End of the beginning?

This first appeared as a Comment in the 15 April issue of Flight International

No aviation story since 9/11 has captivated the world’s attention as much as lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The twists, turns and false leads in the case have taken the global news audience on an ­astonishing ride. This has come at a terrible cost: every wrenching turn has been cruel torture for the families of the victims, turning hope to agony and back too many times to count.
As Flight International went to press, searchers in the Indian Ocean appeared to have made a tentative fix on the general location of the 777-200ER’s locator ­beacon, attached to either the flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder. If the crash site is confirmed, a long search and salvage operation will ensue.
As Australia’s lead searcher, Angus Houston, puts it: “Nothing happens fast in water 4,500m deep.”
If, indeed, searchers have found the aircraft’s ­location after a month of effort, it will be a testament to the brilliant minds who parsed the thinnest of satellite communications data transmitted from the jet in its last hours on 8 March. Luck also likely played a part, with the beacons’ batteries about to reach the end of their roughly one-month life spans.
It is far too early for the main lessons of MH370 to reveal themselves. The reasons behind the aircraft’s loss of communications and long, lonely ride far into the Indian Ocean remain as obscure as they did immediately after its disappearance.
Nonetheless, industry can learn some lessons from the handling of the tragedy on the ground thus far.
Malaysia, faced with an unprecedented crisis, is to be commended for bravely facing up to an impossibly emotional story. But its predilection for issuing contradictory statements and revised facts led to considerable confusion – not to mention a political row with China, home of 153 of the aircraft’s 227 passengers.
The irresponsible release of satellite images of debris floating in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean is also to be lamented. Such imagery (none related to MH370, as it turned out) provided the ravenous media with scraps of “news”, but mainly served to create false expectations and misdirect scarce search resources.
The MH370 saga is far from over, but it seems to have reached the end of the beginning. The next stage of searching will demand a focused and careful effort to locate the aircraft and bring to light its secrets, ­hopefully without more public relations issues.
The families of the victims deserve nothing less.

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