All at sea: Australia's search for MH370 under scrutiny

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Australia's Search for MH370 Under Scrutiny


Nearly a year after embarking on a multi-million dollar quest to solve one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries, authorities and search teams are being criticised over their approach to finding Flight MH370 in the remote southern Indian Ocean.

The Australian-led search, already the most expensive in aviation history, has found no trace of the Malaysia Airlines jet or its 239 passengers and crew, prompting calls for a rethink into the way the mission is conducted.

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Search for missing Flight MH370 March 22 and forward
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All at sea: Australia's search for MH370 under scrutiny
Relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 offer prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of one of the Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries before offering prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Relative of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as he gathers outside Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's office in Putrajaya on February 18, 2015. Chinese relatives of MH370 passengers gathered outside the Malaysian prime minister's office to demand his government rescind its declaration that all on board the plane were presumed dead. AFP PHOTO/ MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 offer prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, cries during a protest outside the Malaysia Airlines office in Subang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on February 12, 2015. Chinese relatives of passengers on missing flight MH370 protested outside the Malaysian Airlines office demanding Malaysia withdraw the statement that all the passengers are dead. About 15 people gathered outside the gates wearing white caps and red t-shirts with words: 'Pray for MH370.' AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of one of the Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries before offering prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The Malaysian government says the plane is believed to have went down in a remote area of the Indian Ocean and everyone on board was killed.
Malaysian activists hold banners during a protest accusing US news channels of unprofessional reporting on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on April 3, 2014. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on April 3 'we will not rest' until the fate of Flight MH370 is known, as Australia called it 'the most difficult search in human history'. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Malaysian activists hold banners during a protest accusing US news channels of unprofessional reporting on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on April 3, 2014. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on April 3 'we will not rest' until the fate of Flight MH370 is known, as Australia called it 'the most difficult search in human history'. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 04: Chief Coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Ret'd) addresses the media at press conference at Dumas House on April 4, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Fourteen planes and nine ships resumed in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia today. The airliner disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board and is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Malaysian activists hold banners during a protest accusing US news channels of unprofessional reporting on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on April 3, 2014. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on April 3 'we will not rest' until the fate of Flight MH370 is known, as Australia called it 'the most difficult search in human history'. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Communications specialist Hidetaka Sato, on a Japan Coast Guard Gulfstream aircraft, looks out of a window searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on April 1, 2014. Malaysia revealed the full radio communications with the pilots of its missing flight on April 1, but the routine exchanges shed no light on the mystery as an Indian Ocean search for wreckage bore on with no end in sight. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob GRIFFITH (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Page 1 of the full transcript of communications between flight MH370 and Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control released by the Malaysian defense minister on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Page 2 of the full transcript of communications between flight MH370 and Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control released by the Malaysian defense minister on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Malaysian officials show Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 the new search area at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on March 28, 2014. Relatives of the Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have demanded China mount its own inquiry into the disappearance, a letter shows. The document, sent to Beijing's special envoy in Kuala Lumpur, denounced Malaysia's handling of the search and asked the Chinese government to set up its own 'investigation office'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo posted to Twitter by China's CCTVNEWS of an object spotted and photographed in the new Flight MH370 search area on Friday, March 28, 2014.

The tweet read:

Picture: suspicious object spotted by New Zealand military plane on Friday. #MH370 http://t.co/KWCt1zrv2k

INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the new search area in the Indian Ocean for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 28, 2014. The revised search area, 680 miles to the north of previous searches, comes after a new radar analysis suggests the jetliner may have run out of fuel sooner than first believed.
Messages from schoolchildren to Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on March 28, 2014. Relatives of the Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have demanded China mount its own inquiry into the disappearance, a letter shows. The document, sent to Beijing's special envoy in Kuala Lumpur, denounced Malaysia's handling of the search and asked the Chinese government to set up its own 'investigation office'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Malaysian Minister of Defence and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows pictures of possible debris during his statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Putra World Trade Center (PWTC) in Kuala Lumpur on March 26, 2014. Malaysia drew criticism on March 25 for its announcement that the missing passenger jet had been lost at sea, even before any wreckage was found. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force AP-3C Orion arrives back at RAAF Base Peace at Bullsbrook, some 35 kms north of Perth after continuing the search for debris or wreckage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean, on March 26, 2014. Six countries have joined the search for the missing plane believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. AFP PHOTO/POOL/ROB GRIFFITH (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Malaysia Airlines plane (below) prepares to go onto the runway and pass by a stationary Chinese Ilyushin 76 aircraft (top) at Perth International Airport on March 25, 2014. Wild weather halted the search on March 25 for wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed into the Indian Ocean, frustrating attempts to determine why it veered off course and bring closure to grieving relatives. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Updated search map in hunt for missing Flight MH370 on Monday, March 24, 2014.
Satellite image shared with Australian officials by China in the search for Flight MH370 on Saturday, March 22, 2014.
A Chinese woman takes a photo of a message board set up by relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at Metro Park Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 24, 2014. Ships and planes from several nations swarmed over the southern Indian Ocean on March 24 as mounting evidence of floating debris energised the search for Malaysia's missing passenger jet. AFP PHOTO/GOH CHAI HIN (Photo credit should read GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Australia's deputy prime minister said the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 cannot go on forever, and discussions are already under way between Australia, China and Malaysia as to whether to call off the hunt within weeks. No trace has been found of the Boeing 777 aircraft, which disappeared a year ago this week carrying 239 passengers and crew, in what has become one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
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Experts involved in past deep water searches say the search to find MH370 could easily miss the plane as Dutch company Fugro NV, the firm at the forefront of the mission, is using inappropriate technology for some terrain and inexperienced personnel for the highly specialized task of hunting man-made objects.

Heightening concerns, Australian authorities said on Wednesday that another search vessel, the Go Phoenix, which is using the world's best deep sea search equipment and crew provided by U.S. firm Phoenix International Holdings Inc, would pull out within weeks. No reason was given for withdrawing the vessel from the quest.

"Fugro is a big company but they don't have any experience in this kind of search and it's really a very specialized job," said Paul-Henry Nargeolet, a former French naval officer who was hired by France's air accident investigation agency BEA to co-ordinate the search and recovery of Air France Flight AF447 in 2009.

"This is a big job," Nargeolet told Reuters. "I'm not an Australian taxpayer, but if I was, I would be very mad to see money being spent like that."

Fugro, which was contracted by the Australian government to operate three ships pulling sonar across the vast 60,000-km search zone, has rejected claims it is using the wrong equipment, saying its gear is rigorously tested.

Still, Nargeolet's concerns are echoed by others in the tightly held deepsea search and rescue industry, who are worried that unless the search ships pass right over any wreckage the sonar scanning either side of the vessels won't pick it up.

Experts also question the lack of data released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) on the activities of the Fugro ships.

Three of the bidders rejected for the MH370 contract, U.S. firm Williamson & Associates, France's ixBlue SAS and Mauritius-based Deep Ocean Search Ltd, have taken the unusual step of detailing their concerns - months down the track - directly to Australian authorities in correspondence viewed by Reuters.

Several other experts are also critical, including some who requested anonymity, citing the close knit nature of the industry which has just a few companies and militaries capable of conducting deepwater searches.

"I have serious concerns that the MH370 search operation may not be able to convincingly demonstrate that 100 percent sea floor coverage is being achieved," Mike Williamson, founder and president of Williamson & Associates told Reuters.

DIVING INTO THE UNKNOWN

Australia took over the search for the missing plane from Malaysia in late March last year, three weeks after MH370 disappeared off the radar during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The search area was determined by satellite data that revealed the plane turned back sharply over the Malaysian Peninsula and flew undetected for another six hours before crashing into the inhospitable southern Indian Ocean.

The unchartered waters, buffeted by the Roaring Forties winds, stretch as deep as 6 km, hiding old volcanoes and cliffs in their depths. Australia, Malaysia and China earlier this month agreed to double the search area to 120,000 sq km.

Whether Phoenix International, which has U.S. navy contracts and found AF447, will be part of that extended search area is unclear after the ATSB said that Go Phoenix, owned by Australian firm Go Marine, will cease operating on June 19. Phoenix International, which was contracted separately by the Malaysian government, did not immediately return calls about its position. The Malaysian government also did not reply to requests for comment.

Two of the Fugro ships traverse up and down 2.4 km-wide strips of the sea floor, pulling via a cable a "towfish" that contains sonar equipment, in a technique often called "mowing the lawn".

The towfish coasts around 100 meters above the sea floor, sending out sound waves diagonally across a swath, or broad strip, to produce a flattened image of the seabed.

The Fugro ships are using sonar provided by EdgeTech, the same U.S. company whose sonar was used successfully to find Air France AF447 after it crashed in the Atlantic Ocean.

However, experts say while the type of sonar equipment being used by Fugro gives good results in flat surfaces, it is less well-suited to rugged underwater terrain, a world of confusing shadows.

The ATSB has routinely released detailed data from Go Phoenix, but has not done so for the Fugro ships. Experts have cobbled together an analysis from glimpses of the sonar use and data in videos and images posted to the ATSB website. From that, they've gauged the EdgeTech sonars are operating at swathes beyond their optimum capabilities, resulting in poor quality images and leaving side gaps in coverage.

"It makes no sense to be using fine scale tools to cover a massive area; it is like mowing an entire wheat field with a household lawnmower," said Rob McCallum, a vice-president at Williamson & Associates.

Fugro deputy managing director Paul Kennedy said the sonar is running within its capabilities, noting the system identified

five "debris-like" objects in 700-metre deep water at a test range off the West Australian coast.

"The test range gives us full confidence the sonars will see the debris field when we cross it," he said.

WILD WEATHER

Fugro is known for its expertise in high-quality low-resolution mapping of sea floors but has far less experience than some of the rejected bidders in deepwater aircraft searches. It has been involved in 17 search and recovery efforts for aircraft or ships over 15 years, compared with some of the bidders who search for 4-5 aircraft every year.

Kennedy pointed to the find earlier this month of a previously uncharted shipwreck as evidence Fugro was capable of finding the plane.

Concerning experts further is the fact that the third Fugro vessel, which was being used to scan the gaps between the other two ships with an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), was this month taken out of action because of encroaching wild winter weather.

That leaves the daily search without an AUV, a much more nimble piece of equipment that was vital in successful search for AF447.

"We are continuously reviewing the search data as it comes in and we are satisfied that the coverage and detection standards we have specified are being met or exceeded," ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said in an email.

21 PHOTOS
Missing Flight MH370 April 7 going forward
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All at sea: Australia's search for MH370 under scrutiny
This photo illustration shows a journalist looking on the data communication logs from British satellite operator Inmarsat and released by Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) in Kuala Lumpur on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on May 27, 2014. Malaysia's aviation authority released on May 27 the satellite data used to determine that flight MH370 went down in the southern Indian Ocean following demands from sceptical relatives of those on board. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A man stands in front of a billboard in support of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 as Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have a meeting at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 23, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris.. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
In this picture taken May 14, 2014 a Malaysia Airlines staff walks up to a flight prior to departure at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang. Malaysia Airlines is expected to announce its first quarter earnings after a bruising period since Flight 370 vanished. AFP PHOTO/ Manan VATSYAYANA. (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on May 5, 2014 the Phoenix Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Artemis Bluefin-21, is shown on the deck of the Australian navy ship Ocean Shield berthed at Fleet Base West near Perth as it prepared to resupply and undertake routine maintenance. Ocean Shield, with the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle on board, was due to head back on May 10 to the remote area of ocean off Western Australia to continue searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
The attached map shows MH370’s flight path, based on the best available knowledge of the investigation team. There are a number of possible flight paths to the southern Indian Ocean, and three boxes indicating where MH370 likely ended. These flight paths differ based on different projections of the aircraft’s speed, shown on the map in knots.
The attached map shows MH370’s flight path, based on the best available knowledge of the investigation team. There are a number of possible flight paths to the southern Indian Ocean, and three boxes indicating where MH370 likely ended. These flight paths differ based on different projections of the aircraft’s speed, shown on the map in knots.
The attached map shows MH370’s flight path, based on the best available knowledge of the investigation team. There are a number of possible flight paths to the southern Indian Ocean, and three boxes indicating where MH370 likely ended. These flight paths differ based on different projections of the aircraft’s speed, shown on the map in knots.

Photo of a map provided by GeoResonance, which claimed on Tuesday April 29, 2014, that it found wreckage thought to possibly be from missing Flight MH370. The photo was posted to Twitter by user Cristina Lombardi.

GeoResonance A graphic shows images depicting underwater "anomalies" suggesting deposits of various metals #MH370 http://t.co/qi2aUlzE1z

Photo of a map provided by GeoResonance, which claimed on Tuesday April 29, 2014, that it found wreckage thought to possibly be from missing Flight MH370. The photo was posted to Twitter by user Jickson Johnson.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 17: A South Korean P3 Orion aircraft takes off from Pearce Airbase, in Bullsbrook, 35 kms north of Perth to help in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on April 17, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Twenty-six nations have been involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 since it disappeared more than a month ago. The Malaysian Airways aircraft went missing on 8th March 2014 whilst on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. (Photo by Greg Pool - Pool/Getty Images)
AT SEA - APRIL 17: In this handout image provided by Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence, Phoenix Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Artemis begins its dive in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on April 17, 2014. Twenty-six nations have been involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 since it disappeared more than a month ago. The Malaysian Airways aircraft went missing on 8th March 2014 whilst on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. (Photo by LSIS Bradley Darvill/Australia Department of Defence via Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 26: Malaysia's Minister of Defence and acting Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein (C) is viewed through a lens as he speaks during a press conference on March 26, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The search for flight MH370 resumes today after rought winds and high swells prevented crews from searching for debris yesterday. Six countries have joined the search, now considered to be a recovery effort, after authorities have announced that airliner crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean and that there are no survivors. (Photo by Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
Malaysia's Minister of Defence and Acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein (L) looks at maps as Director General of Civil Aviation Department (DCA) Azharuddin Abdul Rahman (R) answers questions during a press conference at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 17, 2013. An investigation into the pilots of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 intensified on March 17 after officials confirmed that the last words spoken from the cockpit came after a key signalling system was manually disabled. AFP PHOTO/ MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
US navy captain Mark Matthews (C) speaks with journalists following a media conference involving Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre in Perth on April 9, 2014 on the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Australian ship Ocean Shield detected two more signals on April 8 to match a pair of transmissions picked up earlier in the week that have been analysed as consistent with flight data recorder emissions, Angus Houston said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Flight MH370's pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10 : A handout image released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in Canberra, Australia, 10 April 2014, shows the search area and Sonobuoy search area where 14 planes and 13 ships are scouring a 57,923 square km area of ocean for the wreckage of flight MH370 on 10 April 2014.Flight MH370 went missing after losing radio contact with Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control after leaving Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8. The Beijing-bound flight carried 239 passengers including 12 flight crew from 14 different countries. (Photo by AMSA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Angus Houston (2nd-L), head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 speaks at a media conference in Perth on April 9, 2014. Australian ship Ocean Shield detected two more signals on April 8 to match a pair of transmissions picked up earlier in the week that have been analysed as consistent with flight data recorder emissions, Houston said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
A graphic of the area being searched for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, is displayed during a media conference involving Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre in Perth on April 9, 2014. Australian ship Ocean Shield detected two more signals on April 8 to match a pair of transmissions picked up earlier in the week that have been analysed as consistent with flight data recorder emissions, Houston said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, points to a graphic of the search area during a media conference in Perth on April 7, 2014. An Australian navy ship has detected new underwater signals consistent with aircraft black boxes, Houston said on April 7, describing it as the 'most promising lead' so far in the month-old hunt for missing Flight MH370. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, displays a graphic of the search area during a media conference in Perth on April 7, 2014. An Australian navy ship has detected new underwater signals consistent with aircraft black boxes, Houston said on April 7, describing it as the 'most promising lead' so far in the month-old hunt for missing Flight MH370. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
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