With the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which will have been missing exactly 16 months as of Wednesday, July 8, apparently hitting a dead end, experts in underwater search and salvage operations now say it seems possible or even likely that the search vessels combing the bottom of the remote Indian Ocean have already passed over wreckage from the plane.
In May, experts from competing search companies criticized the Dutch firm Furgo NV hired by the Australian government to conduct the search, saying that the searchers were employing outdated sonar technology and lacked the experience to find the plane under the adverse conditions of the previously uncharted Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles off the coast of Perth.
Now, those experts and others say that they've seen sonar images from the search that reveal large dark spots that could conceivably conceal the presumably crashed Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200, which vanished in March of 2014 along with 239 passengers and crew.
They say the images show that searchers simply skipped over areas of "shadow" caused by undersea mountains and other obstacles — but that the shadowed regions are large enough to conceal a debris field even from a downed jumbo jet, such as Flight MH370.
"If they find that they haven't gotten 100 percent coverage, that means that everything they've done for the last 14 months is worthless. It would have to be redone," said Mike Williamson, president of Williamson & Associates, a search firm that came up short in the bidding process for the Malaysia Airlines search.
The critics also say that the sonar used by the Furgo search ships — of which only one currently remains in the area where authorities believe the Malaysia Airlines plane went down — is inadequate because the signal degrades over distance, and the ocean where the Flight MH370 is believed to lie is too deep to get accurate readings.
A more up-to-date sonar system known as Synthetic Aperture Sonar or SAS is available, but the Australian authorities in charge of the $110 million search say that SAS is still too experimental to be counted on in such a high-profile search effort.
Searchers "may have driven over the top of it and didn't see it," said Geoff Dell, a former Australian Airlines safety investigator, who currently teaches accident investigation at Central Queensland University.
But Dell also pointed out the possibility that the plane simply is not there — that investigators are just plain wrong about where the missing plane, which took an unexplained westerly turn and flew for seven hours off of its course before vanishing completely, ended up.
Independent researchers, most prominently aviation expert and author Jeff Wise, have proposed that after taking the western turn, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 may have headed north rather than south as the official investigators believe. If Wise is correct, the plane could have ended up landing in Kazakhstan.