Teams searching for the widebody 777-200 Boeing jetliner that vanished off Vietnam over the weekend almost certainly will locate it and figure out what brought it down, according to aviation investigators and case files spanning four decades.
Planes seemingly lost without a trace in waters miles deep have been found by remote-controlled submarines, or investigators gathered enough clues to determine what happened, according to accident reports since 1970.
“I think they’ll find it,” Ronald Schleede, a former investigator with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said about Malaysian Airline System’s Flight 370. “The capability is there. Someone just has to put the money up.”
The flight, carrying 239 people, never reported in with Vietnam’s air traffic controllers after leaving Malaysian airspace and flying across the Gulf of Thailand toward Beijing on Saturday.
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A suspected fragment from the plane — either a window or an emergency door — was spotted by helicopter 56 miles south of Vietnam’s To Chu Island, Le Van Minh, a Vietnamese coast-guard commander, said Sunday. Rough seas and darkness were preventing crews from retrieving it.
An air search also found two fuel slicks as long as 9 miles
off Vietnam’s south coast.
Waters in the Gulf of Thailand rarely get more than 164 feet deep, and the bottom tends to be flat, said John Fish, vice president of American Underwater Search and Survey of Bourne, Mass. So the plane will be relatively easy to locate and recover if it went down there, Fish said.
Fish has been involved in recovery efforts on accidents including the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off New York.
Flight data recorders, or “black boxes,” which are hardened to withstand a crash, emit a pinging sound for at least 30 days after being submerged, which will help crews locate them, he said.
Even if the pingers can’t be traced, current underwater technology, which can map the ocean floor with high-definition sonar, operates at the deepest depths known, he said.
A team led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts located the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which went down June 1, 2009, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil, after a search that took almost two years. The plane came to rest at a depth of more than 2 miles, in an area of steep undersea mountains, and ships couldn’t trace the pingers.
“That’s improved so much over the past few years,” said Thomas Haueter, former chief aviation investigator at the NTSB. “What the French did was really incredible. You take a look at the depth of the water.”
Although very rare, there have been cases of modern jets plummeting from the sky because of mechanical or pilot error, or a combination of both. The Air France crash into the Atlantic Ocean was partly caused by malfunctioning instruments.
An Indonesian jet that disappeared in 2007 was later discovered to have crashed into the sea because pilots were distracted by a malfunction in a navigation system and lost control.
Schleede, Haueter and John Cox, an accident investigator and chief executive officer at Safety Operating Systems in Washington, D.C., said they weren’t aware of any overwater crashes since the 1970s that weren’t solved.
In the handful of cases in which the black-box data or voice recorders weren’t recovered or stopped functioning, which can happen in cases of midair breakups or explosions, investigators obtained enough information from other sources to get an idea of what occurred, they said.
The recorders weren’t found on an Asiana Airlines 747 freighter that went down in the East China Sea on July 28, 2011, Haueter said. The pilots, both of whom died, reported a fire aboard the plane before it disappeared.
Investigators analyzed wreckage pulled from the ocean floor to determine that a bomb in the forward cargo hold brought down an Air India Boeing 747 off the coast of Ireland in 1985, killing 329 people, according to the agency then known as the Canadian Aviation Safety Board. It was the deadliest act of terrorism involving an airliner until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Following the crash of a Taiwan China Airlines 747 into the Taiwan Strait on May 25, 2002, investigators found from the wreckage that a repair on the plane’s tail failed, causing it to break apart, according to the Taiwan Aviation Safety Council. All 225 people aboard the Taipei-to-Hong Kong flight died.
Once the missing Malaysian plane is found, recordings from the flight deck and the plane’s instruments, along with physical clues, will help shed light on what caused it to go down, whether it was terrorism, errors by the pilots, a mechanical failure or some other issue, the investigation experts said.
“I believe very strongly that they will find the airplane, they will get the recorders and we will learn definitively what happened to this Boeing 777,” Cox said.
Forty ships and more than 20 airplanes were searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet Sunday, but by nightfall it had not found any wreckage, Malaysian authorities said.
Meanwhile, Interpol confirmed that two stolen passports — one Italian, one Austrian — used by passengers on the plane had been entered into the agency’s database after their thefts in Thailand in 2012 and 2013, but the secretary-general of Interpol, Ronald Noble, said Sunday no country checked the police agency’s vast database beforehand.
Interpol says passengers boarded planes more than a billion times last year without the passports being checked against its database of 40 million stolen or lost travel documents.
According to electronic booking records, both men with the passports purchased one-way tickets Thursday from a travel agency in a shopping mall in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya. Both scheduled to transit in Beijing and continue to Amsterdam before traveling to different cities, Frankfurt and Copenhagen, according to the records.
Of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board, two-thirds were Chinese, while the rest were from elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America, including three Americans.
Philip Wood, a 50-year-old IBM executive who relatives said was on board the plane, was relocating to Kuala Lumpur from Beijing, where he had worked for two years.
Freescale Semiconductor, an Austin, Texas, technology company, said that 20 employees on board were en route to a business meeting in China.
The employees — 12 from Malaysia and eight from China — work at facilities in their respective countries that manufacture semiconductor chips, said spokeswoman Jacey Zuniga.
Malaysia Airlines confirmed that the missing aircraft had been involved in a collision with another plane in 2012 at the Shanghai airport that resulted in damage to the Malaysian aircraft’s wingtip. But the airline said the wing was repaired by Boeing and declared safe to fly.
In a series of briefings, Malaysian officials refused to answer any questions relating to what they described as “security matters.”
“We will review all security protocols and, if needed, we will enhance them,” Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted saying in The Star newspaper.
In China, there were signs of anger and frustration over Malaysia’s handling of the situation among families of the passengers. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, seemed impatient in a phone call reported on the ministry’s website.
Includes material from The Associated Press and The New York Times