A Renewed Search, A New Company, But the Search and Questions Go On For MH370 Families

♠ Posted by Mick Rooney in ,,,

Last week the Malaysia Ministry of Transport (MOT) and its Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) signed a deal to pay a Houston-based seabed exploration company, Ocean Infinity, up to $70 million (USD) if it is successful and finds convincing and credible proof of where the seabed wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 lies. And the contractual caveats? Ocean Infinity, and the 65-strong crew of its leased vessel, Seabed Constructor, must do it within 90 days of reaching the newly designated search area, identified by the ATSB and its partners when it published its Final Search report at the end of 2017. This area includes a 25,000-sq-km priority area and potentially beyond (separated into four divisions: primary, subsequent, tertiary and supplementary).

The public may not be aware that slides were presented at the contract announcement and media event.

Slide 1
Slide 2
Slide 3

Slide 4


But there are a few more catches to this deal. It is based on what is known in the marine industry as ‘no cure-no fee’ – if you turn up nothing, you get nothing, and Ocean Infinity and its financers and shareholders will have to bear the brunt of all the operational costs, upfront. Oh, and Malaysia Transport Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, insists that this will also mean that Ocean Infinity must provide proof of aircraft seabed wreckage – without removing it from the seabed, unless Malaysia gives the okay – and convince Boeing, the manufacturer in Seattle, that it is from the ill-fated aircraft, registered 9M-MRO, the very Boeing 777-200ER which operated flight MH370 on the morning of March 8th, 2014 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. So, no indistinct blurry images or ‘yep, it’s definitely down there – we saw it’ will see a single cent exchanging accounts with a spit and a handshake.

It’s not a position Fugro Worldwide found itself in when in 2014 it was awarded the tender by the three primary nation partners involved (Malaysia, Australia, China), and Australia’s ATSB was tasked with overseeing the operational activities and search that covered initially 60,000-sq-km, later expanded in 2015/16 to 120,000-sq-km. Indeed, though constantly dealing with seasonal weather, a search that once began with four vessels – then there was one – and an extensive bathymetric seabed scan before towfish sonar could be deployed, Fugro never had a time constrain beyond getting the job done and finding the aircraft resting place.

Undeterred, and much to the credit of the Dutch-based company, Fugro, it did offer to search again, considering it had the experience and at least one vessel in place. The initial seabed search came to its conclusion in January 2017. Malaysia mulled and became silent but for another interim report on the third anniversary, which told the world little or nothing more, and then it fell silent for months.

Voice370, the official family support group for relatives of those on board MH370, began to sense an impending and permanent limbo, despite that the previous 12 months had seen the discovery of multiple pieces of debris on the east coast of Africa – some proven to be from 9M-MRO, some ‘almost certainly’, a few very likely to be aircraft composite pieces, still many pieces unknown and likely always to remain that way. The most significant pieces discovered were a flaperon, an outboard wing flap, and the now almost infamous ‘NO STEP’ and the painfully but humbly-referred-to piece of debris called ‘ROY’ (part of the engine cowling casing from one of Rolls Royce’s Trent 800s sporting its emblem manufacturer RR badge).

In a world where there has been so little information, so little data, so many unanswered questions, some of the relatives of MH370 took solace in being able to meet the crew of Fugro’s search vessel, the ATSB, and witness the outboard flap found in Tanzania in 2016 in Canberra, Australia later that year. Just to be in the ATSB’s facility, in the same room as a piece of 9M-MRO, was both a profound and upsetting experience to be so close to something which had itself been close to their loved ones on the morning of March 8th, 2014.  

But Voice370 grew frustrated with the lack of information from Malaysia, increasing delays with debris being picked up from local civil aviation authorities and at the time of the third anniversary decided they would have to take matters into their own hands, having travelled to east Africa at their own expense to raise awareness about potential coastal debris, they began to reach out to aviation experts, oceanographers, wreckage hunters and influencers prepared to assist them in funding an independent search for the seabed wreckage and their loved ones.

While they began to reach out and explore this, they discovered that one company had already tabled an offer to the Malaysia government to search on, and it was not Fugro. Above all else, as the weeks and months passed, Voice370 discovered this offer was based on a ‘no cure-no fee’ basis. The group believed an announcement would surely be imminent. Then the ATSB released its final report, concluding new refinement of an area of 25,000-sq-km north of the original larger search site. Silence from Malaysia, a ministerial release that a tripartite meeting might happen, maybe October, maybe November, and they were preparing their own final report, maybe before the end of 2017. But nothing more.

Voice370 went public with what the little they knew about the offer by Ocean Infinity, but that it did exist and had for some considerable time. Ocean Infinity maintained its silence and continued to test its advanced AUV Hugin equipment. Sea wreck hunter David Mearns went public and made it clear he had been in contact with the group and was prepared to assist them with an independent search. David Gallo, of Woods Oceangrahic – which had been involved in the final search for Air France AF447 – joined the increasing pressure that something must happen and decisions needed to be made by those in charge of the investigation and search.

Voice370 members at the Ocean Infinity deal announcement
Ultimately, the lead investigative nation, Malaysia, knowing they had to deliver a Final Report to ICAO by mid January 2018, the one-year expiry after the official seabed search had been suspended, having somewhat slow-walked themselves down a dead-end alley, succumbed to the pressure, announced that, yes, they had been considering three possible offers of continuing the search, but had a preference for one. A lull of several weeks late 2017 was followed by an announcement that the Malaysia interior cabinet had approved the potential release of up to $70m, but only on the understanding a new search would be successful.

Almost immediately, Ocean Infinity, a company that did not exist a year ago, with a 6-year lease on a vessel called Seabed Constructor, which had been testing its 6 Hugin AUVs in the south English Channel, returned to Bristol port, and then departed across the Atlantic Ocean. The Chess Game began.

Malaysia stalled on a decision. Ocean Infinity upped its game, rolling out social media and website updates to show off its technology and that it was far ahead of what had already been deployed on previous sea search missions. Then at SUT, Senior Advisor Survey & AUV Operations Director at Swire Seabed (Norway), Jan-Ingulfsen, laid the path for Ocean Infinity, and it became very apparent that Ocean Infinity had very significant financial backers and stakeholders behind it, notwithstanding its existing partnerships with SeaTrepid and others. This was no longer a misty farm on the hills in winter with flying pigs and promises of a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. One of the first questions Minister Liow asked Ocean Infinity in November in London was – can you assure us you can finance this and that it will not fail because you ran out of money? We cannot provide money at the end if you do not have it all at the start. He got his answer at that meeting. And the deal was done, bar him having to convince his cabinet colleagues a few weeks later. This was always shaping up to be a with or without you.

By the time of reaching Durban port, Ocean Infinity’s vessel, Seabed Constructor, received two new Hugins, which were loaded, as well as the vessel receiving Inmarsat high-grade antennas to its hull in dry-dock. The vessel departed Durban to conduct two sea trial tests, critically, to deploy all eight Hugin AUVs at one time and test the full operation, and to test them all at depths of up to 6,000 metres. As of January 13th, these tests went well; though Ocean Infinity reported some minor glitches, and they decided to remain in the test area to resolve these first. This meant backtracking on some test areas to ensure everything was working. The vessel then departed for the priority search area late January 13th and is expected to arrive there around the 20th/21st, a few days after they had hoped to arrive. However, given the 90-day timeframe, Ocean Infinity does not believe this will play any factor. They are hoping to complete the first phase of search within 26-28 days, but this will require one visit back to port to resupply.
Ocean Infinity will be paid $20 million if the plane is found within 5,000 sq km, $30 million if it is found within 10,000 square km and $50 million if it is found within an area of 25,000 square km. Beyond that area, Ocean Infinity will receive $70 million.

I appreciate some of the below details may be difficult for some NOK, but the reality is that this search must have priorities, and any search after this period of time must have technical priorities. The priority is to locate – first the wreckage site, then to identify the data flight and cockpit recorders. If successful, Ocean Infinity will then, if time allows, try and grid the area.

Ocean Infinity will require authorisation to extract anything from the site, even though they have some equipment capable of doing that for small objects like the recorders. That authorisation will remain with the Malaysia government. Difficult as this is, extraction of human remains is not part of this search phase and will be dealt with at a later date when a full grid is provided of the seabed wreckage and an agreed salvage plan is implemented.

Seabed Constructor carries eight AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) that will search the seabed with scanning equipment for information to be sent back for analysis. Once the AUVs are recovered by Seabed Constructor (SC), the data is downloaded onboard the vessel.

SC has 65 crew and almost half of Ocean Infinity’s staff (about 20) is onboard the vessel. There are two government representatives drawn from the Malaysian navy who will act as monitors for the Malaysia government. Some of SC’s crew also work for Swire and SeaTrepid because they have extensive experience working with this equipment. Like Fugro’s vessel staff, they are deeply committed to this and we should not underestimate the day-to-day risks they take. They have been training and preparing for this for months.

Further reading:
You can see my interview with Voice370 representative, Grace Nathan here  and also view Ocean Infinity

Radio Espial: Episode 7 - Grace Nathan Interview | Malaysia Airlines MH370

♠ Posted by Mick Rooney in ,,,

Grace Nathan of Voice370 lost her mother Anne Daisy on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. She joined presenter Mick Rooney on Radio Espial to discuss the journey for relatives of passengers and crew of the missing aircraft over the past four years. Last week the Malaysia government announced a renewed search for the seabed wreckage of the aircraft in the South Indian Ocean after it contracted exploration company Ocean Infinity.

Malaysian Authorities Remain Tight-Lipped on Offer to Search for MH370 for Free

♠ Posted by Mick Rooney in ,,,

The deputy Malaysian Transport Minister Aziz Kaprawi has confirmed that Malaysian authorities have received an offer from a private company to resume the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 but have yet to make a decision to accept it.
Families of passengers and crew have been increasing the pressure on authorities in Malaysia and Australia to resume searching in an area north of the original 120,000 square kilometre search zone in the southern Indian Ocean. This follows the recent disclosure that marine and drift analysis experts at CSIRO working with the official search bodies had significantly refined their drift models based on debris found over the past two years on the East an South African coastlines, including islands like Mauritius, Madagascar and Reunion.
Voice370, the official representative body of MH370 families, yesterday released a statement saying they had been prepared to privately fund their own independent search but they were aware recently that a US-based sea exploration company, Ocean Infinity, had already offered (for free) to search for the seabed wreckage of the missing aircraft which disappeared on the morning of March 8th, 2014 with 239 passengers and crew on board. Voice370 understands that the only terms asked by Ocean Infinity is that the company is recompensed with a reward in the event it does locate the seabed wreckage of the aircraft.
It is not known exactly how long this offer has been on the table of Malaysian authorities, but Deputy Malaysian Transport Minister Aziz Kaprawi would only confirm in a text message to Reuters that authorities had received the offer, but said no decision had been made on whether it would be accepted or not. Ocean Infinity have declined to make any public statement on their offer.
Voice370 has been working with famed shipwreck hunter David Mearns and a number of marine and aviation experts, including data and advice from the Independent Group (IG), to launch their own funded search for the seabed wreckage of the aircraft.
The official search for the aircraft was suspended in January this year following completion of a search zone of 120,000 square kilometres in the southern Indian Ocean conducted by Fugro Worldwide for the ATSB (Australian Transport & Safety Board) off the Western coast of Australia. Joint governments in Malaysia, Australia and China have steadfastly stated that the search cannot resume until 'credible new evidence leading to a precise search location' is presented to the official investigative teams. This somewhat flies in the face of reason considering Malaysian government officials have rejected commissioned analysis from CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), consistently fine-tuned and undertaken by the ATSB in Australia. The ATSB has also consistently stated that it wishes to continue the search but remains bootstrapped to the Australian government, tasked with conducting the official seabed search, and in turn the Australian government is equally bootstrapped to Malaysian authorities who remain the lead investigative nation under international aviation rules.
This remains, and has been for the past three and a half years, one long, bureaucratic mess. It copper fastens why tragic and major aviation investigations, when there is a significant loss of life and no answers, needs to be taken out and away from the hands of government, restructured, and conducted under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). We can set down all the ground rules, conventions, treaties and agreements, but it requires commitment and adherence to those codes of conduct and skilled execution of expert practice. There is no place for government in any tragedy or disaster, particularly when it comes to aviation. By all means do the centre stage public media platitudes and resolve to fix it. But a government's role is not to become a part of the tragedy itself, only to act and support investigative recommendations. That is never going to happen when government(s) have to fund a major aviation investigation, and pick their partners and alliances.

MH370: There Must be a What Happens Next Until it is Found

♠ Posted by Mick Rooney in ,,

The joint communiqué issued today by the JACC brings the current search of 120,000 square kilometers of the southern Indian Ocean for the seabed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 to an end and the suspension of the nearly three-year search operation. The aircraft with 239 people on board went missing on the morning of March 8th, 2014. The now infamous phrase, “in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft” was again used in today’s communiqué and has become something of a chant by government officials when asked by the media—what happens next? It was first used in a previous JACC communiqué in July 2016 following a tripartite meeting of senior ministers from Australia, Malaysia and the People's Republic of China in Putrajaya, Malaysia, which discussed what arrangements should be made in the event the wreckage of the missing aircraft was not located.

Today, I guess we finally got our answer to that—nothing. There are no arrangements, actually: barring—of course—someone or something turning up on the doorstep of the JACC that miraculously cracks the bureaucratic and carefully crafted conundrum ministers from three nations have set search teams and aircraft investigators.

Go find credible new evidence that provides an X marks the spot on the map. But there’s just one little rule: you’re not allowed search for that credible new evidence because we’ve suspended searching. What’s more, the recent debris found since we first uttered this carefully crafted conundrum last July, and the latest drift analysis based on it, doesn’t count any more as new and credible. Ha, gotcha!

Just a couple of weeks ago, speaking to the media, and following the release of the First Principles Review report, Malaysian Minister of Transport, Dato' Sri Liow Tiong Lai, was quick to remind all those gathered that the search for the wreckage of flight MH370 cannot “just rely on assumptions”. And, yet, excluding Inmarsat and military radar data that has never been fully disclosed to the public in its rawest form, the ATSB’s favored EOF (End-of-Flight) scenario is based on considerable assumptions—that the flight flew south at a constant speed, heading and altitude, was likely on autopilot and without manual input from the cockpit, and entered a spiral dive somewhere off the 7th arc following fuel exhaustion. Some 120,000 square kilometers and nearly three years later, and a second mooted 25,000 square kilometer area of “high probability” north east of the original search zone; this favored EOF scenario is looking increasingly like a perilous house of cards

Government ministers, and in particular those in Australia and Malaysia, have held steadfast to the “credible new evidence” mantra and rebuffed any suggestions that the conclusions of the First Principles Review report warrant the confidence and finance needed to push on with a new search. Estimated somewhere in the region of $50 million, it’s hard to see any real desire to look for the key to the coffers, let alone crack open the moneybox. Is this the JACC saying; we’ve done our bit, time to move on?

And if this is the case, then I’m afraid the JACC’s bit is pretty miniscule, all things considered. Equipped with the best experts and the best of technology, and a host of independent experts standing on the sidelines and willing to help (but having to be content with scraps of information fed to them like a game of Russian nesting dolls), the JACC and partners told us very little and ultimately found nothing. And, yet, it was ordinary souls walking coastlines for months or accidental travelers and tourists who found the most tangible, physical evidence of all that we have of 9M-MRO. Some might argue, armed with far more than us mere mortals, the JACC had the easiest task when you consider from the outset that it held all the known cards in the deck. Only they sat around the table that counts and only they can speak about how really well the players worked together and how much information was shared.

It would be easy to paint with a brushstroke all the men and women who have worked below higher levels of management and command in the search and investigation into Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Bash the crews of Fugro Worldwide and Phoenix International, bash the ATSB and RAAF in Australia, bash the ATC, RMAF, RMP and DCA in Malaysia, and bash the Chinese authorities who after just a few weeks appeared to adopt the role of reluctant bride by way of family commitment. Maybe ICAO should have stepped in long ago and knocked heads together. Knock yourself out bashing and blaming and pointing the finger at where you think it all went wrong. But if the truth be told, most of these people are ordinary men and women doing their jobs or serving in forces. Decisions and orders rarely come from the bottom or middle up. They come from the top down, as does poor management and execution of plans. Reserve your ire for the right people and the right time.

Today may be the day the perilous house of cards built comes tumbling down. The two final paragraphs of the JACC communiqué are ominous for the families of those on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. It is the tone of those happy to erect tombstones and memorials rather than deliver on the early promised principles of intent.

“Today’s announcement is significant for our three countries, but more importantly for the family and friends of those on board the aircraft. We again take this opportunity to honour the memory of those who have lost their lives and acknowledge the enormous loss felt by their loved ones. 

“We remain hopeful that new information will come to light and that at some point in the future the aircraft will be located.”

Indeed. Let’s honor the memory of those who lost their lives, by all means, but honoring memories is not going to tell us how 239 people lost their lives, and whether the events of March 8th, 2014 will unfold again for another 239 people or more on another aircraft “at some point in the future”.

Hope is not borne of the future; it is engraved in our hearts and in our actions of the past. We never stop searching when there are answers to be found and lessons to be learned.

I would join with Voice370 in imploring the JACC to reconsider their rigid stance and reevaluate what can be done and how the search for MH370 can move forward, not fold away the tables and chairs for now as if this was the RMS Titanic and tell us in a communiqué what they will not do.

That is the absolute least the families of those on flight MH370 deserve. Not to search on for the truth, however difficult and at whatever cost would be abhorrent to the memory of those who died and an unhealing wound upon the aviation industry we may all live to regret at some point in the future.