcome. At the same time, we must take a measured approach to what remains a very challenging and complex operation.

The new high priority search zone, which you will note on the map is this—this is the broader blue area, but the main priority area is the orange area [indistinct] in the centre. And the blue area overlaps the previous search area we will be mapping and this is the area now where we think that the prospect of locating the aircraft is highest.

The expert satellite working group has reviewed and refined complex analyses of radar and satellite data and aircraft performance data to determine what is the most likely place that the aircraft is located. This priority search area zone in the orange bar here is 60,000 square kilometres in area. When you consider that the area search to date in the underwater search is only 860 square kilometres, you realise that the new search area is, indeed, a very large one. So it has been no easy task to identify this area and we, again, acknowledge the assistance that we received, the cooperation from our international partners.

The new phase of the search will have two elements. Firstly, there will be mapping of the sea floor in that area, which is already underway, and a comprehensive search then of the sea floor once this mapping has been completed. The mapping of the ocean floor is currently engaging two vessels, the Chinese survey ship, Zhu Kezhen, and an Australian-contracted vessel, the Fugro Equator. These are in areas that have been identified by the ATSB. It will take around three months to complete this mapping survey, but that gives crucial information about the nature of the sea floor terrain, which will make it possible to undertake the underwater search. I repeat that this area has never been comprehensively mapped previously, and so to put new equipment down into that area without having a clear knowledge of what the sea floor is like certainly risks the operation and the capacity of that equipment to operate safely.

Now, we expect that the underwater search element will commence in August and take about 12 months to complete. In addition, the search effort will include equipment provided by Malaysia, which includes vessels fitted with search equipment, including towed sonar systems, which will be used to search the sea floor. A public request for tender has been issued, seeking a primary contractor to bring together and manage the expertise and the equipment and the vessels which will carry out the search. They will be directed by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau from the operation centre in Canberra.

Now, can I emphasise again that this search is a major undertaking. We are optimistic that the capacity and the time that has now been available to more carefully scrutinise the information that has been available on satellite and, indeed, other information at our disposal that this site is the best available and most likely place where the aircraft is resting. Research will still be painstaking. Of course, we could be fortunate and find it in the first hour or the first day, but it could take another 12 months.

We owe it to the passengers and the crew and to everyone who is associated with MH370 to bring this mystery to a conclusion, and I can assure all of the families and those with an interest that Australia remains dedicated to the task of solving this greatest aviation mystery in global history.

Now, I have with me Martin Dolan and between us we would be happy to try and answer questions. Yes.

Question: Mr Dolan, could I just ask you, since the whole business began, there are massive rumours and speculation that have filled the vacuum, I suppose, but also created enormous confusion about this. Any analysis that has now taken place of all the radar data and scientific and satellite data [indistinct] can you just address two issues. One is the claim that the transponders in the aircraft must have been physically turned off by the pilots. Could that have actually happened as a result of an accident—a catastrophe, like an explosion or something? And the other is the claim that the aircraft must have been under control and from the course it was taken, as indicated on radar records, and clearly tried to dodge radar.

Martin Dolan: Those are both matters for the Malaysian investigation, which we are assisting. The focus of the ATSB has been on assembling the flight path of the aircraft across the Indian Ocean so we can determine the most likely place where we will find it. So we know as a fact that the transponders after a certain time were not operating, but what the necessary [indistinct] is to determine why that was the case.

Similarly, we have, from secondary and primary radar, the track the aircraft over a certain period of time and we have taken [indistinct] our analysis. The questions as to why this occurred are not ones that we needed to address in determining the search area, which has been our focus.

Warren Truss: But it would be fair to comment that it is highly, highly likely that the aircraft was on autopilot, otherwise it could not follow the ordinary path that had been identified through the satellite's findings.

Martin Dolan: Certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean, we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.

Question: And can you say anything about the idea of whether it tried to dodge radar? So it was under—was it ever at any stage under pilot control [indistinct]…

Martin Dolan: We, as I say, we haven't had to turn our minds to those questions, which are questions for the Malaysian investigation.

Question: [Indistinct] as I know, the original [indistinct] also decided by information from the satellite and [indistinct] aircraft and the [indistinct] then what's the reason that [indistinct]?

Warren Truss:   Well, the original search area was identified on the basis of the best information available. As I mentioned earlier, we had earlier commenced searching further south, but on the basis of the information that was available at that time there was a view that perhaps the aircraft may have entered the sea earlier than we had originally expected.

Now, when that search began in that area and once more, we picked up some beeps, there was therefore, really, an expectation that that area was, in fact, correct. And as we now had time to look more thoroughly at the data and do that with leisure and with the capacity to be able to analyse every item of information in great detail, we're satisfied now that the search would have been better located in the orange area that [indistinct].

So if we could have spent the time to actually do all the work that has been done now we probably would have chosen the area that's identified now, and—but of course when there was actually beeps picked up, that meant everybody wanted to concentrate there, but on the area where those beeps had actually been found.

Question: Can you put this new search area in perspective? How far off the coast is this one compared to the last one?

Warren Truss: Well, it's a very long way. It's about 2000 Ks.

Martin Dolan: [indistinct] to that. Duncan, have you got…

Duncan: 1800 kilometres.

Warren Truss: 1800.

Martin Dolan: 1800 kilometres off the West Australian coast, on average.

Warren Truss: But our aerial search, when we were working in that area, did actually go further west than 1800 kilometres. While they were concentrating along that arc, there was a view, then, that if there was any debris it would have already drifted some distance, so the aerial search went further west than that, but it gets to the limit of the capability of the range of the aircraft that were involved in the search. This will be a search based on vessels and so they will have much less difficulty operating at the distance.

Question: [Indistinct] on the autopilot—are you saying that the plane was programmed—the autopilot was programmed to fly to where it crashed?

Warren Truss: Well, Martin, you perhaps should better answer that one.

Martin Dolan: Well, the whole process of analysis has been an interesting one, so based on the satellite data, there were [indistinct] an infinite range of flight paths the aircraft could have taken, of all different sorts of shapes and changes of course, but to try and refine those we had to make some provisional assumptions about the behaviour of the aircraft which were then tested against the data and analysis, and the best fit, the best—highest probability flight path is one that has it on a straight course, and the sort of straight course would be associated with the aircraft being—operating on autopilot, so by [indistinct] process we have concluded it was on autopilot, just as we can conclude at the seventh arc it ran out of fuel.

So it's…

Question: [Interrupts] Do you have any indication of when that course might have been set?

Martin Dolan: The assumption is that for crossing each of the seven arcs that we have on the satellite, that the aircraft went on a straight track for all of that period across the Indian Ocean was large enough—there was—we're confident it was on a straight track and therefore on autopilot.

Question: Sorry, just to clarify, given the curvature of the Earth and whatever, is that a straight line we're seeking that's curved—curving?

Martin Dolan: That curve represents a calculation from the satellite near the equator.

Question: Yes.

Martin Dolan: And the signal that goes from a ground station through to the satellite of the aircraft and back. So it's, very simply, distance from a satellite. Curve of [indistinct]…

Question: So the aircraft was quite straight though?

Martin Dolan: The aircraft, by our assessment, was flying straight. If you look at our more detailed report, you will see there are seven arcs that we're looking at, and we're saying the path of the aircraft took to intersect each of those arcs was the straight path.

Question: Right. Thank you.

Martin Dolan: Yes?

Question: Out of the short—if you boil down the infinite number of combinations to say a thousand perhaps, out of that thousand, how many of them fall in your orange zone, which might give us an indication of what the probabilities of finding in the orange, and then do all thousand falls in the blue zone. And as a separate question, you say a straight track. Are most of solutions consistent with a magnetic heading, or are they more consistent with waypoints being entered, so that this would be more a question of Great Circle [indistinct] the argument is straight bolted to the Earth's surface. Are they straight, as magnetic headings or as Great Circle? So two questions, please.

Martin Dolan: Well, [indistinct] is that when we say straight, we do mean Great Circle, so straight in relation to a flat map of the Earth's surface. It's got a Great Circle across the globe. The second is there are a range of possibilities. It could heading, it could be tracked, could be [indistinct] navigations to the waypoint. What we do know is the highest probability tracks by five different analyses all end up, highest probability ones, in the orange zone. But, if you want to exclude all possibilities, then you'll have to include [indistinct] zone, which was ranked highest probability of all five close probabilities from that orange zone.

Question: If I can just clarify this gentlemen's question, I think he's asking, and I'm not sure whether I heard the answer, whether this idea that the plane was on autopilot means that it was set on autopilot at the point where you, your team, started looking at the analysis, in other words, at the point where the plane started to head south into the Indian Ocean. I think—is that his question, because…

Martin Dolan: [Interrupts] If that's the question, then the answer is, for our purposes all we know is called the seventh arc. So from the first arc to the seventh arc, the [indistinct] of this aircraft, as we have assessed it, is consistent with it being on autopilot for that period, and that's the basis of the analysis.

Warren Truss: We couldn't accurately, nor have we attempted to, fix the moment when it was put on autopilot. We know it was on autopilot during this critical phase of our tracking, but it will be a matter for the Malaysian-based investigation to look at precisely when it may have been put on autopilot.

Question: Just geographically then, at what point did you assess that it was on autopilot. Like north of Australia or Malaysia?

Martin Dolan: Our assumption is the aircraft turned somewhere west of [indistinct] range.

Question: And then it was on autopilot?

Martin Dolan: And past that point—what we're saying with confidence is, from the first arc, which is a little further higher than that, to the seventh arc, Great Circle Track got the second of those data points, the seventh is one of them.

Question: And assume the—sorry, excuse the inference, but does a pilot need to have a target when he's aim… when he's selecting a course for an autopilot, because, obviously, nothing would be programmed into an autopilot that would take an aircraft on that course?

Martin Dolan: You can put the aircraft onto a magnetic heading, you can put it onto a prime track over a point and continuing. You can put it to a way point. There are a range of ways of navigating the aircraft. Entering information into a flight computer, which informed the autopilot [indistinct] the aircraft.

Warren Truss: Or you could log it directly on its current path. Lady at the back, yes?

Question: Can we clarify the next stage search, because the two survey shifts obviously wouldn't be able to finish their job, or would they finish their job before others. And after August, when you contracted maybe a commercial underwater search vehicle, what do that—and how—what the capacity of that future vehicle? How many square kilometres will it cover for a day or more?

Martin Dolan: The answer to the first of those questions is that we will be progressively mapping. It will take us at least three months. That started a week or two ago. So it won't be completed—mapping will not be completed at the time the search commences, but we will have sufficient mapping for the search to begin and for the subsurface search to be carried out safely and appropriately.

Question: Mr Truss, there has been a report that…

Martin Dolan: [Interrupts] Sorry, there was a second part to that question. And what we are seeking sufficient capability, through our tender process, to ensure that the search is completed within the year.

Question: Mr Truss, there has been a report that the investigators have discovered that the pilot simulator has [indistinct] has caused—plane [indistinct] of the Indian Ocean. Have you been informed of that by the Malaysians?

Warren Truss: Look, again, I—we—I don't really want to comment on areas which will probably be the responsibility of Malaysia in its investigation. Although, I've heard a number of reports about the pilot simulator, some saying it hasn't been active for a year, some saying it had certain mapping and so forth on it. But I can't confirm that that's accurate or not. And it's not really relevant to us in seeking to find the evidence.

Question: Would the Malaysians keep you up-to-date with that type of information?

Warren Truss: Well, there is regular meetings occurring between Martin and his counterparts in Malaysia, and others associated with the search. And they will continue [indistinct] this week [indistinct] various aspects of the ongoing search. There's a high degree of cooperation between not just Australia and Malaysia but many of our other partners in countries that have a particular interest in the search operation, and we try and keep in regular contact. Would you like to add anything about that?

Martin Dolan: [Indistinct] the Prime Minister is, and has been, confident [indistinct] are the necessary and primary search areas.

Question: Given what you have—given that you—they have not yet [indistinct], what's your understanding, though, of going over the area earlier of the sort of undersea terrain? What sort of range of depths? Are there gullies and ridges?

Martin Dolan: We're starting the aforementioned work. There's some very broad area mapping available which you can see…

Question: [Interrupts] Yes.

Martin Dolan: …from that map there. The general trend towards Broken Ridge is rising reasonably smoothly. We don't know the details. Obviously, that's why that may have [indistinct] in this aspect in order to find out. Either go south towards Broken Ridge, where it becomes much more challenging terrain in terms of gullies and [indistinct]…

Warren Truss: This is Broken Ridge. Goes through there. And it rises up relatively gently, as I understand it, to Broken Ridge, and then it falls away abruptly. But there is a trench through there as well, and who knows how deep that is.

Question: A sort of Grand Canyon?

Warren Truss: Could be. Yes.

Question: And can you update us on the cost of the search and, in particular, for Australia?

Warren Truss: Well, I don't know there's much new information to provide. We have—each country to date has been meeting their own costs associated with the search. Malaysia is going to provide additional equipment and I think they will be saying something about that in Kuala Lumpur fairly soon and they will meet the cost of that. We will—we are calling tenders now for a company to take control of the search area and there will be a cost associated with that. There are discussions with Malaysia and obviously others who may be interested about how that cost can be shared and we are working them to ensure that there are adequate resources available to do whatever we need.

Question: Mr Dolan, just another aircraft 101 question about auto pilot. Does the plane have to be actually actively left on auto pilot or can it sort of default to auto pilot if there is, say, a lack of activity in the cockpit.

Martin Dolan: We would generally expect that if the auto pilot is operational, then that's the result of it being made operational.

Question: Right.

Martin Dolan: There are a range of [indistinct] there as a [indistinct] aircraft but basically [indistinct] would be that if the auto pilot is operational [indistinct].

Question: I'll have the—the pings that led the original underwater search, have they been discounted as coming from the plane at this stage.

Martin Dolan: What we discounted in area, to such—with those [indistinct].

Question: So maybe that—you did hear—you did hear one but you can't—that signal can't lead into where it came from.

Martin Dolan: We have—we heard something. At the time it was heard, it sounded very like the trace associated with an underwater located beacon. Some carriage references were not quite definite but sufficiently compelling to have a thorough search of the area and we're now satisfied that the area has been searched and we understand the characteristic of the signals sufficiently, we would say—that area has been eliminated from the search.

Question: So is it possible that ping could have come from the—what you heard could have come from the new search area or is that [indistinct]…

Martin Dolan: No, it's impossible. The transmission distance of the pings was a matter of kilometres at best, so you are not going to be getting—even with the best transmission acoustically underwater, you are not going to get anything over, at very best, about 10 kilometres.

Question: Can you give me an idea of how much of this—of the [indistinct] is—there's two questions, is unmapped. Okay, is this—is it unusual that this is unmapped or is that the way it goes with oceans? And then the second question is, in the process of mapping is it—is it conceivable that the mapping itself could yield the size of the aircraft?

Warren Truss: Look, well, there's probably more of the ocean unmapped than mapped.

Martin Dolan: Yes.

Warren Truss: So it's not unusual that particularly this far away from a continent, that it's not—it's not mapped in great detail. You obviously have got a little bit of information. The colours there represent depths and therefore information that has been acquired over the years so it's not uncommon for areas, particularly in the large oceans to be unmapped. It is possible—it is possible that the searching or the mapping of the floor, some of the equipment available, particularly on the Australia chartered vessel, does have a capability to be able to identify largish objects. So there is—if the aircraft is in, substantially in one piece or some large pieces, it is possible that that equipment could pick it up but that is not a likely possibility.

Question: Could you give a number—five per cent, one per cent?

Martin Dolan: It's somewhere between five and one, I would—I would suggest. It's very hard to know. It depends on the nature of the ground they are going over and the capacity of the [indistinct]. It's—so, it's a theoretical possibility but it's not at all likely and our focus with the [indistinct] vessels is on doing mapping to inform the wider search. But is it accurate? There's at least a small, theoretical possibility that [indistinct] might detect a large object on the ocean floor.

Question: Do you have it in your calculations a margin of error, do you know how likely it is that this where the plane crashed?

Martin Dolan: Well, what—not in the sense—what [indistinct] said is highest probability for, as I said, the search. If we were saying to gather all the tracks that are assessed as having some level of probability, you would definitely search in the entire blue area, which is about 300,000 square kilometres—sorry, 200,000 square kilometres. And—but we are confident that the most likely point or paths from each of the analyses is [indistinct]. So it's the highest probability area, it's not a guarantee of success.

Question: But you felt you were pretty well certain that it's within that blue area?

Martin Dolan: Yes.

Warren Truss: Now, is there anyone who hasn't asked a question and would like to ask one, otherwise we will just take a couple more. Yes, sir?

Question: Yes. Is there a plan B to search the blue area if you don't find it in the orange area and, also, for the blue area, if it's 200,000, that's 200,000 square kilometres in addition to the orange area—so it's about triple the size of the orange area if you don't find it in the orange area, is that fair?

Martin Dolan: No, the blue area, including the orange area is sort of [indistinct].

Question: Is [indistinct] okay.

Martin Dolan: From the point of view of the ATSB we have been resourced to search up to 60,000 square kilometres at this point. We hope [indistinct] to be successful in that search. If it becomes clear that that is going to be unsuccessful, that is a matter that we will have to discuss with the Australian and Malaysian governments about what next.

Question: Apologies if I missed it but the blue area is 200,000 square kilometres, what's the orange area?

Warren Truss: 60,000.

Martin Dolan: 60,000.

Warren Truss: And that compares with 860,000—860 we searched [indistinct].

Question: [Indistinct] rough idea where the centre of the original area is, how far that is on the centre of the [indistinct]?

Martin Dolan: It's about 800—about 800 kilometres, if it went from mid point of the previous area to mid point of the [indistinct].

Question: And that rectangular thing has been [indistinct], I would imagine it would be an ever-increasing circle at the [indistinct]?

Warren Truss: Not especially, no, because it was always a rectangular track because of the focus from the satellites on that centre path. So it was never circular.

Martin Dolan: But the Bluefin search, there were four detections and the point of search was eliminate—well, all four detections and so it was an uneven search area to be able to do that. But we are confident it has been eliminated.

Warren Truss: Well, thank you, ladies and gentlemen…

Question: [Interrupts] Sorry, just one last question. Are you using—you know, sonar, to do the maps [indistinct]…?

Martin Dolan: [Indistinct] a number of the [indistinct] the sonar on mapping vessels of the [indistinct] designed [indistinct]. What we've gone to the market to provide is a combination, probably, of side-scan sonar or other search-related sonar and the problem is underwater vehicle or even potentially made the operator vehicles to do that search of what is a quite complex area we require different techniques.

We haven't been definitive; what we're looking to do is for the specialists to provide us with the best answer [indistinct] those two.

Warren Truss: Well, thank you, now, this…

Question: Just a quick question, quick question. Is it because that needs to—because you need the mapping in order to make those decisions;  is that why it's done in that order?

Martin Dolan: No, we need the mapping so that the search can be done safely.

Question: And it does not help you determine which of these devices…

Martin Dolan: [Interrupts] It will give us some—it would certainly give us information to determine which is the most effective way of searching the defined areas within it, yes. It will give us a lot of information, but we will iteratively plan our search as we always do.

Warren Truss: So for those of you who are technically minded and interested in how the calculations were made and why the—this particular is focused on now for the search, you may like to read this document which is technical, but it's readable for ordinary human beings.

[Laughter]

Warren Truss: There's a website address on the media release which enables you to access this if you'd like to do so, and we've brought with you some hard copies for people who would like [indistinct] there's some at the back of the room so if you would like to take one of those you're welcome. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and we will continue to give you updates [indistinct].