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Lost, Then Found: How An 18th Century Theory Could Locate Flight 370

Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished mysteriously on March 8th, 2014 with 239 passengers aboard, has been revealed to have ended its journey in the southern Indian Ocean, according to satellite data.

While losing a plane to begin with is in many ways seemingly unfathomable in this day and age, locating it and solving the mystery of its disappearance has proven to be an equally difficult process.

But this isn’t the first time a plane has been lost for a long stretch of time over open water. Just five years ago, Air France Flight 447 met a similar fate. The plane was lost for two whole years, the BBC says, before it was finally located in 2011.

Bayesian statistical searches

When AF447 was initially lost, debris was located within five days, by which time current had carried and buried the most important evidence: the black box and cockpit voice recording.

After countless fruitless searches by air and sea via planes, boats, and submarines, France’s aviation accident investigation authority, BEA, contacted US statistician search consultancy Metron, which had experience finding lost objects at sea.

By turning the BEA’s findings and theories into numerical data, Metron used a method of probability known as Bayesian search theory to determine the likelihood of the plane’s location, then split this search area into a grid, applying scenario probability to each area.

After failing initially, a lucky second attempt that took into account the black box’s lack of signal located the wreckage on bottom of the Atlantic ocean – recovering the black box, voice recording, and a majority of bodies.

The Bayesian search theory, named after 18th century Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes, was also successfully used by the US Navy to locate the USS Scorpian, a submarine lost at sea in 1968.

Satellite searches

Though the tragedy of Air France’s incident and the details of its recovery remain in recent memory, technology has since improved, specifically in regards to satellite detection.

In the case of MH370, British engineers were able to determine that the plane’s last position was in the middle of the Indian ocean through a type of analysis never used before, the Telegraph reports.

Satellite company Inmarset studied the jetliner’s automated hourly “pings” as picked up from one of their satellites. By analyzing these pings, they determined the plane flew on for five hours after leaving Malaysian airspace, and looked at the Doppler effect to determine its southern path.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, modified by Curiousmatic.

Debris was located off of Australia’s coast after weeks of search, which along with Immarset’s findings prompted Malaysian Prime Minister’s conclusive announcement of the flight’s fatal ending.

However, the bulk of the wreckage remains undiscovered, and there is no way yet of knowing when and where fuel ran out, and whether the jet plunged or glided from there.

Going forward: To Baye, or not to Baye?

Search for MH370 continues, with the help of 26 countries since the disappearance, according to the BBC.

Metron, the company that located AF447, is not involved in the Malaysia airline hunt as of yet. Some say that the complications surrounding the mystery make Bayesian search a bad fit, but others think it could be a solution to create a disciplined strategy for an obviously difficult search.

Satellite leads are currently being investigated by aircraft and ships, though the search area is so remote that it takes four hours each way to reach, leaving planes only two hour windows for search.

Equipment being used includes:

  • Surveillance aircrafts equipped with sensors, radar, and cameras. Currently, Australian and American planes are employed on search duties, together with Chinese and Japanese maritime aircrafts
  • China’s Ice Dragon research ship and the Australian Navy’s HMAS Surprise
  • A specialized black-box finder (Towed Pinger Locator), sent by the US
  • A hydrographic survey ship called HMS Echo, sent by the UK

Perhaps modern technology will triumph over mathematics; perhaps Bayesian methods will be attempted eventually. The possibility remains that without breakthroughs, the plane could never be found.

Hopefully, with available resources utilized and a global dedication to solving the mystery, efforts will succeed sooner rather than later to provide peace to the families of the vanished passengers.

Jennifer Markert