14 December 2021 14:52:36 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment.   He lives with his wife and son in Texas.  Rao has been a columnist for BL on Campus from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well.

MH370 mystery has a bit more flying time

What happened to the giant plane is still not known even after seven-and-a-half years.

A British aeronautical engineer, Richard Godfrey, says that he has calculated the coordinates of the crash region of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 — flight MH370. Speaking to the BBC, Godfrey figures that the plane is 33 degrees south and 95 degrees east in the Indian Ocean, about 1,900 kilometres directly west of Perth. He estimates the plane to be in waters 4,000 meters deep, next to an undersea volcano or crater.

For aircraft buffs, there has never been a better mystery than MH370. On March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200 ER took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to its planned destination, Beijing Capital International Airport.

The plane was cruising at 35,000 feet and heading slightly east of north for the five hours and 42 minutes flight. The crew last communicated with air traffic control about 38 minutes into the flight, east of Malaysia's Perhentian Islands. Immediately after this, the plane was lost on radar also as the crew appeared to have turned off the transponders. A transponder is a radio transmitter in the cockpit that receives a signal from “secondary” radar and returns a squawk code with the aircraft's position, altitude, and call sign.

Turn of events

And then, something even more mysterious happened. The plane turned west and crossed the Malay Peninsula. Why did the plane deliberately make this opposite turn with the transponders off? Was it being hijacked? Had the pilot decided to fly the aircraft aimlessly westward and deliberately crash it after running out of fuel? Most planes only carry about 30 minutes more fuel than needed, so the 777 could fly roughly another five-and-a-half hours when it initially lost radar contact.

Military radar tracked the plane's westward journey for about an hour to 200 miles north-west of Penang Island in north-western Peninsular Malaysia, almost at the midpoint of a straight line connecting Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and Phuket, Thailand, in the middle of the Andaman Sea. At that point, the plane still had about four-and-a-half hours of fuel left. Military radar had reached its technical limits, and from that moment onwards, the aircraft was lost forever from all official tracking systems.

Because MH370 did not land safely anywhere, it was presumed to have crashed. Assuming that the plane was travelling at 500 miles an hour, the aircraft could have gone down anywhere in a circle with a radius of 2,250 miles.

Aviation engineers, navigators, and scientists had a giant puzzle to solve. They started with a process of elimination. The plane could not be lost in a 150 degree sector arcing west, north-west, north, or north-east — because the aircraft would have come back overland and on the radar screens of numerous air traffic controllers in densely populated East Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, India, or China.

Therefore, it must have turned south again and headed out to the open ocean — encompassing an arc of nearly 55 degrees, from due south-west at the point in the Andaman Sea where it was last tracked to 10 degrees east of south. This part of the ocean is vast, and the waters get extraordinarily hostile south of the 40-degree latitude. Further south would mean entering the wild and unknowing Southern Ocean, an area so remote that commercial ships avoid traversing it. Only government and research vessels that want to visit Antarctica go there. No commercial airline ever plies routes this far south.

Seeking closure

The plane probably flew about 2,250 miles south and then crashed into the ocean when it ran out of fuel, killing all on board. Modern airliners have several lightweight components some of which came loose upon impact. Over the years, debris from the crashed MH370 has washed ashore on the African continent, including Mozambique, Tanzania, and Madagascar.

For example, a flaperon, a 2.7 meter-long moveable part on the wing's trailing edge, used to increase drag for take-off and landing and to bank the aircraft, was found on a beach on the French island of Réunion. Private citizens have uniquely identified the debris as belonging to the missing airliner by working with Malaysian Airlines and Boeing.

After Australia officially abandoned the effort to solve the mystery in 2018, private enthusiasts have continued to investigate. And now, over seven-and-half years later, Richard Godfrey seems to have the answer.

Godfrey has disclosed to Airlineratings.com, a website dedicated to educating consumers, that he uses a sophisticated set of tools in his investigation. He employs a method called Weak Signal Propagation, a digital radio communication protocol that exploits the presence of radio waves all around us. When a plane blocks these radio waves, Godfrey captures it and analyses it with other satellite and navigation data to track a plane's path.

In the middle of nowhere, like in the Southern Indian ocean, a history of radio waves data shows no blockage because no plane ever flies there. But MH370 blocked radio waves on March 9. “WSPR is like a bunch of tripwires or laser beams, but they work in every direction over the horizon to the other side of the globe,” Godfrey says.

Most novice readers would not make sense of the complexity involved in his analysis. But they would want closure on a problem that has vexed airline travellers since that fateful night when MH370 took off. The 777 has had an outstanding safety record, and not knowing what happened to the giant plane has been bothersome.

Godfrey says that recovering the debris will require technical expertise to go down to the depths and extract it, cooperation of the elements, and funding that has never happened before on such a scale. Perhaps the Chinese government will help — 112 victims were Chinese.

The effort to begin the search may not launch until the summer of 2022. The world has some more time to wait.