Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: Debris Image On Ocean Floor Missed By Searchers, U.S. Experts Say

Debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 may be hidden in plain sight, already captured in sonar images taken by the Australian-led search team that has been combing the floor of the Indian Ocean since September of last year, looking for any trace of where the vanished Boeing 777-200 may have gone down. At least, that is the view now held by the United States based underwater search firm Williamson & Associates.

When sonar experts at the Seattle, Washington, company saw newly released images from the Australian Transportation Safety Board, which is in charge of the Flight MH370 search effort, they “jumped out of their chairs,” according to Williamson & AssociatesManager of Special Projects Rob McCallum.

“These images do not appear to be geology as such,” McCallum told the Melbourne, Australia Herald Sun newspaper last week. “They’re certainly worth another look, and by that I mean putting down a camera. It’s not a difficult thing to do, and it’s better to be certain for the sake of all of the families.”

In a written report, quoted by the Reuters news agency, the U.S. firm said that it “believes the target (sonar image) bears the hallmarks of a classic high-impact debris trail similar to other wrecks it has located.”

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 debris field sonar image
Sonar image of Indian Ocean floor showing possible Flight MH370 debris field (Image via Australian Transportation Safety Board)

The Malaysia Airlines plane was on a seemingly routine overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to the Chinese capital of Beijing on March 8, 2014, when it suddenly disappeared from radar and lost all communication with the ground.

The plane — with the registration number 9M-MRO, pictured at the top of this page on an earlier takeoff — appeared based on satellite “ping” data to take a sharp westerly turn and fly for about seven more hours until the flight ended somehow in the remote reaches of the Indian Ocean.

But despite an extensive search using advanced sonar imaging technology, the Australian-led search team never found a trace of the plane. Finally, in late July, a single piece of wing washed up on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and was later confirmed to have come from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

But did the Australian search team have the plane’s debris field in their sonar sights all along?

According to the Williamson & Associates analysts, the newly released sonar images bear a remarkable resemblance to images of the debris field left by the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris, France, killing all 228 people on board.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was carrying 239 passengers and crew, all of whom remain officially missing.

The Australian Transportation Safety Board, however, appears to have no plans to reinvestigate the regions where the possible debris field identified by Williamson & Associates appears, dismissing the American firm’s claims as irresponsible.

“We consider it unprofessional to draw conclusions based on the limited information provided by the images in the search update report,” the ATSB said in a prepared statement last week. “There are no indications that there is anything possessing the characteristics of an aircraft debris field and therefore a visual imaging run at very low altitude was unnecessary. We know that this kind of public commentary is very distressing for the families of those on board the aircraft.”

McCallum, however, said that he is skeptical that the “specific skill set” required to interpret the data from the sonar images “exists in Australia.”

“In our industry, we say our job is to prove beyond all doubt where the target is not,” McCallum added. “We have to be absolutely 100 per cent sure and you can’t do that with these sort of data holes.”

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 search vessel Fugro Equator
The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 search vessel Fugro Equator (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Williamson & Associates was one of the search firms passed over in its bid to conduct the search for the wreckage and debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and has since been openly critical of the Dutch firm Fugro NV, which won the contract, for allegedly using inadequate and outdated technology in its search efforts.

[Image via Laurent ERRERA from L’Union, France, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]