MH370: Buried under an ocean of rumours

MH370: Buried under an ocean of rumours
Leading Seaman Aircrewman Daniel Colbert operating the Sensor Operator console on HMAS Toowoomba's S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopter, Tiger 75, during the search for missing Malaysia Airways Flight MH370.

The investigation into the fate of Flight MH370 has been muddied by five weeks of frenzied speculation, none of which has helped the search mission.

Science and data analysis is slowly but surely leading us to the final resting place of Flight MH370. Meanwhile, five weeks of speculation and conspiracy theories have been worse than useless in the quest to find the missing airliner.

The last "ping" from the black-box flight recorder was detected last Tuesday as its battery ran down. But hope among the search crews has not faded, with an assortment of scientific methods and advance technologies zeroing in on the wreckage.

The mystery must be solved not only to provide answers to relatives of the flight's 239 passengers and crew, but also to discover the causes of the accident and take steps to guard against a recurrence.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 lost contact with air-traffic control in the early hours of Saturday, March 8, shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing.

According to satellite data, the wide-body jet then inexplicably turned around and headed south into the Indian Ocean. Those are the facts as we know them. As yet, we know nothing about what happened on board in the hours after the flight lost communication with the ground. The information vacuum has inspired five weeks of frenzied speculation among the media, public and analysts. All that "chatter" has brought us no closer to solving this mystery, but it has undoubtedly damaged the feelings of relatives of those on board and discouraged the search teams and officials in their tireless efforts.

After picking up several signals believed to be from the Boeing 777's flight recorder, search teams have now narrowed their focus to a 300-square-kilometre patch of the ocean floor 1,550km northwest of Perth.

The black-box battery has exceeded its 30-day lifespan, so the mission has switched focus and is now using sonar and cameras on unmanned subs to scour the seabed. Dozens of aircraft and ships are still patrolling the surface, helping to record and analyse data that are gradually narrowing the search.

Meanwhile, away from the search location, people are still indulging in speculation and conspiracy theories. Armchair analysts are wracking their brains for "solutions" to the mystery. According to one, the Boeing 777 was forced to land at a military base on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, where a passenger called relatives to say they had been hijacked but were still alive. The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur quickly quashed the rumour. Meanwhile, a newspaper quoted a Russian "spy" who said the plane had been hijacked and flown to Afghanistan.

These plots might be useful to Hollywood moviemakers, but they only serve as distractions for the search teams, and false hope for relatives of the missing.

Of course, the search mission must remain alert for any clues. Malaysian authorities say they have considered all leads, probing a possible hijacking, terrorist plot or a pilot gone "rogue". The pilots' backgrounds have come under heavy scrutiny. Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Sunday rejected a recent newspaper report that claimed co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid tried to call the tower just before the plane diverted from its course.

In the absence of any significant clues from the investigation, no one should jump to conclusions. Malaysian authorities are facing a tough job handling this crisis, buffeted by frenzied speculation as well as criticism from China. They deserve our faith in their ability to do the job diligently and without cover-ups.

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