The man who headed the Australian Government’s fruitless, years-long search for missing flight MH370 has called for a fresh sweep of the ocean floor based on new evidence.
Peter Foley says new research produced by oceanographers and flight experts has pinpointed a possible resting place for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which vanished exactly seven years ago with 239 souls on board, including New Zealander Paul Weeks and six Australians.
Experts now believe the wreckage could be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, about 1900 kilometres west of Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia.
Foley said a new expedition should search the sea floor 70 nautical miles either side of the target area, which is notorious for its deep ocean canyons and underwater mountains, The Times reported.
“Large tracts haven’t been searched fully,” he told the newspaper.
Foley is the former director of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) A$200 million search for MH370, which scoured more than 120,000sq km of Indian Ocean floor using high-resolution sonar between 2014 to 2017.
A second search sponsored by the Malaysian government also came up empty.
In its final report, the ATSB identified an area of less than 25,000sq km “which has the highest likelihood of containing MH370”.
While no trace of the aircraft itself has been found, 33 pieces of debris either confirmed or highly likely to be from MH370 have been discovered in Mauritius, Madagascar, Tanzania and South Africa.
The new analysis that has sparked calls for a fresh investigation relates to the latest piece of wreckage, part of a wing spoiler that washed up in South Africa last August.
In a report released this week, an independent group of experts combined ocean drift analysis with a revised flight path released late last year to come up with the new likely resting place.
They also said the damage to the wing spoiler chunk indicated it was torn off in an uncontrolled “death dive”, going against theories of a rogue pilot.
The ATSB has previously stated that out of the possible scenarios, an unresponsive crew or hypoxia event where depressurisation causes those on board to lose consciousness “best fit the available evidence”.
The Malaysian government, however, concluded that the plane was under manual control, and that it was deliberately flown out into the Indian Ocean in what many believe was a meticulously planned mass murder by pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur shortly after midnight on March 8, 2014, bound for Beijing carrying 12 crew and 227 passengers.
The plane soon made an unexplained U-turn, turning westwards from its planned flight path and heading back across the Malay Peninsula and the Malacca Strait.
It eventually left radar range around 370km northwest of Penang Island.
Its last recorded transmission came 38 minutes after takeoff while over the South China Sea. One of the pilots acknowledged an instruction from Vietnamese air traffic control, saying, “Good night Malaysia three-seven-zero.”
Automatic satellite pings continued for seven hours.
These, along with aircraft performance data and sea drift analysis, formed the basis for determining the plane’s likely arc.
American lawyer Blaine Gibson, who has devoted much of his time to seeking the wreckage, told The Times he supported a third attempt to find the plane.
Gibson said updated modelling by University of Western Australia oceanographer Charitha Pattiaratchi who correctly predicted where debris would be found a year beforehand made a strong case for another search.
Whether or not Captain Shah was in full control, as several aviation experts and investigators have suggested, changes the flight path and search area.
Appearing before a Senate Estimates hearing in 2018, Foley defended the ATSB’s conclusion and rejected claims it was attempting to cover up a mass murder.
“There’s no earthly reason why someone in control of an aircraft would exhaust its fuel and then attempt to glide it when they have the option of ditching,” Foley said.
“The aircraft was probably descending in an uncontrolled manner.”
Addressing theories that the captain hijacked his own plane and depressurised it to kill everyone else on board while using the pilot’s oxygen supply to continue flying, Foley said he would have likely knocked himself out in the process.
“Most of the people out there are speculating about a long period of depressurisation after the transponder went off,” he said.
“What they fail to understand is that while you don an oxygen mask and prevent the worst of the hypoxia situation, you are flying an aircraft at 40,000 feet. You are taking an aircraft from sea level to Mt Kosciuszko in 20 minutes, then you are taking it, over the course of a couple of minutes, to the height of Mt Everest plus 1000 feet. You’ll get decompression sickness too.”
Foley told the hearing the ATSB deeply regretted not being able to find the plane and those on board, agreeing that it “torments your soul”.